Words matter, but labels get in the way of peace


This weekend in York the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign is organising a rally titled “Ceasefire Now. Stop the Genocide”, with the support of the Green Party.  

The use of the word “genocide” is clearly chosen with care.  If Israel’s enemies can successfully label it as ‘genocidal’ that is the end of the argument.   Israel must be in the wrong, just as Putin has sought in the Ukrainian campaign to label the Ukrainians as Nazis – end of debate.

Similarly, Israel and its supporters here in the UK are up in arms at the BBC’s refusal to describe Hamas as terrorists. Apply the right label and you win the argument. 

It is the end of exploration. Words matter.   

On 7 October, Hamas gunmen – to use the BBC’s guidelines – crossed an internationally recognised border (Southern Israel is within the green line), apparently with the sole intention of killing as many people as possible.   

One of the gunmen recorded himself boasting to his family that he had personally “killed ten Jews!” – not soldiers, not armed men, but women, children, elderly peaceniks. Not even Israelis but Jews. Is this not the act of a terrorist?

The videos shot by other gunmen themselves attacking the Re’im music festival show the murder and rape and torture of unarmed civilians. It may not be in your social newsfeed if it doesn’t fit your search history, but the material is extensive and verified for anyone prepared to look. This was not a military attack. It was the murder of civilians for the sole purpose of taking life. Is that not the act of terrorists?

But words matter. Of course, these were terrorist attacks but would the use of this label open or close the discussion about the response? The BBC preferred to present viewers with facts, such as those above, and leave them to get there on their own.

Labels can obscure the facts. The York Palestinian Solidarity campaign have not stumbled mistakenly on the word ‘genocide‘ to describe Israel’s operation in Gaza. The assertion is that the primary purpose of Israel’s operation is to eliminate the Palestinian people. That’s what genocide means. And it is clearly nonsense.  It ignores the cause of the Israeli attacks.  It conveniently forgets Hamas’s role or seeks insidiously to imply that they were some sort of “pre-emptive strike” (sic) against this strange sort of genocide (sic) which comes with warning leaflets.

I don’t blame the PSC for seeking to weaponise language.  I understand their anger at the horror now being visited on Gaza, but I do blame those who choose to take such language at face value, let alone adopt it as their own. Words matter. Facts matter.

This is no genocide. It is a war which is tragic and painful and messy. Both sides now claim to be trying to avoid civilian deaths but, if this is the case, they are not being very successful. Just wars need to pave a road to peace. That can only happen when we understand each other’s narratives, even if we disagree, and can work to address each other’s concerns.  

Labels like genocide and terrorist get in the way of conversation ascribing motive to actions which are designed to get in the way of any compromise.

The daily lives of Palestinians in Gaza have been abject not since 1967, when the strip was occupied by Israel, but since 1948, when it was occupied by Egypt (and before when it was occupied by Britain – it was never part of an independent country).  

The failure to get Palestinians out of the refugee camps of Gaza is a failure of Israel but also of all those that have governed the territory during this time: Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, the Egyptians and the international community as a whole.   

The lives of Palestinians in Gaza over the past four weeks have become still worse and those that are truly interested in helping them, will focus not on assigning blame but ways forward.

If a ceasefire is part of the solution, how will both sides be held to it? Can it reasonably be expected to hold if Hamas continue to hold on to Israeli hostages in direct contravention of international law? What are Israel’s responsibilities to civilians who are used as human shields by Hamas? How do we make sure that the aid provided by the international community gets to those in need? And how do we work towards a sustainable peace for those on both sides of the border, which means not living in the shadow of each other’s rockets?  Who will talk to whom?

Situations as complex of this are rarely improved by being reduced to a label.  And in this case, it seems that the reduction to a label has nothing to do with the search for peace – get in the way of peace.  

Once again, words matter.


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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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