Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray lamented the importance of words when he mused ‘How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel!’ However, in the modern, post-truth reality that we live in, words are often cruel without being clear or vivid, and have been cleverly employed by international media in describing the Israeli response to the Great March of Return protests. Indeed, the ‘subtle magic’ (Gray, again) of language has managed to obfuscate the law and give strength to Israeli laudateurs, even as bodies continue to pile up in Gaza.
It has been just over six weeks since the 2018 Palestinian commemoration of Land Day commenced on 30 March, which this year has been hailed as the Great March of Return. The historical basis of these annual commemorations is extremely important to modern-day Palestinian collectivism, and began in 1976 as a Palestinian general strike in response to the Israeli Government’s plan to expropriate thousands of acres of Palestinian-owned land for state purposes. This was the first time since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that the Palestinian people organised their struggle collectively, and protested from the southern Negev to the northern Upper Galilee, just below Lebanon.
On 30 March 1976, six Palestinian protesters were killed and hundreds of others were arrested or injured. Fast forward a little over forty years later, and the latest Palestinian-led collective protest in 2018 has seen a huge mobilisation, particularly in Gaza, with tens of thousands of Gazans from diverse political and social backgrounds joining in a march on the northern and eastern military barricades separating Gaza from Israel. This Great March of Return is an expression of the collective desire of Palestinian refugees trapped in Gaza to return to their historic homelands, expropriated all those decades ago.
However, the Great March of Return protesters have met a barrage of fire from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on the partitioning barricades, with nineteen protesters shot and killed on the first day (30 March), and hundreds more injured. The death toll has since risen to at least 107 protesters killed by the IDF (at least fifty-eight killed on 14 May), and about 12,000 injured (over 2,000 on 14 May). This number has included children, with one sixteen-year-old and two fifteen-year-old boys murdered by direct sniper fire; Azzam Oweida was the first child to have been murdered in the protest, perishing from a sniper bullet to the head on 28 April 2018, and the fifth child to be killed by Israel across all the Occupied Territories since the end of March. The collective outcry that should have emanated from the ‘Western liberal’ world against the needless deaths and maiming in Gaza – in concert with similar outcries against civilian attacks in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the region – has instead been voiced as a meek sigh of indifference. Nowhere else is this more aptly demonstrated than in the carefully crafted language deployed by the world’s largest media organisations.
Professor Makdisi, of the University of California, Los Angeles, was one of the first scholars to draw attention to how word-choices and the use of passive language by media organisations have distorted representations of the Great Return March. Renowned media outlets worldwide have employed syntax such as ‘clashes’ (BBC, Wall Street Journal, SBS, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Yahoo, The Independent, ABC, The Guardian), ‘confrontations’ (New York Times, CNN), and ‘conflict’ (The Hindu, Channel 4). It is worth further analysing what the employment of these words means alongside the passive language (think ‘A Palestinian March Along Israel’s Border Turns Fatal’, ‘Nearly 1,000 Palestinians injured in Gaza-Israel border protests’, and ‘Protests in Gaza leave at least 15 dead’).
Firstly, as Professor Makdisi identifies, the passive language evidenced throughout media reports removes agency from Palestinian protesters and separates facts from reality – Palestinians didn’t drop dead of their own accord, they were fatally shot by members of the IDF. The Great March didn’t ‘turn fatal’, it was made fatal for Palestinian protesters when Israeli soldiers shot them. Secondly, the use of terms such as clashes, confrontations, and conflict require a deeper level of analysis to fully appreciate their significance.
A three-way account of the philosophy of language determines that the meaning of a word is built by (1) the speaker’s intentions, (2) the context, and (3) the linguistic expectations of the hearer.
In relation to the first limb of the philosophy of language, ‘the speaker’s intentions’, the intention of the above media organisations is often difficult to discern, is diverse, and typically answerable to political masters (think Murdoch of News Corp), but we may err on the side of (gratuitous) fairness and make an assumption that these organisations are trying to report fairly and without bias; consistent with the general definition of clashes, confrontations and conflict as being an equally violent meeting of two sides. A ‘non-partisan’ intention is often an admirable quality of journalism, but here it is difficult to reconcile this intent with the reports from the Gisha Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement and the World Health Organisation, that a 300 metre ‘No-Go’ zone exists between the military positions on the border, taken up by the IDF, and the protesting Palestinians, who hold their protests 500 metres from these positions (though they are getting slightly closer). This makes a physical, equal exchange between two opponents difficult to envisage, even if we accept the reports of Palestinians throwing petrol bombs and stones towards IDF personnel, who are shooting live ammunition in return – sniper fire can certainly traverse that distance, thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails probably cannot (Ronald Bradstock threw a cricket ball 132 metres, and holds the world record for such an attempt).
