Facts require narratives in which to take root, but the terminology of the powerful too often trivializes war, dehumanizes those who suffer and erases the past.
“It appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” said U.S. President Joe Biden in a low mumble as he sat next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Tel Aviv hotel conference room on Oct. 18. Less than 24 hours earlier, a huge explosion had ripped through the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, killing and injuring hundreds — including displaced Gazans who had been seeking refuge from the onslaught of the current Israel-Palestine war.
In the immediate aftermath, Biden was ready to signal support for his “team,” Israel, by decisively attributing blame to Hamas. Even now, weeks later, the lack of access into Gaza for independent investigators still makes it impossible to determine if a failed Palestinian rocket or an Israeli airstrike caused the blast.
A day after Biden’s cavalier rhetoric, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak echoed him in remarks that seemed more appropriate for live sports commentary than a recognition of large-scale political violence, telling Netanyahu that Israel had the right to “go after Hamas” and that “we also want you to win.” Meanwhile, “Fox & Friends” co-anchor Brian Kilmeade excitedly discussed the war as if he was watching a high-octane football thriller, throwing in phrases about “power players going against Israel” and proceeding to name Middle Eastern countries like athletes about to enter a packed stadium.
The language used by those who wield power in Israel and the West reveals an overarching theme — the dissociation of Israeli violence from its lethal consequences, with Palestinian civilians often described as “dying” from airstrikes rather than “killed.” This normalization of violence predates Hamas’ initial assault on Oct. 7 and is perpetuated through three overlapping linguistic patterns that have emerged from the last 75 years of Israeli statehood and occupation: game-like language, the dehumanization of Palestinians and the dehistoricization of Palestine as a state.
To trace the origins of the language game enacted around Israel’s treatment of Gaza, we have to examine the Israeli state’s approach toward war, cultivated over decades.