Wednesday, 25 October 2023 04:45

How we talk about the Israel-Hamas war

People in the street near a heavily damaged building after Israeli attacks by warplanes and artillery fire as civil defense teams and civilians conduct search and rescue operations in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on October 24, 2023.

During a war, political actors, human rights groups, and the media can use unfamiliar terminology without adequately explaining it — or even using it correctly. That’s especially true of the Israel-Hamas war and the broader historical context behind it.

To that end, Vox is writing a glossary to define and contextualize some of these terms, when possible relying on the accepted laws of conflict and international humanitarian law, or IHL.

We’ll include terms that apply specifically to the history of Israel and Palestine, as well as some that apply to conflict generally.

Broadly speaking, laws around conduct during armed conflict are found in the Geneva Conventions, the post-World War II agreements that form the basis of IHL. Customary IHL — principles either reflected in international manuals on the laws of war or in precedents from previous legal cases — fills in some of the gaps left by the Geneva Conventions or other treaties.

IHL in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict is often difficult to understand mostly because the situation exceeds the concepts and language set out in the law, Laurel Fletcher, co-director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California Berkeley, told Vox. That’s true for many reasons; one of which is that the conflict is between a nation-state (Israel) and Hamas, which is technically a non-state actor though it governs Gaza.

Israel and Hamas are at war. How did we get here? Vox answers the biggest questions.

  1. Why did Hamas attack Israel?
  2. Where does the conflict currently stand and where does it go from here?
  3. How did Hamas come to power and what does it want?
  4. What does the US-Israel relationship mean for the war?
  5. What is the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

“What’s harder in this conflict is that Hamas does not follow the laws of war,” Fletcher said, reportedly using human shields and concealing their operations in civilian infrastructure in Gaza — blurring the lines between a legitimate military target and areas that must be protected under IHL — as well as deliberately killing and kidnapping Israeli civilians.

Another complicating factor is the status of Gaza itself — whether it’s occupied under the terms of international law or whether that occupation is not official but de facto. That “informs Israel’s legal interpretation of what obligations it is under” to Palestinians in Gaza under IHL, Fletcher explained.

“International laws did not contemplate this situation,” Fletcher told Vox, and in some senses, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict explodes some of the concepts of IHL; there is not always a clear-cut aggressor in a given round of violence, and the way IHL understands occupation — as a temporary status in which the occupied territory retains its own laws, for example — doesn’t apply to the Israeli-Palestinian context. But IHL still governs armed conflict and all parties are obligated to adhere to it, even if they often don’t.

With that in mind, we’ll point out when the situation on the ground complicates IHL concepts, in recognition of the fact that this is a messy, emotional, evolving conflict — and add to this glossary as the war unfolds.


Under international law, a territory is considered occupied “when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army” such that the army has “effective control.” There are three elements to consider when determining whether the term fits: whether the foreign army is present without the consent of the local government when it invaded, whether the local government can exercise its powers, and whether the occupying forces exert their own powers over the territory instead.

By that definition, many experts in international law say that Israel has occupied the Gaza Strip, as well as the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Syrian Golan Heights, since 1967. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and under the 1947 UN partition plan for the region, the other territories were reserved for a future Palestinian state, while all of Jerusalem was to be governed by an international body.

The nature of Israel’s occupation has varied across these territories and across time, but in all these areas, Israel controls basic utilities, such as water and electricity.

The West Bank, for instance, is under military occupation and has been settled by Israelis, who have become increasingly violent toward Palestinians in the last year.

The Golan Heights are also under Israeli military occupation, and there are more than 30 Israeli settlements in the Golan, home to about 20,000 people. For decades, Syria has refused to sign any peace treaty with Israel unless it cedes control of the Golan Heights.

Though Israel has claimed to have annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, it has not done so by the standards of international law, which requires that both the occupying and occupied powers consent to annexation.

