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Why It Is Important to Humanize “Terrorists”

If we want to prevent another 75 years of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, we must begin to see our shared humanity — even the humanity of so-called terrorists. We neither honor the dead nor prevent future atrocities by branding Hamas and its supporters as “human animals” or even “terrorists.” Our words and beliefs hold tremendous power that can perpetuate conflict, or clear a path toward peace.

Palestinian demonstrators fighting for their country. © Youssef War /

February 17, 2024 03:38 EDT

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

— Michelangelo

In a world with so much hate and brutality, it can be hard to see the good in people—especially in those who commit horrible acts of violence. Yet behavioral science tells us we also live in a world shaped in part by our actions and expectations. We reap what we sow. 

This can work for us, or against us. Take the Golem effect, for example, named after the mythical creature whose actions often led to unintended consequences. This well-researched psychological phenomenon shows that low expectations of someone lead to a measurable decrease in their performance. But fortunately, the inverse is also true: higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. 

This latter phenomenon, known as the Pygmalion effect, is named after a Greek myth about a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he carved. Pygmalion, through his love and affection for the statue, inspires the goddess Aphrodite to bring it to life. The story highlights the role of positive perception in realizing potential. If we too are sculptors with this power to positively influence people and the world simply by elevating our expectations, what ideal statue of humanity would we carve? What world do we want to live in? 

I believe there’s good reason to choose a world where we see our shared humanity, even the humanity of so-called terrorists. Why? Because it’s essential to ending conflict.

The dangers of dehumanization in conflict

From the Holocaust to Rwanda to Cambodia, dehumanization has been an unmistakable precursor to genocide and ethnic cleansing. In every case, we find examples of perpetrators weaponizing language to rob victims of any positive human qualities. Whether overt or subtle, the impact is the same: Dehumanization fuels conflict like oxygen feeds fire. 

When word came of Hamas’ attack in Israel on October 7, 2023, I was horrified — especially by the killing of so many innocent people at the Kibbutz and Nova Music Festival, where friends of my friends lost their lives. In the face of unspeakable violence, we often find ourselves looking for an explanation that will ease our pain. Israelis and many Jews around the world were asking: “How could they do this to us?” 

The Israeli government supplied a quick but deeply-flawed answer: they are “bloodthirsty monsters” and “human animals.”

Western media has tended to reinforce a narrative that humanizes Israelis while dehumanizing, othering and delegitimizing Palestinians. Israel has soldiers; Hamas has gunmen. Israel arrests people and holds prisoners; Hamas kidnaps and holds hostages. Israeli families are burned alive while embracing each other; Palestinian families are nameless numbers killed in airstrikes. This framing sanitizes the killing done by Israel while sensationalizing the killing done by Hamas, priming people to accept the massively disproportionate civilian casualties we’ve seen in Gaza over the past four months.

Dehumanizing rhetoric isn’t new in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it’s as dangerous as ever. The stories and narratives told about October 7 have fueled the continued collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza. Now, with a death toll that has topped 28,800 people, including at least 10,000 children, South Africa has filed charges of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The court has already ruled in favor of emergency measures calling on Israel to “protect and punish” incitement to commit genocide. Israel maintains that it’s acting in self-defense against armed terrorists. 

This brings us to two important questions: who gets to decide if someone is a terrorist, and what might their motivations be for using this label?

Following US President George W. Bush’s exploitation of the 9/11 attacks to launch a global “War on Terror,” some degree of skepticism is warranted. By all accounts, this senseless war was an unmitigated disaster — taking nearly 1 million lives, costing the US $8 trillion, leading to a crackdown on civil liberties and feeding Islamophobia in the US and Europe. We are still dealing with the fallout more than 20 years later.

The term “terrorist” is certainly less dehumanizing than “animal,” but it’s frequently used with the same intention: as a rhetorical weapon to delegitimize an important actor. Labels like “terrorist” or “extremists” make groups appear irrational, precluding the kind of nuanced understanding that’s necessary to solve conflicts.

