Since 1975
  • facebook
  • twitter

Demonizing and dehumanizing in war legitimizes atrocities

Smoke rises following Israeli strikes in Gaza, October 9, 2023. (Reuters)
Smoke rises following Israeli strikes in Gaza, October 9, 2023. (Reuters)
Short Url:
23 Oct 2023 01:10:09 GMT9
23 Oct 2023 01:10:09 GMT9

Language matters. It matters even more in times of war and conflict. After all, violent confrontations are always accompanied by widespread use of the most inflammable rhetoric, much of it focusing on demonizing and dehumanizing the other. Some cynically employ this language to rally support at home and abroad; for others, it is the only mode of communication they are familiar with.

Those who claim that words do not kill ignore the fact that they might not do so directly, but they create the conditions and the environment for atrocities of the worst kind to take place, including genocide. The Nazis referred to Jews as subhuman, as rats and vermin; the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia described their enemies as “worms,” claiming that their disappearance was “no loss”; and in Rwanda, Hutu propaganda repeatedly described the Tutsi minority as “cockroaches” or “snakes,” with calls to “exterminate the cockroaches.” And we all know how these cases ended.

This practice of dehumanization is not only about humiliating and demeaning a group of people, but also part of a process that seeks to legitimize violence against them. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has witnessed this practice throughout the years, with the language growing in intensity with each new outbreak of hostilities. For too long Israelis and Palestinians have ceased considering each other as human beings, let alone as people with equal rights, including the right to life.

Dehumanizing and demonizing have been defined as “the denial of full humanness to others.” It denies a person’s humanity, partly or completely, renouncing the very same characteristics that make us unique as humans and different from any other form of existence in nature, including applying morality or judgment, and even denies those it demonizes as having the special attributes most associate with human nature, for instance having a wide range of feelings.

References to Israelis and Palestinians, respectively, as evil and as animals are common among many other degrading descriptions, but since the Hamas atrocity of Oct. 7 such language has grown much more extreme, to the extent of not differentiating between Hamas and Islamic Jihad for their part, and the vast majority of ordinary Palestinians in Gaza who are simply trying to survive, trapped as they are between Hamas’ oppressive regime and the harsh Israeli blockade. Consequently, they are considered to be a legitimate target despite being civilians caught between a rock and a hard place.

History has taught us time and again that humans are capable of terrible atrocities, and hence civilization has developed means and mechanisms to inhibit, if not eliminate, aggression. Demonizing and dehumanizing fly in the face of acceptable norms of social behavior, such as those codified in documents like the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the four Geneva conventions. These treaties were supposed to create a global consensus on how human beings should treat other human beings, even in times of war and conflict.

However, if you do not regard those who you are in conflict with as human beings, you convince yourself that these treaties are not applicable to your enemies. We see this in the current round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, which is the worst outbreak to date, as all inhibitions have gone missing. The mass murder of innocent civilians, including babies, women and the elderly by both sides, and the taking of so many Israelis hostage, would not be possible if each side saw their enemies as mere humans like themselves, with fundamental rights like themselves.

For too long Israelis and Palestinians have ceased considering each other as human beings.

Yossi Mekelberg

This has been the case throughout the conflict when it comes to civilian deaths. Israel’s response in Gaza, which has claimed the lives of thousands  and displaced hundreds of thousands, involves characterizing the Palestinians of Gaza as mere collateral damage in its war with Hamas. It can be argued with much justification that Israel has never considered the Palestinians as equal human beings; from the Nakba to the occupation and blockade, the lives of ordinary Palestinians were no more than a footnote in the project of establishing the state of Israel as free and secure.

A particularly mindless member of the Knesset, Ariel Kallner, has responded to the Hamas killings by calling for a second Nakba, and an even more extreme one at that: “Right now,” he said, “one goal: Nakba. A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 1948.” Anger over Hamas’ massacre of the innocents is understandable, but this call to commit an atrocity even worse than that of 1948 in which his country played a central and crucial role, is an incitement to mass killing and displacement. The original sin here is never acknowledging the human suffering of the Palestinians, never refraining from inflicting suffering on them, and never recognizing their collective rights.

For peace to ever become a reality in this part of the world, the pendulum must swing from dehumanization to rehumanization. But this very notion scares those who harbor maximalist objectives in this conflict and, hence, reject it. For those who would like to perpetuate the conflict until victory, whatever that means, demonizing the enemy is a useful tool; after all, why would you kill someone with similar human attributes as yourself? In a peace process where there is a need to compromise and trust the very people who have been vilified for so many years, the first condition is to overcome the massive psychological hurdle that prevents us from seeing our enemies as equally human.

Back in the 1990s a group of brave Israeli and Palestinian families, all of whom had lost an immediate family member to the conflict, established a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization, Parents Circle-Families Forum, with the aim of making every effort to prevent further bereavements through dialogue, tolerance, reconciliation and peace. They were also instrumental in holding a joint Israeli-Palestinian remembrance day, under the slogan “Sharing Sorrow, Bringing Hope.” The essence of their message is that suffering has no nationality or religion and affects everyone equally, and because of this we must recognize each other’s humanity.

However, this unique initiative in a sea of hatred met rejection, and in Israel many see the Jews in the group as traitors, and ignore their loss and pain. But the fact that these people deserve admiration should be beyond dispute, as they bring humanity to the center of the relations between two peoples who have fought each other for so long, and currently, as each day passes, are adding thousands of new names to the list of bereaved families. It is only when we follow this group’s example and start our search for peace by recognizing each other’s humanity, that we stand any chance of ending this senseless killing and creating a lasting peace.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.

X: @YMekelberg

Most Popular

return to top