Language in the War on Gaza

Israel’s political and military leaders have produced so many outright lies regarding Gaza and Hamas that it might seem there is no point in wasting one’s breath on them. Consider the following statements and the contrary evidence for those not yet convinced:

  • The IDF does not deliberately target civilians, journalists, medical facilities and staff, or restricts aid. In fact, the IDF has deliberately targeted civilians (as widely reported), journalists (as Human Rights Watch has detailed), and medical personnel (according to Amnesty International). It has also put various restrictions on aid.
  • The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is harboring among its employees Hamas militants who took part in the October 7 massacres. Yet, Israel has not shared any information or evidence to back up its assertions while UNRWA has screened its 13,000 staff in Gaza on a biannual basis.
  • Israel’s declared war on Gaza and the ongoing, undeclared war against Palestinians in the West Bank are “against Hamas” and “terrorists.” In fact, multiple Israeli governments, including the current one, have committed to appropriating all Palestinian territory and committing genocide against the Palestinians currently living there.
  • Iran is the main financier and supporter of Hamas. In fact, other entities like Qatar have been the main supporters of Hamas, and Israel too was instrumental in creating Hamas to divide Palestinian sympathies.

Other statements, however, made by Israeli and other world leaders, that may appear to be true, and that continue to be taken at face value, are in reality dangerously deceptive. Their aim is to justify Israeli politics regarding violence towards Palestinians, actions in support of the current war, or inaction in stopping it. Careful examination of a few of these will expose the ways in which such statements operate.

Dictionary of Deception

Probably the most repeated statement proffered by Israeli politicians and their supporters is that Hamas and Palestinians in general deny the Israeli state’s “right to exist.” This statement entirely ignores – and diverts attention away from – the unquestionable reality that Israel has existed as a state since 1948 and continues to exist, whether or not Hamas or anyone else objects to it.

At the same time, the Israeli complaint occludes the reality that it is Palestine whose right to exist as a state has long been denied. Although the majority of world governments have recognized Palestinian statehood, the State of Palestine has only an observer status in the UN. This is so because Israel and the United States, Canada, Australia, and an absolute majority of  European states have refused to recognize Palestinian statehood (though this might change in future). Israel’s current government has explicitly and loudly proclaimed that it has no plan to recognize a Palestinian state. It is, thus, Israel that denies any Palestinian state’s right to exist.

Instead, Israel is expanding the occupation of Palestinian territory, and when faced with resistance, it asserts its own “right to self-defense.” However, in 1983, the UN General Assembly explicitly affirmed Palestinians’ right to self-defense “by all available means, including armed struggle,” a right they share with all nations under “colonial domination, apartheid and foreign occupation,” as asserted in the Geneva Conventions. This right does not include violence against Israeli civilians, which Hamas militants have perpetrated. Such violence may qualify as war crimes. Nevertheless, the Geneva Conventions make clear that the “right to self-defense” belongs to the occupied, not the occupier. Any military or police action taken by an occupier against the occupied – even when the occupied uses violence against occupation – is violence, not self-defense.

Another instance of Israeli deception can be seen in Israeli politicians’ regular insistence that Palestinian schools teach their children to hate Jews. UNRWA – the main sponsor of education in the West Bank and Gaza – was accused of spreading incitement of violence and hatred of Jews in their textbooks. However, the European Union review of Palestinian schoolbooks has concluded that they include “a strong focus on human rights… express a narrative of resistance within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and…display an antagonism towards Israel.” None of this equates to hatred of Jews. The accusation of Palestinian schoolbooks spreading hatred is also debunked by The European Middle East Project.

The EU report further notes that textbooks produced by Israeli authorities removed “entire chapters on regional and Palestinian history”, which “fundamentally changes the [Palestinian] national narrative.” Israeli state school books often simply ignore the Palestinian presence, and perpetually depict Israel and Jews as victims of Palestinian and Arab enemy.

No wonder, then, that Israeli girls sing about the annihilation of Gaza on an online Israeli TV program, and Israeli soldiers in Gaza make videos broadcasting their mocking, humiliation, and killing of Palestinian civilians as well as their destruction or looting of Palestinian property. These soldiers are not necessarily right-wing Zionists like some of the Jewish citizens blocking aid to Gaza or trying to build houses within Gaza’s borders. Nor are they necessarily the Jewish settlers from the West Bank. Many of them are just ordinary citizens. But in their ordinariness, they provide a frightening and accurate picture of Israeli society’s general views of Palestinians. This is why a majority of Israeli citizens support the genocide in Gaza even if they do not support Israel’s prime minister and his government.

