Israel/Palestine lexicon for mainstream media

If you are writing for mainstream media, you need to learn special uses of words and phrases that are specific to Israel/Palestine. If you use common usage, you will run into confusions, paradoxes, and hostile responses from pro-Israel people. Please follow these guidelines and you will have no problems with editors, politicians, or organized pro-Israel groups. For each phrase, this guide will present first (a) the common usage, and then (b) the specific Israel/Palestine usage that you must use in order to write for major US (and UK and Canadian of course) media (NYT, Toronto Star, BBC, CBC, etc.)


a. Traditional usage: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

b. Israel/Palestine usage: If you are a politician or journalist, being insufficiently pro-Israel means you are biased. In order to avoid accusations of bias, writers can use the ‘both sides’ phrase, and compare irrelevant metrics, like, say, the number of Palestinian children killed to the number of rockets launched from Gaza. The use of the word ‘nuance’, especially when confronted with stark data about hunger, deprivation, or deaths of Palestinians, will also help with accusations of bias.


a. Traditional usage: An area where civilians live. As opposed to, say, an empty, open field, or a military base.

By this definition, since the Palestinians have no state and no army, and therefore have no military bases, and since Gaza is a densely populated urban area full of refugee camps, fenced in on all sides, with its coastal area patrolled by the Israeli navy, all of Gaza would be considered a civilian area. The TUNNELS, by contrast, might not be considered civilian areas, if HAMAS is using them militarily.

b. Israel/Palestine usage: A tiny part of Gaza where HAMAS hides. Bombing this part of Gaza is completely legitimate, because it is necessary to kill HAMAS and to kill its HUMAN SHIELDS.


a. Wikipedia: Hamas is a Palestinian Sunni Islamic organization, with an associated military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere in the Middle East including Qatar.

b. Israel/Palestine usage: The presence of Hamas is sufficient justification for any crime, which is not a crime if Hamas was present. If a Hamas member is at home with his family, that home and the surrounding area is no longer to be considered a CIVILIAN AREA. Instead, the people killed in the process of bombing him would be considered HUMAN SHIELDS. In previous decades, this slot was used by other Palestinian or Lebanese groups such as Hezbollah, Fatah, PLO, etc.


a. Wikipedia: Hatred (or hate) is a deep and emotional extreme dislike. It can be directed against individuals, entities, objects, or ideas. Hatred is often associated with feelings of anger and a disposition towards hostility.

By this definition, the following actions could be considered hate:

i. Watching bombings at a picnic
ii. Chanting “Death to the Arabs”
iii. Praising/advocating the deaths of children
iv. Advocating rape as a policy

b. Israel Palestine usage: Any Palestinian resistance or utterance constitutes hate. Like the intent to TARGET CIVILIANS, Israeli officials are the authority on what the deep motivations of Palestinians and people who oppose Israeli attacks on them. Presenting photos, numbers, or videos that show what Israel is doing is hateful.


a. Wikipedia: a military and political term describing the deliberate placement of non-combatants in or around combat targets to deter the enemy from attacking these targets. It may also refer to the use of persons to literally shield combatants during attacks, by forcing them to march in front of the soldiers.

By this definition, this might be considered the use of human shields.

b. Israel/Palestine usage: People that are killed by Israel in CIVILIAN AREAS are automatically defined as human shields. Obviously, not this.


a. Wikipedia: In criminal law, kidnapping is the taking away or transportation of a person against that person’s will, usually to hold the person in false imprisonment, a confinement without legal authority.

By this definition, the 215 Palestinian minors (33 of whom were under 16 years old) who are in Israeli detention could be considered to have been kidnapped. Or the hundreds of adult administrative detainees, given the flimsy legal pretexts for holding them, could be considered kidnapped. By contrast, soldiers of an occupying army, ie., Israel, who are captured in military operations would be considered prisoners of war, which according to Wikipedia, is “A prisoner of war (POW, PoW, PW, P/W, WP, PsW, enemy prisoner of war (EPW) or “missing-captured”[1]) is a person, whether combatant or non-combatant, who is held in custody by a belligerent power during or immediately after an armed conflict.”

b. Israel/Palestine usage: Israel does not kidnap anyone. If anyone is in Israeli jails, child or adult, charged or not, they must have done something. Also, any Israeli who is captured, including soldiers conducting operations in Palestinian territory, must be written up as kidnapped. Please ensure you humanize them as much as you dehumanize the Palestinians.


