Israel-Palestine war of words

Al Jazeera analysed hundreds of world leaders' speeches to see how language is shaping the Israel-Gaza war and its resolution.

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"We are at war. Not an operation, not a round [of fighting], at war," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared to his fellow Israelis on October 7, following a surprise attack by the Palestinian armed group Hamas that killed an estimated 1,200 people in Israel.

Within hours, the United States, Israel's closest ally, condemned the attacks as "unconscionable". President Joe Biden affirmed, "Israel has the right to defend itself," echoing sentiments from Israel's allies worldwide.

Over the next seven weeks, Israel went on to drop more than 40,000 tonnes of explosives on Gaza, killing more than 15,000 people, including at least 6,150 children, and levelled entire neighbourhoods.

Following several failed resolutions at the United Nations and a flurry of diplomatic efforts, a four-day Gaza truce, agreed upon by Hamas and Israel, finally took effect on November 24 and was later extended for an additional three days.

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[Al Jazeera]

As the war continues on the ground, a parallel battle is being waged through the exchange of words on the world stage.

To understand how language is shaping the current war, Al Jazeera examined all the speeches and statements given by 118 United Nations member states at all the UN Security Council (UNSC) and General Assembly (UNGA) sessions between October 7 and November 15.

In addition to the UN statements, we analysed hundreds of speeches and statements given by the leaders of Israel and Palestine, five permanent members of the UNSC — the US, UK, France, China and Russia, as well as eight regional players, namely Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey.

Pause vs ceasefire - who said what?

Many countries have called for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, ending all hostilities, while Israel's allies have only called for a pause in fighting.

Those avoiding the call for a “ceasefire” echo Israel’s sentiment that Hamas should not be given any respite in fighting and the war should only end after the armed group's complete destruction. Many of these countries have called for peace or political resolution, but have fallen short of using the term “ceasefire”.

According to the United Nations:

  • A ceasefire is largely defined as a "cessation of all acts of violence against the civilian population".

While there is no universal definition of what a ceasefire entails, it typically includes a formal agreement to end the fighting and lays out a political process to de-escalate the conflict, such as withdrawing weapons or repositioning forces.

  • A humanitarian pause, on the other hand, is defined as a "temporary cessation of hostilities purely for humanitarian purposes".

A pause or truce is a temporary halt to fighting for an agreed-upon period.

Our analysis found that the majority of countries (55 percent) specifically called for a “ceasefire” in Gaza while 23 percent of nations underscored the importance of a temporary halt in hostilities. The remaining 22 percent did not explicitly endorse either option.

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[Al Jazeera]

The majority of countries calling for a pause are European states as well as the US and Canada.

The Biden administration has called for “humanitarian pauses” in the war while firmly rejecting demands for a ceasefire, at least until Israel achieves its stated goal of eliminating Hamas.

The majority calling for a ceasefire are those in the Global South, with the exception of a handful of European states, most notably France, Ireland, Russia and Spain.

France has urged setting up a humanitarian truce which could lead eventually to a ceasefire.

For Palestinians in Gaza like Tala Herzallah, a 21-year-old student at the Islamic University of Gaza, the role of the international community and organisations like the UN in helping end the war has been close to "zero".

"All international laws are being violated, and no one says anything. It's all just ink on paper," she told Al Jazeera.

People are being bombed in hospitals, in schools. But all they do is condemn. Our blood is cheap

by Tala Herzallah - student in Gaza

Moreover, like many Palestinians, Herzallah stressed that the conflict with Israel extends far beyond the tragic events of October 7.

"We (Gaza) have been under siege for more than 16 years, with pain, poverty and unemployment. Bombed every now and then."

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[Al Jazeera]

‘Not in a vacuum’

Recognising the broader context of the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict

Palestinians carrying possessions on their heads as they flee from an unidentified village in Galilee some five months after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 [File: Reuters]
Palestinians carry possessions on their heads as they flee their homes in 1948 [File: Reuters]
Palestinians carry possessions on their heads as they flee their homes in 1948 [File: Reuters]

Last month, UN Chief Antonio Guterres echoed Herzallah's sentiments, stating that the Hamas offensive "did not happen in a vacuum," citing Israel's decades-long "suffocating" occupation and illegal settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Many countries welcomed Guterres’ “very balanced approach”, reported Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo from New York. However, Israel was “furious” and its officials called on the UN chief to resign.

