Language Is a Powerful Weapon in the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Facts require narratives in which to take root, but the terminology of the powerful too often trivializes war, dehumanizes those who suffer and erases the past

Language Is a Powerful Weapon in the Israel-Palestine Conflict
Israeli soldiers in a training facility designed to simulate Gaza City in Jan. 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

“It appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” said U.S. President Joe Biden in a low mumble as he sat next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Tel Aviv hotel conference room on Oct. 18. Less than 24 hours earlier, a huge explosion had ripped through the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, killing and injuring hundreds — including displaced Gazans who had been seeking refuge from the onslaught of the current Israel-Palestine war.

In the immediate aftermath, Biden was ready to signal support for his “team,” Israel, by decisively attributing blame to Hamas. Even now, weeks later, the lack of access into Gaza for independent investigators still makes it impossible to determine if a failed Palestinian rocket or an Israeli airstrike caused the blast.

A day after Biden’s cavalier rhetoric, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak echoed him in remarks that seemed more appropriate for live sports commentary than a recognition of large-scale political violence, telling Netanyahu that Israel had the right to “go after Hamas” and that “we also want you to win.” Meanwhile, “Fox & Friends” co-anchor Brian Kilmeade excitedly discussed the war as if he was watching a high-octane football thriller, throwing in phrases about “power players going against Israel” and proceeding to name Middle Eastern countries like athletes about to enter a packed stadium.

The language used by those who wield power in Israel and the West reveals an overarching theme — the dissociation of Israeli violence from its lethal consequences, with Palestinian civilians often described as “dying” from airstrikes rather than “killed.” This normalization of violence predates Hamas’ initial assault on Oct. 7 and is perpetuated through three overlapping linguistic patterns that have emerged from the last 75 years of Israeli statehood and occupation: game-like language, the dehumanization of Palestinians and the dehistoricization of Palestine as a state.

To trace the origins of the language game enacted around Israel’s treatment of Gaza, we have to examine the Israeli state’s approach toward war, cultivated over decades.

Each year, some 150,000 members of infantry units in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are required to routinely train in high-tech simulators and participate in war games that recreate, with great precision, sites that are often realistic representations of villages in southern Lebanon. A reporter from Ynet (the web version of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest paper by sales and circulation) who accompanied IDF troops on an exercise in a simulation of “Hezbollah territory” in the Negev Desert, described how soldiers were taught to enter mock-ups of Lebanese homes, cook themselves meals with food supplies on enemy territory and operate the types of weapons used by Hezbollah. The IDF itself published a blog post, in May, titled “Practice Makes Perfect,” about the importance of these simulators in improving the “level of performance and accuracy” of its soldiers.

The IDF has also practiced urban warfare in an artificial settlement modeled to look exactly like Gaza City. “Mini Gaza,” as the IDF calls it, is complete with 500 buildings and alleys full of murals, graffiti and posters that feature Palestinian slogans for freedom. Here, IDF recruits also train in a simulator that recreates residential neighborhoods in Gaza, which throng with people going about their day, going to work, the mosque or to school. Three years ago, Israeli simulator firm Bagira Systems spoke of the attention to detail in building the Gaza simulator, and the special care taken to replicate the “crowded and smoky urban space.” Leading up to its Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, Hamas similarly built a mock Israeli town in Gaza, and frequently trained inside it in plain sight of Israeli intelligence. Simulated war zones are not limited to the Israel-Palestine war; the U.S. military trained in facilities in America and Europe designed to look like villages in Afghanistan and Iraq, complete with mosques and men in “local” clothing.

Another simulator commonly used by the IDF presents soldiers with a situation where a Palestinian at an Israeli military checkpoint pulls out a knife and begins stabbing one of their commanders. The test is to see how fast the IDF trainee reacts in firing at the Palestinian assailant. The regularity of these simulations was ramped up after Abd al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif, a Palestinian man, stabbed an IDF officer in the shoulder in the Palestinian city of Hebron in 2016. Ten minutes after al-Sharif had already been disarmed, wounded and made to lie flat on the ground, another soldier shot him through the back of the head.

