Language is an important influence on political views, official policy and outcomes. It is the first to signify attitudes and reveal the consciousness of a nation. It can arouse a sense of grievance and target victims. Language leads to action, to official policy.
At its worst, it can legitimize crimes against humanity. It can dehumanize minorities and then then turn them into real victims of genocide. It conceals mass murder under a cloud of euphemism. This process is true for all genocides.
Specifically, in the case of the Gaza war–statements, and the language in which they are articulated in media coverage, comments by government officials, and Jewish leaders– legitimize Israeli genocide. At times they do so unintentionally, at times explicitly. But taken together, such language enables genocide and offers support to Israel as it perpetrates it.
When a US president and his spokesman deny Palestinian deaths by claiming the Gaza health ministry reporting them is an arm of Hamas, this too is the language of denial. In fact, the ministry released the names of all of the dead in a document 206 pages long. But you never heard a single word about that.
Speaking of which, this is the latest linguistic litany of catastrophe: nearly 9,000 Gazans have been murdered by Israel. 70% are women and children. Over 3,000 specifically children. Over half of the housing stock has been completely destroyed. 1.4-million Gazans are refugees in their own country. Nearly half of the hospitals no longer function. Israel knocked out all communication in Gaza until the US forced it restore access. Food, water and electricity have been denied since the war began, three weeks ago.
In those three weeks, less than 100 trucks containing humanitarian aid have been permitted entry by Israel. On a single day, 500 trucks would normally enter the enclave. There are hundreds of trucks linked up at the Rafah crossing, denied entry to Gaza. And yet, the American president, on his return from a trip to Israel, boasts: “I got it done.” 20 trucks entered the day he claimed to have “gotten it done.”
Amalek and the language of genocide
For decades, Israelis have exploited a passage from the Bible in which God commands the Israelite king, Saul, to attack the Amalekites and then exterminate every man, woman, child and even livestock. When Saul spares the king, God banishes him and he later dies in battle.
The “Amalek” myth normalizes genocide. It offers a sacred source to validate it. I reported here that the security cabinet direct the Shin Bet and IDF To assassinate Hamas’ leaders and their families. They entitled it the “Amalek Directive. In.the past, Israeli Orthodox rabbis have justified rape and other war crimes.
Israeli and American Jewish leaders, for example, have used the statement that the Hamas attack, which killed 1,400 Israelis “is the most lethal assault against Jews since the Holocaust.” The IDF spokesflack said: “by far the worst day in Israeli history.” Neither of these is accurate. During the 1948 War, Israel lost far more lives of civilians and soldiers. In the 1973 War, Israel lost 3,000 soldiers.
But there is an even more important distinction that must be made. The world has seen genocides that pale in the comparison to Israel’s suffering. 4-million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. 1-million died in the Armenian genocide. 800,000 Tutsi died in Rwanda. 500,000 Rohingya died or were expelled at the hands of Burmese in Myanmar, 300,000 died in Bosnia. And 9,000 Gazans have been murdered (3,000 children), with many more thousands to come. These are all victims viciously attacked by powerful enemies, not unlike Israel.
Spare us all the performative outrage. In truth, they are exploiting the dead to justify genocide. In fact, the brother of one victim, Hayim Katsman, someone I knew personally, said that his death must not be used by Israel in such a way.
When the apologists I mentioned above have an ounce of pity and outrage for all these millions of lives lost in real holocausts, then they can demand sympathy. Till then neither they nor Israel deserve any.
I would prefer not a single Israeli had died. But not at the expense of the Palestinian dead.
Who is a “terrorist?”
Another term exploited for similar effect is “terrorism.” Hamas are almost always terrorists. The word is never used to portray Israel or its slaughter in Gaza. Why not? What are the mass expulsions of West Bank Palestinians by armed settlers threatening their murder; a series of acts of desecration of Al Aqsa by Border Police firing tear gas and stun grenades; the multiple attacks by settler Judeo-terrorists and IDF soldiers against villages like Huwara; the repeated invasions of Gaza in which nearly 20,000 Palestinians have been murdered in less than a decade–if not terrorism? The refusal to describe official Israeli acts of terror again is an erasure of moral responsibility.
Is Hamas “terrorist?” No. I would claim it isn’t. And certainly not if one refuses to name Israel in the same terms. Hamas is defending its Palestinian homeland. Israelis are occupiers and invaders. A UN General Assembly explicitly declared that armed resistance against such a foreign occupier is legitimate.
What about the claim that killing civilians is never justified? If both sides of a conflict attempt to avoid such attacks, then this position is justified. But when one side wantonly massacres civilians, it is hypocritical to deny the other side, the victims, the right to respond in kind. Israel has invaded Gaza three times since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Each time it has murdered far more Palestinian civilians than military fighters. It kills indiscriminately. It kills civilians with impunity, without distinction.
I cannot in good conscience only blame Hamas in such circumstances. In fact, I believe that armed resistance, including invading Israel, is justified. I wish this was not so. I wish I could say that both sides respect international law and avoid such attacks. But they don’t. And Israel’s violations are far more egregious, far more lethal, than anything Hamas has done.
Genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic-cleansing
The only people willing to use such terms are Palestinian solidarity groups and the millions of protestors around the globe who are demonstrating weekly against these horrible crimes. You will never hear the terms used in the media. And if they are used, it is never referred to as a fact, but as an opinion voiced by the victims and their supporters. You will not hear in most of the media from academics or human rights campaigners echoing such views. The outlets which publish my work–Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Jacobin Magazine–are among the few exceptions.
Similarly, you see hardly any media coverage (this is the first report in the Hebrew press) of reports like those produced by a right-wing Israeli think tank and a government ministry calling for the mass expulsion of all Gaza residents to the Sinai desert. No one except the few left wing outlets are calling it for what it is: a second Nakba, ethnic cleansing.
Israelis use the term “transfer,” as if Palestinians can merely transfer themselves neatly from one place to another. It is such clean language, concealing the crime of forcing an indigenous people to abandon their homes for generation and become refugees in countries that do not want them: where they are alien and can never feel at home. Such euphemistic language also conceals a racist premise: that all Palestinians are merely “Arabs,” who can be shuffled off to other Arab countries simply because they are both the same ethnicity. It is a deliberate erasure of Palestinian identity.
The term “Arab” used by Israeli Jews–and even by a “polite” liberal publication like Haaretz–to describe Israeli Palestinians, erases their identity. If they are “Arab” then they cannot be Israeli. Rather, they are part of a greater Arab world and can be dumped upon it, where they are all Arabs.
How long does it take for international bodies to recognize genocide for what it is? Apparently, three weeks in the case of International Criminal Court prosecutor, Karim Khan. It took him that long to even visit the region. The closest he got to Gaza was visiting the Rafah border crossing in Egypt. Of course, the Israelis would not permit him to enter Gaza itself. And he would not force their hand by telling them he would go regardless.
Khan is sitting on the ICC investigation of Israeli war crimes in the 2014 Gaza invasion mentioned above. Though it determined it had jurisdiction in the case and has begun gathering evidence, it has refused to open a formal investigation, much less make a determination or prosecution. Khan’s recent media statements walk a fine line. He talks about possible violations of international law. He warned “leaders,” rather than Israeli leaders of the consequences of targeting civilians. His statements were couched in generalities, rather than specifics. Nor did he say anything definitive about the actual ICC investigation. He didn’t mention it at all.
The caution of major international institutions like the ICC only emboldens Israel. It permits those who perpetrate genocide to believe they will never be held accountable. Because so far, they haven’t.