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Hiding behind words after Rafah killings

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Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment, adjunct to an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, Gaza Strip, on Tuesday (Photograph by Jehad Alshrafi/AP)

The recent Israeli airstrike on a tent camp in Rafah intentionally killed two militants who were hiding there, but also killed at least 45 bystanders. The Israel Defence Forces confirmed the former as a mark of success in its military campaign against Hamas. The Gaza health ministry confirmed the latter. These deaths included parents, children, young adults, middle-aged singles and the elderly. They died by fire and by shrapnel. They died screaming for help from bystanders who were themselves helpless, who couldn’t douse the flames that engulfed the victims because they had no water.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu called these civilian deaths a “tragic accident” in an address to parliament. Many words might accurately describe these killings — gruesome, cruel, immoral — but “accident” is not one of them.

The residents of Gaza have been displaced from their homes and herded into areas that have been designated humanitarian zones, the boundaries of which are not discrete, their locations confusing and their general fitness for human habitation indecent. Here they are stuck, crowded together under tarps and lean-tos, surrounded by devastation while Israeli leaders maintain that they’re using “precise munitions” and “precise intelligence” to target combatants. The munitions are many things — destructive, deadly, powerful. But if they’re not “precise” enough to spare lives, then are they really precise at all?

The language of war serves as a camouflage that allows the truth to hide. It aims to make the horror of deadly conflict acceptable, or at least manageable. The language is a balm to the combatants, perhaps. A way of allowing that certain deaths are unavoidable and therefore part of a cause whose moral standing remains unmarred.

But such forgiving words fail to dignify the victims of war with the unforgiving reality of what happened to them. They were not collateral damage. They were more than casualties. They were individuals. And they were slaughtered.

In wars, too often the words that name the unconscionable act can fail miserably in conveying the truth about it. Not just in this war, but every war. It’s a struggle to reconcile the notion of “friendly fire” with the breathtaking reality of being wounded or killed by one’s fellow soldier. How does the shooter carry that staggering burden? And so the awfulness is wrapped in a euphemism that sounds almost neighbourly. “Enhanced interrogation” sounds far more banal and bureaucratic than torture. The description, used by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, didn’t make waterboarding or sleep deprivation any less inhumane when it was used against prisoners, but it was a phrase that leaders could repeat among themselves to make peace with their actions and their constituents.

The euphemisms of war are the foundation upon which monuments are constructed. They’re the retaining wall for when the moral ground on which countries stand begins to erode. “There were many measures taken before the attack to minimise harm to non-involved people,” the IDF said about the assault on Rafah. Who are the “non-involved people” in Gaza? Isn’t everyone involved in this carnage by default? By the mere fact that they can’t escape Gaza? By their existence as Palestinians?

Hamas fighters hide within the general population in Gaza. Israeli leaders tell the world again and again that Hamas uses civilians as “human shields”. It seems that the way around these shields has been to destroy them, whether those humans are in homes, hospitals or tent encampments. It’s far gentler on the soul to hear that a commander has ordered his troops to attack inanimate shields, these tools of battle, rather than unwitting adults and schoolchildren.

The words of war are dehumanising. They have to be. That helps sustain the anger, the demand for vengeance, the willingness to kill. The airstrike in Rafah is part of Israel’s ongoing battle to destroy Hamas after its murderous October 7 attack. Hamas viciously killed some 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and kidnapped 252 people, some of whom are still missing. The attack, which took Israel’s military by surprise, came after months of heightened tension between Israelis and Palestinians, but was also part of generations of conflict.

The language that has long been used by all the involved parties serves to add just a bit more territory to their moral high ground. The civilian Israelis who squat in disputed territory and expand their presence are referred to as “settlers” — a word that brings with it all the weight of divine right. When Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, they terrorised a population; the United States considers Hamas a terrorist organisation and the White House described the killings as “terrorist attacks”. But Hamas, which is also a governing body in Gaza and one that refuses to recognise Israel, characterises itself as a resistance movement. The misappropriated label aims to place Hamas fighters righteously alongside a host of other guerrilla organisations, such as the French resistance during the Second World War or the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa.

And now, in Gaza, it seems that a slew of words are used to mitigate the anguish of the population, the devastating nature of its suffering, the history that fuels this fight and the horrible history that’s being made. Shields, civilians, casualties, accidents and non-involved people. The fuzzy, diplomatic words are used to take some of the sting out of the truth. To keep the high ground from caving in on itself. To mitigate the moral burden. And to keep the fighting going until a meaningless, wretched end.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press

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Published May 30, 2024 at 7:58 am (Updated May 30, 2024 at 7:15 am)

Hiding behind words after Rafah killings

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