In 1948, more than 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homes by Zionist militias. This mass exodus came to be known as the "Nakba" or catastrophe in Arabic.

A further 300,000 Palestinians were displaced following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War in which Gaza, along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, fell under Israeli occupation.

And since 2007, after Hamas took control of Gaza, Israel has maintained strict control over Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, and restricted the movement of goods and people in and out of the 365sq km (141sq miles) Strip.

To gauge which countries have mentioned - or not mentioned, the broader context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, we looked for some notable keywords including Israeli “occupation”, Israel’s “blockade” of Gaza, Israeli “settlements” and a “two-state solution”.

Israeli occupation

Fifty-four countries, 46 percent of the total, used the term “occupier” in reference to Israel or called the Palestinian territory “occupied”, stressing the importance of placing the current war in Gaza within the wider context of Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian land.

On the other hand, 64 countries (54 percent of the total) did not mention occupation in their speeches or statements. A lot of these countries include those who have also avoided calling for a ceasefire, such as Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Ukraine and the United States.

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[Al Jazeera]

Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip

Only 23 percent of nations make reference to Israel's 16-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip, using terms like “siege” or “open-air prison”.

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[Al Jazeera]

Israeli settlements

The mention of settlers or settlements is limited, with only 30 percent of nations, most in the Global South, bringing attention to it, despite their illegal status under international law.

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[Al Jazeera]

Two-state solution

The sole consensus observed among UN members is the near-unanimous support for a two-state solution as the route to attaining enduring peace. Both Israel and Palestine have voiced a two-state solution in their speeches.

References to occupied East Jerusalem, referring to the capital of a future Palestinian state, show similar regional divides. The overwhelming majority of European and North American states fail to mention it, whereas almost all Arab and Muslim nations do. Overall, 35 percent mentioned the term while 65 percent did not.

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[Al Jazeera]

According to Mouin Rabbani, co-editor of Jadaliyya and non-resident fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, the choice of words - used or not used - to contextualise the conflict is not particularly a new phenomenon, most notably among European and North American states.

Rabbani contends that these nations have unequivocally declared their unwavering support for Israel, making them "in many ways complicit in Israel's war".

“They are key to the impunity. Israel can't create impunity for itself. Impunity is provided to Israel by its allies, by its sponsors in North America and Europe.”

'Ceasefire Now'

How language is shaping the Israel-Gaza war

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The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) met eight times and failed to pass four resolutions before eventually agreeing on November 15 to “extended humanitarian pauses and corridors” in Gaza to allow for evacuations and aid deliveries.

The UNSC is the UN’s highest decision-making body with 15 members, including five permanent members who can block resolutions using their vetoes and 10 states on rotation. Decisions made by the Security Council are legally binding for all 193 member countries.

The draft resolution of November 15 passed with 12 in favour of the resolution and three abstentions from Russia, the UK and the US. The resolution made no mention of a ceasefire and also omitted Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s air strikes and ground offensive in Gaza.

Prior to the vote passing, Russia tabled an amendment to the resolution which was rejected on the basis of language that implied a ceasefire.

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[Al Jazeera]

Richard Gowan, UN director for the International Crisis Group, described the resolution as a “diplomatic face-saving device”.

In the previous four failed resolutions, the US had the most number of votes against passing resolutions, followed by the UK.

China, France, Japan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates each voted once against resolutions.

'Purposely loose' terms

However, even after the November 15 resolution, Israel continued to bomb the Gaza Strip, thus implying that the "looseness of the public discourse" allows many things to happen on the ground that "will not be changed by the politics of this discourse", according to Dr Pablo de Orellana, an academic focusing on diplomacy, nationalism and discourse analysis at King’s College London.

