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Palestine and Israel – arsenals of swords and words

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

“Israel is under siege by a terrorist organization”

John Kerry

Hamas uses “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause”

Benjamin Netanyahu

In wars and armed conflicts, words and metaphors form the other side of the physical arsenal warring parties employ in their battles. Language is one of the most malleable, elastic products ever produced by civilization. And while both the mighty and the weak manipulate words and metaphors, the use and abuse of language in the hands of powerful entities that control various institutions and communication networks can be at times the decisive factor in who wins and who loses

We owe a great debt of gratitude to George Orwell and his intellectual descendants for showing us how the powerful, yet despotic, regimes and totalitarian ideologies and even democratic governments, have used debased language as a formidable weapon in their arsenal.

Arsenals of words and metaphors

Arabs and Israelis have had their own distinctive arsenals of words and metaphors; from the moment Israel was established as a state in historic Palestine, which was Yawm al-Nakba (day of catastrophe) for the Palestinians and the (war of independence) for the Israelis. Every time Arabs and Israelis engaged in fighting they would dust these arsenals off and upgrade them, usually with further debasement of language, in what seems to be an equally tough and endless clash of narratives. In the current conflict, Israelis find themselves struggling to frame a convincing narrative in the face of a sceptic American and international media, unable to stem a tsunami of critical social media that is complimenting, competing and enhancing the old, so-called establishment media. This is the first time, reporters, journalists and photographers working for mainstream American media have used their tweets, hashtags and Facebook posts not only to elaborate, and explain their dispatches and photographs, but also to express their personal views, feelings and impressions about an uneven fight and the horrendous human toll among civilian Palestinians, particularly children.

Israel is compelled to pay periodic military visits to Gaza to keep the “grass” under control

Hisham Melhem

It is true that normal life in Israel has been disrupted, and Hamas’ indiscriminate rockets have terrorized Israeli civilians, and the media covered that side as it should, but the coverage also noted that there is no symmetry in shattered lives and dreams, in destroyed homes, and civilians killed. That reality was the core message of the social media, as was reflected in the tweets and instagram posts of American and other international reporters covering the fighting.

The past is not a prologue

In past conflicts, Israelis were more adept at using their linguistic arsenal, particularly when addressing the West. With the conflict shifting from one among states, to a war pitting Israel against the Palestinians (first against the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO], when it was based in Jordan and Lebanon, and later Hamas in Gaza, Israel began to lose its ability to manufacture attractive and convincing metaphors, concepts and myths in its anti-Palestinian propaganda. The Israeli sheen began to fade away in 1982 during the invasion of Lebanon, when “imperial” Israel as then NBC anchor John Chancellor called it, laid siege to Beirut, pulverized parts of the city, and facilitated the massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Israel provided the intelligence and the logistics, and its soldiers besieging the camps fired flares at night to help the slaughter.

Stung by international revulsion, Israel began to build an ambitious Public Relations infrastructure, the Hasbara Project, to influence and cultivate international media to ensure good coverage, particularly in the United States. The project included programs to train Israeli diplomats and propagandists on how to use and manipulate language to frame issues in simple and attractive concepts and sound bites. In this clash of narratives, some metaphors, terms and concepts don’t lose their usefulness. One hears echoes of Israeli officials circa 1982 when one listens to senior members in the current Israeli government talking about the imperative of destroying “Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure” in Gaza or accusations of the use of “human shields.” In the past, journalists with thin knowledge of cultural-religious nuances were influenced by the way Israelis framed and conceptualized the issues, where they borrowed uncritically Israeli terms and paradigms. In this Orwellian world, assassinations become “targeted killings” and ethnic cleansing becomes “transfers.” And while Israeli framing of issues is still working with some journalists, columnists and U.S. government officials, this time more than before the agony of Gaza is seen through Palestinian prism.

‘Mowing the grass’

Israel’s repeated military attacks on Gaza is explained by the offensive term “mowing the grass”, that is to insure deterrence; Israel is compelled to pay periodic military visits to Gaza to keep the “grass” under control. Israel, of course does not have a monopoly on offensive language, and Hamas while being subjected to overwhelming force was still able to reach thousands of Israelis through their cell phones to taunt them; “We forced you to hide in shelters like mice”; to which an Israeli video answered back saying “we are killing Gaza” according to a dispatch by the New York Times.

But as reports of Palestinian civilian deaths (at this time of writing are close to 900 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 37 Israelis, most of them soldiers) and the enormous physical destruction was seen around the world, many people took to the social media - some to express themselves, others to attack and spread unreliable information or engage in propaganda.

But the heavy use of social media was worrisome to Israel, since much of it was sympathetic to the Palestinians. As of this writing the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has generated four million Twitter posts, while the hashtag #IsraelUnderAttack has garnered about 200,000 posts only.

Gaza as an internment camp

In general, the coverage of the international media, including American organizations such as the New York Times, CNN International and the other U.S. television networks, particularly NBC gave the world a sense and a feel of life. One of the absurdities of this conflict is equating a powerful state with a sliver of land controlled by a non-state actor that is unable to provide good and effective governance and that is shunned by most states in the region and beyond. Yet, it is Israel that controls the skies and the coastline, and (with Egypt) its land borders.

