Thursday, January 1, 2009

The War of Words

The battle for public opinion is part of any war. Ensuring that one's terminology is widely adopted is key to that battle. Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nowhere is the multitude of conflicting terms employed by both sides greater. The conflict in Gaza is no exception. If in the past this war of words focused at least from an Israeli perspective primarily on public opinion in the West, today it focuses at least as much if not more on perceptions in the Arab and Muslim world.

Leave aside the distinction between terrorist and resistance. The real struggle for the verbal high ground is embedded as Abu Aardvark points out in the very words Gaza and Hamas. Israeli operations are a war against the Palestinians for those who describe them as an attack on Gaza. To those who refer to the attack as an operation against Hamas, the Israeli operation is about more than simply taking sides between Israel, Hamas and the Palestinians.

Gaza means Israel versus Palestine and brings with it the demand for unconditional aid for the Palestinians and demands for an immediate stop to attacks that cause enormous suffering to a trapped civilian population. It puts Arab and Muslim government on the defensive. Significant segments of Arab media with Al Jazeera in the lead, whose coverage of the conflict stands out in the media landscape for its breadth and depth, have largely focused on the humanitarian aspect of the conflict, feeding and catering to widespread sentiment across the Arab and Muslim world.

So far defining the conflict as a war against Gaza is winning hands down against efforts to efforts to define it as a war against Hamas. For those, including Israel, the United States, the Palestine Authority, Egypt and conservative Arab states who define the conflict as one between Israel and Hamas, the issues go far beyond the Palestinian struggle to end Israeli occupation and secure a state of their own. For them, the issue is the growing strength of the Islamist movement across the region.

"Amid the carnage in Gaza, it's not immediately obvious that what is taking place has less to do with Israelis versus Palestinians than with Arabs versus Arabs, principally to define the future of the Middle East. The Gaza conflict has become part of an ongoing confrontation between regimes emerging from the Arab state system established over six decades ago, and, with one exception, new regional players vying to take their place," writes Michael Young, the conservative opinion editor of Beirut's The Daily Star. "What we see developing in the Middle East is an accelerating counterattack by non-state actors such as Hamas, Hizbullah and the Islamic Jihad, all backed by a rising Iran, against the majority of Arab states committed to a negotiated peace with Israel. Manipulating the emotions that the fate of the Palestinians invariably release among Arabs, Tehran above all, but also the militant Islamist groups, are attempting to redraw the regional balance of power through a normalization of the armed struggle against Israel and a delegitimization of Arab states opposed to this," Young adds.

The degree to which the moral and human dimension of the Gaza conflict is winning it in the court of regional public opinion is evident from a roundup by Global Voices entitled 'Morocco: We Are All Gaza' of blogger responses in Morocco, a nation 3000 miles away from Gaza. "On ideological grounds I’m not a supporter of Hamas, but like it or not, these are the people who the Palestinians chose to lead them. After all, Hamas has always been cleaner than Fatah (its main political rival) and had a much better record in respecting the democratic process in Palestine since its inception... When in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and even during the 80’s, most of Palestinian militants were secular and mostly fighting a “conventional” war of liberation (i.e. not targeting civilians, and avoiding terror tactics -except the exceptions-), Israel responded with the same brutality and pushed the Palestinians little by little to the extreme," writes Hicham on Al Miraat.

During a visit to a hypermarket in Casablanca last year, I asked the head of sales in the computer department what keyboards sold best, Arabic or French-language ones. French, he said, and went on to say: "Relations with the West are good but they would be even better if the West would solve the conflicts in Palestine and Iraq." For a national, whose nation focuses far more on Europe and is only a stone throw away from a region where wealth is far more evenly distribute rather than on its Arab and Muslim brethren thousands of miles away, the salesman's comment was surprising. His most immediate concern was not commercial and economic improvement, it was the plight of people with whom he barely interacts. The salesman's comment goes a far way to explain why Gaza is winning the war of words and images and why Arab and Muslim anti-Hamas governments need to be seen to be expressing solidarity with the Palestinians and to be acting to achieve an immediate end to the violence and a lifting of the Israeli siege.

Mona Eltawahy, an Egyptian blogger in New York, graphically describes the war on words:

“Why aren’t you as an Arab lady writing about Gaza?

“Where are your columns about Gaza?

“Say the Israelis are wrong!

The messages started to arrive soon after Israel’s bombardment of Gaza killed close to 300 Palestinians. Implicit was the pressure to toe the party line, Hamas is good, Israel is bad. Say it, say it! Or else you’re not Arab enough, you’re not Muslim enough, you’re not enough,” Mona writes.

“But what to say about a conflict that for more than 60 years now has fed Arab and Israeli senses of victimhood and their respective demands to stop everything else we’re doing and pay attention to their fights because what’s the slaughter of anyone else – be they in Darfur, Congo or anywhere else – compared to their often avoidable bloodletting? Hasn’t it all been said before? Has nothing been learned? And then the suicide cyclist in Iraq made me snap and I had to write, not to take sides but to lament the moral bankruptcy that is born from the amnesia rife in the Middle East. On Sunday, a man on a bicycle blew himself up in the middle of an anti-Israel demonstration in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The technique legitimized and blessed by clerics throughout the Arab world as a weapon against Israel had gone haywire and was used against Arabs protesting Israel’s bombardment of Gaza,” she responds.

The war of words and images is likely to outlive the fighting on the ground. What will remain once the guns fall silent are the images of the civilian wounded and dead and a perception of who the ultimate winner is. The question is whether that will really have tangible political fallout in the region. If recent history is anything to go by, probably not. The war of words and images during and after the 2006 Israeli war against Hizbollah, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank in 2002 and the second Intifada two years earlier all had embedded perceptions that public anger could topple Arab regimes and rewrite the region's political map. Yet, nothing changed; the same Arab rulers remain in office today, often having successfully blunted demands for greater political freedoms with improved economic performance.

Analysis of the casualty figures in Gaza illustrates just how ideological the war of words and images is. From what can be derived from open sources, casualty figures have dropped substantially as the Israeli attacks drag on. In the first 24 hours civilian deaths were the highest, some 100 out of 282 dead. The total number of dead since then over a period of four days climbed much slower reaching just under 400 at the end of the fifth day of the fighting, with civilians accounting for a proximately 60 of those killed. The proportion of civilians among the 2000 wounded is less clear with medical aid workers in Gaza putting it at approximately 40 percent. Those figures could change dramatically if Israel launches a ground offensive in Gaza.

With a population of 1.5 million, Gaza is one of the world's most densely populated regions. Hamas no doubt has at least some of its military and certainly its political infrastructure embedded in heavily civilian populated areas. While Israel argues that this makes civilian casualties inevitable, Hamas' civilian neighbors even if they voted the Islamists into office had no say in whether they felt comfortable living next to potential Israeli targets and are certainly paying a heavy price. How decentralized Hamas' infrastructure across Gaza is becomes apparent on a UNOSAT map of Israeli targets in the strip so far published by the Olin Institute's Middle East Strategy At Harvard blog.

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