Though the IDF has said that soldiers may only resort to live fire to “negate an actual and immediate threat to life, as the last option in the procedures for stopping a suspect,” the reality is that those among its ranks — as reported by international organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — have shot and killed Palestinians who posed no threat to their lives. Regardless of what IDF protocol dictates, commanders have been known to tell recruits that they “can fire on children if they’re over 14.” Similarly, Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian-American journalist who was shot dead in 2022 by the IDF while covering an Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, had been wearing a clearly marked press jacket and was unarmed. Israel initially claimed that there had been a firefight with Palestinian militants and that Abu Akleh, who worked for Al Jazeera, had been accidentally hit. But evidence uncovered by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, as well as other independent nongovernmental organizations, shows that there was no gunfire before Israeli forces fired at the Palestinian journalists covering the raid and killed Abu Akleh in the process.

To date, the Israeli soldiers attending the raid have not been brought to justice. Simulated exercises deliberately present Israeli soldiers with an accentuated sense of Palestinian aggression, while on a day-to-day basis the Palestinians they meet at checkpoints are civilians, who are not bearing arms and are vastly outgunned.

The lines between reality and these hyperrealistic simulators are blurred when we consider that Israeli incursions into actual Palestinian territories took place almost every day leading up to Oct. 7. Plenty of these raids were carried out in overcrowded refugee camps, which already have their electricity and water supplies routinely cut off by Israel. Residents of these camps, living through Israeli attacks every day, have sardonically described their home as being Israel’s “playground.” Academics at the University of Berkeley, California have found that in some camps, like Aida in the West Bank, 100% of the population has been exposed to tear gas — “more than any other population surveyed globally,” they wrote in 2017, and one entirely ignored possible precursor to Israel’s recent use of white phosphorus in Gaza.

It’s worth looking beyond Israel to see how encouraging a game-like attitude to violence can have devastating consequences, sometimes unfolding over decades and in completely different geographical settings. Equally important is to note how this violence is inflicted both verbally and physically — often in tandem.

The enduring history of the “remove kebab” meme is one such example. Originally derived from a Serbian propaganda song that celebrated the extermination of Bosnian Muslims and Turks during the Yugoslav wars, kebabs being part of their cuisine, the phrase “remove kebab” was first satirized by a Turkish Internet user. But his satire was lost when the meme gained popularity decades later among alt-right players of virtual war games who advocated eradicating Muslims from Western societies. In 2019, the gunman behind the terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, admitted that he politically identified as a “kebab remover” and that he had found inspiration for his Islamophobia on the right-wing discussion boards of 4chan and 8chan. We see how violent, dehumanized language can be resurrected outside its original context and manifest in an equally vitriolic new form. As the Austrian philosopher and logician Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “usage has no sharp boundary.” Even if it’s hard to prove that exposure to violent language breeds violence, willingly participating in its use makes one complicit in giving violence currency.

So when does speech translate to violence, and how does this happen? Lynne Tirrell, a philosopher who has extensively studied anti-Tutsi hate speech that flourished at the time of the Rwandan genocide, leans on Wittgenstein’s concept of a “language game” to argue that linguistic behaviors can be powerful in creating derogatory associations. These associations then make it socially acceptable for communities to dehumanize a whole group of people through their actions. The social reality created through this language game is one that is perverse and topsy-turvy. Tirrell contends that games are thought of as fatuous, when they can be far more serious than they appear, and “train us in ways of being, modes of agency, patterns of effectiveness.” In the language game played by powerful perpetrators of mass violence, the victims aren’t considered people, and their pain doesn’t count.

The Palestinian-born American critic Edward Said noted that, “Facts do not all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain and circulate them.” The “facts” that Said was writing about were findings from an international commission of six jurists from Canada, France, Ireland, South Africa and the U.S. The commission investigated the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and found Israel guilty of acts in violation of international law. These included the use of forbidden weapons and methods; the deliberate and indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets including hospitals and schools; the systematic bombing of villages, towns and refugee camps; and the deportation and forced dispersion of civilian populations. Four members of the commission also asserted that Israel was guilty of attempted “ethnocide” and “genocide” of the Palestinian people — a sharp juxtaposition with the supposed IDF ethos of “purity of arms,” which recommends that force is only used for a just cause and in self-defense. The facts established by this commission were quickly forgotten, rarely reported and usually denied in the press. They were also never commented on by powerful backers of Israel like the U.S. Said documented how the Israeli narrative, through repetition and accumulation, diminishes and erases Palestinian existence, along with Palestinian rights to life, land, nationhood and history. Forty-one years on, while Israel drops white phosphorus bombs in densely populated civilian areas in Gaza and openly admits to airstrikes on ambulances, we continue to be told that these are acts of self-defense by “the most moral army in the world” — as if this is a claim that has never been heard before.