“Ceasefire is purposely loose as a term,” he added. “It's interesting because it's this kind of thing that is very non-committal for a lot of countries. It's borderline meaningless the way it's being phrased.”

In his research, de Orellana touches upon the ways in which diplomatic discourse can influence how knowledge about a state is produced and reinforced through diplomatic text whereby "diplomacy’s descriptions of the world are a vital aspect of how international actors recognise one another".

In the case of the latest escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict, de Orellana says the employment of words such as terrorism “has become a titanic issue for the Netanyahu government to get all of his allies to use the word terrorist” because Israel “wants to, of course, justify its intervention”.

“He wants to equate all Hamas with all Palestinians via the discourse of terrorism that delegitimises a political actor.”

From Al Jazeera’s analysis, we found that 58 percent of speeches mentioned terrorism while 42 percent did not.

The spread of ‘Israel’s right to self-defence’

On October 7, speaking on the aftermath of the Hamas attacks on a music festival in southern Israel, Biden said, “Israel has the right to defend itself and its people, full stop.”

It was a sentiment shared across the board, with many leaders including Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stating that Israel's right to self-defence was “unquestionable”.

“In terms of Israel and Western countries, they've framed this entire war in the context of what they call Israel's right to self-defence and everything else proceeds from that. So, everything is judged within the paradigm of Israel's right to self-defence,” Rabbani told Al Jazeera.

On October 23, the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Canada released a joint statement advocating their support for Israel's “right to self-defence against terrorism”.

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[Al Jazeera]

Israel as an occupying power

Leaders have been accused of double standards when parroting Israel’s right to self-defence.

Rabbani argues that Israel’s right to self-defence is itself flawed since “under international law, an occupying state only has a right of defence against attacks from other states”.

“According to Article 51 of the UN Charter, the right of self-defence can only be exercised against other states. More importantly, if Israel were at war, for example, with Egypt or Syria, aside from the laws of war, it would have no responsibility towards the civilian populations of those countries," he said.

"In the Gaza Strip, it remains an occupying power. It has very clear, extensive and unambiguous responsibilities towards the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. And that's never pointed out. All we hear is Israel must exercise its right of self-defence in a manner consistent with international law. And we're never told what that means and its obligations to the civilian population are never mentioned.”

UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese echoed that Israel cannot claim the right to self-defence since it has “been threatened by an armed group within the occupied territories”.

“Even saying ‘the war between Gaza and Israel’ is wrong because Gaza is not a standalone entity, it’s part of the occupied territory,” she said during a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia.

'Struggle for survival' discourse

“We are fighting against human animals,” Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said when he declared a “complete siege” of Gaza on October 9, two days after Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel.

Less than three weeks later, Netanyahu gave a speech at a press conference with Galant and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz invoking Amalek - described in the Hebrew Bible as a nation persecuting Israelites.

“‘You must remember what Amalek has done to you’, says our Holy Bible. 1 Samuel 15:3. ‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not,'" Netanyahu said.

Provocative language has been incited across the Israeli cabinet, as well as from Hamas leaders, and has buttressed equally incendiary actions on the ground, where for Israel the “emphasis is on damage and not accuracy”, the Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari stated on October 10.

De Orellana describes the language espoused as one of a struggle for survival.

“The language [now] is forcing everyone to make a choice. A very distinct binary choice between whose survival do you support? It's very extreme and it's very ethnic nationalist. It does not discuss rights for Palestinians at all. It has essentially barbarised the Palestinians.”

De Orellana argues that Netanyahu’s speeches, and in particular, the language of fighting “barbarism” indicate a set of ideas of the far right where “they absolutely believe in this clash of civilisations”.

Israel’s government has been described as the most far right in the country’s history, where many of Netanyahu’s cabinet reject a two-state solution.

De Orellana also argues that Hamas’s language is equally “terrifying” because “when you respond to ethnic nationalism with another bout of ethnic nationalism” where both sides believe in an “ethnic struggle for survival” it goes “towards the bottom line, which is “if you live, I’ll have to die”.

Where does your country stand?