There is actually no common usage of this phrase, it is exclusive to Israel/Palestine. It means: whatever Israel and the US are currently doing, including bombing, besieging, or blocking peace proposals at the United Nations. When writing about it, care should be taken to phrase whatever Israel is proposing as extreme generousness. Whether Israel or the Palestinians walk away, care must be taken to present the Palestinians as having rejected a generous offer.


a. From Wikipedia: A siege occurs when an attacker encounters a city or fortress that cannot be easily taken by a coup de main and refuses to surrender… Failing a military outcome, sieges can often be decided by starvation, thirst or disease, which can afflict either the attacker or defender.

By this definition, because its borders are all sealed off and walled and controlled by Israel and Egypt, neither of whom allow people or goods to enter or exit, Gaza would be considered to be under siege.

b. Israel/Palestine usage: Even though Israelis can travel wherever they wish and the borders (to date undefined) of Israel are under Israeli control, even though Israel is a prosperous country with an economy fully integrated with that of the West, Israel must be considered to be under siege by Palestinians. When writing about Israel/Palestine, siege should be understood as a metaphor. Actual, physical siege, of the Palestinians, must of course be ignored.


a. Compound word. Wikipedia combines i. Targeting (warfare), to select objects or installations to be attacked, taken, or destroyed. ii. A civilian under the laws of war (also known as international humanitarian law) is a person who is not a member of his or her country’s armed forces or militias. Civilians are distinct from combatants. They are considered non-combatants and are afforded a degree of legal protection from the effects of war and military occupation.

Under this definition, because Israel has the ability and the high-tech weaponry to do targeting, and because 80% of the 700+ people who have been killed by Israel are civilians, that Israel is targeting civilians. On the other hand, Hamas’s militias have killed 90% uniformed Israeli military.

b. Israel/Palestine usage: The statistics are irrelevant, the death counts are irrelevant, only what matters is intent, and intent is defined by Israeli officials, who say that Hamas targets civilians while Israel does not. Therefore, when Israel uses precision munitions to kill hundreds of children, and 80% of its victims are civilians, this does not mean that Israel targets civilians, which is a HATEFUL thing to do. Israeli officials say that Hamas targets civilians, which means that they do, which means that they are morally inferior to Israel.


a. Looks good on television.

b. Israel/Palestine usage: dead babies.


a. From Wikipedia: War should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities, and therefore is defined as a form of political violence or intervention.

The word war usually implies some sort of reciprocity between the two warring parties. By this standard definition, attacks on civilians, for example by Israel against the Palestinians in Gaza, in which 80% of the casualties are civilians and hundreds of them are children, could not really be considered a war.

b. Israel/Palestine usage: A delicate balance must be struck here. On the one hand, the impression must be given that Israel is a perfectly normal place, safe for people like Bloomberg to fly to. On the other hand, the impression must also be given that Israel is at war, and therefore all of its operations can be justified as difficult, wartime decisions.

* * *

With these guidelines, you should be able to stay out of trouble with pro-Israel advocacy organizations, your editors, and politicians. Your job will be safer and you will be able to write about Israel/Palestine in a way that helps your career. Follow them carefully. Avoid any media that don’t follow these guidelines – they are to be considered BIASED.

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Justin Podur spends time reading the media.

Q/A on Palestine

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

Q: Didn’t Hamas start this fighting by provoking Israel?

A: According to this interpretation of events: 1. Palestinians killed Israeli teens -> 2. Israel responded -> 3. Hamas began rocket fire -> 4. Israel attacked Gaza.

A longer cycle. The first problem with this sequence is that if you go a little further back, you find further provocations and attacks by Israel, further responses by Palestinians, and so on, going back decades. For example, on May 15, 2014, Israeli soldiers murdered two Palestinian teens in Beitunia, for no apparent reason (see: Even if you see the conflict as a ‘cycle of violence’, the primary responsibility lies with the more powerful party, since it is the more powerful party that will determine the course of both war and peace in any ‘cycle’. Israel is by far the more powerful party. The question of ‘who started it’ is really a question about who is responsible. Israel can stop this massacre at any moment.

Ilan Pappe wrote recently that “The only chance for a successful struggle against Zionism in Palestine is the one based on a human and civil rights agenda that does not differentiate between one violation and the other and yet identifies clearly the victim and the victimizers.”

Revenge does not apply to innocents. But the second problem is more important. It is immoral to see the killings of the Israeli teens as a ‘response’ to, or ‘revenge’ for, the killings of the Palestinian teens in May. It is also immoral to see the torture and burning alive of a Palestinian teenager by Israeli settlers as a ‘response’ to the killings of the teens. The only acceptable moral response to crimes like murder is to bring the individuals responsible to justice. Justice, according to the law, does not allow revenge against other people.

An offshore prize? There may be yet another reason for these constant assaults on Gaza: offshore gas deposits that Israel wants to access, but without having to deal with a Palestinian government that could negotiate some benefit for it. Nafeez Ahmad wrote about this in the Guardian on July 9/14 ( He quotes Israeli defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, who in 2007, as Israeli army chief of staff, said:

“A gas transaction with the Palestinian Authority [PA] will, by definition, involve Hamas. Hamas will either benefit from the royalties or it will sabotage the project and launch attacks against Fatah, the gas installations, Israel – or all three… It is clear that without an overall military operation to uproot Hamas control of Gaza, no drilling work can take place without the consent of the radical Islamic movement.”

Substitute the word “Palestinians” for “the radical Islamic movement”, and you have a more honest statement of what these attacks may be about: “drilling without consent”.

The unity government. The real target of Israel’s current attack is more likely the unity government agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which was recognized even by the US. Ilan Pappe ( wrote:

“The present genocidal wave has, like all the previous ones, also a more immediate background. It has been born out of an attempt to foil the Palestinian decision to form a unity government that even the United States could not object to.

“The collapse of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s desperate “peace” initiative legitimized the Palestinian appeal to international organizations to stop the occupation. At the same time, Palestinians gained wide international blessing for the cautious attempt represented by the unity government to strategize once again a coordinated policy among the various Palestinian groups and agendas.”

Q: Wait, what is the unity government?

A: Beginning last July (2013), there was another “peace process” that was initiated by US Secretary of State John Kerry, involving Netanyahu on the Israeli side and Mahmoud Abbas, from Fatah, whose electoral mandate expired in 2009 (a point I’ll return to). The deadline set for an agreement was April 2014. Over the course of this “peace process”, Israel continued to build settlements in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory Israel is militarily occupying.

When the April 2014 deadline arrived, Abbas had no agreement from Israel to show, only new settlements and new preconditions for talks. At that point, Abbas agreed to join Hamas in a unity government and prepare for new elections, which would be the first since 2005/6, when Abbas won the presidential election (2005) and Hamas won the legislative elections (2006).

Even though Israel had offered Abbas nothing, when the unity government proposal arose, Netanyahu said that Abbas could have peace with Israel or with Hamas, but not both – but he had already shown that Israel had no interest in peace, regardless of what Abbas did.

It is worth noting just how favorable the unity government agreement was, to both Abbas and, potentially, to Israel, as Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in the July 17/14 NYT: Hamas transferred formal authority to Ramallah, giving up official control of Gaza. But “Israel immediately sought to undermine the reconciliation agreement by preventing Hamas leaders and residents from obtaining the two most essential benefits of the deal: the payment of salaries to 43,000 civil servants who worked for the Hamas government and continue to administer Gaza under the new one, and the easing of the suffocating border closures imposed by Israel and Egypt that bar most Gazans’ passage to the outside world.” Qatar offered to pay the salaries. The UN offered to deliver the salaries. But the US allowed Israel to block both efforts.

Q: But why did Hamas reject the ceasefire offers?

