By Richard Jackson and Mandy Turner

Abstract: Israel’s war against Palestinians in Gaza is being criticised as constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity. But missing from these discussions is the way in which Israel’s actions fit the definition of terrorism and should be described, discussed, and responded to as ‘state terrorism’. The label is almost never applied to the behaviour of Western states nor its close allies. Such double standards are now only too visible when it comes to Israel’s actions against Palestinians. Defining Israel’s actions in Gaza as ‘state terrorism’ could potentially save Palestinian lives and influence public opinion.

Why is it that the violent attack by Hamas against Israel on 7 October 2023 is described as ‘terrorism’, but Israel’s violent assault on the Gaza Strip in response is not? Why is it that the killing and kidnapping of some people is almost universally described in the language of terrorism, but virtually identical actions by other actors are not? In this case, why is Hamas labelled a terrorist organisation, but Israel is not labelled a terrorist state?  

This is not just a question of semantics. The use of certain words or phrases is important because they help us to understand the world. Even more important, language also shapes the way policymakers respond to real-world events. Words, therefore, can have material consequences. 

Since 9/11 and the launch of the global war on terrorism, the invocation of the term ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’ can result in serious and far-reaching repercussions. For individuals, it can result in being placed on a no-fly list, the loss of basic civil liberties, imprisonment, rendition, or torture. It can even result in execution without trial by drone strike. For groups or movements, it can result in financial penalties, censure, loss of license, dissolution, or banning. In other instances, employing the terrorism label can mean the denial of humanitarian assistance in areas purportedly under control of ‘terrorist’ groups, the suspension of peace talks with groups labelled as ‘terrorist’, or the imposition of financial and other sanctions on states, regions, or entire populations.

Terrorism is an emotive word. In the West, the term triggers images of individuals who carry out seemingly random acts of violence against civilians. In non-Western contexts, on the other hand, it can evoke images of military or paramilitary forces targeting civilians for their identity or political activities. Think about the lone gunman behind the March 2019 Christchurch Mosque attacks in New Zealand, or the killings and other atrocities committed by ISIS against minority groups like the Yazidi people in Syria and Iraq. 

It is well-known there are deep disagreements over how to define terrorism and who should be labelled as terrorists. As the popular saying goes, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Historically, however, governments have largely opposed this formulation and instead regarded resistance and liberation movements to be terrorist organisations. Not least is Israel’s characterisation—with US support—of virtually all Palestinian liberation movements, particularly before the 1993 Oslo Accords. Hamas has long been labelled a terrorist organisation by Western governments, despite most non-Western states and Palestinians themselves regarding it as a resistance movement. 

Despite such controversies, in recent years scholars have generally agreed that terrorism involves acts of violence against individuals or groups which is designed to communicate a message to a particular audience. [1] Specifically, it is the use of violence to cause fear as a means of changing political behaviour or to draw attention to a pressing political issue. As such, terrorism is a strategy of contention that can be employed by any kind of political actor: individuals, groups, or states. Critically, some scholars have argued that not only have states committed far more terrorism against civilians than non-state groups historically, but states pose the greatest threat of terrorism because they have a much greater capacity for mass violence than any non-state actor. [2]

Governments and the organisations they belong to, such as the United Nations, have consistently used the term in ways that single out individuals and non-state groups as the primary actors who use terrorism. Consequently, virtually all laws and international conventions designed to deal with terrorism have been restricted to the actions of individuals and groups, while states have excluded their own actions from being labelled or liable under anti-terrorism laws. 

The media has largely followed suit and restricts its use of the label to the actions of non-state actors. As a consequence, it is difficult to think or talk about terrorism today without assuming that it only applies to individuals and groups. No one thinks about the military or security forces of states in relation to terrorism, even though the term was first used to describe the use of violence by the French state after the French Revolution. Now, when the label ‘terrorism’ is used to explain the behaviour of states, it is usually confined to those deemed ‘enemies of the West’, such as Iran, Cuba, or Russia. It is almost never applied to the behaviour of Western states nor its close allies. Such double standards are now only too visible when it comes to Israel’s actions against Palestinians. 

Since 7 October 2023, Israel has dropped more than 29,000 air to surface munitions (including hundreds of 2,000 pound bombs) on the Gaza Strip, which is equivalent to more than two nuclear bombs. By 21 December 2023, Israel had killed over 20,000 Palestinians. Most of the casualties, 70 percent of which are women and children, are clearly not ‘combatants’. Over 50,000 civilians have been injured and 1.9 million (80% of the population of Gaza) have been displaced. Thousands of residences, places of education and worship, infrastructure, and almost all vital services have been destroyed. UN buildings, hospitals, and other areas people were ordered to shelter in for safety have also been bombed. The media has carried images of Palestinian men stripped to their underwear, blindfolded, and transferred to locations unknown by IDF forces. Testimony from those who have been returned suggests detainees have been tortured and abused. Women were shot dead by Israeli snipers while taking shelter in a church. Whole extended families have been wiped out. Unarmed men were executed in front of their families. Food, water, fuel, and medicine have run out. Until recently, Israel had prevented aid trucks from entering the besieged enclave, thereby deliberately causing mass hunger. 

There is widespread agreement among legal scholars that these actions are, prima facie, war crimes because they are violations of international humanitarian law, which seek to limit the effects of armed conflict and to protect civilians and prisoners of war. There is also an increasing number of scholars who argue that Israel’s actions constitute acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. Although the assault is still ongoing and it is uncertain what will happen after Israel concludes its military operation, there is growing evidence that it intends to depopulate large parts of Gaza, which could constitute ethnic cleansing.