Then, there’s Gaza: Though Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005, it has still exercised effective control of Gaza. While there is not international consensus that this amounts to an occupation, many experts consider it sufficient to meet the international law definition. Even before this war broke out, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza that restricted access to basic goods and restricted the movement of people in and out of the territory. It controlled all heavily militarized access points to Gaza with the exception of the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which coordinates with Israel to manage it.

Occupying powers are charged with certain obligations to the civilian population. That includes taking measures to ensure public order, safety, and sufficient hygiene and health standards, and to provide food and medical care. Occupying powers are also prohibited from forcibly transferring the population from or within the occupied territory and exerting collective punishment on the local population. Finally, occupying powers must allow access to international humanitarian aid.

Israel has deliberately ignored those obligations, especially amid the war in Gaza.

“According to international legal authorities, Israel remains [an] occupying power, which means that it has all of the obligations toward civilians that an occupying power would have, which of course does not fulfill,” said Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University.

Open-air prison

Open-air prison isn’t terminology under international humanitarian law (IHL) like some of the other words and phrases on this list; rather, it’s used specifically in this context to describe the living conditions in Gaza — particularly, the control and surveillance Palestinians in Gaza live under, but also the general difficulty of accessing basic necessities.

Different groups, from pro-Palestinian activists to reporters to human rights groups, have applied the concept to Gaza “at least since the late 1990s,” Ilana Feldman, a professor of anthropology, history, and international affairs at George Washington University, wrote in 2015. At the term’s point of origin, Gaza was still under military occupation by Israeli forces— an occupation that lasted 38 years and ended with the complete withdrawal of those troops in 2005.

In that context, the term refers to the lack of independence, the inability to come and go freely; the heavy surveillance of the security state; and the fact that these conditions are being imposed upon Gaza by an outside actor, Israel.

Today, many of these factors remain, albeit under a slightly different framework. Since Hamas took power in 2007, Israel (with the help of Egypt) has imposed a blockade on the territory that some human rights groups say amounts to an ongoing occupation that carries legal responsibilities.

Gaza does not control its land, sea, or air borders. In all but rare cases, Gaza residents cannot leave the 141-square-mile territory through the border crossing with Israel for travel, study, or work opportunities (there are some limited exceptions, like for work permits within Israel). These policies, which Israel justifies on security grounds, don’t just preclude international travel through Israel but also effectively sever Palestinians in Gaza from the West Bank (a territory of Palestinians separated from Gaza by Israeli territory).

Egypt, meanwhile, restricts movement through Rafah, its one border crossing, and has at times closed it completely due to concerns that extremists and weapons might make their way to Sinai, where they could launch attacks against Israel and draw Egypt into conflict with Israel. Palestinians in occupied territories are subject to an intense surveillance state. Israel uses facial recognition technology to monitor Palestinians in cities like Hebron, as well as significant CCTV surveillance in public spaces in the Palestinian territories.

Poor living conditions caused largely by the blockade on goods have also eroded the quality of life in Gaza, as have repeated, escalating cycles of violence between Hamas and Israel. Poverty rates are 53 percent in Gaza, compared to 14 percent in the other occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Now, under the combined effects of the 16-year blockade and the current conflict, conditions in Gaza are more horrific than ever. The present conditions essentially make Gaza less of an open-air prison and push it more, as Helen Ottens-Patterson, Doctors Without Borders’ former Gaza head of mission, told Vox, toward “the abyss.”

Collective punishment

Collective punishment refers to a government or occupying force harming a person or group of people based on the actions of another member of their group in the context of an armed conflict. It is a war crime, and it is prohibited under the third and fourth Geneva Conventions, which were ratified after World War II, as well as additional protocols established in 1977.

In its strictest definition, collective punishment applies to “sanctions and harassment of any sort, administrative, by police action or otherwise,” according to customary international law. This is meant to apply specifically to legal and criminal punishments in the context of armed conflict — things like confiscating passports or other documentation, arresting individuals, or imposing other legal penalties on a person not for something they themselves did, but because of the actions of another member of their group or perceived group.