A: A frequently used negotiating tactic is to make demands that the other side cannot meet. Israel’s ceasefire terms are to temporarily cease the shelling, bombing, and killing until the next time they decide to resume it, while Gaza’s borders remain closed, its water, electricity, and its people’s freedom of movement remain completely under Israeli control. Hamas’s conditions have been published in English on the Electronic Intifada and elsewhere ( Sometimes they are presented as 10 conditions, sometimes as 5 conditions, but they boil down to one: the siege of Gaza must end. The siege has driven the Palestinian economy into tunnels – tunnels that Israel is now invading Gaza to destroy. The siege is killing the society, and each round of Israeli attack further destroys the infrastructure that enables people to survive, infrastructure that cannot be rebuilt – because of the siege. Returning to Nathan Thrall in the NYT: “For many Gazans, and not just Hamas supporters, it’s worth risking more bombardment and now the ground incursion, for a chance to change that unacceptable status quo. A cease-fire that fails to resolve the salary crisis and open Gaza’s border with Egypt will not last. It is unsustainable for Gaza to remain cut off from the world and administered by employees working without pay.”

Q: Civilian deaths have been kept to a minimum by Israeli doctrine, haven’t they?

A: Israel’s doctrine is to inflict punishment on the population in order to get them to turn on their leaders. In Rania Khalek’s words (

“The Dahiya doctrine (which refers to the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut that Israel purposely decimated in its 2006 assault on Lebanon) is Israel’s preferred method of warfare. Under this doctrine, the Israeli army deploys overwhelmingly disproportionate force against civilian infrastructure to restore Israel’s deterrence and turn the local population against its enemy, i.e. Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

“In the lead up to Operation Cast Lead, senior Israeli army General Gadi Eisenkot disclosed Israel’s plans to expand the Dahiya doctrine, telling an Israeli newspaper, “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases.” He added, “This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.”

“Two months later Israel pulverized the Gaza Strip, killing some 1,400 people, including almost 400 children, some of whom were deliberately murdered while raising white flags.”

Q: Even if 80% of deaths have been civilians, 20% have been militants, right?

A: Israel defines militants in an expansive way. Civilian police are defined as militants. Rania Khalek again:

“Using precision guided missiles, the Israeli army claims it is only bombing people and infrastructure “affiliated with Hamas terrorism” — and the international community is buying it.

“What is not being discussed, however, is who and what constitutes a Hamas affiliate.

“Hamas is more than just a militant organization, it is the political party that was democratically elected in 2006 to govern the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Hamas’s control means that almost everyone and everything in Gaza can be considered a Hamas affiliate. This unchallenged loose definition has enabled Israel’s war architects to widen the definition of legitimate targets to include civilians and civilian infrastructure, including mosques, schools, hospitals, banks, electricity lines and residential homes, all of which have been targeted.

“Aside from a weak condemnation issued by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, the international community has largely accepted Israel’s methodology, completely abandoning defenseless Palestinian civilians as they’re being maimed and slaughtered by one of the world’s most powerful armies.”

Q: Such civilian deaths as have occurred have occurred because militants hide among civilians, right?

A: There is nowhere for anyone to hide in Gaza. Gaza is one of the most densely populated 360 sq km strips of land on earth. Israel defines everyone in Gaza as a militant. Israel and Egypt have ensured that no one can leave Gaza. Israel is now shelling and bombing Gaza. Civilians have no place to hide from Israeli bombs and shells. There is nowhere civilians can go to prevent Israel from defining them as militants, and there is nowhere anyone can go in Gaza to be safe from bombs – Israel bombs houses, apartments, UNRWA compounds, hospitals – the story of ‘militants hiding among civilians’ is simply an Israeli excuse for bombing and killing civilians freely.

Q: Surely you cannot expect Israel to stand by while the rockets continue to terrorize them?

