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Conflict Terminology: A Note For Editors, Journalists, and Readers

An Interactive Article

By Hassan El-Najjar

Al-Jazeerah, September 15, 2004


The following is just a tentative list of conflict terminology based on definitions from dictionaries, history, and observation. Any feedback to add more terms is welcome..

The reason I am writing this article is the need for a minimum level of agreement on the conflict terms used in the media around the world. The bias in reporting and analysis made most of the conflict terminology used in different ways to achieve goals of writers, away from objectivity and professionalism. This is an attempt to bring back some respect and decency to the profession of journalism and the media in general.

The conflict encompassing the world today is between the US-UK-Israel as one camp and groups opposing them all over the Arab and Muslim Worlds, as another camp. The corporate media in the first camp call the US-UK-Israeli (UUI) actions as the "War on Terror."  However, most media around the world, including alternative media in the UUI camp, call it "invasion."

The corporate media of the UUI alliance describe Iraqis, Afghanis, and Palestinians opposing the invading armies as "terrorists," "insurgents," or "rebels." However, most media around the world, including alternative media in the UUI camp, call them resistance or guerrilla fighters.

The difference in the usage of these conflict terms is important because they are used to justify the actions of each camp. That is why it may not be easy to persuade journalists from both camps to use a common list of conflict terminology. Anyway, it doesn't hurt to try. I'll attempt to give an objective definition for each term, then I'll comment on the usage of the term particularly in the "embeded" UUI camp.

1. Politics is the process of who gets what resources, when, and how.

Political activities aim ultimately to controlling  wealth in any society. How the budget is going to be decided and who benefits most is the end outcome of the competition. In the US, the media obscures the term to refer to differences on other issues.

2. War is using force to achieve political means. It is fought by regular military forces from different countries.

There is no war in Iraq or Afghanistan because there are no Iraqi or Afghani regular armed forces. There is resistance to foreign occupation in both countries. The term, "occupation" was mentioned in the UN Security Council resolution, in reference to presence of US forces in Iraq.

3. Civil War is using force to achieve political means. It is fought by regular or irregular military forces from the same country.

As long as there are foreign forces in Iran and Afghanistan, there is no civil war. There are US-backed Iraqis fighting Iraqis resisting the US occupation.

4. Rebellion is fighting one's own legitimate government in order to achieve political goals. It involves an open, armed, and organized resistance.

As a result, it's  inaccurate to describe Muqtada Al-Sadr, for example, as a rebel, until at least the government can be legitimate and truly sovereign.

5. Uprising is an unarmed rebellion that is confronted by applying government force against the civilian population.

This term accurately applies to the peaceful activities of the Palestinian people and groups in opposing the Israeli occupation, such as protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, and hunger strikes. But it does not apply to the armed struggle.

6. Insurgency  is an armed uprising against one's own government but it is less organized than a rebellion.

What's happening in Iraq is not an insurgency because the fighting is between Iraqis and foreign forces or between Iraqis and other Iraqis who are recruited by foreign forces. A more accurate term is resistance to the foreign occupation of the country.

7. Guerrilla  is one who engages in irregular warfare in connection with a regular war.

In the first stages of the fighting, during 2003, Iraqi armed activities were accurately described by even the US military commanders as a guerrilla warfare. However, it has taken a more coherent and coordinated shape, particularly in 2004. Thus, a more accurate term is resistance, if the fighting is aimed at the opposing military forces.

8. Militants are persons aggressively involved in fighting.

This term should not apply to political leaders or activists, as many journalists do.

9. Resistance is the act of using arms to oppose the invading armed forces.

This is the term used throughout the 20th century to describe opposing foreign occupation forces, particularly German occupation forces in Europe. It should apply to groups fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine.

10. Terrorism is terrorizing or being terrorized, a mode of governing, or of opposing government by intimidation.

The term should be used to describe individuals, groups, and governments, which are involved in terrorizing the civilian populations. Corporate media journalists use the term routinely to describe individuals and groups but never use to describe the governments which target the civilian population by killing them, destroying their homes and fields, or by subjecting them to collective punishment. For a balanced approach, both terms of terrorism and state terrorism should be used.

11. Illegal Settlement Activity refers to the construction of population centers for the invading group on confiscated lands inside the invaded or occupied territories. 

This activity is illegal because it violates the international law that prohibits changing the demographic status of the occupied territories. That is why the Israeli activities in the occupied territories should be accurately referred to as illegal settlement activity. If the term settlement is used alone, it misleads readers to think positively of the activity.

Ronald D Kennedy of California suggested that Israeli illegal settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories be called squatters. If his suggestion is followed, then illegal settlements may also be called squatterments.

Hilmi Salem of Canada objected to the term "squatter" because it means one who or that which squates, i.e.  to settle on a piece of land without title or payment; especially one who settles on land without permission or right. This does not apply to the Palestinian territories which are owned by the Palestinian people. He suggested the use of colony and colonist instead. But the problem with the term "colony" is that it refers to a whole country, like Egypt or India, which were British colonies.

So far, the most accurate term to describe the Israeli occupation activities in confiscating and annexing Palestinian lands is "illegal Israeli settlement activities."

12. Sunna and Shi'a are the two major Islamic sects or schools of thought.

The apostrophe before the letter a in Shi'a represent a glottal Arabic sound.