The Syrian civil war provided some examples of this narrow sense; in 2019, for example, the regime of Bashar al-Assad seized assets of the families of people the regime had deemed “terrorists.”

Colloquially, the term is often applied to a variety of other actions. “The term is used more broadly to include strikes on civilians in response to something that someone else did — their state or some members of their community — as a form of retaliation or revenge,” Adil Haque, a professor at Rutgers University who studies the international law of armed conflict and the philosophy of international law, told Vox in an interview.

A UN panel of independent experts said in an October 12 statement that Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza in response to Hamas’s murder and kidnapping of Israeli civilians on October 7 is collective punishment.

But the siege in Gaza is actually violating the laws of occupation rather than collective punishment in the strictest sense, Haque explained, if one considers Gaza to be occupied territory. And if one accepts that Gaza is occupied, the siege can credibly be called a war crime. Though there is debate about whether Gaza is technically occupied — there are no troops on the ground, but Israel controls Gaza’s air, sea, and land borders and many other aspects of life in the territory — occupying powers are obligated under IHL to provide the necessities of life for people in the occupied territory including food, water, medical care, fuel and electricity, and education.

Indiscriminate attacks and bombings are also considered to be collective punishment in the colloquial sense of the term, but from an international law perspective, they relate more to the concepts of proportionality and the obligations of all parties to a conflict to protect civilians. For more on those concepts, the International Committee of the Red Cross is a helpful resource.

Forced displacement

Forced displacement, sometimes also referred to as forced migration, is permissible under IHL only if it’s occurring to protect civilians in the course of a necessary military operation as part of an international or national conflict. Because it can be considered legal in certain circumstances, then, it’s difficult to prosecute as an individual crime. That prosecution becomes even more complicated when the forced displacement is carried out by a party that could be considered an occupying power. Therefore, it’s often prosecuted as part of other crimes, like ethnic cleansing and genocide, but only if the displacement is motivated by the ethnicity of the group in question.

Under IHL, whoever orders the displacement must ensure that the civilians will eventually be able to return to their homes, that they will be evacuated to a relatively safe location, and that they will be provided with necessities like food, water, shelter, and medical care when they arrive.

The evacuation of British cities during World War II could be considered an instance of legal forced displacement: At the behest of the British government, 1.5 million people left their homes for their safety during the course of an international conflict. They were provided basic necessities when they got to their destinations, and it was understood that they would be able to return to their homes when it was safe to do so.

On October 13, the Israel Defense Forces told the approximately 1.1 million Gaza residents in the north of the territory to leave their homes and head south to avoid being hurt or killed in a military operation. They are not to return to the area until given an order from the authorities.

But Israel didn’t follow IHL in ordering this displacement; the state provided none of the basic necessities it is required to under IHL and in fact has prevented civilians from obtaining those necessities under the ongoing siege. Only after days of negotiations and intense international pressure did authorities in Israel and Egypt allow 20 trucks of humanitarian aid through the Rafah border crossing at Gaza’s southern border.

Israel will defend its operations in northern Gaza as necessary in the course of the war; it’s unclear that international bodies like the International Criminal Court or the United Nations would agree.

Another critical aspect of forced displacement under IHL is that it’s temporary: The civilians who have been moved for their safety must be allowed to return to their homes after the operation or other incident is over. But it’s not clear that this will happen in the context of the Israel-Hamas war.

This concern, deepened by Palestinians’ continued displacement since 1948, is part of the reason Egypt has been unwilling to take in Palestinian refugees from Gaza.

“What is happening now in Gaza is an attempt to force civilian residents to take refuge and migrate to Egypt, which should not be accepted,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week.


Annexation is “a unilateral act of a State [proclaiming] its sovereignty over the territory of another State” by force or threat of force, per IHL. It is “forbidden by international law.”

Prohibitions against annexation have been part of international law since World War I, though the concept took on more significance in light of Germany’s actions in World War II. Unlike occupation, annexation is never considered legal under international law.

