The Guardian • Issue #2079

Dehumanisation gone mainstream

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2079
Girl with Palestine flag painted on her face.

Massive protest against Israel attack to Gaza in Berlin. Full gallery:

The Economist has published a piece pretending to answer why Israel is killing so many Palestinian children, or, as the British journal puts it, why “children are a very high proportion of the victims of war in Gaza.” The authors note that “in Ukraine, a conflict between two much bigger powers, children account for fewer than 550 of roughly 9800 civilian fatalities over a much longer period.” Hence, they venture, “Gaza’s enormous child death toll reflects, among other things, its especially youthful demography.”

Brazenly, the article removes the actual killers from the picture (the children fall victim to “the war,” not to the Israelis). It allows room to US President Joe Biden’s mendacious doubting of Palestinian victim figures, and never mentions the true answer: so many children are getting killed because Israel commits one war crime after another against civilians, in pursuit of a strategy of collective punishment that amounts to genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Yet there is more to this spin presented as cool, English-style level-headed analysis, complete with statistics and a chart. Inadvertently, the article opens a wide window on something ugly but important; the point where narratives about who has how many babies, or demography, meet the dehumanisation that facilitates atrocities against fellow human beings.

As Khaled Elgindy, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs, has explained in Newsweek, dehumanising rhetoric conveys the idea that “the lives, suffering and humanity of Palestinians are less worthy than the lives, suffering and humanity of Israelis.” As the genocide and Holocaust expert Raz Segal has found, the Israeli assault is a “textbook case” by the criteria of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, while making others appear less than human is a typical element of genocide.

A UN agency has said that Gaza is now a “graveyard for children.”

This devastating weapon of mass misrepresentation makes perpetrators, such as Israelis, righteous about killing. It also motivates and protects accomplices, many of them in the West’s political, media, and intelligentsia. For these accomplices, dehumanising language, which caricatures Palestinians as ‘animals’ and ‘savages’ and any calls for resistance as support for ‘terrorism’ rationalises flagrant moral failure.

For the likes of the Economist, amid the banal reports of every day events, the message still comes through loud and clear: Gaza’s children are dying in droves not because Israel is murdering them, but because there are so many of them. Step one of dehumanisation, stop thinking of children as children, with names and faces. Instead think of them as numbers – excessive numbers.

Step two of dehumanisation: The fact that there are so many young Palestinians, in turn, is, we learn from the media, not a normal outcome of human life. By comparing Palestinians with even poorer populations in the world, the authors conclude that their high birth rates are an anomaly to be explained by militant politics, namely the pro-nationalism of Palestinian leaders, from the PLO’s late Yasser Arafat to Hamas. In short, Palestinians are depicted as people who weaponise their own reproduction and, thus, children.

The implication is viciously clear. Recall that in the eyes of the US, Israel’s main Western ally, the attack on Gaza, including the starving and killing of civilians, is Israel exercising its right to self-defence. (Let’s leave aside that, under international law, Israel is a military occupying power and thus ‘self-defence’ is not an applicable justification for use of force against the occupied territories.)

Combine that with what the Economist says about Palestinian children being part of a strategy of long-term demographic warfare “by the cradle.” From here, you only have two dots to connect to arrive at the conclusion that if children are a ‘weapon,’ it must be acceptable to exercise ‘self-defence’ against them. From authors to editors, the moral abyss of their own argument opens up.

In reality, Palestinians have had to learn to understand their children as their future with an urgency that people not historically subject to systematic ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and genocide cannot know. To then, in effect, blame the massacre of these Palestinian children by Israeli perpetrators on the Palestinian victims because they dared have so many in the face of relentless oppression, is abjectly cynical.

Since the first ethnic cleansing of the vast majority of Palestinians (at least 700,000), begun before and continued through the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, reducing their number and keeping it low has been one of the principal reasons why Israel has always denied the Palestinian right of return, affirmed in the UN General Assembly resolution 194. That, in turn, has been a prime factor that has made a lasting peace settlement impossible.

The reason that a prestigious, opinion-shaping publication like the Economist gets away with such ‘journalism’ is that the systematic dehumanisation of the Palestinians by Israel and the mass media serves to reduce them to bare biological life that can be extinguished without any moral doubt.

This language of dehumanisation is not a fringe phenomenon: in the West, one can take part in this genocide-promoting practice and find resonance and recognition, rather than condemnation and censure, as long as the victims are Palestinians

The West, while deluding itself in its propaganda as a garden of ‘values’ has a long record of staggering violence combined with stunning hypocrisy. But at this moment in this ongoing history, the horrific crime against the Palestinians – in word and deed – is its single most egregious depravity. Humanity won’t forget or forgive this.


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