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Background

The 2023 Israel–Hamas war is referred to in the Western media as "the Israel-Hamas war". All Western commentators I've seen, including military experts, journalists, and political leaders in both the US and the Israel, seem to take great care to single out Hamas as Israel's adversary in the war, and to draw a very clear distinction between "Hamas", the entity Israel is fighting, and "the people of Gaza" (often referred to as "civilians"). In a few places where I've seen commentators deviate from this terminology by expressing doubts about whether this distinction is accurate to make, or pointing out historical analogies with other wars in which the distinction was not made, they were often criticized.

The very name of the war shows the same clear pattern: "Hamas", not Gaza or its people, is clearly named there as Israel's enemy.

However, to play devil's advocate: Hamas is a political party and heavily armed organization that is the sole entity governing the entire territory of Gaza, with a population of over 2 million people. It collects taxes from the people under its control. It is the government of Gaza in the same sense and to the same extent that any government of a (non-democratic, at least) country or territory is seen as its government.

To drive home the point a bit of why what's going with the war's name seems strange to me (and I don't mean to come across as biased or having an agenda, I simply want it to be clear what is motivating my question):

  • No one thinks to refer to this war as "the 2023 Hamas-Likud War" or "the 2023 Gaza-Israel War" or "the 2023 Gaza-Likud War".

  • The Russo-Ukrainian War isn't referred to by anyone as the "Putin-Ukraine War" or the "Kremlin-Ukraine War" or the "All-Russia People's Front-Ukraine War" or the "Russia-Servant of the People War", or any other name that draws a distinction between the governments of either Russia or Ukraine and the "civilians" they "control".

  • If you say that in 1939-1945 the Allies fought against "Germany", you won't hear anyone jumping up to argue that they fought "the Nazis", not "Germany".

  • Etc - I am not aware of any other war between two groups of people where observers of the situation decided it was correct to draw this sort of distinction.

My questions

  1. Are there any other major wars whose naming pattern follows the template "X-Y War" where one of X and Y is the name of a country or a territory, but the other one is the name of a political party which governs a territory?

  2. Are there any other major wars where, regardless of the name of the war, people feel very strongly that a distinction must be drawn between the government of one of the parties to the war and the "civilians" being controlled by that government?

  3. If the answers to 1 and 2 above are "No", why is this terminology used in this situation? What is so unique about the Israel-Hamas War that warrants drawing such a strong distinction between Gaza and Hamas, when this is not done in any other analogous context?

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6 Answers 6

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"Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict" is the current title of a Wikipedia page. The Houthis are only a faction in Yemen, but they claim to be the legitimate government, IIRC. Their own wiki page says "officially known as Ansar Allah (أَنْصَار ٱللَّٰه ʾAnṣār Allāh, lit. 'Supporters of God') is a Shia Islamist political and military organization".

The 1982 Lebanon war (going by the wiki title) is sometimes called Israel-PLO war of 1982. (True, the PLO is more of a coalition, including Fatah, the PFLP, the PPP and quite a few other smaller parties.) Also according to Wikipedia "The 2006 Lebanon War [is] also called the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah War". And "Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shia Islamist political party and militant group [...]"

The South African border war, aka Namibian border war, aka Namibian War of Independence is more long-windedly called the "war between South Africa and SWAPO". And (wiki): "The South West Africa People's Organisation, officially known as the SWAPO Party of Namibia, is a political party and former independence movement in Namibia".

The Türkiye–PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) conflict has sometimes been called a war too, even by Turkish sources, although the latter refer to it as something like "PKK's war on Turkey".

There are probably others.


you won't hear anyone jumping up to argue that they fought "the Nazis", not "Germany".

This is IMHO debatable. You hear the phrase "war against Nazi Germany" often enough, which is somewhere in between (or a combo of) calling it a war with a party and a war with a country, or more precisely with a country that was ruled by that one party then. (To apply that pattern here, you'd have to call it "war against Hamas Gaza" or something like that.)