The dominant theories in the field of international relations hold that the geopolitical world is composed of rational actors. Individual leaders may do irrational things, but states and governing bodies tend to act in rational self-interest, at least according to their understanding of the geopolitical framework in which they’re operating.

These rational actors often have a perceived incentive to make other rational actors appear irrational or extreme. They do this precisely because it dehumanizes, creating us vs. them dynamics that can stoke nationalism or bolster political support, say for a war. We just want to live in peace; they want to kill all Jews. We’re acting in self-defense; they’re terrorists. We follow the rules of war; they behead babies and use human shields. Narratives, like expectations, shape our perception of reality. Language can either escalate conflict or open a pathway to understanding. We reap what we sow.

Israel, the US and several other nations label Hamas a terrorist organization. And if Hamas committed war crimes during its October 7 attacks, they should indeed be prosecuted under international law. Still, if we want to suck the oxygen out of this conflict, we should treat Hamas as a rational actor. While elections haven’t been held since 2006, Hamas won a massive mandate in those elections that we should not invalidate. Labeling Hamas a “terrorist organization” obscures the context in which it governs and works to achieve its political objectives while delegitimizing them as an actor in a situation in which they have a fair amount of legitimacy, at least in the eyes of many Palestinians who elected them. Further, implying that some 50,00070,000 public sector employees in Gaza are all terrorists is not only inaccurate but dehumanizing.

Even if you disagree with their political objectives, a more nuanced understanding of Hamas and why Gazans largely support their military efforts can only help. 

But first, let’s explore why understanding is so important.

Understanding invites change

We’ve seen cycles of fear and hate fuel the Israeli–Palestinian conflict generation after generation. It’s human nature to fear the things we don’t understand. So the best antidote to fear is understanding, or “knowledge,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote

Critically, understanding doesn’t mean condoning. We can object to someone’s actions even as we work to understand their motivations.

Better understanding is strategic in ending conflict for two reasons. 

First, it fosters empathy and humanizes others in ways that make it difficult to sway public opinion in support of war or genocide while helping surface the drivers of conflict. By dismissing violent actions or resistance movements as “terrorism” rather than understanding them as expressions of deeper needs — like a cry for freedom or justice — we miss the underlying causes that must be addressed for peace to prevail.

Second, when we don’t understand others, we are more likely to reject and isolate them in ways that paradoxically encourage the very behaviors we wish they’d change. An axiom commonly attributed to the psychologist Carl Jung explains this neatly — “what you resist persists.” But it also relates to the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy and the aforementioned Golem effect.

Still, cultivating understanding and positive expectations is sometimes easier said than done. How can we see humanity or potential for goodness in people who do things we find so despicable? The French philosopher Jacques Derrida believed that forgiveness is such a powerful thing that it should be reserved only for unforgivable crimes. Forgivable things don’t need forgiveness, right? It’s the same with empathy. Why should we only extend empathy to the people with whom it’s easy to empathize? 

What is Hamas?

Hamas, beyond the Western media portrayal, is fundamentally a political organization. Founded in 1987 during the First Intifada and originally part of the Muslim Brotherhood, its charter advocated for an Islamic state in historic Palestine and resistance against Israel’s occupation. 

In 2006, the Palestinian Authority held elections in the Occupied Territories, including the West Bank and Gaza, supported by the US and 900 credentialed international monitors. Surprising the US and Israel, Hamas won the election in a landslide, securing a majority of legislative seats. This reflected the organization’s dual role as both a resistance group and a provider of essential services like education and healthcare in Gaza. They were also seen at the time to be less corrupt than the opposing Fatah party.

As soon as Hamas won, Israel, with support from the US, employed a strategy of isolation by cutting off tax payments to the new government, making it difficult for Hamas to govern effectively. At the same time, Fatah, backed by Israel and the US, planned a coup to overthrow  Hamas, which Hamas thwarted, leading them to remove Fatah from Gaza.