However, missing from these discussions is the way in which Israel’s actions fit the definition of terrorism and therefore ought to be described, discussed, and responded to as ‘state terrorism’. Recent investigations have revealed that Israeli military policy has changed from previous operations against Gaza to be far more indiscriminate and allow much higher levels of ‘collateral damage’. This was confirmed by Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, who stated that in Israel’s current military campaign against Gaza, ‘the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.’ Another military source said, ‘When a 3-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided it wasn’t a big deal for her to be killed — that it was a price worth paying… Everything is intentional. We know exactly how much collateral damage there is in every home.’ In a fraught phone call to Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, Pope Francis reportedly called Israel’s actions in Gaza an act of terrorism. A charge that he repeated on 22 November in his weekly address in St. Peter’s Square.

Crucially, Israeli officials have openly stated that its targeting of civilians is deliberate. It is intended to damage civil society, and it is ultimately designed to force the people of Gaza to turn against Hamas. Influenced by the so-called Dahiya Doctrine developed during Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006, the admitted aim in the present operation is to ‘use disproportionate and overwhelming force while targeting residential housing and government infrastructure in order to establish deterrence and force the civilian population to pressure the groups to end their attacks.’ As part of this strategy, the deliberate killing of medical personnel, teachers, journalists, lecturers, and artists–Palestinian individuals who play a critical role in society–has the added effect of shattering the social and cultural capital of Palestinian society. In other words, Israel is deliberately killing civilians and destroying civil society to send a message to Palestinians in Gaza that they should stop supporting Hamas. 

The important point is that this clearly fits the established definition of terrorism. It is essentially the same strategy al Qaeda employed on 9/11 and the 7/7 bombers employed in London. In each of these cases, acts of violence were committed to frighten and intimidate a society into changing its political behaviour. An Israeli military intelligence source told Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham that Israel knows this strategy would be seen as state terrorism. This is presumably why Israel is making huge efforts to try to prove that all its targets are ‘legitimate’, such as its attempts to show that Hamas was operating from tunnels under al-Shifa hospital. 

The fact that the actions and openly stated intentions of Israeli officials fits exactly the definition of state terrorism, even while Israel justifies its campaign as one of ‘counterterrorism’, is a point of obvious tension and dissonance in international discussions about the situation. It not only reveals the weaponization of language, but also the hypocrisy of Western leaders who claim they are committed to fighting terrorism everywhere in the world. 

In fact, it is the systematic and longstanding decision from states to exclude state actions from the language, coupled with sanctions of terrorism, that has created this contradictory situation in which so-called counterterrorism has become a form of terrorism itself. The fact that governments can exclude their own actions and those of their allies from the terrorism label means they can get away with human rights abuses and civilian-directed violence on a massive scale. Clearly, now is the time to call this double-standard out: if Israel’s actions in Gaza fits the definition of ‘terrorism’ – and it does – it should be named as ‘terrorism’ and responded collectively to as ‘terrorism’. Condemnation, censure, diplomatic expulsion, economic boycotts and sanctions, disinvestment, arms and technology embargoes, no-fly lists for Israeli officials, and many more besides, would all seem to be in order as a response to acts of terrorism that have thus far killed far more people in Gaza than 9/11 and which are being systematically undertaken with no concern for international law or opinion.

Whether such a response would work is another question. But there is a chance that discussing, labelling, and responding to Israeli ‘state terrorism’ could serve to protect the lives of Palestinian civilians, and the lives of future civilians elsewhere who are at similar risk from state violence. At the very least, a ‘state terrorism’ framed response would delegitimise Israel’s deliberate targeting of civilians, give pause to US military support for Israel’s killing, invoke moral condemnation and shaming of civilian-directed violence, and perhaps even result in some sanctions and censure from the international community. Such pressure, in turn, could create room for more serious efforts to resolve the underlying political issues which are the context for the current situation.


[1] Heath-Kelly, Charlotte. “Critical Approaches to the Study of Terrorism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism, pp. 224-237. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Oando, Samwel, and Jackson, Richard. “Critical terrorism studies.” In A Research Agenda for Terrorism Studies, pp. 63-76. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2023.

[2] Wilson, Tim. “State Terrorism.” in The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019: pp. 334-347. Jackson, Richard. “The Ghosts of State Terror: Knowledge, Politics and Terrorism Studies”, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 1:3, 2008, pp. 377-392. Aksan, Cihan, and Bailes, Jon. “Introduction”. In: C. Aksan and J. Bailes, eds. Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism. London: Pluto, 2013: pp. 1-27. Blakeley, Ruth. ‘Bringing the State Back Into Terrorism Studies’. European Political Science, 6 (3), 2007: pp. 228-235. Gareau, Frederick. State Terrorism and the United States: From Counterinsurgency to the War on Terrorism. London: Zed, 2004. Poynting, Scott, and Whyte, David. eds., Counter-Terrorism and State Political Violence: The ‘War on Terror’ as Terror. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

Richard Jackson is chair of peace and conflict studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and editor in chief of the journal Critical Studies in Terrorism.  His research is focused on pacifism and nonviolence, and critical terrorism studies. 

Mandy Turner is professor of conflict, peace and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester, UK. Her research is focused on the political economy of conflict and peace, and Palestine and Israel.  

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Dec 22, 2023
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