BBC publishes list of “key terms” used in Israel-Palestinian conflict

The BBC Governors’ independent panel report on the impartiality of BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recommended that the BBC should make public an abbreviated version of its journalists’ guide to facts and terminology. The following list of terms used in the conflict, their definitions, and notes for their correct usage, reveals a news organization trying to find a balance between accurate reporting and leaning towards the semantics of the Israeli side in the conflict.


The BBC’s responsibility is to remain impartial and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments.

Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements.

If an event falls within the dictionary definition of assassination, then we can use the term but the word “killed” or “killing” may be perfectly adequate.

Plain simple language is preferable to more complex or emotive language. If we have more precise details of exactly why or how the killing took place, we should communicate that in an equally straightforward way. The phrase “targeted killing” is sometimes used by Israel and should be attributed.

BBC journalists should try to avoid using terminology favoured by one side or another in any dispute.

The BBC uses the terms “barrier”, “separation barrier” or “West Bank barrier” as acceptable generic descriptions to avoid the political connotations of “security fence” (preferred by the Israeli government) or “apartheid wall” (preferred by the Palestinians).

The United Nations also uses the term “barrier”.

Of course, a reporter standing in front of a concrete section of the barrier might choose to say “this wall” or use a more exact description in the light of what he or she is looking at.

Be careful with this word. Do you mean boundary? See Green Line.

It is better to avoid clich�s wherever possible. This one does nothing to explain any of the underlying causes of the conflict and may indeed obscure them.

Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed it in 1981 but its claim to the area is not recognised internationally. Instead, under international law, East Jerusalem is considered to be occupied territory.

For example, the Foreign Office says it “regards the status of Jerusalem as still to be determined in permanent status negotiations between the parties. Pending agreement, we recognise de facto Israeli control of West Jerusalem but consider East Jerusalem to be occupied territory. We recognise no sovereignty over the city”.

We should seek out words that factually describe the reality on the ground and which are not politically loaded.

Avoid saying East Jerusalem “is part” of Israel or suggesting anything like it. Avoid the phrase “Arab East Jerusalem”, too, unless you also have space to explain that Israel has annexed the area and claims it as part of its capital. East Jerusalem is sometimes referred as Arab East Jerusalem, partly because it was under Jordanian control between 1949 and 1967.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state of Palestine.

The BBC should say East Jerusalem is “occupied” if it is relevant to the context of the story.

For example: “Israel has occupied East Jerusalem since 1967. It annexed the area in 1981 and sees it as its exclusive domain. Under international law the area is considered to be occupied territory.”

See Barrier.

In 2005, Israel completed the withdrawal of all its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. It retains control of the airspace, seafront and all vehicle access - including deliveries of food and other goods.

All movement in and out of the Gaza Strip is controlled by Israeli authorities, except, officially, the pedestrian-only crossing between Gaza and Egypt which is meant to be controlled by Palestinians and Egyptians with the presence of EU monitors.

The situation is, however, fluid - Israel has been able to force its closure since the capture of Corporal Shalit in 2006.

Under international law, Israel is still the occupying power in Gaza, although it no longer has a permanent military presence there.

We need to be careful with our language so as not to give the impression that the BBC is favouring one side’s position. In BBC programmes it is more accurate to talk about an “end to Israel’s permanent military presence” rather than the end of occupation.

The Green Line marks the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. It is properly referred to as the 1949 Armistice Line - the ceasefire line of 1949.

The exact borders of Israel and a future Palestinian state are subject to negotiation between the two parties. The Palestinians want a complete end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and use the phrase to mean a return to the pre-4th June 1967 borders.

In describing the situation on the ground take care to use the most precise and accurate terminology.

The Green Line is a dividing line or a boundary. If you call it a border you may inadvertently imply that it has internationally recognised status, which it does not currently have.

To that end, we can call the Green Line “the generally recognised boundary between Israel and the West Bank.”

The usual guidelines about paying due regard to the context in which words are used should be carefully considered if we are referring to the causes of the uprising.

Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements. So, for example, it is preferable to say that “Sharon’s visit and Palestinian frustration at the failure of the peace process sparked the (second) intifada or uprising” rather than it “led” to it or “started” it.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive and complex issues of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its status is dependent on a final agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Between 1949 and 1967, the city was divided into Israeli controlled West Jerusalem, and Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem. Israel currently claims sovereignty over the entire city, and claims it as its capital, after capturing East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war.

That claim is not recognised internationally and East Jerusalem is considered to be occupied territory.

See East Jerusalem.

Be careful over whether you mean “Israeli” or “Jewish”: the latter might imply that the story is about race or religion, rather than the actions of the state or its citizens.

Some “experts” may have a history of sympathising with one cause or another even if they have no overt affiliation.

It is preferable, where time and space allow, to provide a lengthier indication of the contributor’s views on past issues so that the audience might calibrate his or her statements for themselves.