Clearly there were more attempts that didn't quite catch on purely on the naming angle, e.g. "World War II is appropriately called “Hitler's war”" according to Britannica. FWTW, a somewhat older phrase is/was "war against Hitlerite Germany".

I don't wanna turn this into a long analysis of the rhetoric surrounding Russia-Ukraine war, but since you've mentioned it, clearly the phrase "Putin's war", with "in/on/against Ukraine" sometimes added, appears a fair bit in Western sources. And besides the older, official "special military operation" term, Putin more recently said "Russia is fighting not against the Ukrainian people but against the Banderite monsters and their ilk". Which should answer to a large extent your #2 question as well.

Having said all this, sources more sympathetic to Palestinians (and possibly to Hamas as well) sometimes do use "Israel-Gaza war", e.g. al-Jazeera (but not consistently), Al Arabiya (but again, not consistently), Anadolu (also refers to it as "Israel’s war on Gaza"--somewhat more often than the other two sources, but still with some exceptions) or the Committee to Protect Journalists (also with exceptions), and even UAE's The National uses such a Israel-Gaza tag and in-text rather more consistently (but with certain exceptions), and the BBC also uses that as a tag but there's not much consistency in their article headings etc., while The New Arab uses a tag Gaza War 2023 and the phrase appears in some of their article titles too (but there are exceptions there too). The NYT conversely has a "Israel-Hamas war" tag, but some of their pieces were headlined with "Israel-Gaza war". (Some of this might be even down to SEO, to hit as many keywords as possible). From the same piece, it was Netanyahu who made some of the earlier statements "we are at war with Hamas". This was followed by a similar message from the IDF: "we are at war with Hamas, NOT the people of Gaza". The Israeli newspapers that I can read (meaning those in English) generally follow this "Israel-Hamas War" pattern on tag level at least, e.g. Haaretz or Jerusalem Post. The Times of Israel has just a "Israel at War" banner; they don't seem use tags. But it's easy to find exceptions to that naming there too: JP: "Israel-Gaza war", Haaretz: "Gaza war", ToI: "Israel-Gaza war", i.e. all have at least some articles with "Israel-Gaza war" or "Gaza war" somewhere in the body or even in the article title/heading.

As it's been pointed out in some other answer[s], it's been somewhat fashionable in the West to declare that a war was only a against a regime but not a people. Interestingly perhaps, the US [counter]-declaration of war on Nazi Germany also followed this mold.

JOINT RESOLUTION Declaring That a State of War Exists Between The Government of Germany and the Government and the People of the United States [...]

Only the German government is mentioned, but on the US side both the government and the people are.

The 2003 AUMF on Iraq is long and titled just "against Iraq", and has many mentions just of the country e.g. "Iraq's war of aggression [...]" (against Kuwait), but also reminds that it has been the legal policy of the US to pursue regime change in Iraq (since the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act). Likewise the G.W. Bush administration spoke of "The War to Liberate Afghanistan [that] dismantled the brutal Taliban regime" etc. And in the Gaza case, Netanyahu has said that that Hamas must be kicked out of power--so regime change in Gaza, basically, not just demilitarization. (But he also rejects the PA taking over, for now, at least.)

