In the Israel-Gaza war, words matter

Misrepresentation, polarisation and a wilful refusal to see the humanity of those on all sides has become the norm

A pro-Palestinian activist, left, argues with an Israel supporter during a rally in Miami, Florida in support of Palestinians in Gaza. AP
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In a lengthy interview with US magazine The Drift published on Tuesday, Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University and an influential Palestinian-American scholar, made the point that, in his view, “Israel’s being the result of a settler colonial process does not mean that every Israeli grandmother and every Israeli baby is a settler and therefore not a civilian.”

Two days later, Prof Khalidi’s quote was shared on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. One commentator responded with: “There’s an actual genocide happening in case you didn’t notice.”

No one is obliged to accept Prof Khalidi’s point, but one would be hard-pressed to find a better example than the ensuing commentary of how online discourse around the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict has largely degenerated into a dialogue of the deaf. As the war rages and thousands of civilians lose their lives, misrepresentation, polarisation and a wilful refusal to see the humanity of those on all sides has sadly become the norm.

If this were confined to the hothouse atmosphere of social media, that would be bad enough. But a black-and-white view of the conflict has taken hold in the non-virtual world, too. Many activist posters are partisan to the point where it seems they are watching a football match, not a conflict in which non-combatants are being killed, injured, traumatised and bereaved. The extent of blame and lack of empathy are of major concern.

Careless language and misrepresentation from some of those in positions of public authority has only added fuel to the fire. When Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant announced a “complete siege” of Gaza two days after the murderous Hamas attacks of October 7, he said his forces were fighting against “human animals” – an ill-defined, ill-advised and dehumanising outburst that failed to draw a distinction between Hamas militants and Gazan civilians.

Words matter, and during times of acute crisis – such as the current Israel-Gaza war – they can have serious consequences. When the Secretary General of the UN has to defend and re-read his unremarkable observation that the Hamas attacks “did not happen in a vacuum”, it is clear that misrepresentation and a refusal to engage with the substance of a claim are not confined to online exchanges.

We live in a time where everyone can be a publisher. Simply by possessing a smartphone, it has never been easier to share one’s views – regardless of one’s expertise or experience. It is true that many people who are not directly involved in or affected by the war in Gaza feel strongly about what is happening. But the truth is that only the people on the ground in Israel and Palestine, or those with family there, really know what is happening or what it feels like to live through these times.

Given the above, each of us has a responsibility to not only read carefully, but to share and post responsibly to avoid adding to the din surrounding this deadly conflict. This doesn’t mean watering down or sacrificing one’s views. It means making a commitment to listen closely, to think clearly and to speak carefully. It means to stop making a bad situation even worse.

Published: October 27, 2023, 3:00 AM