An intrinsic part of the language game is activated when Palestinian lives are implied, repeatedly, to be subhuman.

In late October, Netanyahu referred to the Old Testament in characterizing Hamas as “Amalek,” a nomadic nation that was the nemesis of ancient Israel. “Attack the Amaleks. … Put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys,” he exhorted. Though Netanyahu’s staff later claimed he was speaking only of Hamas and not Palestine, his call to slaughter the enemy as if they were beasts of burden does two things. Firstly, it follows a historical pattern of prominent Israelis such as the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman using animal metaphors to debase Palestinians. This reinforces the idea of a world where Palestinians should actually be treated like animals. Secondly, the tone of Netanyahu’s speech invites the wider public to join in the proliferation of a shared language, one that generates permissiveness around the harm being inflicted on Palestinians.

Certainly, this isn’t a new tactic. Leading up to April 1994, state-funded radio broadcasts in Rwanda relentlessly conveyed the message to predominantly Hutu listeners that the Tutsi were “inyenzi,” or cockroaches. It’s arguable that the mental association of Tutsi people with cockroaches became evident when the Hutu later committed genocide predominantly using machetes or clubs rather than firearms. The choice of weapons was significant as it transformed the act of murder into one that was horrifyingly intimate, and reminiscent of the way in which small household vermin might be killed with blunt objects. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge debased its own citizens as “worms” and “parasites.” Perhaps the most well-known example is the Nazi propaganda that swept Europe in the early days of World War II, which depicted Jewish people as disease-ridden rats and lice. The Nazis even referred to Jews as “Untermenschen,” meaning subhumans.

Around the same time that Netanyahu delivered his “Amalek” speech and two weeks after Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called Gazans “human animals,” ordinary Israelis ramped up various forms of hostile treatment toward Palestinians. A new TikTok trend emerged, with Israelis dressing up as Palestinians, sometimes in brownface, to jeer at them for being bombed and for having their access to electricity, water and gas completely cut off. This roleplay reveals a wilful repudiation of reality, with the underlying insinuation that the suffering of Gazans is fictional and simply fodder for comedy. In all of these videos, the content creators are smiling, laughing and dancing to music. Watching even Israeli toddlers being filmed as part of the cruel revelry, it’s hard to believe that they live just 40 miles away from the Gaza Strip, where more children have already been killed in the first week of Israeli shelling than Ukrainian children in the 18 months since the Russian invasion began.

Settler and military violence in the occupied West Bank have also escalated amid the propagation of genocidal language. On Oct. 28, after a Palestinian farmer called Bilal Saleh was shot dead by four settlers while picking olives on his own land, Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Aryeh King, himself a settler, praised the perpetrators for doing “exactly the right thing.” King added, echoing the vernacular of dehumanizing violence that so many Israeli politicians have espoused, that Saleh was “not a human being.” King, who is also a right-wing activist, was not censured for what he said. B’Tselem also found that settlers had launched incitement campaigns on social media that were inundated with explicit threats to kill Palestinians and vandalize their property.

Attacks on Palestinians like Saleh have surged, doubling from a 15-year high in the months leading up to Oct. 7, with more than 130 killed and nearly 1,000 forcibly displaced. As of Nov. 20, despite Biden saying that settlers must be held accountable for these incidents, just one settler has been arrested for Saleh’s killing, only to be released five days later. Two others were detained without charge. In what may be a harbinger of worse events to come, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who once said that his right to life outweighed the right of Palestinians to move through the streets, has also pledged to give away 10,000 rifles to “civilian security teams” in the West Bank. It’s therefore likely that the interrogation and torture of Palestinians by Israelis such as those in the village of Wadi al-Siq, where men were lashed and had their backs jumped on while lying prone, will only increase.

Parallel to these attacks, Israel has also intensified its blockades within the West Bank, sealing up entire towns and cities through the use of checkpoints, cement blocks and iron gates. This has cut Palestinians off from their livelihoods in an economy that is already facing strangulation from years of Israeli oppression, with farmers and traders reporting that business since Oct. 7 is only 1% of what it was. This latest development is just an accentuation of everyday violence at the 645 physical barriers to entry built around the West Bank. Numerous testimonies published by veteran IDF officers committed to educating the public on everyday life in the Occupied Territories have confirmed that routinely humiliating Palestinians through speech and physical aggression was standard for soldiers at checkpoints.