Turning to the second limb of the philosophy, ‘the context’. The seventh-century Indian philosopher Prabhākara contended that a word only has meaning within the context of a sentence, which philosophers such as Gottlob Frege (1884) and Donald Davidson (1973) expanded upon to find that the meaning of a word is found in the context of a proposition, where a proposition is the attitude that bears truth or falsity within and through a sentence – a proposition is a claim about the world (‘two plus two equals five’ is a sentence that is asserting a proposition, a truth about the world). ‘Fierce clashes continue at Gaza-Israel border fence’ (BBC) is a sentence with two propositions: that there were (1) fierce clashes, and (2) these were at the Gaza-Israel border. The BBC offers these propositions as evidence for the truth of the conclusion that is invariably drawn from this headline, without even reading the article, which is that clashes means Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers are fighting at a border. We have dealt with the misnomer of clashes above, but the second proposition here deserves closer consideration.
Locating the non-existent clashes at the Gaza-Israel border confounds the real purpose of the land-barrier fence between Israel and Gaza, manned exclusively by the IDF. As stated above, there is a ‘no-go’ zone inside the Gaza-Israel barrier, providing a buffer to the security fence, and this area constitutes seventeen per cent of the entire territory of Gaza, and a third of its arable land. Israel retains full control of all movement of people and goods through these borders (which is the primary route for vital products to enter the Gaza strip), and regularly closes the bordering crossings. Indeed, Gaza border crossings were closed indefinitely in December 2017, and another ‘total shut-down’ has been in place since the end of March this year. The misinformation that any clashes could be staged at this border is deceptive, as no Palestinians are able to get anywhere near the barrier (civilians within the ‘no-go’ zone are regularly shot by the IDF, with eight killed in 2016). The border is unlike any other operating in the ‘Western world’; it functions as a tool of occupation (the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross regard Israel as an occupying power), and although Israel is able to take restrictive measures that are militarily necessary to restore public order, the regular closures that severely affect the entire population amount to collective punishment and are illegal under international law.
Restrictions of food, goods, and humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza have a serious impact on the human rights of the entire population in Gaza, ultimately undermining an adequate standard of living in this ‘biggest open-air prison on Earth.’ As an occupying power, Israel has a legal obligation to respect the human rights of Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank, including their right to freedom of movement throughout the Palestinian territory. By stating that clashes are occurring at the Gaza-Israel border, the BBC and other news agencies conceal the suffocating reality that this border imposes, and avoids the fact that these borders are not finalised – the demarcations of an independent Palestinian state are permanent status issues that were to be negotiated under the Oslo Accords, and never have been negotiated. In closely considering the propositions from the BBC title (and others), the non-linguistic context (being the political and geographical realities) is much murkier than what it is made out to be.
In closing off our triangle of a three-way account of the philosophy of language, the linguistic expectation of the hearer is one that we can control ourselves. In order to uncover the truth, it is vital that we, as listeners and readers, continue to question the motives, context, and language of media reports, and it is equally vital that we continue to support independent media to uncover facts-on-the-ground, which is particularly important in the context of the Great Return March, where journalists have been targeted and killed by the IDF, within a history of journalists being denied entry into Gaza. As this article has shown, understanding language and dissecting premises presented as evidence for the truth is important, and in doing so, we can mitigate the ‘terrible cruelty’ that these words can have for some of the most disadvantaged people on the planet.
This is part of a special edition marking seventy years of occupation in Palestine. Read the rest of the edition:
– ‘Seventy years of the Nakba’: Jacinda Woodhead, Sian Vate and Rasheeda Wilson
– ‘Indigenous there, settlers here: Palestinians in Australia’ – Tasnim Sammak
– ‘A history of Palestinian dispossession’ – Lana Tatour
– ‘Reconciling the Nakba’ – Na’ama Carlin