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    "Banderite" has been a general go-to Russian insult for Ukrainians at least since the 60s. Despite its ostensible reference to Stepan Bandera, it was used as an ethnic slur in common Russian vernacular. To the point where, in the iconic movie sequel "Brother 2", one of the main characters calls all Ukrainian-speaking Americans "banderites," including the cop who arrests him in Chicago.
    – wrod
    Dec 1, 2023 at 5:46
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    @wrod: I guess that's why Putin thought to add "monsters", LOL. Dec 1, 2023 at 5:55
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    @TheScream: I'm not totally sure what the (naming) situation is on the Israeli side. Generally speaking, my impression is that the more moderate Israelis prefer to be seen as fighting a war against just Hamas, while the more extreme (right wing) would rather assume everyone in Gaza is an enemy, thus fair target. The controversy with Herzog's words "an entire nation that is out there that’s responsible" or Netanyahu's deleted "children of darkness" tweet are probably related to that. Dec 1, 2023 at 21:29
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    @TheScream The whole point of naming it the "Israel-Hamas war" is that it somehow puts Israel in the moral right: "Israel is fighting terrorists". Where as the reality is a state of war exists between Israel and Palestine, even prior to Oct 7th. And the naming "Israel-Palestine/Gaza war" adjusts the moral high ground away from Israel. Israel is occupying Palestine, like Russia is occupying Ukraine. Dec 3, 2023 at 15:23
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    @TheScream: Keep in mind that an in important underlying issue in this conflict is that Palestine is not currently a recognized state by Israel. So, for the Israeli government, the "Israel-Hamas" wording also explicitly avoids legitimizing Palestine as a state.
    – thkala
    Dec 3, 2023 at 17:12
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Here is a good site enumerating the way wars in history have been named previously: https://www.historyguy.com/naming_of_wars.htm

In brief these are the 10 different ways wars tend to get named.

  1. A country can name the war after their enemy. For example Britain called the American Revolution, "The American War." These kinds of names are generally localized to a specific country.
  2. Use the two main combatants. E.g. Russian-Ukrainian war. Israel-Hamas War is also in this category as Israel is not supposed to be at war with all of Gaza, just with the government.
    • Other examples of non country names in this category: Arab-Israeli War, the Arabs aren't a country. Anglo-French Wars, While it's a war with Britain, it isn't named British-French wars, it's against their empire.
  3. What is the location in which it occurred? Example is the Korean War or Vietnam War.
  4. What was the cause of the conflict? E.g. The War of the Spanish Succession.
  5. Who was a leader in the war? The Napoleonic Wars is a good example of this.
  6. You can name the war for a time period or year. The Hundred Years War is a well known example.
  7. There are also names for unique features or aspects of the war. These include the World Wars and Cold War.
  8. It can also be described by the type of war it was. The American Civil War falls under this category. It does not list the combatants, just the type of war it was.
  9. Give your war an operational code. I served in Operation Enduring Freedom personally.
  10. Then there is propaganda purposes. Arguably the Israeli-Hamas War might fall into this category as well, but I'm not the one to make that call.

In short, there is no hard fast rule in how we name wars historically. We do so just in a way that suits our purposes, and so that people know what war we are talking about. As for your question, yes, there have been wars where it's been a Country-Organization war before. The US declared war on ISIS and called it the War on Terror for one example. Other examples already listed are Arab-Israeli and Anglo-French.

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    Very insightful answer, thanks!
    – TheScream
    Dec 1, 2023 at 21:01
  • How do you distinguish #1 from #3? "The American War" could equally well be considered as named after where it occurred.
    – nanoman
    Dec 3, 2023 at 2:09
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    Doesn't the American Civil War name the combatants? American's do just call it the Civil War, of course.
    – wnoise
    Dec 3, 2023 at 3:57
  • @wnoise No, that would be calling it the "Union-Confederacy" war or something. Dec 3, 2023 at 20:34
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    Honestly, nanoman, part of the point is that there are multiple overlaps with many of the names, hence the conclusion that we name wars primarily to suit our purposes, not to categorize them. As a result while there are 10 or so categories we can form, not all wars fall into these categories perfectly. Dec 4, 2023 at 18:25
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The closest historical equivalent may be WW2.

Both declarations of war by the USA (against Japan and against Germany) were declared not on those countries, but explicitly on their governments:

Quote:

That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial Government of Japan which has thus been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared;

(my highlight - digital version of original document here)


In addition, the media here also follows the Israeli narrative which has repeatedly stated that its enemy is Hamas, not the people of Gaza. So if you are talking about a war, then at least as declared, naming it the Israel-Hamas war follows what has been officially stated.

