Israel’s Gaza war rooted in dehumanizing, genocidal language
Tutsis “are cockroaches. We will kill you.” Arabs are like “drugged cockroaches in a bottle.”
The first quote was a line repeated frequently by Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines, a Rwandan radio station that is largely blamed for inciting hatred toward the Tutsi people. The second was a 1983 quote from former Israeli army chief of staff Gen. Rafael Eitan when speaking at an Israeli parliamentary committee hearing.
Rwanda’s hate-filled radio station operated for only one year (1993-94), yet the outcome of its incitement resulted in one of the saddest and most tragic episodes in modern human history: the genocide of the Tutsis. Compare this “radio genocide” to the massive Israeli-US-Western propaganda that dehumanizes Palestinians using almost identical language.
Many seem to forget that, long before the latest eruption of Israel’s war on Gaza, and even before the establishment of Israel itself in 1948, the Zionist-Israeli discourse was always one of racism, dehumanization, erasure and, at times, outright genocide.
If one were to randomly select any period of Israeli history to examine the political discourse emanating from its officials, institutions and even intellectuals, one could draw the same conclusion: Israel has always built a narrative of incitement and hatred, thus making a constant case for the genocide of Palestinians.
This genocidal intent is now becoming obvious to many people. “There is … a risk of genocide against the Palestinian people,” a group of UN experts said in a statement last week. But this “risk of genocide” is not born out of recent events.
Indeed, effective political or military actions anywhere in the world hardly take place without an edifice of text and language that facilitates, rationalizes and justifies those actions. Israel’s perception of Palestinians is a perfect illustration of this claim.
Prior to the establishment of Israel, Zionists denied the very existence of the Palestinians. Many still do. When that is the case, it becomes logical to conclude that Israel, in its own collective mind, cannot be morally culpable for killing those who never existed in the first place.
Perhaps it is time to start paying attention to how Israel’s genocidal language is translated to an actual genocide on the ground
Even when Palestinians factor into the Israeli political discourse, they become “bloodthirsty animals,” “terrorists” or “drugged cockroaches in a bottle.” It would be too convenient to label this as just racist. Though racism is at work here, this sense of racial supremacy does not exist merely to maintain a sociopolitical order in which Israelis are masters and Palestinians are serfs. It is far more complex than that.
After Palestinian fighters from Gaza crossed into Israel on Oct. 7, killing hundreds, not a single Israeli politician, analyst or mainstream intellectual seemed interested in the context of this daring act. The post-Oct. 7 language used by Israelis, as well as many Americans, created the atmosphere necessary for the savage Israeli response that followed.
The number of Palestinians killed in the first eight days of the Israeli war against Gaza reportedly exceeded the number killed during the longest and most destructive Israeli war on the Strip, dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” in 2014. According to Defense for Children Palestine, a Palestinian child is being killed every 15 minutes and, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, more than 70 percent of the casualties in Gaza are women, children and the elderly.
For Israel, none of these facts matter. In the mind of President Isaac Herzog, who is often perceived as a moderate, the “rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved (is) absolutely not true.” They are legitimate targets, simply because they “could have risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime,” he said, referring to Hamas. Therefore, “it is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” according to Herzog, who promised payback.
Ariel Kallner, a Knesset member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, explained Israel’s goal behind the Gaza war. “Right now, one goal: Nakba. A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 1948,” he said.
The same sentiment was conveyed by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the man responsible for translating Israel’s declaration of war into an action plan. “We are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly,” he said on Oct. 9. By “accordingly,” he meant that “there will be no electricity, no food, no fuel. Everything is closed.” And, of course, thousands of dead civilians.
Since Israel’s top political authorities have already declared that all Palestinians are collectively responsible for the events of Oct. 7, this means that all Palestinians are, as per Gallant’s assessment, “human animals” that deserve no mercy.
Expectedly, Israel’s supporters in the US and other Western countries joined the chorus, also using the most violent and dehumanizing language, thus cementing the mainstream Israeli political discourse among ordinary people. For example, US presidential hopeful Nikki Haley told Fox News that the Hamas attack was not just on Israel but also “an attack on America.” She then made a sinister declaration, while looking directly at the camera: “Netanyahu, finish them, finish them … finish them.”
Though US President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not use the exact same words, they both made comparisons between Oct. 7 and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The meaning behind this requires no elaboration.
For his part, Sen. Lindsey Graham rallied American conservative and religious supporters, declaring: “We are in a religious war here … Do whatever the hell you have to do … Level the place.”
Much more, equally sinister, language continues to be uttered. The outcome is being broadcast around the clock. Israel is “finishing off” Gaza’s civilian population and it is “leveling” thousands of homes, mosques, hospitals, churches and schools. Indeed, it is producing another painful episode of the Nakba.
From Golda Meir saying Palestinians “did not exist” to Menachem Begin’s Palestinians are “beasts walking on two legs” and Eli Ben Dahan’s Palestinians “are like animals, they aren’t human,” along with numerous other racist and dehumanizing references, the Zionist discourse remains unchanged.
Now, it is all coming together — the language and the actions are in perfect alignment. Perhaps it is time to start paying attention to how Israel’s genocidal language is translated to an actual genocide on the ground. Sadly, for thousands of Palestinian civilians, this awareness is simply too late.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. X: @RamzyBaroud