13. Sunnis and Shi'is are followers of the Sunna and Shi'a schools.

Journalists in the Western media in general use the term Shiite in reference to Shi'i. This is a derogatory term, particularly in English, that should not be used. More important is that it is inaccurate and does not comply with the Arabic way of adjectivizing, as in the case with Sunni.

14. Enemy Combatant: The term, Enemy Combatant, is used by the Bush administration to refer to a person designated by the US President as an enemy fighter, even if he/she is not a member of an army, like Guantanamo prisoners. The term also applies to US citizens, like Padilla. The US courts ruled in 2004 that even if a person is classified as such, he/she could have access to federal courts, which means the right to an attorney, due process, and a trial.

See full article: Conflict Terminology: Enemy Combatant By Hassan El-Najjar and Ronald Douglas Kennedy 

A final word:

This is an attempt to bring some order to the chaotic state of conflict terminology. I welcome any serious feedback. I hope that this list can be increased, reviewed, and improved, which may hopefully decrease some of the confusion accompanying the conflict insanity of our time.


A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict - Text and the Israeli Government's 14 Reservations



The following are contributions from readers:


Al Jazeerah Glossary of Terms

By Ron Wilkinson

Al-Jazeerah, September 24, 2004


While the Israeli army “enters” a Palestinian area, Palestinians “infiltrate” an Israeli-controlled area (Jerusalem Post, 23 September 2004). The word with the most negative meaning is most often used in reference to Palestinians or Arabs. In addition there is continual repetition of words such as terror, usually linked with Palestinians, Arabs, Moslems, etc. which fixes a concept firmly in the mind of the reader or listener.

Living in Gaza, I heard about the imposing of closure, the lifting of closure, opening, closing several times in a day. The “lifting of closure” is regularly repeated with positive effects for the “lifter” although the residents see little difference. And the Israelis have been “withdrawing” from the Gaza Strip for years. There is little change except again the so-called “withdrawer” is left with credit for a withdrawal that rarely takes place. They are also said to be “dismantling” checkpoints and illegal outposts.

Israeli Police have a right to protect citizens but Palestinians and Arabs are always acting or moving “suspiciously”. Although neither Arab nor Palestinian, I work and have worked in the past in the Middle East. One day I was accused by a soldier of driving in a “suspicious” manner. I don’t know how I did so on an empty, two-lane road in broad daylight or even how one drives “suspiciously”.

The Israelis often use the word “incitement”. Only Palestinians and Arabs “incite” but very few Israeli Jews are said to “incite” although there is daily “incitement” from every level of Israeli society including the Cabinet. School books are often said to “incite” Palestinians. Has anyone ever looked carefully at Israeli teaching materials? And on the question of text books, for decades, books in schools were brought to Gaza from Egypt and to the West Bank from Jordan. These were only allowed in after being carefully checked in advance by Israeli authorities.

It would be nice to have agreement or standard on using terms relating to the Arab/Islamic/Moslem world such as:

Islamic web site: What is an Islamic web site? Is it about Islam or is it simply from the Arab/Islamic world? Unless it is a religious site, it should be named after the country, city or group sponsoring the site. One does not say Christian web site unless it is sponsored by a Christian group.

Arab world: There should be a firm definition. Neither Afghanistan nor Iran is Arab. Repeatedly they are included in the “Arab World”.

Abu Khalil: This is not a “nom de guerre”, an alias, or anything sinister. It is simply a way of calling someone: the father of Khalil.

Jama'a, Gama'a (singular), Gama'at, Jama'at (plural): A variation is used in a number countries. It has no sinister meaning, it is simply a group or groups. The G is used in the Egyptian dialect and the J elswhere. The ' in a'a stands for a glottal Arabic sound, that is not spoken by English speakers. 

Jihad: there is great confusion, sometimes deliberate, over this word. It can also be the first name of a male. It is overused in the “western world” without knowledge of its true meaning.

Until next time,

Ron Wilkinson, Bethlehem, Palestine.



Dominionists calling someone "anti-Semitic" is "semantic terrorism"

I am encouraging pro-America activists to begin using the terms “Dominionism” or “Dominionists” instead of fundamentalists, neo-cons, etc. Dominionism is an umbrella term for Jews, Christians, Muslims alike who want bible- based government.

And in response to the empty charge of “anti-Semitism”, I tell peace activists to point out that Semite refers to a group of African-Asian languages, not Jews and that when called anti-Semite they are being victimized by semantic terrorism.

Larry Darby, attorney

Montgomery, Alabama

September 29, 2004


Regarding Anti Semitic, statement in "Conflict Terminology" I believe using the statement referring to a Language (Semitic) Is not on point as what we are trying to bring to the new reader, who is trying to understand the proper usage of correct Terminology.

When called Anti Semitic. My favorite reply to this ignorant statement is. "I have Jewish & Palestinian friends, they are both the children of SHEM." Please don't fall for the Zionist Big Lie and deny the true heritage of the Palestinians as Semitic, they are also the children of Shem."

Ronald D Kennedy, California USA.



War is peace, slavery is freedom, attack is defence By Phil Hong




Earth, a planet hungry for peace

 Apartheid Wall

The Israeli Land-Grab Apartheid Wall built inside the Palestinian territories, here separating Abu Dis from occupied East Jerusalem. (IPC, 7/4/04).


The Israeli apartheid (security) wall around Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, like a Python. (Alquds,10/25/03).

Opinions expressed in various sections are the sole responsibility of their authors and they may not represent Al-Jazeerah's.