A: As a moral and legal question, occupying powers do not have a right to defend themselves, except by leaving. As a practical question, is Israel behaving in a way that will stop rocket attacks? Brian Dominick has answered this question, in response to a blog post by Juan Cole (

“…there are obvious ways to thwart rocket attacks that put Palestinian noncombatants at no or far less risk, all of which Israel ignores in favor of a widespread campaign of death dealing. These alternatives have the downside, from the Israeli hardline viewpoint, of failing to terrorize and traumatize Palestinians. These ways include but are likely not limited to:

“Opening Gaza borders to (inspected) trade so the commercial viability of the Gaza tunnel system is undermined and factions must make their own tunnels just for smuggling weapons. This reduction would likely be dramatic, and it would also bring Israel into compliance with international law that bans the collective punishment of civilians. It would also mean an end to Israel’s murdering of commercial smugglers.

“Help the Hamas government suppress rocket fire from factions not beholden to or remotely respectful of ceasefires between Hamas and Israel—the ones doing most of the rocket attacks between periodic uber-crises. (I don’t personally love the idea of Israel choosing factions, but this would be an indication of Israel actually wanting rocket attacks to end.)

“Israel could actually pursue peace and a solution to the overall crisis that actually respects Palestinian demands. That is, stop giving their enemies reasons to actively fight them, and watch support for the remaining fighters all but evaporate. I can’t guarantee this would work, but it has never been tried.

“Stop targeting Hamas’s civilian, non-operational leadership for assassination, which draws profound resentment from the Palestinian people and consistently, as Juan Cole notes, strengthens Hamas’s hand in both Gaza and the West Bank.

“The… way we know rocket suppression is nowhere on Israeli hawks’ agenda is that each such operation in the past six or more years has resulted in a tremendous spike in the number of rockets fired, often resulting in more rockets than would be launched during relative calm for months at a time. This is a predictable result of air strikes and incursions, which won’t after all restrict the rocket fire nearly as effectively as ceasefires historically have.”

Q: The civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the conflicts in Sudan and Congo and Nigeria have claimed many more lives than this conflict. Isn’t it hypocrisy for people in the world be so upset over a few hundred dead Palestinians in the face of these much larger death tolls?

A: This question is a major logical failure. If a murder of a complete innocent cannot be a moral response to another murder, as above, then a big mass murder in an unrelated conflict cannot excuse a smaller mass murder here. The deaths caused by the Syrian regime in the Syrian civil war, or by the rebels there, or by ISIS in Iraq, or the Iraqi government, cannot be used as an excuse for Israel’s killings in Palestine. In Ilan Pappe’s words (

“I will concede that all over the Middle East there are now horrific cases where dehumanization has reaped unimaginable horrors as it does in Gaza today. But there is one crucial difference between these cases and the Israeli brutality: the former are condemned as barbarous and inhuman worldwide, while those committed by Israel are still publicly licensed and approved by the president of the United States, the leaders of the EU and Israel’s other friends in the world…

“Those who commit atrocities in the Arab world against oppressed minorities and helpless communities, as well as the Israelis who commit these crimes against the Palestinian people, should all be judged by the same moral and ethical standards. They are all war criminals, though in the case of Palestine they have been at work longer than anyone else.

“It does not really matter what the religious identity is of the people who commit the atrocities or in the name of which religion they purport to speak. Whether they call themselves jihadists, Judaists or Zionists, they should be treated in the same way.

“A world that would stop employing double standards in its dealings with Israel is a world that could be far more effective in its response to war crimes elsewhere in the world.”

Q: Palestine was never a country. The Arabs attacked Israel in 1967…

A: The problem with this question is that it misunderstands the parties to the conflict. The questioner has slipped from “Israel and the Palestinians” to “Israel and the Arabs”. “The Arabs” are not a party to this conflict – Arab-speaking countries of the Gulf, North Africa, and the rest of the Middle East are not under Israel’s occupation, nor are they refugees from Israel’s founding in 1948. The Palestinians are. The Palestinians are the victims of the current Israeli operations, not “the Arabs”.

The most succinct summary of how the situation has developed, and the relative power of the parties to this conflict, can be viewed in the Disappearing Palestine map:

Juan Cole, who recently posted about the map, describes some of the background and the accuracy of the map here:

For other questions about the background of Israel/Palestine, please see Stephen Shalom’s Q/A on the background of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Q: Who is winning?