In all reporting we should avoid generalisations, bland descriptions and loose phrases which in fact tell us little about a contributor or event. The phrase “Middle East expert” implies the BBC thinks this person’s views have weight and independence. If we can defend that judgement - that’s fine. If not it may be better to avoid the phrase.

Overall, we should seek a precise description - for example, what job does this person hold? Who employs them? Where do they stand in the debate?

The general phrase “occupied territories” refers to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and strictly speaking the Golan Heights. However, it is not usually understood to refer to the Golan Heights (unless it is in a story specifically on the 1967 war or Syrian-Israeli relations).

It is advisable to avoid trying to find another formula, although the phrase “occupied West Bank” can also be used.

Under international law, Israel is still the occupying power in Gaza, although it no longer has a permanent military presence there. See that section for our use of language.

Try not to confuse the phrase “occupied territories” with Palestinian Land or Palestinian Territories. (See those sections for the reasons why.)

The Israeli government’s preferred phrase to describe the West Bank and Gaza Strip is “disputed territories” and it is reasonable to use this when it is clear that we are referring to or explaining its position.

Be careful that you don’t mean settlements. They are very different. Outposts are usually little more than a few caravans occupying a hilltop.

They serve a dual purpose - firstly to create new facts on the ground and expand the land included in the adjoining settlement; secondly, to defy the Israeli government and show the strength of the settler movement.

Some of these outposts are called “unauthorised outposts” by the Israeli government - generally meaning no permission was granted for them. You can describe an outpost as unauthorised by the Israeli government if that is accurate and relevant to the specific case you are considering.

It is generally advisable not to refer to “illegal” outposts (they are all illegal and if you call one illegal some may assume that others are not).

Generally it’s a good rule to question the use of any adjective. Use it only if it is vital to the understanding of the story and you are confident that it precisely applies in this context.

There is no independent state of Palestine today, although the stated goal of the peace process is to establish a state of Palestine alongside a state of Israel.

So be careful with the use of the word “Palestine” as its meaning can depend on the context.

For example, it can refer to historical Palestine or it can refer to a future state of Palestine living side by side with Israel as envisaged in the Roadmap.

This phrase has become more widely used by politicians and broadcasters to refer to the Occupied Territories, for example to explain why the construction of settlements is considered illegal by the UN.

Critics of the phrase say it is not strictly accurate because, for example, the West Bank was captured from Jordan in 1967.

The BBC Governors considered this issue in a complaint which was referred to in the programme complaints bulletin of July 2004. Their decision was that, although the complainant objected to references to “Palestinian land” and “Arab land”, these terms “appropriately reflected the language of UN resolutions.”

Strictly speaking, the phrase Palestinian Territories refers to the areas that fall under the administration of the Palestinian Authority.

They are difficult to work out, because of the way the West Bank was divided into complex security zones under the Oslo Accords and because of changes on the ground since the outbreak of violence in September 2000.

The phrase is not the most accurate shorthand for the Occupied Territories although President Bush referred to “Palestinian territories” in his 2005 State of the Union address.

This phrase, in the wrong context, can suggest the two sides are returning to the negotiation process of the 1990s, when they would sit down and try to hammer out an agreement.

An attempt to rebuild trust and relations is not quite the same as proper negotiations.

So it is better to avoid the term entirely unless it is in an historical sense - referring to the discussions of the 1990s, or to a revival of talks at that level.

It is better to avoid cliches wherever possible. People may die each day, in small numbers, in “periods of relative calm” so that the cumulative death toll is actually larger than the casualties involved in a single high profile news event such as a bomb attack.
There may be times when the phrase is accurate. So use it carefully when the facts tell us that there really is such a period of quiet.

We should try to specify who would like to return and to where.

There is a Palestinian demand that Palestinians “who fled or were forced out of their homes” during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars have the right to return to their homes.

There is a dispute between the two sides over why they are refugees, so the previous phrase is a useful one that reflects the two different views.

Israel has Right of Return legislation, which allows Jews to settle in Israel and receive Israeli citizenship.

Settlements are residential areas built by Israelis in the occupied territories. They are illegal under international law: this is the position of the UN Security Council and the UK government among others - although Israel rejects this.

When writing a story about settlements we can aim, where relevant, to include context to the effect that “all settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this”.

It is best, wherever possible, to be precise about geography when putting a figure to the number of Israeli settlers.

Because of disputes and sensitivities about the status of East Jerusalem, the following construction is useful: “There are thought to be around 430,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and another 20,000 in the Golan Heights.”

Note the BBC producer guidelines which state: “We must report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly. We should not adopt other people’s language as our own. Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements. The word “terrorist” itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should try to avoid the term, without attribution. It is also usually inappropriate to use words like “liberate”, “court martial” or “execute” in the absence of a clear judicial process. We should let other people characterise while we report the facts as we know them. We should convey to our audience the full consequences of the act by describing what happened. We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as “bomber”, “attacker”, “gunmen”, “kidnapper”, “insurgent” or “militant.”

Our responsibility is to remain impartial and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.

See Barrier.