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In plain English, what’s the difference between a militant and a terrorist?

By Peter Van Onselen and Wayne Errington - posted Monday, 29 March 2004

Just when it is needed most, plain language and common sense are being lost on all sides of the debate on terrorism. This confusion was on display after the Israeli government assassinated Hamas leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Journalists have long opted out of calling Hamas a terrorist group, preferring the less pejorative "militant group". This is, in part, because the United Nations has not proscribed Hamas as a terrorist organisation. But we need not rely on the Byzantine operations of the UN to know the meaning of words.

The ABC, SBS and the commercial networks, all seek euphemisms like "militant" in order to be seen as even-handed. News agency Reuters banned the label "terrorist" in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. We also hear regularly from ABC journalists about the “so-called war on terror.” Perhaps they mean the war on militancy or the so-called war on alleged militancy?


This mealy-mouthed approach to language gives militants of all types a bad name. We militant guardians of plain language would be reluctant to use Hamas’s tactics against the ABC. And we doubt that the ABC would label us as militants if we did.

Hamas targets Israeli civilians in an attempt to force them to change their political views. That is terrorism and Hamas is a terrorist organisation. The question of why many Palestinians are so desperate that they feel compelled to take such extreme action is another matter entirely.

One reason for the widespread refusal to label Hamas as a terrorist group is that they have a welfare arm that provides schools and medical care in the occupied territories. Leaving aside the propaganda and hatred that Palestinian children would imbibe in those schools, its welfare functions do not make Hamas any less of a terrorist entity.

The leader of a terrorist organisation is surely a legitimate military target. The fact that Sheik Yassin was a spiritual leader and wheelchair bound, made his orders no less lethal to Israeli citizens.

Assassination may not be tactically smart, as is probably the case with the Sheik, but the moral angst over the loss of a single life is somewhat misplaced, in the instance of such an eager participant in the Middle East bloodbath.

The consensus among political leaders, that political leaders should not be attacked, is neither here nor there, as many world leaders double as military commanders-in-chief. If they don’t want to be targets they should be careful where they point their guns.


In squibbing the use of the label of terrorism, Reuters ran the line that “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” Nonsense. This conceptual confusion over the ends and means of political action is common enough, even in our universities. Freedom is a political goal. Terrorism is a means of achieving a political goal. Hamas is thus both freedom-fighter and a terrorist group. Ghandi drew the distinction between ends and means and so should we.

By this definition, then, is Israel a terrorist state? That would depend on the intent of the Israeli government in its incursions into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

At the very least, Israel acts with reckless indifference to civilian casualties when it takes action against terrorist groups in the occupied territories (the Israeli government prefers “disputed territories”). But, unlike Hamas, Israel claims not to be targeting civilians. If the intent of the incursions is to pressure civilians into not supporting Hamas, then they are indeed acts of terror.

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About the Authors

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

Dr Wayne Errington lectures in politics at the Australian National University. His book, co authored with Peter Van Onselen, John Winston Howard: The Biography (Melbourne University Press), is due for release later this year.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Peter Van Onselen
All articles by Wayne Errington
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