Palestinians being failed again by world’s ineffective language
A troubling lexicon is trotted out during and after every Israeli war on Gaza, with politicians and journalists helping to create an echo chamber of meaningless blandishments. These may appear harmless to the uninitiated, but they obscure the reality of events and processes on the ground. They entrench a dangerous, violent status quo that leaves millions of Palestinians under occupation, subjugation and discrimination.
Let’s start with some classics: “Calm,” “quiet” or a “return to normal.” The New York Times this week ran an otherwise excellent article, entitled “After years of quiet, Israeli-Palestinian conflict exploded. Why now?” Various states have called for “calm.” You also get “Israel vows to restore calm.”
Deploying my conflict translator here, one finds that “calm” and “quiet” are luxuries reserved for Israelis. Palestinians have not enjoyed calm for decades. Israelis will, once the bombing and the rocketing end, return to a life of sipping cappuccinos in their cafes in Tel Aviv, largely unaware of any conflict or tensions, grateful that they no longer have to rush to bomb shelters or spend sleepless nights worrying about loved ones.
Palestinians will have no such luxury. Families wait for the bulldozers. Mothers will wonder if their children will make it back home from school every day or whether Israeli soldiers will crash into their homes in one of their many midnight arrest raids to pick up kids accused of throwing stones. Palestinian villagers wonder if they can pick their olives without being attacked by armed Israeli settlers. Calm in this narrative is an Israeli right, not a Palestinian one.
It highlights one crucial element of this conflict: Media coverage, especially in the US, ignores the issue of Palestine until Israelis are under attack. Politicians all too often are guilty of the same offense. If Palestinian rights are being systematically ignored, it does not register. So much coverage offers a narrative of Palestinian action and Israeli reaction, as if the Hamas rockets were the cause of the conflict, as opposed to being a symptom. As every day is an assault on Palestinians, where do you choose to start the timeline? Palestinians might say 1948, or even 1917.
De-escalation is another term used in a similar vein, along with both sides must do this or that, as if the two sides were equal parties, not occupier against occupied. This is ever-present in diplo-speak. Here again, de-escalation only refers to the bombs and rockets — it ignores the daily aggression of ethnic cleansing, occupation and siege against Palestinians. More than 50 years of military occupation is an aggression; living under hostile foreign military rule is an act of violence.
True de-escalation — one that will mean anything at all to Palestinians — must include a complete and final end to demolitions, forcible transfers and land theft, as well as the annulment of all discriminatory laws that give more rights to Jews than Palestinians.
Then we get: “Israel has a right to defend itself.” Have you heard any single Western leader speak of a Palestinian right to self-defense? Israel has this right, like any state, but is this what is going on? The evidence from the 2006, 2008/9, 2012, 2014 and 2018 wars on Gaza shows that Israeli forces never restrict themselves to acts of self-defense in line with the legal requirements of distinction, precaution and proportionality.
US President Joe Biden reiterates his support for Israel’s right to self-defense, but never says anything about Palestinian rights. In fact, the White House has expressed more concern to Israel about protecting journalists than Palestinian civilians. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was no better. She used that dreaded word, “concern,” and did not bother to mention Palestinians. When leaders utter the words “Israel has the right to self-defense,” with no reference to Palestinian rights, it is just a green light for Israel to smash Gaza.
What Israel is defending is its system of apartheid, occupation, siege and subjugation. If Palestinians have the temerity to protest and mobilize against this, Israeli forces use brutal force to intimidate and terrorize those involved. Hamas and other armed groups fire rockets, mortar fire and incendiary balloons at Israeli civilians, which is both illegal and futile, and it also triggers the colossal Israeli bombardment that inevitably follows. Israel is permitted under international law to target a person launching a rocket, but minimal effort is made to avoid civilian fatalities.
Israel’s actions collectively punish 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, while the blockade also performs this purpose. Israeli strategists openly speak of the need to “mow the lawn” in Gaza every few years. It was then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who best summed up the Israeli position back in 2018: “There are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip.” A successor, Naftali Bennett, boasted: “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life and there’s no problem with that.”
Anti-Semitism is also much used, often abused too. Combating it is vital. But when did a major Western political leader talk about racism against Arabs? We heard “Death to Arabs” being chanted in Jerusalem again. Lynch mobs dragged people out of cars just because they looked Arab. Yet there is a stench of racism in terms of seeing Arab fatalities in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Yemen as mere numbers. Anti-Arab sentiment is arguably the least-talked-about form of racism on the planet, even though it is one of the most pervasive.
But the regime of apartheid has to end to bring calm and to de-escalate, to build healthy relations between all who live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Only then should there be talk of another favorite term: “Coexistence.” Occupation and coexistence are like oil and water — they do not mix.
When the bombing stops, political leaders just move on to the next issue and forget the Palestinians living under the Israeli boot.
The international community has to dismantle this regime, not least when the occupied and subjugated have no means to do so. Palestinians cannot negotiate their way out of this, nor can they win any military confrontation against Israel.
Lame language is reflective of a mindset of the international community that explains why most major actors will again fail to do what is necessary to bring about genuine peace and justice for all. When the bombing stops, political leaders just move on to the next issue and forget the Palestinians living under the Israeli boot.
Unless political leaders start acting on achieving Palestinian rights, not just Israeli, we shall be forced to relive this horror in the next few years, while Palestinians will live the horror of apartheid and occupation every single hour of every day. Who knows, but might one day we hear an American president support Palestinian freedom?
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech