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  • Writer's pictureIsa taranto

The war we fight in words: how language shapes the Israel-Hamas conflict

While the bombs drop in Gaza and the international community desperately seeks a solution to a war that has imploded overnight, a parallel conflict has been unraveling. But instead of on the battlefield, this one is fought behind closed doors, around lustrous mahogany tables and by impressively dressed men and women; it is fought in front of microphones and in press rooms, in supermarkets and in suburbs. This is a war carried out subtly, delicately, very much out in the open but also quite imperceptibly, hidden in precise word choice—and, perhaps most of all, in what is left unsaid.

Despite the lack of universal agreement in the linguistic academic community, there is a consensus that words are quite a powerful tool to determine one’s perception of the world. In fact, the theory of linguistic relativity, first proposed by Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir in 1929, argues that languages and their structures can mold one’s ability to acquire and interpret knowledge; the meaning we infuse in even the simplest of terms is, therefore, shaped by the context in which an individual is situated. The exact influence of the society one inhabits is hard to measure in a world so globalized and predominantly dominated by Western languages (especially English); there are specific linguistic systems, however, that have been minimally touched by external influences and can serve as a testament to the power of words. The Eskimo Inuqiap dialect, for example, spoken in a region of Alaska—where, for the majority of the year, it is incredibly cold—, contains more than 70 terms for ‘ice’. This instance, among many others, attests to the incredibly close connection between wording and what a society may or may not dictate—a relationship that can be explored to, among so many other uses, both fuel a war and evoke peace.

Marketing and language—important components of psychological warfare—have played a crucial role in shaping public perception of war. Enlistment efforts dating back to the World Wars (with the classic Uncle Sam “I want YOU for U.S Army” poster) and campaigns to raise morale nationally during said conflicts (such as, perhaps more illustriously, the figure of Rosie the Riveter) have cleverly deployed of language and figures to transform a public from mere spectators to active participants in war. Governments have also utilized language to turn populations against external influences, as seen in the extensive anti-West propaganda production of the USSR. In the modern context, however, with much more widespread access to information—and, arguably, more opportunity for the holding of governmental accountability in democratic regimes—it is not as easy for individuals to be mobilized into any specific stand in times of conflict. Instead, governments recur to, among other mechanisms, the intricate language that can make or break diplomacy.

Enlistment poster for WWI (1917, left) and Rosie the Riveter for

the mobilization of women in total war (circa 1943, right).

The escalation of the conflict between Israel and Hamas has dominated international news in the past weeks. In a time of such pressing matters, one can be very easily subject to a sensory overload; the news updates are constant, and reports are often subjective to each country’s stance. This extensive he-said-she-said, aligned with journalists’ justified desire to keep on reporting to those who are not in the Gaza Strip—as well as others’ unjustifiable attempts to take advantage of the situation and spread false information—can be disorienting and leave spectators holding their breaths, at a loss for what to believe in. As tensions rise and violent confrontations soar, prompted both by anti-Palestine and anti-Israel supporters, it is important to be fully aware that everything read, no matter how trustworthy the source, has been written by a person or institution with a particular bias. The use of one word or another, deliberate or not and no matter how small, can have a great impact in shaping the opinion of the public about the conflict currently at hand.

On October 7, the Islamist militant movement Hamas not only took Israel by surprise with a deadly attack but also left the rest of the world scrambling to declare alliances and issue condemnations. The complex history of Israel and Palestine, especially when it comes to claims of the Gaza Strip, had already created a divide in the international community; still, the most recent outbreak of violence is yet another layer added to that relationship. Countries such as the United States and those of the European Union have vocally supported Israel—the former perhaps more vehemently than any other. The United States has been a long-standing ally of Israel and has remained faithful to that position, defining Hamas as a terrorist group and avoiding mentions of a ceasefire. Meanwhile, Hamas has been supported explicitly by other militant groups, most notoriously Hezbollah, and has received backing in the past from countries such as Qatar and Turkey, more recently moving closer to Iran. Other nations, such as Brazil, Russia, and China, have not denominated Hamas as terrorists and seem more hesitant to support Israel as strongly as the US, instead shaping language to condemn violence without specifying perpetrators (as is the case for Brazil), or sharpening criticism of Israel and the West (as is the case for China and Russia).

