How we define and use the word terrorism in the Israel-Hamas war matters a lot

Hamas’s attack against Israel and Israel’s subsequent response is once again leading to debates on the words journalists and others use. While some have labeled Hamas a terrorist organization, others have said Israel’s actions in Gaza amount to terrorism and even genocide. Some news outlets, like the CBC and the BBC, have explained how they approach using words like “terrorist” and “terrorism.”

Hamas and Israel have gone to war before. But this time, the violence against civilians is particularly brutal. Reports state an explosion at a Gaza hospital on Oct. 17 killed at least 500 people, with that number expected to rise. Israeli officials have denied responsibility for the incident, blaming Palestinian armed groups in Gaza.

So far, the Health Ministry in Gaza has said around 3,000 people have been killed by Israeli airstrikes. The number of people killed in Hamas’s attack on Israel stands at 1,400, most of whom were civilians, according to Israeli authorities.

In times like these words matter, and the labels used to describe people and groups can have devastating impacts.

Words hold power

As an anthropologist, my focus is on how terrorism impacts community security. I explore how labeling and categorization can create divisions between “us” and “them.” In this context, I will focus on the designation of “terrorist.” To truly grasp the impact of this label, it is crucial to re-examine what the term terrorism means, how it is defined and by whom.

Words hold considerable power and can deeply influence how people perceive individuals, groups or nations. The use of the word “terrorism” comes with considerable responsibility, where precision should be at the forefront.

Terrorism encompasses the use of terror, whether physically or verbally, to achieve specific objectives, whether they are of a political, ideological or religious nature. Terrorism includes the deliberate intention to instill a sense of fear within a specific population to achieve certain goals.

Conversations about terrorism can often be challenging and emotive because of the term’s loaded connotations. It portrays the designated “terrorist” as monstrous and inhumane, fostering a divide between “us,” the targets of terrorism, and “them,” the perpetrators.

Israeli security forces inspect a damaged residential building after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Sderot, Israel, on Oct. 17, 2023.
(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Who gets to define terrorism?

The concept of terrorism originated during the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror, a violent period where tens of thousands were executed by revolutionary governments. In response to state-led terror, groups calling themselves revolutionaries, but who were listed as terrorists, emerged, using similar tactics to resist their governments.

Today, terrorism is often attributed to non-state actors, while states call their tactics counter-terrorism. Sometimes, those tactics can resemble terrorism, revealing how actors use terror to advance their goals. Throughout history, various groups, from communists and anarchists to religious fanatics and contemporary animal rights activists, have employed controversial, even terrorist, methods to achieve their goals. Terrorism persists as a political tool of last resort when other methods of conflict resolution seem ineffective and terrorism appears like their only option.

Labeling an individual or group as a terrorist can have devastating consequences for others who might support the associated cause, but not necessarily endorse violence. For example, the BBC recently faced criticism for characterizing pro-Palestinian demonstrations as “backing” Hamas. The corporation issued an apology and admitted this “was poorly phrased and was a misleading description of the demonstrations.”

Furthermore, university professors or activists who try to contextualize and explain the underlying motivations behind terrorism may face stigmatization, even if they firmly reject terrorist ideologies. This stigmatization can hinder the essential dialogue needed to achieve peace and effectively counter terrorism.


Stigmatization can undermine those who might agree with a group’s cause, but disapprove of violence. It can also affect individuals tangentially or remotely connected with these groups through cultural, national, religious or political ties.

They may experience social exclusion and become targets for attack. A man in Plainfield, Ill. was recently charged with a hate crime after he stabbed a six-year-old Palestinian boy to death. The man allegedly targeted the boy and his mother because of their religion and the ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza.

Three young women wearing hijabs crying by the side of a road
A Palestinian medic, right, cries after learning about the death of a relative at the al-Shifa hospital, following a blast in Gaza City, on Oct. 17, 2023.
(AP Photo/Abed Khaled)

Labeling individuals terrorists can also lead to dehumanizing language and actions. Israel’s defence minister recently used the words “human animals” when ordering a total siege of the Gaza Strip.

Those trying to explain the historical and political context surrounding Hamas’s actions can often be perceived as endorsing terrorism, even if they do not support the group. This creates an environment where it seems necessary to choose a side and hinders constructive discussions.

Overton window

When an idea is repeated over and over — even if it is entirely false — some people inevitably end up believing it. It’s a bit like gossip, except in this case, it becomes a sort of official reality and makes it extremely difficult to change people’s minds.

The concept of the Overton Window helps us understand how repeatedly discussed ideas shift from the inconceivable to the influential in politics. The core idea is that politicians will often only take decisions that are widely accepted in their society. These decisions lie inside the Overton Window. Sometimes the window can shift, either because of changing circumstances or by politicians seeking to shift it through their rhetoric and actions.

In this case, it relates to the notion that the entire population of Gaza is responsible for Hamas’s actions and supports terrorism. This rhetoric suggests two opposing groups: those who support Israel and those who do not. It includes together, without distinction, Hamas, the entire Palestinian population of Gaza and all those who support the Palestinian cause.

Furthermore, the distinction between us and them makes it harder to condemn violence from both parties, forcing individuals to take a clear stance. Labeling a single actor a terrorist immediately makes supporting their cause more challenging. It also undermines the defence of the broader population affected by violence. And, ultimately, it is the general population that suffers the consequences of political maneuvers.

The violence between Israel and Hamas has already killed thousands, and it could kill thousands more if it does not end. When we use words, we should employ them in the same manner as a doctor treats a patient. Emotions must be set aside, even though we may feel them, and we should act based on facts to find the most effective solution to bring peace.

Ultimately, all people desire the same things: security and peace. Experts, politicians and the public must collectively reflect on the divisive labels being used, refrain from polarizing language and facilitate the path to peace.

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