A: Writing in the NYT on July 18/14, Jodi Rudoren, like many others, makes much of the difference between this Israeli attack on besieged Gaza and previous attacks, like 2009 and 2012. In 2009, Rudoren writes, “Israel quickly bisected the tiny coastal enclave and blockaded Gaza City, where they engaged in gun battles with Hamas fighters. On Friday, the troops operated mainly in farmland within about a mile of Gaza’s northern, southern and eastern edges, and quickly announced they had uncovered more than 20 tunnel exit points. Setting the bar relatively low helps hold back public expectations, provide the military with achievable goals, and build international legitimacy.” In this analysis, Hamas is isolated and weaker because in previous rounds, Hamas could count on more support from Syria’s government (right now in the middle of a civil war) and a friendly government in Egypt (which was never that friendly, but which has now, under Sisi, returned to the traditional pattern of working for Israel and isolating the Palestinians since the 2013 coup). Israel, and consequently, the Western media, are focused on “the tunnels” – into which much of Palestinian life has been driven because of the siege – as the enemy. Israel claims that Hamas’s fighters are a threat because of these tunnels.

While these differences do exist, the main elements are exactly the same. Israel is unlikely to send soldiers into tunnels to fight in close quarters with Palestinians. There are too many risks for that, and very little cost to Israel to continuing its high-tech, indiscriminate killing from a distance. This has been referred to by an analyst (Roni Bart) as “a kind of rolling-fire induced smokescreen”, a “new policy” as of 2009 which “caused a large number of casualties among the civilian Palestinian population”, because “most of the fighting took place in built up and populated areas”. (Roni Bart, “Warfare-Morality-Public Relations: Proposals for Improvement”, Strategic Assessment, June 2009 Vol. 12, No. 1)

Israel’s ability to keep this up depends on several factors. One is the regional factor, which is now providing few restraints (civil war in Iraq and Syria, a pro-Israel regime in Egypt). Another factor is how difficult it is for Western leaders to sell the war to Western civil society. In this attack, a gap may have opened up between the Israeli public and the Western public at large, as the picnics, outrageous comments, trophy photos and the like that are being shared in social media and collected in Western media show – see for example ( At some point, the atrocities will reach a level that will trigger Western leaders to get Israel to stop.

Q: Is there anything to do?

A: Israel is a part of the West. Its economy and politics are fully integrated with the West. It simply cannot do this without support from the US, Canada, and Europe. If you go to demonstrations against Israel’s attacks, whether this one or the next ones, join the BDS Movement (, write letters to politicians or to media outlets, you will be up against an organized an organized, extensive, pro-Israel effort. You will have to do your homework and realize there are people preparing professional talking points about every historical fact and argument you come across. It may be years before anything improves, and things may get still worse. But Israel depends on international support, including from the public, more than most – that is why they devote so much energy and effort to politicians and the media in the West. This is a conflict where activists can make a difference.

Justin Podur is a writer and activist based in Toronto.

The Reordering of Iraq and Syria

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24.

How far back do we look to understand the breakup of Iraq and the declaration by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 29, 2014 of a caliphate?

Do we start 11 years ago, in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq (in the operation called Operation Iraqi Freedom), occupied it, put Nouri al-Maliki’s government in power, and has supported it since?

Or do we need to start a decade earlier? The 2003 invasion was preceded by a 13-year regime of sanctions, starting in 1990/1, and periodic bombing that prevented Iraq’s economy from functioning, or developing. And the sanctions regime was preceded by a devastating bombing and invasion conducted by the US in 1990/1, Gulf War I (called by the US Operation Desert Storm). The death toll of Gulf War I and the sanctions is at least in the hundreds of thousands; The toll of Gulf War II and the occupation is estimated to be close to one million.

But let’s not forget that the 1990/1 Gulf War I, conducted by US President Bush I, came just two years after the 8-year long Iraq-Iran war, 1980-1988, which killed hundreds of thousands of people in each country (by conservative estimates) and devastated both.

Or, does it go even further back, to the post-WWI arrangements that imposed artificial, colonial boundaries on the countries of the region?

