Words as weapons: How the Israel-Hamas war also turned language into a battleground

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

Since the Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel, the Associated Press and most American news organizations have defined Hamas as a “militant group.”

But not all news organizations.

More than 60 dailies owned by Alden Global Capital ran an editorial urging the news media to describe Hamas a “terrorist organization.” 

Who’s right?

It depends who you ask, says Jonathan Kaufman, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism. 

“One of the complicating issues here is that everyone has a point,” Kaufman says. 

As the Israel-Hamas war rages, another contest is playing out as the world watches, digests and discusses the fighting in real time — the war of words

From debates about whether to describe Hamas as a “militant” or “terrorist” group to the meaning of phrases such as “from the river and to the sea,” the public discourse about the Israel-Hamas war presents a linguistic minefield riddled with terms, slogans and international legalese that makes discussing the conflict incredibly nuanced.

Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than in the discourse of journalism and newsroom policy, where coverage of the war has come under scrutiny for allegedly favoring one or another side. 

The scrutiny has been in response to a range of issues — from high-stakes reporting errors, to different uses of the active and passive voice intended to underscore the violence of one or another side. 

The AP has produced a style guide for journalists covering the war.

“In some ways, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the world’s most intractable problem,” the AP says. “Words should be chosen carefully to reflect respect for different perspectives on the conflict.”

The AP suggests journalists “avoid stereotyping, discuss nuance, and in broad ways maintain a balanced perspective.”

Referencing a recent piece written by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, Kaufman notes how nearly every sentence seems to invite a “both/and” lens, adding that each side — Israel and Hamas — has legitimate claims about its circumstances.

“Separate from that, you have a fast-moving story where very often it’s difficult to get firsthand information, and there are real questions about whether the sources are being straight with you,” Kaufman says.

While the U.S. and European Union have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization, the designation and its applicability under international law is somewhat contested, says Northeastern professor of law and international affairs Zinaida Miller.

“Terrorism remains very ill-defined in international law,” Miller says. “Terror organizations get defined and are designated within countries through domestic statutes. Some core elements of acts of terrorism may be established internationally but overall, the term remains ambiguous and as a result, potentially highly politicized.”

How do newsrooms navigate all of this delicate parlance and context? 

Kaufman makes two points. He explains that the Israeli-Hamas war long predates the events of Oct. 7; that newsrooms have for decades grappled with the history and nuance in sometimes very public ways. Also, when it comes to the reporter’s role in a conflict involving competing claims, he says the standard shifts from objectivity to fairness.

Fairness, he clarifies, is about giving the reader the tools to decide for themselves. 

“This is not a new issue for newsrooms,” Kaufman says. “I think that what reporters have to do … is to present both sides in a balanced way, and then the readers have to decide.”

The power of language to facilitate communication is just one of its functions — it can also be instrumentalized to rally groups, communities and others to think and act in certain ways, says Adam Cooper, a teaching professor of linguistics at Northeastern.

Take the divisive expression “from the river and to the sea,” which has been increasingly used by pro-Palestinian activists. The term refers to Israel’s stretch of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. 

For U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib and others, it is an “aspirational call for freedom.” To many others — including the Anti-Defamation League — the phrase is considered anti-semitic. Tlaib was issued a rebuke by Congress for her use of the term. The congressional response said the phrase was “widely recognized as a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel.” 

Cooper says the phrase is an example of how language can become “weighted with history.” 

“The kind of pushback against using this expression has come from people who say that the people who use it aren’t aware of all of the history behind it,” Cooper says. 

“We think of language as a system of communication, but the meanings that we convey from the words that we use exist at multiple levels,” Cooper adds. “There’s the literal sense of the expressions that we use, but also the deeper implicit messaging that we’re conveying as well.”

Another phrase invoked in recent weeks is “intifada,” which means “uprising” in Arabic. There have been two multi-year uprisings by Palestinians against Israel. The First Intifada (lasting roughly from 1987 to 1993) consisted mostly of acts of civil disobedience and rock throwing, Miller says. The Second Intifada, which began in 2000 and ended roughly in 2005, saw Hamas initiate more aggressive acts such as suicide attacks against Israel.

“In the general context, it is attached both to the two specific periods of uprising and more generally to a sense of uprising or the ‘shaking off’’ of Israel, Miller says.

Miller says the phrase carries more specific political and historical resonance. It is not a legal term but rather a reference to organized resistance to Israeli control and, while flexible, is not a call for genocide, she says.

All three experts agreed that in the present moment, when discourse about the world’s problems is ubiquitous: words really do matter. 

“It is important to recognize that the words we use have power and can inspire these feelings and responses, even if we’re not necessarily intending it to be the case,” Cooper says.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on X/Twitter @tstening90.