Israel has since enforced a military embargo on Gaza, controlling everything that comes in and out of the country via land or sea, with frequent bombing campaigns and incursions that have killed thousands of civilians over the years. Gaza has been referred to by international observers as the world’s largest open-air prison. Only, in a normal prison, the jailers are responsible for the health and well-being of the prisoners, whereas, in Gaza, the Israeli government has thrown away the key and denies responsibility. I have students there who, despite being accepted to university in Europe, have been denied travel permits by Israel. They can’t go anywhere. 

In 2017, a new charter clarified some important things about Hamas’s objectives.  It’s wise to take all government communications with a grain of salt. Often, there’s a gap between what they say and do. How many campaign promises actually become policy once a president or prime minister takes office? Still, considering Israel’s attempts to delegitimize Hamas and brand them “the new Nazis,” it’s worth examining Hamas’ views and goals in its own words:

  1. Hamas claims that it doesn’t want to kill Jews for being Jewish: “Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine.” This is important because the Israeli government often conflates anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Hamas’ charter attempts to separate the two. Rabbi Elhanan Beck eloquently affirms that the conflict is not fundamentally about religion but about occupation.
  2. Hamas wants to recover the land from which they were violently ejected in 1948: “There is no alternative to a fully sovereign Palestinian State on the entire national Palestinian soil, with Jerusalem as its capital.” This is Hamas positioning itself in favor of a one-state solution.
  3. But they claim to want a pluralistic Palestine in which Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths and races can live together: “Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. It provides an umbrella for the followers of other creeds and religions who can practice their beliefs in security and safety … Hamas believes that the message of Islam upholds the values of truth, justice, freedom and dignity and prohibits all forms of injustice and incriminates oppressors irrespective of their religion, race, gender or nationality. Islam is against all forms of religious, ethnic or sectarian extremism and bigotry.”
  4. And they claim to be open to a two-state solution: “Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.” This appears to be a possible concession, likely designed to open the door to negotiations with Israel. But in a document that otherwise clearly advocates for a one-state solution, it should be read circumspectly.

That is what Hamas wants, according to their own words. But not all Palestinians are members of the party. We must ask the broader question in order to understand people who are so often dehumanized: what do Palestinians want, and why do they support Hamas?

Why do Palestinians support Hamas?

A major reason Palestinians support Hamas is because, in the face of occupation and indignity, Hamas is committed to fighting back. A recent poll found that 76% of Palestinians supported Hamas’ military operation on October 7.

Despite Israel’s claims that Hamas is to blame for the more than 28,000 civilians the Israeli military has killed over the past four months, Palestinians know who is actually dropping bombs on them. A majority of Gazans were born into occupation, with roughly half the population being under the age of 18. They know who controls their borders — humiliating, abducting, torturing and killing them without justification. Is it really that hard to imagine why someone living in these conditions would support violent resistance? We reap what we sow.

Like all governments with a responsibility to protect their people, Hamas invests a percentage of its budget — an estimated 20% — in its military. The use of funds to support armed resistance in Palestine appears to be broadly supported. One poll from December 2022 showed 72% of Palestinians support forming more armed groups in the West Bank, where continued Israeli settler colonialism and violence against Palestinians have gone unchecked and even been encouraged by elements of the Israeli government for at least the past decade.

Palestinians, in their quest for self-determination and freedom, view organizations like Hamas as resistance against occupation. They don’t support Hamas because it’s a fantastic government or because they hate Jews. Rather, they want to be free from who they see as their oppressor and occupier: the state of Israel. 