Finally, contrary to their lament of “grave concern” for “suffering in Gaza,” and their often self-serving statements, politicians outside Israel are far from powerless to stop the bloodshed in Gaza. Even within the classical diplomatic arsenal, individual states can expel Israel’s ambassadors and recall their own. They can impose sanctions or boycott Israeli businesses, politicians, cultural and sports representatives (as they have done, with vigor, with regard to Russia and Russians). They can stop their arms exports to Israel, sever economic relations, and multiply their financial support for humanitarian organizations operating in Gaza (rather than cutting that support). Only a handful of states have actually recalled their ambassadors from Israel. No Western state is among them, and except Bahrain, no other rich Arab state.

How can it be that the people who have demonstrated endlessly in support of Palestinians—and have identified and urged many of these measures—know more than powerful heads of state about strategies to stop the genocide?

The answer, of course, is that governments do know. And that reality brings us to some hard truths.

Hard Truths

Palestinians have no friends among Western governments. They have known this hard truth for a long time, and their knowledge has been confirmed in a most dreadful way. Even though a few European countries (like Spain and Ireland) have used very sharp language against Israel, they have taken no steps that would protect the lives of Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank. The United States and a few Western governments have bragged that they have imposed (travel and banking) sanctions on a few Jewish settlers and settlements. But this is a ludicrous substitute for effective action. Some Western leaders and governments now face court cases, brought by pro-Palestinian human rights organizations and lawyers, charging that they have violated both domestic and international laws by supporting Israel’s genocide in Gaza (by supplying of ammunition to Israel), or by their failures to stop it. But, thus far, judicial interventions have not brought effective protections to the victims of genocide.

Palestinians also do not have friends among Arab governments, nor should they expect any. Their “Arab brothers” have expressed “deep concerns” about the Palestinian plight, but they have other, more important concerns, such as importing Israeli surveillance technology to keep checks on political opponents. Saudi Arabia, who long held to a policy of linking normalization with Israel to Israel’s recognition of the Palestinian state, now speaks only about a “path to Palestinian statehood.”

This means that Palestinians need their own new political force to achieve both formal recognition of statehood and peace with Israel. Are either of these two goals feasible? For now, there is no sign that various Palestinian factions will achieve unity, which is an absolutely necessary precondition to any long-term, sustainable Palestinian state. Hamas and Fatah have held numerous talks to no avail. Clearly, it is not easy to reconcile secular and Islamist worldviews, ideas of governance and ideals of societal relations. Even various Islamist factions do not see eye to eye. But without such unity, prior to the end of genocide and occupation, post-genocide and post-occupation Palestine will descend into internal violence and struggle for power. As for peace with Israel, the state of affairs in twentieth-century post-genocide societies does not offer grounds for much optimism. Genocides do not destroy only people, their cultures, and their histories. They destroy hope and imagination, too, which are necessities for building peace.

Israel, too, needs a new political force to build a totally new national narrative based on language from a dictionary very different from the dictionary of deception. The Israeli public’s overwhelming support of the destruction of Gaza, occupation of the West Bank, and expansion of settlements means that creating such a new political force and language could take generations, if ever. Still, it is possible to imagine that one day an Israeli public that is currently supporting the annihilation of Gaza may begin asking itself: “How has a state created to give hope to survivors of genocide turned into a perpetrator of genocide? What have I given my voice to and what have I been silent about?”

Unless and until this happens, there is no hope for either Israel or Palestine. Nor for the world within which all of us exist.

Dubravka Žarkov retired in 2018 as an Associate Professor of Gender, Conflict and Development at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the Netherlands where she taught feminist epistemologies, conflict theories and media representations of war and violence. Her books include The Body of War: Media, Ethnicity and Gender in the Break-up of Yugoslavia (2007) and the co-edited collection Narratives of Justice In and Out of the Courtroom, Former Yugoslavia and Beyond (with Marlies Glasius, 2014). She was a co-editor of the European Journal of Women’s Studies. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia.

Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus with permission.