Following the operation of Hamas in Israel, and Israel's response, there have been in France a lot of discussions about a large party not wanting to use the word "terrorism" to describe Hamas' attack. They have otherwise condemned both sides.

Wikipedia discusses the word:

[Terrorism] is used in this regard primarily to refer to intentional violence during peacetime or in the context of war against non-combatants.
(...) There are various different definitions of terrorism, with no universal agreement about it

Now, the EU does classify Hamas as a "terrorist organization", so there is probably some consensus about this word (?). Is there?

I thought that it meant "attack on civilians/non-combatants", but then Israel also attacked civilians.

Russia attacked civilians - is it a terrorist country?

A country that is invaded attacks back the invader and targets civilians - is it terrorism?

I would appreciate some highlights but PLEASE make them generic. I have no connections to either Israel/Palestine or Russia/Ukraine, I am just curious and took these examples because this is what we are talking about in 2023.


2 Answers 2



While there is no clear definition, it seems in most documents of international law I read, intent is the key word.

The The International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999) defines terrorism as “any . . . act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.” (Article 2.1.b)

In 2004, the Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change on the subject issued a similar definition: “any action . . . that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act” ( 164(d), p. 49).

Now, having watched the uncensored videos issued by Hamas themselves, I am fully convinced there was full intent to cause harm to civilians. More importantly, Germany's stance on the matter is clear, and now Hamas is declared a terrorist organization (link1, link2, link3)

State terrorism

There seems to be a consensus that states can commit terrorist acts too. One such example cited is the assassination of Leon Trotsky by a Soviet agent. So Russia's or Israel's statehood doesn't exempt them from being labelled as countries who commit terrorist acts.

The duty to warn civilians

There is a requirement to warn of impeding attacks. As for the Israeli response to the recent attacks by Hamas, they claim that Hamas hides behind civilians and they stockpile weapons and launch rockets from civilian areas, which makes it very challenging for the Israeli Defense forces (IDF) to avoid harming civilians. Not being a specialist in urban warfare, I'll refrain from passing judgement here, but there's at least a reasonable doubt that they target civilians on purpose, and there were efforts to warn the local population of impeding attacks. It seems that while Hamas is not a mere terrorist organization but the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip, running hospitals, schools and an extensive propaganda outlet, had not made similar efforts to protect their own civilians, not to say those of Israel. When the Israelis warn of bombings, Hamas usually orders their citizens not to evacuate and not to listen to 'zionist propaganda'.

  • 3
    There’s also plenty of Israeli soldiers being prosecuted for attacking civilians in Palestine. There’s never been any Palestinian soldiers under trial in Palestine for attacking Israeli civilians. Oct 29, 2023 at 13:50
  • @JonathanReez have there been incident of official PSS members attacking Israeli civilians? Information is difficult to separate out from attacks by unofficial groups.
    – Jontia
    Oct 29, 2023 at 17:35
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    @Jontia plenty of Israeli civilians have been prosecuted for committing crimes against Palestinians as well. However in Palestine committing crimes against Israelis is seen as a badge of honor and is never prosecuted. So it's not a "both sides" issue by any means imaginable. Oct 29, 2023 at 18:21

In recent years, the label 'terrorist' has been so over-used as to become meaningless. While there are some formal definitions, in practice it has become to mean 'people the authorities do not like.'

In that way, it has joined labels like 'fascist,' 'nazi' or 'communist' in public discourse. Yes, there are formal definitions. Often several slightly divergent definitions. But most speakers use the word for the emotional impact, not because a situation meets one of the more common international definitions.

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