The Middle East: a brief glossary of terms

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The Middle East: a brief glossary of terms

*Derek Brown, the Guardian's correspondent in Jerusalem from 1993 to 1996, explains some of the more commonly used terms

Tuesday 15 May 2001

*Additional terms added by Lauren Caldwell


The annual "day of catastrophe" marked by Palestinians on the anniversary of Israel's declaration of independence on May 14, 1948. Palestinian demonstrations, combining mourning and anger, come a day later.

Camp David

The US presidential retreat outside Washington where numerous Middle East negotiations have been held. The location became famous for the 1978 Camp David peace accords, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, between Israel and Egypt. In the context of the current conflict, Camp David is commonly a reference to last summer's failed attempt by President Bill Clinton to achieve a similarly historic final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Gaza Strip

The densely populated sliver of Mediterranean coast which Israel seized from Egypt in the Six Day War of 1967. Now home to around 1m people, including some 6,500 Jewish settlers who control 30% of the land.


The biggest of the militant Islamist groups which aspire to the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state of Palestine.

Haram al-Sharif

The Arab name for the mosque complex in the heart of Jerusalem which is generally reckoned to be the third most holy site in Islam. It is also the most holy site in Judaism. It is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, where the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the first century AD.


Israeli Defence Forces. Usually refers to the army, but in Israel there is unified command of military, naval and air forces.


Most commonly, and very loosely, translated as "uprising". The word first gained common currency during bloody disturbances which erupted in the occupied territories towards the end of 1987, and continued for nearly six years. That intifada is widely credited with forcing the Israelis to re-think their occupation strategy, and to enter negotiations with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Israeli Arabs

This is the phrase used by Israelis to describe the 1m Arab citizens of the state. Most of these people cordially detest the term, preferring to describe themselves as Palestinians living in Israel.

Occupied Territories

The West Bank and Gaza Strip, seized from Jordan and Egypt respectively in the Six Day War of 1967. Also, the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Old City, which was taken over at the same time and subsequently illegally annexed by Israel.

Oslo agreement

The outline peace deal worked out in negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisations, secretly conducted in Norway. The agreement was sealed with the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in September 1993.

Palestine National Authority

The interim government of the Palestinian territories, formerly* headed by Yasser Arafat. Israelis, who do not recognise a Palestinian state, always drop the word 'National'.


Palestine Liberation Organisation. The umbrella group of political and militant groups headed by Yasser Arafat, whose Fatah faction is the biggest single component. Fatah in turn is subdivided into various groups. One of the most recent to emerge is the semi-autonomous Tanzim movement of young street fighters.

Right of Return

This phrase is the Palestinians' mantra for one of their key demands in the peace process: the right of some 4m Arab refugees and their descendants to return to their pre-1948 homes in Israel and the occupied territories. The demand is rejected outright by Israel, which has its own right of return, i.e. the automatic right of every Jew in the world to settle in Israel.


Since the Six Day War, more than 170,000 Jews have settled in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (which Israelis call Judea and Samaria), most in heavily fortified colonies. Many Jewish people, both religious and secular, believe the territories to be part of the ancestral Land of Israel.

Six Day War

In June 1967, Israel mounted a dazzling series of pre-emptive strikes against the Arab armies massing on its borders. In less than a week, the triumphant Israeli forces seized Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai peninsula from Egypt. Sinai, the biggest conquest in land area, was returned to Egypt in the wake of the Camp David agreement of 1978.

Temple Mount

The Israeli name for the site of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the most holy place in Judaism. Only the Western or Wailing Wall remains, almost literally overshadowed by the mosque complex which Arabs call the Haram al-Sharif.

West Bank

The Jordanian territory west of the river Jordan which Israel captured in 1967. Originally part of British-mandated Palestine, but annexed by Jordan in 1950 after Israel's defeat of the joint Arab armies in the war of independence.

Yom Kippur War

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn and strictly observed day in the Jewish calendar. On that day in 1973, the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a surprise joint attack on the Jewish state. After initial reverses, the Israeli forces struck back and recaptured all the territory that they lost in the early days. The war effectively crushed the old Arab ambition of destroying Israel by force.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

“ISIS” is an Islamist rebel group that controls territory in Iraq and Syria and also operates in eastern Libya, the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, and other areas of the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. On 29 June 2014, the group proclaimed itself to be a worldwide caliphate under the name "Islamic State", and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was named its "caliph". This is while ISIL's actions have been widely criticized around the world, with many Islamic and non-Islamic communities judging the group to be unrepresentative of Islam.

ISIL is known for its well-funded web and social media propaganda, which includes Internet videos of the beheadings of soldiers, civilians, journalists, and aid workers.

A caliphate it claims religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide and that "the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khilāfah's (caliph's) authority and arrival of its troops to their areas".


To Arabic-speaking people, sharia means the moral code and religious law of a prophetic religion. The term "sharia" has been largely identified with Islam in English usage. Sharia (Islamic law) deals with many topics including: crime, politics, and economics, as well as personal matters such as sexual intercourse, hygiene, diet, prayer, everyday etiquette and fasting. The introduction of Sharia is a longstanding goal for Islamist movements globally, including in Western countries, but attempts to impose sharia have been accompanied by controversy, violence, and even warfare. Most countries do not recognize sharia; however, some countries in Asia, Africa and Europe recognize sharia and use it as the basis for divorce, inheritance and other personal affairs of their Islamic population. In Britain, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal makes use of sharia family law to settle disputes, and this limited adoption of sharia is controversial.
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