Gaza and the language of modern war

Steven Poole investigates the political and misleading use of such terms as 'human shields' and 'tragedy'

The propaganda battle in a modern war begins with its name. Israel's attack on Gaza this summer was given an official Hebrew name meaning "resolute cliff", so as to assure its victims of the futility of resistance. Only a fool would try to fight a cliff, even an irresolute one. The name in English was "Operation Protective Edge". This, an Israeli military spokesman explained, was chosen to "give a more 'defensive' connotation". (The bombing was supposedly "protective", though not of those bombed.) Just so, the Israel Defence Forces are quite often seen to be on the attack, and every civilised country has a department or ministry of "defence" in which aggressive campaigns may be plotted.

The people fighting on either side of this "clash" or "conflict" (but rarely "war") were named in ways carefully emphasising a gulf in respectability: Israeli "soldiers" but Hamas "militants". To Israel, naturally, the Hamas fighters were "terrorists". They had built "terror tunnels" passing into Israel, through which more threatening things than funfair ghost trains could indeed roll. Binyamin Netanyahu said, moreover, that Hamas had turned UN facilities into "terrorist hotspots". A terrorist hotspot is rather like a Wi-Fi hotspot: when you are within range, you can be sure of getting a terrorist. Of course, if your means of getting him is a large bomb, you will certainly get a bunch of other people too. This is something to express mild regret about afterwards, but not something to be avoided, even though it is a certain and foreseeable consequence.

That consequence was said rather to be the fault of Hamas, for using the people of Gaza as "human shields". Evidently no one thinks that a human body of flesh and bone can actually stop bullets or explosives. So a "human shield" is only a shield if it deters the attacker. Israel was not deterred. Thus it didn't really consider those being killed by its bombs "shields" at all. According to the OED, the term "human shield" in fact means using persons "held against their will near a potential military target". Were Gazans staying in their houses or going to school against their will? In any case, as it turned out, to Israel's strategists the whole of Gaza was a "potential military target". It followed, perhaps, that the entire population could thus be considered human shields, shortly before they were bombed anyway.

Hamas told its supporters, when referring to those killed by Israeli actions, always to use the phrase "an innocent citizen", though some of those killed had actually been fighting or launching rockets at Israeli towns. But the wider metaphysical problem of this language is: who among us is innocent? Of everything? At least most could agree that children are the least deserving of death. And so news reports came to emphasise the number of children killed in attacks. It was hard, after all, to figure out who among the grownups were "civilians" (or at least "uninvolved", as Israel prefers to say). In this way the blameless adult dead were, perhaps, somewhat demoted in the world's calculus of sympathy.

The Gazan war has also expanded our taxonomy of ceasefires. Back in 2006 during Israel's attack on Lebanon, Condoleezza Rice had called subtly for a "sustainable ceasefire", as a way of rejecting demands for an actual ceasefire now. The preferred language from the UN and US in 2014 was "durable ceasefire". But the best new kind of ceasefire was that announced unilaterally by Israel on 4 August: a "partial ceasefire". As the New York Times reported, this ceasefire "was to take place only in areas where Israel was not engaged in military activity". In other words: during this ceasefire we will not cease firing in places where we are already firing, but only where we weren't firing to begin with.

All this slaughter was routinely called a "tragedy". Hamas rocket attacks on Israel were "inexcusable", Barack Obama said, while "the death and injury of Palestinian civilians" was a "tragedy". As usual, the term "tragedy" worked as a way to avoid apportioning blame. A tragedy is a literary work in which the hero comes to a sticky end through a combination of character flaw and circumstance. Alternatively, it is a disco lament for the disappearance of loving feelings. But when children and their parents die in a bombing, it is because someone has bombed them.

There were complaints about specific events within the "tragedy", however, particularly the blowing-up of a UN school in Rafah. The Americans said they were appalled by this "disgraceful shelling". Observers evinced surprise and outrage that horrible things could happen when people lob explosives at one another. In the rhetorical background there lurked still a utopian vision of some possible war with no disgraceful bits in it. There has never, of course, been any such thing.

The Guardian