“From an international law perspective, annexation does not happen,” Haque said. That means that while a country might claim territories in conflict or by use of force, and might formally draw their maps to include those territories and impose their laws on the people within them, international law does not recognize those claims.

One clear example of annexation is Russia’s claim that parts of Ukraine — Crimea and the Donbas — are actually Russian. This annexation began as a military operation in 2014, when Russia sent “little green men” into Crimea, and culminated in its ongoing invasion of Ukrainian territory.

Moscow made formal announcements when it annexed Crimea and the Donbas; Russian laws now govern those territories, even though international law does not recognize those claims.

Regarding the current conflict, there are several contexts in which annexation is discussed.

First: Israel understands the Golan Heights to be part of its territory and formally annexed it in 1981; however, international law considers it to be Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

The extent to which Israel views this territory as its own can be seen in the way some politicians speak about it: “I actually consider the last 50 years as the slow process of Israel defining its borders,” Einat Wilf, a former Labour member of the Knesset, said on the podcast The Hated and the Dead a few days before Hamas’s October 7 attack. “With the peace agreement with Egypt and the peace agreement with Jordan and the getting out of Lebanon and the annexation of the Golan Heights, Israel enters a process of determining its final borders.”

Then there’s the matter of East Jerusalem and the West Bank — territories that do not belong to Israel, according to a 1947 United Nations partition plan for the region. Over time, Israel has encroached on East Jerusalem, building settlements and evicting Palestinian families from their homes. Tensions over access to the al-Aqsa mosque, or Temple Mount — a holy site to both Muslims and Jews — have flared in recent years.

And finally, there’s the West Bank, an area that was reserved under the UN plan for a future Palestinian state. Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which has a majority Palestinian population but is occupied by Israel, are, for some settlers, part of a project to ultimately annex the region. “Over time, messianic Religious Zionist ideology developed as a significant driver of the settlement movement, based on the notion of a religious imperative for Jews to settle the entire Land of Israel,” according to a brief by the Israel Policy Forum, an American Jewish organization working for a two-state solution. “Settlements established as part of this religious movement were often placed in regions with a large Palestinian population in order to secure Jewish dominance over the territory, prevent a Palestinian state, and secure the entire West Bank for Israel.”

The US later recognized the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights under Trump and reaffirmed it under Biden. The US under Trump also moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2017 — a move made in recognition of the fact that Israel had made unified Jerusalem its capital, but a decidedly controversial one in the international arena, given the international legal issues. Trump’s administration also argued in 2019 that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not necessarily illegal, lending legitimacy to Israel’s claims on the territories. But the annexations and moves toward it are widely regarded as illegal under international law, and no other country has recognized them.


Normalization refers to efforts to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and neighboring Arab countries with the aim of achieving stability, if not peace, in the Middle East.

Beginning in 1945, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, and what is now known as Jordan formed an “Arab League” that opposed the state of Israel because of the Palestinian Arab population that was displaced as a result of its inception in 1948. It sought to advance the Palestinian cause, often by use of force. Some member countries repeatedly and violently clashed with Israel — including in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the 1967 Six-Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War — and helped create the Palestine Liberation Organization, a coalition of Palestinian nationalists, initially as a form of militant opposition to Israel.

It’s been decades since those Arab League countries directly fought Israel, and two of them have signed peace treaties with Israel — Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. That’s even though the plight of Palestinians remains unresolved, with US-led talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, frozen since 2014.

The US has consequently sought to establish diplomatic, economic, and security channels between Israel and its Arab neighbors with the objective of achieving a level of regional stability that would allow it to turn its attention to other parts of the world, including Russia and China. The Trump administration facilitated the Abraham Accords to normalize relations between Israel and several of its Muslim-majority neighbors — the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan — members of the now-expanded Arab League, but not ones that have ever been at war with Israel. The Biden administration also sought to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, in part so that they could form a united front against Iran, a common adversary that financially supports Hamas.