According to Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, the war was not triggered by Hamas, but by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s determination to bring down the Palestinian unity government, that was formed in June “because of Hamas’ desperation and isolation.”

The terms of the unity government were set mostly by the Palestinian Authority, and the cabinet did not include a single Hamas member. According to Thrall the failure of the U.S. and its European and Arab allies to address the two demands of Hamas; payment of the salaries of 43,000 civil servants and opening of the suffocating border crossings led to the current tragic situation. Thrall believes that “Hamas is now seeking through violence what it could not obtain through a peaceful hand over of responsibilities.” Israel’s objective is “a return to the status quo ante, when Gaza had electricity for barely 8 hours a day, water was undrinkable, sewage was dumped in the sea, fuel shortages caused sanitation plants to shut down and waste sometimes floated in the streets.”

‘Telegenically dead Palestinians…’

Some especially tragic moments and searing scenes were captured by some intrepid American and European journalists that helped shape and frame the agony of Gaza in ways that undermined the Israeli narrative. Some tweets are as powerful as graphic photos. One tweet by the correspondent of the Guardian in Gaza Peter Beaumont stood out: “I’ve seen some truly shocking scenes this morning. A man putting the remains of his two year old son into a garbage bag.” There were thousands of retweets.

The killing of four Palestinian preteens by Israeli gunboats moments after they were playing soccer with Journalists, including NBC’s ace reporter Ayman Mohyeldin on the beach, then the bloodiest day, so far when 67 Palestinians were killed in the East Gaza city neighborhood of Shujaiya, followed by the killing of 16 Palestinians at a United Nations shelter. The account by the New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks of the death of the four preteens, plus the reports and tweets of Ayman Mohyeldin, the excellent reports and tweets of the New York Times bureau chief in Lebanon Anne Barnard (who wrote a heart wrenching dispatch about the slow death of a nameless nine-year-old girl) led to the offensive outburst of Netanyahu in an interview with CNN that Hamas uses “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.” For Netanyahu, the mangled bodies of hundreds of children have turned suddenly telegenic and capable of generating international sympathy with Hamas.

The case of Ayman Mohyeldin and the power of the social media are instructive in explaining Israel’s predicament and the difficulties of controlling the message in a rapidly changing media landscape. After his report about the killing of the four boys and his tweet that he was playing soccer with them, Mohyeldin was pulled out from Gaza by NBC executives ostensibly for “security” reasons. The move created consternation inside NBC and was interpreted by many as an attempt to assure Israel that its reporting is not too sympathetic to the Palestinians. Immediately, thousands took to the social media with the hashtag #LetAymanReport trending widely on twitter. Shortly after the social media protests, NBC returned Mohyeldin to Gaza. The smart and newly empowered young reporter tweeted “thanks for all the support. I’m returning to #Gaza to report. Proud of NBC’s continued commitment to cover the #Palestinian side of the story.”

‘Israel is under siege by a terrorist organization’

From the beginning of the Israeli attack, U.S. officials from President Obama on down repeated in a ritualistic fashion Israeli claims and terms at time almost verbatim: Israel has the right to defend itself from missiles and rockets fired from outside of its borders, without any hint that the concept of self-defense becomes a bit murky when the party supposedly defending itself is doing so against a besieged and/or occupied party and across a non-recognized border. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry, a loquacious man created an Orwellian moment followed by an embarrassing moment of candor.

Before an interview on Fox television, Kerry was overheard talking to an aide on the phone expressing his frustration at Israel’s use of disproportionate force and mocking their claim to precision bombing: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation..” he said. Moments later on the air, there was a different chastened and loudly pro-Israel Kerry. The Orwellian moment came during an earlier CNN interview when Kerry volunteered that “Israel is under siege by a terrorist organization…” That was the day the irony died in Washington.

A Palestinian-Israeli civil war?

With each conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, the alienation between the two sides gets deeper and wider, with a growing number of people from both communities willing to engage in demonizing the other. Hamas certainly is not innocent politically and operationally. Even, if one allows (with difficulty) for constraints imposed by the nature of urban warfare, that whatever precautions Hamas takes to insulate the Palestinians will not be enough given the small size of the strip and its dense population, still firing rockets indiscriminately against urban Israeli centers and not building shelters for civilians, and not doing enough to protect Palestinians from inevitable Israeli attacks, is reckless in the extreme. It is worth repeating in this context that the deliberate killing of civilians, any civilians, is morally repugnant and politically indefensible. No cause justifies such actions.

The prospects for a political solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict are bleak for the foreseeable future. The passage of time will harden attitudes, with both peoples moving to the right, or becoming more religiously entrenched. It is very likely, that the struggle will take a different shape and become more communal involving all the Palestinians and Israelis in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, in an open civil war similar to those raging in the neighborhood. Israelis, then will bear most of the moral and historic responsibility for such a disaster for the two peoples.
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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.