Not all of the blame for Iraq’s thirty years of war can be blamed on the US, or the West. Yes, the US supported Saddam Hussein in the war on Iran’s then-new regime in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War. Yes, the US conducted a multi-decade assault on Iraq starting in 1990. Yes, after the 2003 occupation, the US reorganized Iraq and its oil industry for its own ends. In spite of all that, much of what is happening in Iraq today are unintended consequences, rather than planned or anticipated consequences, of US actions.

But whether the explosion today in 2014 of the order the US imposed after 2003 was foreseeable by US planners then, or not, the US has been incrementally steering Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the region towards an order that, however horrific for the people living there, is tolerable for US power. That order consists of transnational refugee populations ministered to by international agencies, helpless civilians trapped in sectarian states or statelets, perpetual, low-level civil war on the ground, and US surveillance and assassination technology in the sky and on the sea.

When the US occupied Iraq in 2003, it deposed the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who ruled over a country whose divisions he suppressed using the tools of a police state. Even though he favored one group (the Sunni) over the others (Shia and Kurdish), it was the US occupation that created the ‘security dilemma’ that forced everyone into sectarianism. By supporting Saddam’s opponents, the US effectively supported the Kurds in their movement towards autonomy and eventual independence, and the Shia, al-Maliki’s group, who are the demographic majority and who are close to Iran. A Sunni-Shia civil war broke out on US watch, and it was never resolved, except through a de facto partition – a separation of the populations who had before lived among one another.

A decade after the 2003 invasion, the government of Iraq, now nominally sovereign and no longer occupied, is in the strange position of being supported by the US and also by Iran. Their common enemies are Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, which has diverse threads, among which are those ousted by the 2003 invasion, as well as al-Qaeda and other religious and sectarian groups.

While supporting the increasingly sectarian (Shia) leadership of Iraq, and its Iranian ally, against the increasingly sectarian (Sunni) insurgency, the US also continues its decades-long absolute support for the Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These monarchies have their own sectarian agendas in the region, opposed to the Shia, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and against the ‘Alawi, a minority in Syria, to which the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, belongs.

This leads us to the name of the group that has declared the caliphate, ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Even though the Arabic rendering does not include the name ‘Syria’, the English rendering of the group’s name is accurate enough. ISIS’s most spectacular military breakthroughs have come in Iraq, but they grew strong fighting alongside (and, alternatingly, against) al-Qaida and other insurgents against Assad’s regime in Syria’s now three-year old civil war, which has itself had hundreds of thousands of casualties. Assad’s external backers include Russia, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and the US’s ally in Iraq, Iran. Syria’s insurgents are backed by US allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. So, the US is on both sides of this conflict.

This is not the only conflict that the US is on both sides of. The US invaded, occupied, and established a government in Afghanistan in 2001/2, overthrowing the Taliban, who retreated to Pakistan. The US spent the next decade fighting the Taliban from Afghanistan and also supporting Pakistan’s government, whose military establishment covertly supports the Taliban (as do the Gulf monarchies, also supported by the US).

What does it mean for the US to be on both sides of a conflict? Is the US working against itself? Does one hand not know what the other is doing?

Not exactly. For all their complex and contradictory dimensions, these conflicts have many important consistencies: the ones mentioned at the outset of this essay. They feature weak states, unable to protect their political sovereignty. Their economies are dysfunctional, unable to regulate or control multinational corporations that can operate freely according to rules they make up as they go along. Their populations are helpless, forced to work in the informal, illicit, and conflict economies, and for the educated, in the conflict-management and NGO economies. At the (literally) highest level, their military affairs are controlled by remote control US technology. The pattern is found in many countries: Afghanistan, Haiti, Palestine, the DR Congo – these are the models for the future of the region, and they are being steered methodically to that outcome.

The problem for Iraqis and Syrians is not artificial borders. All borders are artificial, and no re-partitioning of the countries will solve it. Nor are Iraq and Syria’s conflicts the outcome of a new, multipolar world order that is a result of collapsing US power. US power is not absolute and it may, indeed, be collapsing, but the strategy of the collapsing power might just be to ensure that everyone else collapses first. The shattered statelets of the middle east won’t fail to provide continued access for profit-making, humanitarian intervention, high-tech surveillance, and control.

Justin Podur blogs at and is based in Toronto.