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Opinion: In Gaza conflict, words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘genocide’ are potent weapons. Definitions matter

An exterior wall at night, covered in photos of individuals
Relatives of Israelis who were kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7 have staged demonstrations and created displays of photos of their loved ones in Tel Aviv, trying to pressure officials to do more to free the hostages.
(Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu via Getty Images)
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Since the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, language is being used strategically in a contest over legitimacy in ways that blur important distinctions. Much of the heat — and none of the light — comes from a failure to distinguish tactics from goals, leaders and organizations from the people they aim to represent, and attempts to understand or explain from attempts to justify the actions of the other side.

The intensity of the battle over legitimacy is not surprising. The conflict evokes existential fears of expulsion and extermination that both sides feel to their core given their histories. And the political outcome of this conflict may be shaped as much by the contest over legitimacy on the world stage as by the unfolding military contest on the ground.

A number of important distinctions get lost in the contest over words, however.

Arguments about whether Oct. 7 was “terrorism” or “resistance to occupation” evoke the old adage that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. But these are not mutually exclusive. The debate of “terrorism” versus “resistance” elides a crucial distinction between tactics and goals, between means and ends. The answer is not simply a matter of perspective.

Terrorism is a tactic used for political ends. In my own research, I define it as “deliberately indiscriminate targeting of civilians.” This definition can apply to states as well as nonstates, and to groups widely lauded as well as those deplored. For instance, militant anti-apartheid groups, including the African National Congress, employed terrorism against South Africa. The Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization that fought the British to establish the state of Israel, also employed terrorist tactics.

Hamas’ targeting of civilians in their homes and a music festival and the slaughter of children on Oct. 7 unambiguously constitute terrorism. Settler violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank also constitutes terrorism.

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It is possible to fight for a just cause by unjust means. Fighting for a just cause does not legitimize targeting civilians. Resisting occupation does not make terrorism permissible. By the same token, Israel’s imperative to defend against attacks by Hamas does not justify the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Gaza nor the deprivation and collective punishment that comes with civilian besiegement. International humanitarian law is clear: The ends do not justify the means.

By making a distinction between tactics and causes, between means and ends, it is possible to simultaneously condemn Hamas’ attacks as terrorism and stand for the rights of Palestinians to resist occupation. It is also possible to condemn the bombing of civilians in Gaza, along with the blockade that has cut off food, water, medicine and fuel, and support Israel’s right to security.

A second distinction that gets lost in the rancor of this debate involves the difference between political groups and the peoples they purport to represent. There is a difference between Hamas (and other militant groups, and the Palestinian Authority) and “Palestinians” or “Arabs.” There is also a difference between the Israeli government and “Israelis” or “Jews.” Criticism of the Israeli government’s tactics is not inherently antisemitic. Criticism of Hamas’ tactics is not necessarily anti-Islamic or anti-Palestinian.

Failure to make such distinctions opens the door to bigotry and dehumanization of entire peoples, and dehumanization can open the door to genocide.

A third distinction that gets lost in debates about terrorism and its role in conflict is the difference between efforts at understanding and attempts at justification. This is particularly important on university campuses, where our raison d’être is to try to understand the world. To put attacks in context is not to deny that they constitute terrorism or to legitimate its use. We cannot hope to do anything about terrorism if we do not understand its causes and its effects. The decision to use terrorism is made strategically by political actors, and the conditions under which those decisions are made should shape our understanding. But understanding terrorism does not mean condoning it.

By the same token, states (such as Israel) fighting armed groups (such as Hamas) make strategic decisions about their use of military force. There are strategic incentives for bombing and besieging Gaza. There are certainly political reasons a government would retaliate forcefully after a devastating attack. Those incentives and reasons do not provide a carte blanche to commit war crimes, however. If the Israeli military is deliberately targeting civilians, its bombing campaign should be understood as terrorism. If it is not deliberately targeting civilians, then under international humanitarian law, the question becomes one of proportionality. While there are no precise rules about how many civilians may be killed as “collateral damage” in taking out specific military targets, the high number of civilians killed in Gaza to date appears to be disproportionate and therefore in violation of international laws of war.

It is possible to understand and to condemn at the same time. It is also possible for both sides of a military conflict to be in the wrong.

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In this case, political leaders on both sides are in the wrong, not just morally but also strategically. Terrorism is remarkably ineffective at achieving political aims. My research shows that rebel groups that employ terrorism almost never win their wars and are much less likely to achieve their political goals at the negotiating table. Hamas’ attacks have put the Palestinian cause back on the international agenda, but they make any negotiated solution to the conflict more difficult to achieve.

Terrorism is quite good at provoking the other side into committing atrocities in response. And Israel, tragically and predictably, is falling into that trap. Daily images of destruction in Gaza are undermining support for Israel and feeding antisemitic narratives. Ultimately, they leave Israel less secure.

Both Israelis and Palestinians are being failed by those who purport to fight for them.

Many of the words used to describe this conflict (terrorism, war crimes, apartheid, genocide) are deeply loaded. Some argue they should be avoided altogether. But the antidote to their weaponization is not to avoid them but to use them carefully, accurately and consistently. We need to call terrorism and war crimes out by name, whichever side uses them, and whatever we think of the legitimacy of the causes in whose name they are used. Our humanity depends on it. So does any hope for understanding this conflict and, perhaps, ending it.

Page Fortna, a professor of international relations at Columbia University and the director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, is the author of “Peace Time” and “Do Terrorists Win?

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