The wave of violence has also ripped far beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine. On Oct. 14, Wadea al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian Muslim boy living in a suburb of Chicago, died after he was stabbed dozens of times by his landlord. The latter, who has been charged with murder and hate crime, was incensed after al-Fayoume’s mother said that they should pray for peace. Speaking to the media, the boy’s uncle made a plea that no human being should ever have to spell out: “We are not animals, we are humans.”

To return to Said: If facts need a narrative to sustain them as truth, the language used in Western media to report the facts of this war has predominantly done the opposite, by stripping them of their context. Most British news outlets have termed this war Israel-Hamas, a coinage that does not indicate the region that is being shelled, nor prompt any reflection on the people who are being affected who do not belong to Hamas. While, previously, analogous wars have been described in relation to the territories being invaded, for instance the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, or Russia’s invasion of Chechnya, the focus here is solely on Hamas, erasing the presence of the civilian Palestinian population and its connection to the territory under attack.

More recently, some media outlets including the BBC and The New York Times have begun referring to the war as “Israel-Gaza,” which offers a clearer geographical sense of what is under attack, but offers no connection to the longer histories and geopolitics of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Gaza is represented here, and spoken of, in isolation from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with little consideration for the unity of the Palestinian people and the cause that binds these places together. “Israel-Gaza” also fails to acknowledge how the violence in one area is intimately connected and felt in the other. “Israel-Gaza” disregards the fact that this year has been the deadliest in the West Bank in more than a decade.

While the language of reporting effaces history by offering no connections, the wider rhetoric around the war further dehistoricizes by obscuring and legitimizing its violence through the application of civilizing metaphors. A classic example is the way that European colonial expansion was justified and explained as a way of spreading “civilization” — including the Enlightenment values of reasoned thought — to less evolved parts of the world. In turn, colonized groups were portrayed as “barbaric” or “savages” who were not capable of rationality or of controlling their innately vicious natures. A similar logic of “moral” and “reasoned” versus “immoral” and “irrational” dominated the language that justified the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. By proclaiming Iran, Iraq and North Korea the tripartite “axis of evil,” former President George Bush turned the global “war on terror” into a crusade to rid the world of the foul and the wicked. His use of language didn’t only justify the subsequent violence, it also concealed the complicated histories of American involvement in these regions, which helped produce the political leadership that the U.S. now wanted to attack.

There is no clearer example of the use of similar language by Israel than in Netanyahu’s description of the Gaza invasion as a “struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.” Not only is the language steeped in colonial rationale, but it also draws upon Islamophobic rhetoric used by supporters of the global war on terror and by right-wing parties and populist groups. In this representation, Palestinians are depicted as barbaric, without any civilization or culture and, therefore, not deserving of consideration as human. The battle between “light” and “dark” alludes to a timeless struggle and, paradoxically, removes any sense of time and historical specificity. It makes it seem as if Jewish and Muslim people have been set against each other since time immemorial and that the current war reflects this intrinsic hatred.

The antagonisms that we see today come from a very specific shift toward the extreme right that started occurring in Israel over 20 years ago and has culminated in the current government. This history is erased when the war is talked of in terms of a timeless battle between “light” and “dark.” Casting this war in immutable religious terms also equates the Palestinian cause with Islamic extremism, rendering invisible a history that has always included diverse Muslim, Christian and Jewish voices, and been backed by anti-colonial and anti-racist solidarity networks internationally. In 1970, when the Black American political activist Angela Davis was in jail in the U.S., Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons smuggled out a letter to their families that was then snuck into her cell. Since this current war started, Jewish groups in South Africa have been holding anti-genocide Shabbat gatherings in public places, in solidarity with Palestinians and as a critique of Israeli actions. Trade unions in Belgium that have refused to handle any weapon shipments being sent to Israel are acting in line with a long global history of workers expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Netanyahu’s language not only dehumanizes Palestinians, it also tries to erase their history.

Violence is not simply enacted on bodies, but on hearts, on minds and on personal and historical memory. Today, as Israel eradicates neighborhoods and buildings in Gaza, it not only kills civilian men, women and children. It also destroys the cultural right to memory. With entire families and their genealogies wiped out and physical landmarks destroyed, the past of Gaza — and the cultural right to remember — is being systematically obliterated, allowing Palestinians and Palestine to be killed and forgotten.

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