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    Had the US used this language for all of the (declared) wars? If so, it may not really be a conscious distinction. More of simply following the template. I would be curious to see what the wording was for the declaration of war in WWI and older.
    – PC Luddite
    Dec 2, 2023 at 5:28
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    @PCLuddite it's trivial to find. For WW1 indeed the wording was similar: "That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby formally declared"
    – Tom
    Dec 2, 2023 at 8:18
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    I agree with PC, I don't think this is quite the same thing. One might propose that the only thing a government can declare war on is another government anyway. Dec 3, 2023 at 3:14
  • "One might propose that the only thing a government can declare war on is another government anyway." -- why? Is there any international law, custom, written or unwritten rule saying so?
    – Tom
    Dec 3, 2023 at 10:07
  • A government is not a political party though. True, in the case of one-party states, which Hamas practically is in Gaza, it's hard to make much of a distinction. Also interesting perhaps, the declaration on Nazi Germany explicitly mentioned both the US government and the people the US side: "JOINT RESOLUTION Declaring That a State of War Exists Between The Government of Germany and the Government and the People of the United States and Making Provisions To Prosecute The Same". That makes it more clear what the conception of the conflict was, on the US side. Dec 3, 2023 at 18:21
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Not universally, but the United States invasion of Afghanistan was often and largely characterized as being specifically against the Taliban.

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Does civil war count? You do have this name of "Tigray War", which is the name of a region in Ethiopia and a short hand of the people that live there and the military organization that waged a war against the Ethiopia government.

Reporting and naming of conflict in media is another way for Power Players to direct/shape public sentiment about the conflict. Before, to mobilize the entire nation against some other nation who mobilize theirs, it is ok to just name it like "Vietnam War", "Korean War" to rile up public hatre against the whole "enemy" nation. But in this case, the public/international(esp young people and the Global South) sentiment is pro-Palestine, so it is not likely for the West to call it "Israel-Palestine War", so they try hard to say "We are just attacking Hamas, we are not fighting the Palesininans". It is one of the tools for the West to manipulate public opinion

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    Technically speaking it would have to be called "Ethiopia-TPLF war" for that to count. The OP is asking about party names making it into the war name. The OP is not asking about region names making it into a [civil] war name, which are far more numerous. Dec 1, 2023 at 4:17
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Well the name "2023 Israel–Hamas war" is not the official name of the war.

The official name given by Israel government to the war is "חרבות ברזל" which in "Haravot Barzel" in English, and translated to "Iron Swords". (see the wikipedia page in Hebrew)

I don't know who started this mistake and why, but that's likely topic for a different discussion.

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    That's a good point about Iron Swords. Of course, Hamas have their own name for the war. I don't think it's particularly helpful to regard either of these names as "official" (except from the point of view of Hamas and the Israeli governments), or to regard it as a "mistake" for the rest of the world not to use Israel's preferred name. Anyway, this also isn't very related to my actual question...
    – TheScream
    Dec 2, 2023 at 21:41
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    Germany called WWII the "Greater German War"; Russia called it the "Great Patriotic War". There's a reason we mostly don't let beligerents set the name of things. Both Hamas and Israel have names for their operations; neither is likely to be what historians wind up referring to it as.
    – ceejayoz
    Dec 3, 2023 at 15:00
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    Well, official name aside, it was Netanyahu who made some of the earlier statements "we are at war with Hamas". nytimes.com/2023/10/09/world/middleeast/… Dec 3, 2023 at 17:46
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    Here's the IDF saying "The world needs to know: we are at war with Hamas, NOT the people of Gaza." youtube.com/watch?v=5ZNUgEfF7XM Dec 3, 2023 at 19:12
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    @ShadowWizardIsSadAndAngry What made you think there's "official" names of wars to begin with? Dec 3, 2023 at 20:36

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