The word “terrorism”, especially charged after the 9/11 attacks, has been at the center of discussions within these major world powers, and even within the communications industry; the historical occurrences attached to that particular word, therefore, play a significant role in the perception of the Hamas garnered by the public. The way governments have behaved, carefully crafting statements that denounce their positions, omitting information that is not flattering, or adding speculation that is not true—as exemplified by Russian state media allegations that Ukraine supplied Hamas with weaponry—has shaped the views of the war within their territories. But even with the aforementioned increase in ethnically motivated hate crimes toward both Jews and Muslims, the impact of the linguistic choices of governments will perhaps not be truly quantifiable until after the conflict. Nevertheless, language has been proven to be fundamental to peace negotiations elsewhere—and, in this case, quite detrimental.

The modern vessel for international conflict resolution is, categorically, the United Nations. Founded in 1949, fundamentally to protect the global community from a rematch of the Second World War, the organ has a series of mechanisms and procedures in place to, at least in theory, ensure that it is as unbiased and effective as possible. The UN adopts an undoubtedly difficult position in the scenario of foreign relations, for it, among many other functions, serves as the middleman for essentially all conflicts and disputes amongst member countries. Once conflict escalated, therefore, both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council became actively involved in the matter, providing participating delegates with a space to negotiate and vocalize the perspectives of represented countries.

Exactly twenty days after the beginning of the war, the General Assembly voted favorably (120 yes, 14 no, 45 abstentions) to a resolution titled “Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations”, which demanded a humanitarian truce, the provision of basic resources to Gaza residents, and the return of all hostages to safety. This resolution, nevertheless, has failed to directly condemn Hamas’ actions or categorize them at all—the group is not even named in the document; the lack of a clause that directly positions the UN against the attacks, which are terrorist-like to say the least, is another example of the omission of language that is, indeed, indicative of the tense state of international relations. If a clause with more vehement language had been adopted, it is likely that this resolution would not have received as many votes as it did.

Despite the undeniable importance of the General Assembly’s positionings, it is the Security Council that can most make a difference in case of war. In fact, under the UN Charter, the General Assembly is not allowed to entertain peace and security matters when they are being discussed by the Security Council (which explains why the focus of the resolution passed by the UNGA was of humanitarian concern, and not the end of the conflict), and its documents are not legally binding, while in the Security Council they are. The Security Council has entertained multiple resolutions regarding the conflict and, almost one month later, has not yet succeeded in adopting any. On October 18, the United States vetoed a text put forward by Brazil that called for “humanitarian pauses” because it failed to acknowledge Israel’s right to self-defense. One week later, on October 26, two other resolutions fell through, one proposed by the United States—vetoed by both Russia and China—and another proposed by Russia, which called for a ceasefire and failed to gather enough votes. A distinction as small as the interchangeability of the terms “ceasefire” and “humanitarian pause”, therefore, has divided the Security Council and hindered the progress of peace negotiations. The difference, effectively, is that a “ceasefire” would entail the withdrawal of weaponry with the goal of de-escalating and eventually ceasing conflict; meanwhile, a “humanitarian pause” is a temporary truce, which could last as little as a few hours, and serve for the passage of aid toward the war zones or of displaced people to safety. Either alternative is both defendable and flawed—but, until there is some sort of compromise, the Security Council is not likely to entertain a successful resolution soon.

In an age in which communication is conducted with as few words as possible, generalizations are a true risk when one addresses this war. Despite the turbulent history of conflict between Israel and Palestine, this is not a war fought between the two, but rather a conflict between the former and Hamas. Hamas is only one group, of quite radical ideas, under the umbrella of beliefs that constitutes Palestine; like any other nation, this one also contains diverse perspectives within its population. In fact, a survey conducted by the Arab Barometer just days before October 7 has revealed that “the vast majority of Gazans have been frustrated with the armed group’s ineffective governance as they endure extreme economic hardship.” Most Gaza residents do not desire the violent elimination of the state of Israel but are nonetheless caught in the crossfire and have to flee their homes, perhaps for good. It is only fair, therefore, that those addressing the war are willing to make that distinction.

Most Gazans did not hold much trust in Hamas, even before

the war. Source: Foreign Affairs

Language is a fundamental part of human interaction; it is, concurrently, natural that it garners a profound impact on the multiple facets that constitute modern society. The Hamas-Israel conflict is a testament to the impact of linguistic choices when it comes to both the high echelons of international diplomacy and neighborhood relationships. And, even if the UN Security Council seems so distant, it is up to us to make sure we are aware of how the words we are exposed to shape us—and how our own shape others in return.

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