The results of a vote to adopt a draft resolution are shown on a display during an emergency special session of the U.N. General Assembly
The United Nations General Assembly voted on a non-binding resolution calling for a 'humanitarian truce' in Gaza and a cessation of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian armed group Hamas on October 27 [Mike Segar/Reuters]
The United Nations General Assembly voted on a non-binding resolution calling for a 'humanitarian truce' in Gaza and a cessation of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian armed group Hamas on October 27 [Mike Segar/Reuters]

Since the start of the latest Israel-Gaza war, the world has been broadly categorised into three camps – countries allied with Israel, those impartial to the conflict, and the nations that have defended Palestine.

Countries like the US have pledged unambiguous support for Israel, with the provision of more than $14.5bn in military aid to Israel. Historically, the US has always been aligned with Israel, buttressing its regional military hegemony as part of the United States’ Middle East policy. On the other hand, a number of countries have used their voting powers at the United Nations to support Palestine.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) comprises 193 member states and is the most representative body of the UN system. Every member state is allowed an equal vote when deciding on resolutions.

How did your country vote on Gaza?

On October 27, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for an “immediate and sustained” humanitarian truce and cessation of fighting, condemning “all acts of violence aimed at Palestinians and Israeli civilians”.

A total of:

  • 121 countries voted in favour of the resolution
  • 14 countries voted against, including Israel and the United States
  • 44 others abstained. Among the abstentions was Canada, which had introduced an amendment that would have more explicitly condemned Hamas for its October 7 “terrorist” attack on Israel and demanded the immediate release of hostages seized by the group.
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[Al Jazeera]

Countries that recognise Israel and Palestine

As of November 2023, 163 out of 193 UN member states recognise Israel as a state, while 138 recognise the state of Palestine.

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[Al Jazeera]

Countries reconsidering ties with Israel

Since the start of the Israel-Gaza war, several countries have reconsidered their diplomatic relations with Israel with growing criticism of the regime’s bombing campaign on Gaza and indiscriminate practices in the occupied West Bank.

Bolivia, Belize and South Africa have cut diplomatic ties with Israel, while Bahrain, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Jordan and Turkey have withdrawn their diplomats.

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[Al Jazeera]

Global protests demanding an end to the war

Demonstrators protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza
Demonstrators protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza in London, Britain, on October 21, 2023 [Hannah McKay / Reuters]
Demonstrators protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza in London, Britain, on October 21, 2023 [Hannah McKay / Reuters]

Protests have simmered across the world with hundreds of thousands of people rallying in pro-Palestine and pro-Israel marches.

Between October 7 and November 24, 8,371 demonstrations took place in more than 118 countries and territories, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a non-governmental organisation specialising in conflict data collection.

The vast majority of protests during October 7- November 24 -  87 percent (more than 7,283) - have been pro-Palestine while 10 percent (more than 845) have been pro-Israel. The remaining three percent of protests (about 243) have been neutral, calling for peace.

Nearly 3,934 of those demonstrations took place in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and at least 1,591 in North America, while there were more than 1,676 in Europe. The top five countries to have seen the largest number of protests are the US (1,330), Yemen (838), Morocco (638), Turkey (575) and Iran (572).

Pro-Palestine supporters have demonstrated in major cities such as London, New York, Istanbul, Amman, Santiago and Tokyo, chanting “Free Palestine”, “Stop bombing Gaza” and calling for a “Ceasefire Now”, the latter of which has become an emblematic phrase of the current conflict.

On November 11, protesters took part in the largest pro-Palestine protest the UK has ever seen, with more than 300,000 people estimated to be in attendance, according to the local police, while organisers said the number was close to 800,000.

As the Israel-Hamas war enters its eighth week, protests against Israel’s unrelenting bombardment of Gaza are unlikely to abate.

[Al Jazeera]

Written by: Hanna Duggal and Usaid Siddiqui

Data collection and analysis: Owais Arshad, Shakeeb Asrar, Anson Zhang and Yara Algosaibi

Design: Konstantinos Antonopoulos

Edited by: Mohammed Haddad

Source: Al Jazeera