Public support in Arab countries for normalization has been low. But for the leaders of the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, signing a normalization agreement with Israel made sense since relations between those countries already “were in some respects quite close, if not public before those Abraham accords were signed,” said Beinin, the professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. It also has facilitated arms sales between the signatory countries.

Since the outbreak of war in Gaza, the Saudis have been talking to Iran, seemingly dooming the prospect of a normalization deal for now.


Zionism is a movement that supports the establishment of a permanent homeland for Jewish people in the region now known as Israel and Palestine.

Its roots as a political movement date back to the late 19th century following the outbreak of pogroms targeting Jews in what was then Russia, present-day Ukraine, and Poland, where Jews were unfairly blamed for the assassination of Czar Alexander II. The violence and the broader rise in antisemitism in Europe in that period drove many Jews toward political activism, including nationalist movements such as Zionism.

Not all Jews were Zionists (and not all Jews are Zionists now, either). In fact, it was initially a minority movement led by Austrians and Germans. Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl is regarded as the father of modern Zionism, formalizing the ideology in his 1896 German-language pamphlet “The Jewish State.” In it, he argued that the only way Jews could be freed from persecution and discrimination amid rising antisemitism in Europe was to establish, with the support of the international community, their own secular nation. He argued that Palestine was the ideal location because of its historical and religious significance to Jews, the Land of Israel promised to them by God in the Bible and from which they were forced into centuries of exile.

Herzl unsuccessfully sought support for the program from the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled Palestine. But he found an ally in Britain, which offered Zionists 6,000 square miles of uninhabited land in Uganda or locations in other countries. But the Zionists wanted Palestine, and tens of thousands of Jews from Europe began to emigrate there anyway.

The British would later come around, however, in their 1917 Balfour Declaration, which unilaterally called for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, despite the fact that Jewish people made up less than 15 percent of the population there at the time. Though the declaration vowed that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” it did not outline what those communities were, what specific rights they had, or how they would be protected, and it didn’t take into account their thoughts about how their land should be used.

After World War I, the Allied powers backed the declaration, and the newly created League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to temporarily rule Palestine until the Jewish state could be created. Jewish immigration to the area increased, particularly in the early to mid-1930s and after the horrors of the Holocaust, and the influx sparked violent clashes at various times. After World War II, the United Nations agreed to partition Palestine into two states, one for the area’s Jewish population and another for the Arab population, with the city of Jerusalem to be governed by a special international entity. However, local Arabs and Arab countries objected to the plan.

Following a period of extreme violence before, during, and after the war — particularly on the part of Zionist militias — British forces withdrew from Palestine, and Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948. It won the war with neighboring Arab states that followed, capturing 77 percent of the previous Palestinian mandate territory, including land that the UN had intended to allocate to the Palestinian Arab population.

Israel later ended up giving some of that land back to neighboring Arab countries as part of agreements brokered to end various bouts of armed conflict that broke out over the decades. But in 1980, it also annexed East Jerusalem — home to holy sites of significance to Jews, Muslims, and Christians — in a move violating international law, as well as occupied and encroached on Palestinian territory in the West Bank and in Gaza. In 2005, the Israeli government under right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew entirely from Gaza and dismantled four Israeli settlements in the West Bank in a bid to improve Israeli security.

Today, with the Jewish state of Israel firmly established, Zionism remains a diverse movement that encompasses people with a broad range of beliefs, including on the policies of the Israeli government. Many Jews feel a kinship to Israel, even if they do not explicitly identify as Zionist. Leftist Zionists believe in Israel’s right to exist peacefully but may also support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian self-determination. Right-wing Zionists, on the other hand, have promoted expansionist policies and Israeli settlements in occupied territory.

In recent years, it’s those right-wing Zionists who have had control of the Israeli government. They have since built more settlements in the West Bank, undertaking a de facto annexation in parts, and there are fears that Gaza may be next.