Gaza crisis: Who is a civilian? Who is a terrorist?

Affiliated person in sight

The ongoing crisis in Gaza has brought to light the issue of terror and how it is used to promote a political goal. Central to the use of terror is the justification of who is a civilian. The question of who is one used to be one directed at Palestinian militants who justify the use of suicide bombs within Israel – with the rationale that all Israeli adults served in the Israeli army, which maintains the occupation of Palestinian land.

With the Gaza offensive, however, the Israelis are the ones grappling with the distinction between combatants and civilians, and all the ramifications that come with that. When an Israeli military spokesperson says that “anything affiliated with Hamas is a legitimate target,” there is not much difference from the rationale that any Israeli adult is fair game for attack based on their “affiliation” with the Israeli army.

The commonly accepted definition of terrorism – to employ the use of violence against non-combatants to effect political change – certainly applies in either case, with the primary distinction now being the overwhelming disparity of casualties between them. Accepting the UN’s estimate that 25% of the current 560 Palestinians killed are civilians, the 140 civlian deaths so far exceed the Israeli civilian deaths by Qassam rocket fire of 5 by a factor of 28. All things being equal – well, actually, they’re not equal at all.

Israel knows that, with the window of opportunity offered by the impending transition in the American presidency, there is little pressure that will be brought to bear. It was once thought that Israel would use this time to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran. But with the current offensive in some form having been planned for six months, we now know different.

The media also has a part to play in how these perceptions resonate in the public eye. In the first polls gauging the opinions of Americans on the Gaza crisis, a majority of Democrats (the ones who just elected our next President) oppose the Israeli offensive by a 24 point margin (Republicans veer the other direction). And yet Congress is almost universally in support of the Israeli viewpoint on the war, namely that it is in self defense and that all attempts are made to limit civilian casualties.

Hardly an official word is made about the humanitarian plight of the Gazan people, echoing an Israeli line that “there is no humanitarian crisis” (Israel will not allow foreign reporters into Gaza to verify the claim). Supplemental to this, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald outlines the tribalism bolstering the Israeli view in a way we never could.

The lock on political power – power that could help restrain Israeli attacks and the ongoing blockade in Gaza – is cut somewhat in the back alleys of Washington, with promises of political support, and in the mainstream American media itself. But with such a wide disparity of opinion between Americans and their leaders, some credit has to be given to Americans using the media in ways that give them a more objective view of events in the region, either from foreign websites or the increasing array of satellite and Internet news broadcasts from the Arab world and beyond.

As the viewpoints of Americans and others solidifies, there is a real chance that pressure could increase on politicians to be more even-handed as supporters of Israel find it harder to place their views within the mainstream of American opinion. That will rely on increasing the efficacy and reach of alternative media, coupled with grassroots and netroots activism to connect those viewpoints to politicians themselves. We saw a taste of this in the Obama election – will it translate into real political change? We’ll see after January 20th.

Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of He is based in London, England.

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