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The war of words in Gaza
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The war of words in Gaza

How word choice in the media impacts public opinion

Where do I stand on Gaza? Palestinian residents of this densely populated geographic area are suffering from lack of sufficient drinking water, limited electricity, poor access to health care, open sewage, decrepit housing, on and on. Primary responsibility for their plight rests with Hamas leaders, who have prioritized their own ideological mission to annihilate Israel over the well-being of the people who live under their control. Other actors have secondary responsibility, though, including the Palestinian Authority, Egypt — which also shares a border with Gaza — Israel, the United States, and the international community.   

Hamas’ mobilization of tens of thousands of Palestinians to try to break through the border fence, their so-called “March of Return,” was not motivated by anger over the ill-timed opening of America’s embassy in Jerusalem. Nor was this principally an expression of frustration over the deplorable conditions in Gaza, although people with nothing to lose are more easily recruited by extremists. Rather, the aim was to wreak havoc in nearby Israeli civilian communities. In early April, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar declared, “we’ll take down the [Israeli] border and tear out [the Israelis’] hearts from their bodies.” 

Even though most of the participants in the series of assaults on Israel’s border fence were unarmed civilians, Israeli soldiers had no choice but to take measures — consistent with their own rules of engagement and international law — to prevent the border from being crossed. This task was extraordinarily complicated given the chaotic conditions at the scene. The large number of Palestinian casualties, of course, is regrettable. However, it is also worth remembering that most of those killed were Hamas operatives, a fact admitted by the organization’s own leadership. I believe that had the Gazans managed to cross over into Israeli territory, the carnage would have been much greater, and it could have encouraged similar attempts at Israel’s other borders.  

Whether Israel’s soldiers have always acted with appropriate force given the nature of the threat is debatable. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is not beyond reproach — no army is. But because I’ve gotten to know many of them over the years, I respect the professionalism and humanity of the IDF’s senior officers. Certainly, the IDF’s response has been widely supported by the Israeli public.  

The battle for American public opinion is fought in 24/7 broadcast news, online media, and print publications; whoever controls the language often controls the narrative. The labels we attach to people influences our perception of them and how they should be treated. On a recent call for Jewish community leadership sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America, a spokesman for the IDF insisted that we stop calling Palestinian actions at the border “protests,” which implies non-violent behavior. For fellow baby boomers, the shooting of protesters conjures painful memories of Kent State and the civil rights movement, and the spokesman was legitimately concerned that the public would be more critical of the IDF if the Palestinian victims were referred to as protesters. 

With that as a jumping off point, I conducted a non-scientific survey of articles, opinion pieces, statements, and talking points regarding the violence in Gaza. The term “protests” was used in most cases to describe Palestinian actions, and I also found the use of the words “demonstrations” and “riots.” One official Israeli government source called it a “violent confrontation campaign,” and often, but not always, the modifier “violent” was attached to protests and demonstrations. Personally, I find it difficult to describe the events so succinctly. To me, these were Hamas-led assaults on Israel’s borders by thousands of Palestinian civilians. 

The IDF officer’s admonition reminded me of the terminology battle surrounding the Darfuris and Eritreans who have sought to remain in Israel. The organizations that advocate on their behalf refer to them as “refugees” or “asylum-seekers,” whereas Israel’s government calls them “infiltrators.” A more common example is the term “occupation” to describe Israel’s presence in the West Bank. The current Israeli government rejects it, and the U.S. State Department recently largely discontinued its longstanding policy of using this term; its annual human rights report referred to the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Gaza, rather than “occupied territories,” according to Axios. But to the rest of the world, it’s an occupation.  

This jostling around language is hardly new. More than 30 years ago when I served as director of the American Jewish Congress in Philadelphia, an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer described individuals suspected of killing a British tourist in Jerusalem as “guerillas.” I wrote a letter to the editors challenging this designation based on Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which defined guerilla as one who engages in irregular warfare, with the dictionary defining warfare as “military operations” between “enemies.” This was no military operation, I argued, nor could the British tourist possibly be considered an enemy, and in a subsequent letter I argued that the word “terrorist” applied in this situation, as this act of violence was directed against an unarmed civilian to advance a political objective. 

The Inquirer’s editors and I went back and forth for a full year until they finally acknowledged in a letter to me (small victory!) that the use of the term guerilla to describe the murderer of a British tourist was “improper.” Still, the editors expressed reluctance to use the “emotionally-charged” term terrorism, preferring to “just report what happens and allow readers to make their own judgments.” (I shared the letter with Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, and received a note from the future prime minister praising my persistence.)

This is not merely a public relations matter. How the events at Gaza’s border are categorized or defined can determine whether Israel’s use of live ammunition met internationally accepted rules of engagement. A coalition of human rights groups argued in two petitions to the Israel Supreme Court that such Palestinian activity at the border should be considered civilian demonstrations. The Israeli government countered that they are part of its ongoing armed conflict with Hamas.

Late last week we learned that Israel’s government prevailed — it almost always does in these kinds of security-related cases — when the court unanimously voted to reject both petitions. The justices ruled that the IDF could continue to use live fire during border confrontations with Palestinians, as Hamas was intentionally integrating civilians into the throngs of protesters to make it difficult for the soldiers to pick out the terrorists. 

Whether you believe Israel used excessive force or acted with restraint — and regardless of how you describe what occurred at the border fence — we should acknowledge that Israel has a legitimate right of self-defense, and at the same time work toward alleviating the suffering of Gaza’s residents.

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