For the past four years, I’ve volunteered as a writing mentor with a nonprofit that helps Palestinian students share their stories with the world. For this article, I asked three of my students, all young Gazan women, to share their thoughts on Hamas. The most important thing you’ll see is that none of them support Hamas as a government, but all support its fight against Israel: 

  • I don’t believe that the Palestinian case is a religious one. Hamas’s ideology is based on this. However, I do support the fighting back method they do. I believe, if we Palestinians will ever get our homes again, we will have to fight back. If we ever want our simple rights, they won’t come by peace. We have too little power.”
  • “Most people living in Gaza don’t support the Hamas government and they want it to stop as soon as possible. But at the same time, people do support the military wing of it as it is the prominent military resistance group against Israeli occupation.”
  • “We don’t support the government. Hamas leaders don’t care — they’re in Qatar. But the people who are getting killed, whose houses are being bombed, are fighting for their freedom. We fully support them. We support armed resistance. In the West Bank, they don’t have any protection. But at least in Gaza, we’re armed. With or without Hamas, we need to fight the occupation.”

Indeed, support for armed resistance is significant, with 63% of Palestinians thinking it’s the “best way to end occupation and establish an independent state.”  

Another reason many Palestinians support Hamas—and other groups who choose violent resistance against Israel — is the fact that other strategies, such as nonviolence, haven’t worked. There is a significant nonviolent movement in the West Bank with regular demonstrations against illegal Israeli settlements where demonstrators are frequently shot, killed and arrested by Israeli soldiers. In 2018, during Gaza’s nonviolent March of Return, a UN commission reported that Israeli snipers shot over 6,000 unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, killing hundreds.

There is also a Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign which seeks to apply international economic pressure to force Israel to end the occupation. So far, these nonviolent methods have failed to end the occupation.

Even in South Africa, where international boycotts helped bring down Apartheid, many argue the largely peaceful transition to majority rule wouldn’t have happened without a history of armed resistance by the African National Congress (ANC) and the threat of more violence. (Interestingly, both the ANC and its military arm were at the time considered “terrorist organizations” by the governments of South Africa and the United States). Nelson Mandela himself spent 27 years in prison in part for refusing to renounce violence as a legitimate tool in the fight to end Apartheid. 

A common pro-Israel talking point is that there is no Palestinian partner for peace and they can’t be expected to negotiate with Hamas. I believe the only way to end the status quo involves talking with Hamas. But if Israel wants an alternative, there’s a leader who has been referred to as the Palestinian Nelson Mandela: Marwan Barghouti. Unfortunately, he’s been sitting in an Israeli military prison for over 20 years for murder, having refused even to present a defense to the charges, calling them illegal.

In addition to Hamas, Fatah, the nonviolent movement, and the BDS campaign, there are a multitude of political parties, organizations and campaigns fighting for freedom, equality and statehood for Palestinians. They employ a variety of strategies and there are different pictures of what success looks like. But it’s important to humanize all people who are fighting for their freedom, even and especially if we disagree with them. As we’ve seen with Israel’s strategy vis-à-vis Hamas, discrediting, dehumanizing and isolating are ineffective in reducing or ending violence. This is why Israel’s current genocidal attempt to eradicate Hamas will not only fail, but is actively feeding the fire for another 75 years of conflict.

The power of believing in shared humanity

What underlies the idea of humanizing “terrorists” is fundamentally a question of belief: Do we believe in humanity? Given the world that we live in — a world full of violence, suffering, hate, and hunger — “yes” isn’t an easy answer to arrive at. How can we see all the horrific things humans are capable of and still believe in our own humanity or a fundamental capacity for goodness?

For me the answer is simply that we must.

Our expectations of humanity ultimately play a significant role in shaping who we are, and therefore the world we live in. Our beliefs, whether true or false, affect outcomes and behavior in a way that makes those beliefs true. We reap what we sow.

Inspired by Pygmalion, what statue of humanity could we sculpt that would allow us to love who we are? How can we liberate the better angels of our nature, just as Michelangelo freed the angel from his marble? 

While we can’t choose what world we’re born into, we can choose the world we want to create. We can live in a world where our enemies are evil monster terrorists. Or we can live in a world where we are all human, each of us with fears and desires that, if we try, can be understood and addressed.

One path leads to violence. The other to peace. The choice is ours.

[Fair Observer’s interns, working as a team, edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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