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The Unbelievably Helpful Gaza Glossary

An apartment building in Israel after being hit by a missile from Gaza. Photo via Flickr user The Israel Project.

As you may have heard, things are pretty tense between Israel and Gaza.

Israel and Hamas - which controls Gaza - appear to be on the brink of war, and have been exchanging fairly intense missile fire over the past few days, even as leaders are meeting to discuss a ceasefire.

News reports are full of references to things you may not be familiar with, so we thought you could use a cheat sheet.

Compiling a master glossary isn't easy to do because it's a complex situation and some of the facts are in dispute. But we did our best. (Please post a comment below if you have a suggestion!)

Here you go.

Gaza Strip

It’s a slice of land – roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C. – bordering the Mediterranean Sea and lying between Egypt and Israel. There are about 1.7 million residents, and the median age is 18. They are overwhelmingly Muslim and identify as Palestinian refugees. The main city is Gaza, also called Gaza City.

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No country called Palestine officially exists right now. The region that includes both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is generally known as the Palestinian Territories. It's had a complicated history since it was established following the Six-Day War in 1967. The Palestinians are Arab, non-Jewish people - mostly Muslims - whose identity is linked with ancient and traditional Palestine.


An extremist Sunni Muslim group and the ruling party in Gaza. Hamas does not want Israel to exist. Its name stands for "Islamic Resistance Movement." Hamas has been designated as a terrorist group by the U.S., mostly due to its use of suicide bombers against Israel. Yet Hamas also provides a bevy of services to its people, like health care clinics and soup kitchens.

Al-Qassam (Al-Qassam Brigades)

The military wing of Hamas. They've been documenting their attacks on Israel via Twitter:

The present conflict was ignited when one of the leaders of al-Qassam, Ahmed Jabari, was killed on Nov. 14 by the Israel Defense Forces (see below). Why did Israel take out Jabari? Well, since the beginning of 2012, Palestinians have launched more than 1500 rockets against Israel from the Gaza Strip.

The West Bank

The landlocked area between Israel and Jordan, roughly the size of Delaware. Its population is similar to Gaza's – predominantly Muslim, and the median age of the 2.6 million residents is 21.7 years of age. Still, Israel has a presence there too.

The Palestinian Authority

The governing body of the West Bank.


If Hamas is the main Palestinian political party, Fatah is the other. Hamas controls Gaza, and Fatah controls the West Bank.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)

Formerly officially considered a terrorist organization, the PLO is a political organization recognized by the United Nations as the representative of the Palestinian people. The leader of the PLO is Mahmoud Abbas.

Tel Aviv

The capital of Israel, according to the international community. (Israel claims Jerusalem to be the capital.) Tel Aviv is fully modernized, home to a bustling nightlife and the second-biggest economy in the region (behind Dubai). Almost entirely Jewish.


The only Jewish state in the world, a democracy formed by the United Nations following World War II. Roughly the size of New Jersey, it sits between Egypt and Lebanon – bordering Syria, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank.

Israel Defense Forces

The IDF is the military wing of … you guessed it, Israel. All civilians over the age of 18 – at the moment, over three million – are required to serve in Israel's military, with few exceptions. In addition to military operations, they've also taken the battle to the blogosphere and Twitter:

Pillar of Cloud

The name of the current Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip. Also known as Pillar of Defense.

Iron Dome

An anti-missile defense system used by Israel to fend off Hamas attacks. It detects any threat within a 70-kilometer radius and destroys it with a warhead. A senior Israeli military official claims it has a 90 percent success rate.

See how it works >>


To religious Muslims, jihad is an inner spiritual struggle. But has also come to mean “holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims” or “any vigorous, emotional crusade for an idea or principle.” You will sometimes see references in news reports to jihadists or mujaheddin, people who take up jihad. There is a group called Palestinian Islamic Jihad that is generally allied with Hamas.


Islamism is basically the belief that Islam is both religious and political. Israel (and the U.S.) believe Hamas is guided by this concept. You'll see news reports referring to Islamists.

Benjamin Netanyahu

The Prime Minister of Israel, currently in his second non-consecutive term (1996-1999, 2009-present) in this position. His nickname is Bibi. His political party, Likud, is generally conservative, and members of the party either oppose the creation of a Palestinian state or support it under limited conditions.


President Mohamed Mursi is hosting a meeting between Israeli and Hamas leaders to come to terms on a ceasefire, with officials claiming “encouraging signals” from the talks. He's walking a bit of a tightrope, though, says The Guardian:

Morsi's solidarity is not in question. But he has to consider Egypt's overall strategic and economic interests and is unlikely to want to jeopardise his country's 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel — and the US aid that goes with it.


The government condemned the Israeli attack that killed al-Jabari as “organized terrorism,” but is also denying that it has provided Hamas with weapons.


Syria has undergone quite a bit of violence and upheaval over the past year itself. But it apparently also stands with the Palestinians. No surprise there.

The United States

The U.S. is a strong ally of Israel's, though officially it does not support an Israeli ground war in Gaza, believing it would hurt the nation’s standing in the region and give Hamas more public support. Still, President Obama has come out in support of Israel:

We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians, and we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.

Here are the Obamas and the Netanyahus in 2009, in a White House photo by Lawrence Jackson (via Wikimedia Commons):

Benjamin Netanyahu with Obamas

The Kicker

Here are ways you can take action, starting right now!


Like UNICEF on Facebook >>

Sign a petition to support a ceasefire >>


Support Soccer for Peace >>


Join the OneVoice grassroots movement >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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The Unbelievably Helpful Gaza Glossary

Ryan Papaserge

Ryan is a copy editor at The Post-Journal in Jamestown, N.Y. Follow: @RyanPapaserge.

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One Response

  1. […] “Monday, the top leader of Hamas dared Israel to launch a ground invasion of Gaza and dismissed diplomatic efforts to broker a cease-fire in the six-day-old conflict, as the Israeli military conducted a new wave of deadly airstrikes which included a second hit on a 15-story building that houses media outlets.”  This photo essay shows 34 powerful images that are emerging from this deadly conflict.  If students need some background to understand who are the major players in this conflict, this glossary should be helpful.  […]