War in Gaza: how the linguistic choices of the media minimize the suffering of the Palestinians

War in Gaza: how the linguistic choices of the media minimize the suffering of the Palestinians

“Language is the most powerful tool outside the battlefield, Western media knows this and uses it well to Israel’s advantage” – Abdulkader Assad, linguist and journalist (AFP)

Word use and terminology choices are important when reporting on world events, with meaningful words that have the power to move or change opinion, to involve or suggest images, and sometimes minimize the magnitude of what is happening.

This is especially true when it comes to relations between Israel and Palestine, with activists and human rights defenders frequently calling out media outlets for their linguistic choices and use of the passive voice. .

Since the latest hostilities in Gaza began on October 7, there has been a focus on the terminology used by various news outlets, commentators and reporters in their coverage.

Abdulkader Assad, a linguist and journalist living in the United States, says that when it comes to current coverage of Israel’s aggression against Gaza, language can be manipulated to distort meanings and opinions.

“Language is the most powerful tool outside the battlefield, the Western media knows this and uses it well to Israel’s advantage,” he comments to Middle East Eye.

The language expert says the choice of vocabulary has both psychological and emotional effects on readers or listeners of news or other reports, which can then influence their opinions.

“The way Western media ‘phrase’ the headlines and opening paragraphs of their coverage of the Israeli occupation’s war on Gaza is deliberately aimed at influencing opinions and helping to cement a perception of Gaza that ‘the “fighters” make up its entire population, and therefore the bombing and killing are then justified,” he explains.

“Linguistic sectarianism”

The war on Gaza began after an attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people.

In response, the Israeli army killed more than 21,100 Palestinians in attacks, most of them children and women. In doing so, apartment buildings, places of worship and schools were razed by airstrikes, while Israel also cut off all supplies of fuel, water, food and electricity to the enclave under siege since October 9.

According to Abdulkader Assad, when it comes to English linguistics, “formulation” refers to the way certain information is presented in order to impact decision-making.

He gives the example of a Wall Street Journal article published on December 20: “Hamas begins planning end of war with Israel,” a headline that has since been edited.

“This headline is forcefully formulated by the Wall Street Journal to convey the idea that Hamas is the one that started the ‘war’ against Israel,” he explains.

The linguist adds that the title is an example of “linguistic bigotry”. “It is about convincing readers that Hamas started the war with Israel and that it intends to end it,” he emphasizes.

This, he says, can be problematic because it presents Israel as a passive victim of the war and does not reflect the disproportionate response that has taken place, which has now lasted for more than two months.

Another problem with mainstream media coverage: the use of the passive voice, according to linguists.


Lara Gibson, a writer and linguist based in Egypt, says this often dehumanizes Palestinian victims.

“In Western media, we have repeatedly seen Palestinians portrayed in the passive voice, dehumanizing the victims by taking away their autonomy. At the same time, Israel is generally described in the active voice, which suggests to Western readers that they can rally to the Israeli cause and justify their actions,” she tells MEE.

Abdulkader Assad agrees, specifying that in addition to dehumanizing the suffering of the Palestinians, this can also minimize Israeli crimes.

“Western media deliberately use ‘euphemisms,’ masking the truth of the harsh words that express Israeli acts of war crimes,” he argues.

“When Western media use the passive voice, they intentionally ignore the principle of “who” did “what” to “who” which is necessary for information to be complete. They use the passive voice to avoid the truth and make Israeli war crimes seem dubious. »

Abdulkader Assad cites an example from Reuters, saying the news agency “let Israeli forces get away with it” in its coverage of the assassination of the news agency’s photojournalist Issam Abdullah on March 13. october.

Reuters headlined: “Reuters videographer Issam Abdallah killed while working in southern Lebanon. »

“This way, readers do not know who killed Issam, and of course, this serves to hide the fact that Israeli forces killed the journalist. Once readers saw this headline, they “assimilated” the fact that a journalist was killed, but without engraving in their minds the criminal who did it,” Assad continues.

Certain words in particular have emerged during the current coverage and have been widely considered problematic either because they suggest an equivalence between the Israeli military and Hamas or because they use ambiguous vocabulary to shift responsibility.

“Several major publications deliberately used vague vocabulary to describe the devastating attacks on Gaza, but, in contrast, the vocabulary to describe the attacks on Israel on October 7 was incredibly clear and descriptive – implicitly supporting the Israeli cause,” assures Laura Gibson.

“Terms like ‘war’ suggest a struggle of equals rather than an Israeli-fueled genocide,” she observes.

The Oxford Languages ​​definition of war is “a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country.”

According to an Axios report released earlier this year, Israel has an annual military budget of more than $20 billion and access to some of the most advanced U.S. military equipment. Israel also controls the skies and much of the sea around its territory.

Israel claims to be in Gaza to “eliminate Hamas”. However, soldiers have used unguided bombs, drone strikes and bulldozers to target civilians.

“Die” instead of “be killed”

Meanwhile, Hamas’ armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, relies on guerrilla strategies using rockets, snipers and homemade explosives.

The use of the term “war” therefore implies that the al-Qassam Brigades and Israel hold similar power, and that Gaza is a country instead of a besieged enclave, thereby obscuring the nature of the violence taking place, says Laura Gibson.

“The term ‘Hamas fighter’ has been used as a weapon by Israel, which uses the word extensively to justify the massacre of Palestinian civilians,” she said.

Some media outlets have also chosen to use the term “Gaza fighters” which risks causing confusion between the population of the besieged enclave and those carrying out the attacks, and creates a negative association with the civilians who are found there.

Abdulkader Assad thinks this could go as far as euphemism.

“It’s a word or phrase that softens an uncomfortable subject. It’s the use of figurative language to refer to a situation without having to confront it,” he explains.

A widely used example is using the word “die” instead of “be killed”, he says, as appeared in a BBC headline on December 19.

Some have also pointed out that inaccurate terms and phrases have also been used during the current coverage.

One such example is referring to the Palestinian Ministry of Health as the “Hamas Ministry of Health” when citing various casualty reports.

The title is not accurate because the Hamas movement is not involved in the ministry’s documentation and the ministry works closely with other officials who oversee reporting based in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, including including Health Minister Dr. Mai al-Kaila.

The attribution to Hamas has even led some people, including US President Joe Biden, to question the validity and reliability of the figures released by the ministry.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations called on Biden to apologize for his “shocking and dehumanizing comments” after he said he had no confidence in the numbers.

The Health Ministry also proved reliable in the documents it released, following doubts about the number of people killed after Israel’s bombing of the al-Ahli al-Arab hospital, listing the full names and details of those killed.

The information provided in the document provided analyzes that included identifying information for each individual.

The report contained the names of 7,028 people, along with their gender, age and identification number.

Many experts consider the figures provided by the Palestinian ministry to be reliable, given its access, sources and the accuracy of its past statements.

Omar Shakir, director of the Israel and Palestine division at Human Rights Watch, told the Washington Post that the ministry’s figures “generally turn out to be reliable.”

“At the time when we did our own verification of the numbers for certain strikes, I am not aware of a time when there was a major discrepancy,” he added.

Nadda Osman

Middle East Eye

Translated from English (original) by VECTranslation