Amid international condemnation, Israel has staunchly defended its soldiers’ actions in Gaza over the past few months. By attempting to justify the deaths of 131 Palestinians (as of 7th June) as proportionate in the fight against “terrorism” and for state security, Israel has succeeded only in peddling fiction.
Video footage filmed during the Great March of Return proves the reality on the ground: that disproportionate and lethal violence continues to be inflicted on innocent Palestinians. These injuries and deaths – including 21 year-old medic Razan al-Najjar, who was killed whilst treating injured Palestinians -renders Israel’s use of the term ‘terrorism’ empty and deceiving.
Although the word ‘terrorism’ is overused and distorted by many other countries, Israel’s public pronouncements against ‘terrorists’ are unusually extensive in the scope of their misuse. Charges of ‘terrorism’ are frequently levelled at guiltless Palestinians. In only the last month, Israeli politicians have applied such charges to Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, and Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Association, not to mention countless Palestinian citizens in Gaza.
Typical of the exploitative language employed by Israeli state officials is the following tweet by Emmanuel Nahson, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, on 29th May:
‘Almost all Palestinians killed in #Hamas instigated “March of Return” were affiliated to terror organizations…We will not allow dangerous terrorists to endanger Israelis”.
His comments are factually inaccurate, deliberately vague and aim at scaremongering the Israeli population- note, above all, his emphasis on ‘terror’ and ‘danger’. Israeli public discourse is full of similar messages. Such scaremongering aims to fabricate the criminality of Palestinians and convince Israeli citizens that their state’s use of armed aggression and occupation is necessary and justifiable. Without military ‘defence’, so the official logic goes, ‘infiltrators’ will pose an existential threat to Jewish nationals and the state itself.
Fear and the Meaning of Terrorism
Although terrorism has always had fear at its core- linguistically, it originates from the Latin word terrere (to frighten)-the term has shifted in meaning since it was first coined in France during the Great Reign of Terror. Back in 1794, it referred to the suppression of people by the state during a period in which roughly 40,000 people were executed for the perceived threat they posed to the Jacobin regime. The definition of ‘terrorist’ was “an adherent or supporter of the Jacobins, who advocated and practised methods of partisan repression and bloodshed”.
Since then, ‘terrorism’, in its general usage, has moved away from state-sponsored violence to mean sub-national violence. Accordingly, the US, for example, defines terrorism as ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents’ (emphasis added). The problem with this and other similar definitions of ‘terrorism’ is that states can exculpate themselves from crimes simply by tarnishing their victims as ‘clandestine agents’ who support state-outlawed ‘terrorist’ groups. After the first wave of deaths in Gaza on 30th March, the Israel army did just that by posting pictures of those killed along with details of their ‘terrorist’ affiliations.
Israel’s misuse of ‘terrorism’ extends beyond deliberately misidentifying violent non-state agents to excuse the killing of innocents. It is also utilized as a means of denigrating individual characters like Ayman Odeh in racist slurs. When Odeh, a member of the Joint List, held the Israeli police to account for their actions in Haifa last month, in which 19 Palestinians were arrested during a peaceful march in support of Gaza, Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, promptly called him a terrorist who deserved to be in prison and not the Knesset. The racism of these words is hardly surprising from a minister who has contributed, in Ilan Pappé’s words, ‘more than anyone else to the dissemination of a racist anti-Arab discourse and legislation’ within Israel. Terrorism here and elsewhere has lost all meaning, and is no more than a verbal cog in a chain of inflammatory state-controlled language.
Israel’s Terrorism Laws
In 2010, Israel promulgated a new law on terrorism (Book of Laws 5737). The clauses, which outline what constitutes a terrorist act, cannot conceivably be applied to figures like Odeh, who do not threaten serious damage to people, their freedom, property, religious artefacts or essential infrastructure (all listed under clause 3). Nor do they aim to ‘instil fear or panic in the population’ (clause 2). Ironically, the same cannot be said of Israel: in its excessive violence towards Palestinians in Gaza and in the scaremongering it articulates to its own population, Israel is doubly guilt of breaching part of its very own clause.
Asaf Oron’s words in 2002, during the Second Intifada, back up this analysis. Explaining his decision not to take part in Israeli military strikes, he commented: ‘I refuse to be a terrorist in my tribe’s name. Because that’s what it is: not a ‘war against terror’ as our propaganda machine tries to tell it’. Sixteen years on, Israel’s control of language is not losing its grip.