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Words matter

Words matter

Words matter.

They have consequences, whether uttered by government officials, members of parliament, military commanders, religious figures, activists, or pundits.

Words become part of a battle of competing narratives in which the narrative is a tool to achieve a political outcome.

In the Israeli-Palestinian battle of narratives, they, more often than not, either are designed to thwart solutions or, by design or default, reinforce entrenched mutually exclusive positions.

In democratic countries like the United States and Germany, the battle of Israeli-Palestinian narratives has become a struggle for the defense of fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and academic liberty. As a result, positions have hardened on all sides of the Gaza divide.

Even so, no one is exempt from responsibility for words and acts that fuel the fire and potentially prolong the plight of innocent Gazans rather than seek to put an end to unjustifiable human suffering.

Not Israel, not Hamas, not Qatar, and not activists demonstrating for and against the war.

Taking responsibility means separating the wheat from the chafe. It means taking distance from expressions that advocate genocide or mass killings or are racist and prejudiced.

Failure to do so amounts to acquiescence, if not complicity, in promoting racism, supremacism, and prejudice, and legitimising mass killings.

There is enough blame to go around.

Israel is digging itself into an ever-deeper hole with its Gaza war conduct and blood-curdling statements by its political and religious leaders. There is little prospect that Israel will rethink its attitudes without the international community exacting a price.

Seven months into the Gaza war, US President Joe Biden’s bear hug approach has proven ineffective, producing, at best, marginal results when it comes to Gaza, the protection of innocent Palestinian lives, and putting Israelis and Palestinians on a path toward a resolution of the conflict that recognises Palestinian and Israeli rights as equal.

Take, for example, Jake, a pseudonym for an unidentified member of an Israeli ‘commanding unit’ in the Gaza war that, according to the Strip’s health ministry,  has killed 34,138 Palestinians and wounded 77,034 others.

Speaking to Britain’s Channel 4, Jake noted that many of his colleagues in the military “don’t draw the line between what we call militants or terrorists and what we would call civilians… People saw those videos of those (abducted) around the streets of Gaza… Those people cheer and take part in whatever it is… So, (Israelis) say all of them are part of it. They all support it.”

Jake was referring to celebrations in Gaza immediately after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel in which 1,139, primarily innocent people, were killed. Hamas and other Palestinians kidnapped 250 people during the attack and brought them to Gaza as hostages, some of whom were paraded in the Strip.

Hamas and other Palestinians still hold some 130 hostages after an initial swap in November of 100 captives in exchange for 240 Palestinians in Israeli jails. A significant but unknown number of the remaining hostages were killed in the Gaza fighting.

Jake traced the notion that there are no innocent Gazans to a belief that Hamas and other Palestinian fighters “are the kids that we spared in the war in 2014. Those kids that we spared then are the ones that did the (October) 7th… It was widespread among the people around me, talking about this.”

Jake’s description of attitudes in the military when he was on active duty mirrors the framing of the war by Israel’s top political leaders as well as religious figures.

It is an entire nation out there responsible (for the October 7 attack). It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog told a news conference six days into the war.

When asked to clarify whether he meant to say that since Gazans did not remove Hamas from power “that makes them, by implication, legitimate targets,” Mr. Herzog claimed, “No, I didn’t say that.”

However, Mr. Herzog then went on to say that “When you have a missile in your goddamn kitchen and you want to shoot it at me, am I allowed to defend myself?”

Six months later, Mr. Herzog’s rhetoric still echoes in statements of politicians, religious figures, and pundits.

In March, Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, whose religious seminary in Jaffa aims to dispossess Palestinians still resident in what is today a southern suburb of Tel Aviv that once was Palestine’s most populous city, issued what can only be called an incitement to genocide.

“The basic rule we have when fighting a holy war, in this case, Gaza, is the doctrine of ‘not sparing a soul.’ The logic of this is very clear. If you don’t kill them, they will try to kill you. Today’s saboteurs are the children of the previous war whom we kept alive,” Mr. Mali said in a conference at his Shirat Moshe Yeshiva.

“It is the women who create the terrorists… It’s either you or them… ‘Do not spare a soul’ is based on the doctrine, ‘He who comes to kill you in the afternoon, kill him in the morning.’ The one who comes to kill you is not (just) the 18, 16, 20, 30-year-old who points his weapon at you, but also the next generation and those that give birth to the next generation,” Mr. Mali said.

The rabbi asserted that “there is no such thing called an innocent creature… An elderly man can carry a rifle and shoot.”

Asked if the same is true for children, Mr. Mali replied, shrugging his shoulders, “It’s the same thing… When the Torah says, ‘Do not spare a soul, you must not spare a soul. Today he is a child, today he is a youth, tomorrow a fighter.”

For Jake, the conclusion is obvious. “Our government and their government, Hamas, are actually the same team. They essentially want to see this piece of land being soaked with blood.”

Hamas and Israel compete on who issues the most blood-curdling statements. Both display a despicable disregard for the humanity of the other.

Cloaking itself in the mantle of legitimate resistance and the assertion that all Israelis, including those within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, are settlers, Hamas has no compunction about threatening more October 7-style attacks that would target civilians.

Reinforcing the trauma sparked by the attack, Hamas political bureau member Ghazi Hamad insisted, “We must teach Israel a lesson, and we will do it twice and three times. The Al-Aqsa Deluge (the name Hamas gave its October 7 onslaught) is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth.”

Many will argue with good reason that Mr. Hamad was voicing Hamas’ true intentions rather than spewing despicable rhetoric.

Even so, like the numerous, often daily statements and remarks by Israelis, Hamas’ statements undermine efforts to end the war.

Similarly, Essa bin Ahmad Al-Nassr, an elected member of Qatar’s legislative Shura council rather than a government spokesperson, this week gave fodder to Israeli efforts to stall, if not undermine Qatar-mediated indirect ceasefire and prisoner exchange negotiations.

“There will be no peace nor negotiations with the Zionist entity for one reason: because their mentality does not recognize negotiations, but rather only…. breaking promises and lying…. They only recognize one thing, which is killings, since they are killers of prophets,” Mr. Al-Nasser told an Arab League conference.

Going further than Qatar’s blaming Israeli policy towards the Palestinians for Hamas’ October 7 attack, Mr. Al-Nassr praised the assault as a “prelude to the annihilation of the corruption of the ‘second Zionist entity’ upon earth.”

While Mr. Al-Nassr, like Hamas and Israelis, is free to say what he wants, his remarks threatened to undermine further Qatari attempts to get the stalled ceasefire talks back on track.

Israel and its allies in the US Congress have, in recent months, sought to complicate the negotiations by discrediting Qatar as a key mediator and trying to force it to expel Hamas’ negotiators.

Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli activists on campuses in the United States and elsewhere have no less a choice; they either clearly delineate and define their stance as expressed in chants, slogans, and posters, or they too become part of the problem rather than the solution.

Washington-based Middle East analyst Hussein Ibish noted that “while many Jewish students hear the chant ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ as an exclusionary call to get rid of Jews, surveys demonstrate that most Arab and Muslim students hear merely a call for freedom.”

Mr. Ibish went on to say, “No one is asking the demonstrators what they mean by such slogans. Instead, malign sentiments are being inferred or presumed. What would freedom from the river to the sea entail? Is anyone against freedom? Can everyone have it equally? Must an area be under a single sovereign or system to be free? Is this really anti-Semitism?”

Mr. Ibish has a point as it relates to the central theme of the pro-Palestinian protests.

However, there is no ambiguity about chants in recent days of a small group among the demonstrators at Columbia University, seemingly cordoned off from the main protest.

“We say justice, how say you?

Burn Tel Aviv to the ground.

Ya, Hamas, we love you.

Take another soldier out…

It is right to rebel.

Ya, Hamas, give them hell.

Free, free Palestine,” the groups chanted.

In a statement, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine said they were “frustrated by media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us.  We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand against non-students attempting to disrupt our solidarity.” The statement made no mention of the group of students that called for the burning of Tel Aviv.

To be sure, Israel bears responsibility for creating, long before the Gaza war, a polarised environment in which it successfully conflated criticism of the state and its policies or opposition to Zionism with anti-Semitism.

The Israeli campaign amounted to an assault on democratic freedoms and an attempt to shield Israelis of all walks of life, including the country’s political and religious elite, from being held responsible for genocidal, racist, and prejudiced statements that are no different from blood-curdling pronouncements of its enemies and detractors.

In Israel’s case, a price is being exacted, even if holding Israel to account is long overdue. Israel, led by a far-right, ultra-nationalist, and ultra-conservative government whose precepts enjoy widespread support, has all but lost its global standing.

In Israel, the consequences are slowly starting to sink in, even if that has yet to produce a change of government or Israeli policy.

Even so, Israel’s critics risk falling into a trap laid by Israel and its supporters in the West. Failing to draw a clear line between what is legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism and what has anti-Semitic undertones, and what is legitimate resistance within the confines of international law and what amounts to a call for killing innocent civilians, whether Israeli or Palestinian, leaves the protesters with bad choices:

They either legitimise Israeli allegations of anti-Semitism or they box themselves into a corner.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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