War of words 

Examining early accounts of the Israel–Palestine conflict

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IN OCTOBER, I was the fill-in for a week on breakfast radio, terrified of making a mistake live on air. My immediate fear was stumbling over the pronunciation of Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Zeitoun, Gaza. As the news anchor, it was my job to read out the Australian Associated Press (AAP) newsroom bulletins every half hour until 9 am. It was a huge news week, and it felt like a monumental responsibility. The referendum on the Voice to Parliament had been defeated, and the recently declared war between Israel and Palestine was entering its second devastating week.  

During my first news break at 6.30 am, I read the news reports about Israeli airstrikes out verbatim. But as I spoke into the mic, I felt unsettled by what I was saying. I had naively thought that this kind of bare-bones style of ‘raw’ AAP reportage is simply factual, and free from linguistic sleights of hand. But of course, I was wrong. The ongoing human quest to control land and resources means that words are weighted carefully in a powerful, high-stakes game. 

As Boston University Professor of Linguistics Elizabeth Coppock puts it, ‘Language is a secondary arena for the conflict in the sense that language can be used to advance or thwart agendas in the conflict over how the various actors should be viewed.’ 

I can see this even in the news headlines. The war is now routinely described as being ‘between Israel and Hamas’, for a start. But isn’t this a false equivalency? Surely if the news organisation is aiming to name the countries now at war, it should read ‘a war between Israel and Palestine’. Or, if the reporter’s aim is to identify the elected political parties in control of the respective regions, ‘a war between Likud (and it’s far-right coalition partners) and Hamas’. 

Passive language also prevails throughout reports of the conflict. In his seminal 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell described the way political leaders use the passive voice to obscure indefensible truths and to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.   

Reuters, an international news provider headquartered in London, wrote on 17 October that ‘Diplomatic efforts to arrange a ceasefire to let aid reach the besieged Gaza Strip have failed.’ But where are the decision-makers to be found in this catastrophic story? Surely this reportage is designed to obscure the bald fact that Israeli officials refused to stop bombing Gaza. 

While the horrific acts of violence by Hamas fighters have been extensively reported around the world, the sheer ferocity of the mass murder of civilians in Gaza by Israel is strangely muted. On 1 November, Reuters reported that ‘Israeli tanks have been acting in Gaza for at least four days.’ But where are the drivers of these tanks in this report? And what exactly does a tank ‘acting’ look like for a Gazan standing in its way?   

Since Orwell’s time, political ‘doublespeak’ has only gotten more extreme. During the Vietnam War, the United States used a technique they benignly named ‘pacification’ to remove the Viet Cong from rural villages and hamlets. It largely involved intensive bombing and shelling, followed by a ground invasion. ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ was one of former president George W Bush’s favourite euphemisms for the torture conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency after 9/11.  

In Vladimir Putin’s 2022 speech about Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, he claimed that the aim was to ‘protect people’ who had been ‘subjected to bullying and genocide…for the last eight years. And for this we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine.’ 

We can see the propaganda when it comes from some people’s mouths. Why not others?  

AS THIS IS published, at least 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in Israeli attacks since October 7, and more than 1,400 people have been killed in Israel. Every day Israel’s ground invasion escalates, and shots have already been fired across Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. All signs increasingly point to Israel ethnically cleansing Gaza by forcibly displacing Gazan’s into Egypt. 

The way that broad swathes of the Australian media are currently reporting this conflict, from the Murdoch Press to the ABC, is profoundly one-sided. I’ve never felt that I could trust our state media less.  

In the face of this, I’ve been searching out alternative news sources, such as Al Jazeera, which the Israeli government is in the process of banning. On social media, I’ve been following the Institute for Middle Eastern Understanding to receive updates on the unfolding razing of Gaza.  

It can feel overwhelming trying to work out what to do. But as journalists like ABC freelancer Roshdi Sarraj die to show audiences what’s really going on in Gaza, it’s incumbent on us to tread carefully through the ideological battlefield of the global news media. 

Amid the flurry of live musicians, arts interviews and light-hearted banter during my week of breakfast radio, I did my best to tweak the bulletins to land somewhere closer to objectivity.  Many will tell you that impartiality in the news is an impossible task. But right now, most Australian journalists aren’t even trying.  

8 November 2023

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