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Operation “Protective Edge”: Language as a Tool of Oppression

By Rashid Khalidi

GAZA CITY, GAZA - JULY 15: Palestinian 4-year-old Sheyma Al-Masri, wounded in an Israeli airstrike within the 'Operation Protective Edge', gets treatment at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Gaza on July 15, 2014.

As Israel and Hamas trade blows, and with Israel’s Operation “Protective Edge” entering its eighth day, the casualty count in Gaza continues to climb, with estimates of nearly 200 Palestinians killed and over 1,500 wounded by the airstrike campaign. President Obama recently defended Israel’s right to the bombardment, making a US-brokered peace deal seem further away than ever. It’s a development that adds fuel to an argument that Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi frames in his latest book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. In it, Khalidi—who recently appeared on the radio show On Point to talk about this latest backslide into violence—asserts that, far from being the unbiased benevolent guide to peace between Israel and Palestine, the US has, in fact, been an agent of continuing injustice, effectively preventing the difficult but essential steps needed to achieve peace in the region. The following is excerpted from Khalidi’s introduction to Brokers of Deceit.

In politics and in diplomacy, as in much else, language matters greatly. However debased political discourse may become, however disingenuous diplomacy often is, the words employed by politicians and diplomats define situations and determine outcomes. In recent history, few semantic battles over terminology have been as intensely fought out as those concerning Palestine/Israel.

The importance of the precise use of language can be illustrated by the powerful valence in the Middle East context of terms such as “terrorism,” “security,” “self-determination,” “autonomy,” “honest broker,” and “peace process.” Each of these terms has set conditions not only for perceptions, but also for possibilities. Moreover, these terms have come to take on a specific meaning, frequently one that is heavily loaded in favor of one side, and is far removed from what logic or balance would seem to dictate. Thus in the American/Israeli official lexicon, “terrorism” in the Middle East context has come to apply exclusivelyto the actions of Arab militants, whether those of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hamas, Hizballah, or others. Under these peculiar terminological rules, the actions of the militaries of Israel and the United States cannot be described as “terrorism,” irrespective of how many Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqi, or Afghan civilians may have died at their hands.

Similarly, in this lexicon, “security” is an absolute priority of Israel’s, the need for which is invariably described as rooted in genuine, deep-seated existential fears. “Israeli security” therefore takes precedence over virtually everything else, including international law and the human rights of others. It is an endlessly expansive concept that includes a remarkable multitude of things, such as whether pasta or generator parts can be brought into the Gaza Strip, or whether miserably poor Palestinian villagers can be allowed water cisterns.[1] By contrast, in spite of the precarious nature of their situation, Palestinians are presumed not to have any significant concerns about their security. This is the case even though nearly half the Palestinian population have lived for more than two generations under a grinding military occupation without the most basic human, civil, or political rights, and the rest have for many decades been dispersed from their ancestral homeland, many of them living under harsh, authoritarian Arab governments.

'Brokers of Deceit' by Rashid KhalidiThis book is concerned primarily, however, not with the misuse of language, important though that is, but with an American-brokered political process that for more than thirty-five years has reinforced the subjugation of the Palestinian people, provided Israel and the United States with a variety of advantages, and made considerably more unlikely the prospects of a just and lasting settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. This is the true nature of this process. Were this glaring reality apparent to all, there might have been pressure for change. But the distortion of language has made a crucially important contribution to these outcomes, by “corrupting thought,” and thereby cloaking their real nature. As we shall see in the pages that follow, language employed in the Middle East political context—terms like “terrorism” and “security” and the others mentioned above—has often been distorted and then successfully employed to conceal what was actually happening.

Where the Palestinians are concerned, time and again during their modern history, corrupted phraseology has profoundly obscured reality. The Zionist movement decisively established a discursive hegemony early on in the conflict with the Palestinians, thereby significantly reinforcing the existing power balance in its favor, and later in favor of the state of Israel. This has placed the Palestinians at a lasting disadvantage, as they have consistently been forced to compete within a field whose terms are largely defined by their opponents. Consider such potent canards as “making the desert bloom”—implying that the six hundred thousand industrious Palestinian peasants and townspeople who inhabited their homeland in the centuries before the relatively recent arrival of modern political Zionism were desert nomads and wastrels—and “a land without a people for a people without a land,” which presumes the nonexistence of an entire people.[2] As the Palestinian literary and cultural critic Edward Said aptly put it in 1988: “It is by no means an exaggeration to say that the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948 occurred partly because the Zionists acquired control of most of the territory of Palestine, and partly because they had already won the political battle for Palestine in the international world in which ideas, representation, rhetoric and images were at issue.”[3]


KHALIDI_by_Alex_Levac-OFFICIAL-PHOTORashid Khalidi is the author of seven books about the Middle East, including Palestinian IdentityBrokers of DeceitResurrecting EmpireThe Iron Cage, and Sowing Crisis. His writing on Middle Eastern history and politics has appeared in the New York TimesBoston GlobeLos Angeles TimesChicago Tribune, and many journals. For his work on the Middle East, Professor Khalidi has received fellowships and grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the American Research Center in Egypt, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. He is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York and editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies.