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The Palestinian Nakba: A Case Study of Disinformation and the Power of Language

Ouissal Harize Ouissal Harize
15th May 2023
The Palestinian Nakba: A Case Study of Disinformation and the Power of Language
Language is an important tool of political disinformation.

The Palestinian Nakba, or Catastrophe, was a cataclysmic event that led to the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Despite abundant evidence of the Nakba, there has been a persistent and deliberate attempt to deny its impact on the Palestinian people. This article aims to explore how colonial language has been used as a tool of disinformation.

The Nakba and the Battle of Narratives 

According to the late Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, “the battle for language becomes the battle for the land. The destruction of one leads to the destruction of the other.” Language has always been a part of Zionist colonialism, even before Israel established itself on the ruins of Palestinian homes and villages in 1948. According to Zionists, Palestine was a "land without a people for a people without a land.” The Zionists who established Israel were thus presented as the rightful inheritors of an "ancestral homeland.” Through hard work and perseverance these inheritors were able to "make the desert bloom." To defend themselves against the "hordes of Arabs," they needed to build an "invincible army."

Since the Nakba, there has been a fight for narrative in Palestine, because a historical narrative is an extension of legitimacy, indigeneity, and the rightful attachment to the land. Language was thus used as a weapon in Israel’s arsenal. From the wording to resonance and psychological impact, colonial phrases are structured in a meticulously calculated way; they are then repeated until they become normalized. For example, it has become normal to say the Israel Defense Forces instead of saying the Israel Occupation Forces.

A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land

One of the most notorious examples of malicious propaganda in contemporary history is the phrase "a land without a people for a people without a land." This slogan was used to justify the displacement of the Palestinian population during the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. However, this phrase is nothing more than a lie that disregards the existence and rights of the Palestinian people. The phrase was carefully structured and corroborated with posters depicting Palestine as a barren and empty land, such as the posters designed by Franz Kruasz.

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Photo Description: A Franz Krausz poster circa 1935 (Palestine poster project).

The phrase "a land without a people for a people without a land" was used for the first time to promote the idea of Jewish settlement in Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. This idea was not new, as the Zionists had been advocating Jewish settlement in Palestine for centuries, based on their interpretation of the Bible. The phrase gained popularity in the early 20th century among the Zionist movement, which sought to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. It was used to promote the idea that Palestine was a wasteland waiting to be redeemed by the Jewish people. Eventually, this propagandist phrase severed Palestinians from the rightful belonging to Palestine.

The truth is that Palestine was a multicultural and multi-religious society, in which Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities lived side by side. The Palestinian population had been living in Palestine for centuries and have deep roots in the land. They had a thriving economy, a rich cultural heritage, and a strong sense of national identity.

Arabs in Palestine: The Politics of Naming and Language in Israel

The use of language in naming peoples and their homelands is closely linked to national identity. That is why colonial regimes have often employed language to undermine the national identity of the colonized.

For example, French colonialism referred to Algerians as "Arabs" or "Muslims." Similarly, Israel uses the term "Arabs" to refer to Palestinians, thereby depriving them of their right to the land and history of Palestine. This narrative promotes the idea of "a land without a people." The former Israeli President Shimon Peres even claimed that Palestine was an empty desert with few Arab settlers before the establishment of Israel.

A term as fluid as “Arab” is therefore used to uproot Palestinians.  It is used by Israel to persuade Palestinians to emigrate to other Arab countries. Being labeled “an Arab” in Israel is synonymous with being “a stranger” to the "land of Jews."

Colonial Language and Biopolitics

The use of language has had a profound effect on the collective consciousness of Palestinians since the Nakba. Israeli politicians have used phrases like "the Palestinian is like a cancer" to stigmatize Palestinians and dehumanize them. Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti described this as "verbicide," as one word can redefine an entire nation and erase its history: “By a single word they redefine an entire nation and delete history. The Israeli occupation imposes a double, triple, endless redefinition of the Palestinian.”

The language of demonization that Israel resorted to since its establishment aims at giving the illusion of a constant state of exception in Palestine. This state of exception allows Israel to adopt extralegal sovereign violence against Palestinians. Demonizing Palestinians is not just an outlet for hatred but a deliberate strategy to violate rights. From the Nakba to the present day, Israel has routinely suspended judicial law and violated the rights of Palestinians. 

Is Israel a Settler Colonial State? 

The history of Israel is complex and highly contentious, with much debate surrounding its status as a colonial state. The term "colonialism" refers to the practice of controlling another country, exploiting its resources, and occupying it with settlers for the benefit of the colonial power. Settler colonialism is a specific type of colonialism in which a group of people settles in a foreign land and establishes political, economic, and social control over the indigenous population. This often leads to the displacement and subjugation of the indigenous population or even their elimination and extermination.

The establishment of Israel in 1948 came at a high cost for the Palestinian people who were systematically expelled from their homes. Over 700,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes during the establishment of Israel, and this event is known as the Nakba, or the Catastrophe.

Since its establishment, Israel has continued to occupy and colonize Palestinian lands, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has expanded its settlements in these areas despite international condemnation and in violation of international law. Israeli settlers are given preferential treatment over Palestinians, and the Israeli army uses violence and force to maintain its occupation and control over Palestinian lands.

The Israeli government has implemented discriminatory policies targeting the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up approximately 20% of the population. These policies include restrictions on home and land ownership, political participation, and unequal access to social and economic opportunities, making Israel a state based on discrimination and apartheid.

Moreover, Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since 2007, restricting the movement of people and goods, causing high unemployment, and limiting access to basic goods and services, including electricity and water. The Israeli government has also launched military attacks on Gaza, causing great destruction and loss of life, including “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, which killed over 2,100 Palestinians, including over 500 children.

The Importance of Language When Discussing the Israel-Palestine Dilemma

Language plays a crucial role in shaping our perceptions of political choices and actions, and this is particularly evident in discussions surrounding Israel-Palestine. The use of terms such as "occupation," "colonization," and "settler colonialism" carries different connotations that are strategically employed and manipulated by Israel. This can affect the Palestinians' right to seek sovereignty. 

Israel repeatedly uses language to manipulate discourse and obscure the Palestinian narrative. When the media bore witness to the Israeli massacres in the Gaza Strip, Israel swiftly used language to strip the victims of their status as "victims". In 2014, Netanyahu described those killed in the Israeli raids on the Gaza Strip as “telegenically dead”.

In 2019, Israel released a ‘dictionary’ put together by the American consultant Frank Luntz. The dictionary proposes precise terminology aimed at legitimizing the Israeli discourse while obscuring the Palestinian narrative.  Chapter 15 of the ‘dictionary’ specifically focuses on a manipulative use of narratives about children to win the hearts the world. It does so by portraying Palestinians as a people who do not cherish their children since they are willing to sacrifice them. This tactic allows Israel to evade responsibility for killing Palestinian children. Instead, this narrative blames the victims themselves.

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Photo Description: Screenshot from Chapter 15 of the dictionary.

Israel's Linguistic Appropriation of the Palestinian Narrative

Since its establishment, Israel has been systemically using linguistic appropriation to transform the Palestinian narrative and present itself as the victim, rather than the perpetrator of ethnic cleansing. Although the Zionist movement was responsible for destroying over 500 Palestinian villages and expelling more than 700,000 Palestinians from their land during the Nakba, Israel denies these crimes. On the other hand, Israel claims that the call to dismantle Israeli settlements is a project of ethnic cleansing.

Within the same vein, researcher Julie Peteet analyzed Netanyahu's speech and pointed out that he used inaccurate descriptions, such as "Hamas missiles rained down on us," to deliberately mislead the public opinion into believing that Hamas was the aggressor. Peteet argues that such language conceals the fact that Israel was the real aggressor in the conflict. Additionally, the term "conflict" is unfair and denies the Palestinians' right to their land and the legitimacy of their demands to return to it.

Western mainstream media often refers to the situation in Palestine and Israel as a "conflict," but this term does not accurately capture the reality of the situation. When Palestinians are forced out of their homes to make way for Israeli settlements, there is no "conflict." The settlers are simply usurpers, and the Palestinians are the victims. This is not a matter of opinion, but rather a fact recognized by international law.

Why The Name “IDF” is Inaccurate 

The term "Israel Defense Forces" is used to manipulate public opinion into believing that the army is non-violent and solely operates to defend Israel. However, this is not the case; the occupation forces have been accused of committing war crimes and violating human rights, including excessive use of force, killing innocent civilians, and destroying homes and other infrastructure in the occupied territories.

