For journalists in the Middle East, the use of the word ‘terrorists’ is akin to carrying a gun.

excerpts on the use of language by journalists from
Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, 1990.

If attacks on Israelis in southern Lebanon were the work of terrorists, then why do we not use the same word for Christian Phalangists who bombed Syrian troops in Lebanon?

Why, repeatedly, did copy from Israel refer to Israelis killing ‘Arabs’ in Lebanon, gifting the occupation army with a nationality (Israeli) while using a racial distinction (Arab) about its enemies? Was this because a citizen of Lebanese nationality or Palestinian birth did not count as much as an Israeli?

Similarly, when the Israelis forced ships in international waters to sail to Haifa, where passengers were often taken away and imprisoned, journalists in Israel went to extraordinary lengths to avoid any phrase that might offend the Israelis.

Had the Syrians or Palestinians forced a boatload of Israelis into Tartous or Sidon, for instance, it would immediately been labeled a ‘terrorist hijacking’. Yet when the Israeli navy stopped the Larnaca-Beirut ferry-boat in July, 1984, the Times stringer in Tel Aviv described how the ship had been ‘diverted’ to Haifa, where some of its passengers had been ‘detained’.

Palestinian guerrillas did sometimes hire their own vessels to travel to Lebanon. But the people on board this ferry-boat were not gunmen—I often took the same ferry myself—and a woman aboard the ship was subsequently imprisoned for more than a year after being jailed in Haifa under a local Israeli law.

When I later referred to the incident as a ‘hijacking’—which is what it was—Charles Douglas Home [the author’s editor at the London Times] received the inevitable rebuke from the Israelis. It was not an act of piracy, they claimed. It was an act of ‘self-defense’.

Thus the Israelis felt free to refer to their area of occupied southern Lebanon as their ‘security zone’, a phrase enthusiastically taken up by many news organizations, sometimes including the BBC, which only later referred to it as a ‘self-declared’ or ‘so-called’ security zone.

The Israelis ‘maintained’ a ‘security zone’ in southern Lebanon to prevent Palestinian infiltration into Israel. The phrase lent legitimacy to a military occupation, a legitimacy the press would not have granted if the Syrians or Lebanese had occupied part of northern Israel and declared it a ‘security zone’ to prevent infiltration by Israelis into Lebanon.

Journalists in Israel experienced difficulties when the Israelis kidnapped Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli citizen, from Rome to Tel Aviv to face charges of betraying nuclear secrets to the London Sunday Times.

Here was a case of kidnapping that clearly breached the law—if not Israeli law, then certainly Italian law. Israel need not have worried. Correspondents duly found a new phrase. Vanunu had been ‘spirited away’ from Italy.

Similarly, when Israeli soldiers were captured by Lebanese guerrillas, they were reported to have been ‘kidnapped’, as if the Israeli presence in Lebanon was in some way legitimate. Suspected resistance men in southern Lebanon, however, were ‘captured’ by Israeli troops.


When the Israelis forced a Syrian government aircraft to land at Tel Aviv in February 1986 this was described in reports in the Times as an ‘interception’ and a ‘mid-air swoop’, while a strap headline over a dispatch from the paper’s new Jerusalem correspondent read: ‘Terror suspects questioned.’ In fact, all those aboard the plane were Syrian government officials.

Even more complex verbal contortions had to be invented when Israeli gunmen and bombers began to carry out attacks—‘terrorist’ attacks by any other yardstick—against Palestinians in the West Bank.

If these men were ‘terrorists’, then the moral legitimacy of Israel’s war against ‘terrorism’ would be undermined. So the ‘terrorists’ became ‘Jewish extremists’ or, on the AP and UPI wires, the ‘Jewish underground’.

‘Underground’ was an interesting word to choose. It had connotations of the Second World War French underground, the Resistance, the maquisards who resisted Nazi rule, the Jewish underground movement in wartime Poland and the Polish underground who fought in the 1944 uprising. It added an aura of legitimacy, even heroism, to the deeds of the Israelis who were blowing the legs off Palestinian mayors. ..

At the start of the Israeli invasion in 1982, the Jerusalem Post was busy tampering with AP’s reports from Beirut, changing every reference to ‘guerrilla’ to ‘terrorist’, until the IP told the paper’s editor to stop. In a short article in the Jerusalem Post entitled ‘The Politics of Terror’—in which the author contrived to use the word ‘terror and ‘terrorist’ 31 times in 19 paragraphs—Hirsh Goodman stated ominously that ‘if the Israeli government wants to stymie the political message of terror, it has to deal with terror deep in the shadows, far from the eye of the camera…’

Only rarely did an Israeli journalist question the received official view, as Michael Elkins did in 1983. Discussing a Lebanese suicide bomb attack on an Israeli barracks at Tyre, he wrote that the target was military and the intent was to kill Israeli military personnel, and thus:

"It is at least arguable that by the criteria we ourselves have demanded, supported by historic precedent, and despite the bleak and tragic impact upon us, what happened in Tyre may not be dismissed as terrorism, but instead was a guerrilla action… I come to this painfully… I suggest that by calling the action in Tyre ‘terrorist’ we are demonstrating yet again our stubborn and increasingly pervasive refusal to see any slightest core of legitimacy in the Palestinian and Arab side of the conflict with us."

Elkins blamed the ‘self-defeating obduracy’ of Palestinians and Arab governments for denying Israel’s right to legitimacy. Israel and its enemies could continue like this, he wrote, "recreating and reflecting the existing images of each other, and reflecting these reflections--endlessly and hatefully—as in a hall of mirrors."

But the result, he concluded: "will be that all of us—Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs—will be locked in endless and bloody agony in a hall of mirrors of our own creation and from which there is no exit.

Or we can begin by adopting a certain integrity—a certain generosity—in the use of language.

That’s not too hard. It’s the easiest of the hard things that must be done if we are ever to come to peace with one another, and so with ourselves."

‘Terrorism’ no longer means terrorism. It is not a definition; it is a political contrivance. ‘Terrorists’ are those who use violence against the side that is using the word. The only terrorists whom Israel acknowledges are those who oppose Israel. The only terrorists the United States acknowledges are those who oppose the United States. The only terrorists Palestinians acknowledge—for they too use the word—are those opposed to the Palestinians.

To adopt the word means that we have taken a side in the Middle East, not between right and wrong, good and evil, David and Goliath, but with one set of combatants against another. For journalists in the Middle East, the use of the word ‘terrorists’ is akin to carrying a gun.