One of the most well-known incidents that received international attention was the killing of four kids from the Bakr family who were playing on a Gaza beach in 2014. The boys, along with their cousins, were playing soccer when an Israeli naval vessel fired at them, killing all four. The incident was caught on video and received wide media attention. The occupation army claimed that the boys were Hamas activists, but eyewitnesses and human rights organizations questioned that.

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Photo Description: Screenshot of an article reporting the killing (DW)

Another incident that received international attention was the killing of more than 60 Palestinians during protests on the Gaza border in 2018. The Israeli army used live ammunition against protesters, who were unarmed, and injured more than 1,000 others. Human rights organizations accused the Israeli army of using excessive force and committing war crimes.

Apart from war crimes, the Israeli military has been accused of a wide range of human rights abuses against Palestinians. These violations include arbitrary detention, torture, and the destruction of homes and other infrastructure. One of the most disturbing human rights violations is the use of administrative detention. This is a practice in which Palestinians are detained for long periods without charge or trial.

Torture is another common practice used by the IOF. The use of torture is illegal under international law, yet the IOF continue to use it against Palestinians. Torture methods include beatings, sleep deprivation, and stress positions.

The destruction of homes and other infrastructure is another major human rights violation committed by the Israeli occupying army. House demolitions are often carried out as a form of collective punishment, in which the families of alleged fighters are punished for the actions of a single individual. 

Passive Voice and Propaganda: How the Media Misleads on Israeli Violence Against Palestinians

Headlines in news reports about the events in Palestine and Israel often omit the identity of the perpetrator of violence against Palestinians, while referring in the passive form to "demonstrators killed." This language hides the fact that the Israeli army is responsible for killing Palestinians. The use of the passive voice is a commonly used propaganda tool, as it allows the propagandist to express errors without admitting responsibility for them.

For example, a headline in The New York Times reads: "At Least 37 Palestinians Die in Protests as U.S. Opens Jerusalem Embassy." The headline is misleading as it suggests that the protesters caused the violence, rather than the Israeli snipers. This is a misleading depiction that shifts blame for a massacre committed by soldiers.

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Photo Description: A screenshot of the NYT article headline.

There is also a lack of clear information about how Palestinians are killed. Reports tend to be vague, mentioning chaos, smoke, and tear gas. This allows the Israeli government to hide its mistakes and avoid accountability for its actions. It is important to acknowledge the facts and provide the full context when reporting on similarly complex situations.

Israel justifies the killings by describing the protests at the border as violent, despite the fact that there were no serious threats to the Israelis. The definition of violence here does not include actual physical harm to Israeli citizens, but rather an attempt to cross borders. This is a harmful definition because it equates harm to borders with harm to people. Israel even threatened to kill anyone who tried to cross the border, calling it “self-defense.” In this case, Israel's definition of "security" prioritizes geographical borders over human life.

Anticolonialism and the Language War

Since the Nakba, the word has been weaponized and continues to be used against the Palestinians to deprive them of their right to belong to the land until today. The battle for narratives continues in parallel with the battle for land. Therefore, resistance to colonialism must also take language and terminology into serious consideration. Israel is a colonial state, and the world must recognize this fact. Despite attempts to deny this, Israel's history and current policies reflect a colonial agenda that has systematically displaced and oppressed the Palestinian people for decades.

Anticolonialism is also a linguistic effort that must be mobilized to prevent misleading, propagandist, colonial language from becoming the dominant language. Language can prevent the occupation forces from turning into "Defense Forces" and can accurately describe the colonial endeavours of Israel.

Misbar's Sources:

Agamben, Giorgio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Bargu, Banu. “Sovereignty as Erasure.” Qui Parle 23, no. 1 (2014) : 35–75.

George, Alan. “‘Making the Desert Bloom’ A Myth Examined.” Journal of Palestine Studies 8, no. 2 (1979): 88–100. 

Karmi, Ghada. Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine. London: Pluto Press, 2007.

Peteet, Julie. “Language Matters: Talking About Palestine.” Journal of Palestine studies 45, no. 2 (178) (2016): 24–40.

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