This column was written shortly before a visit to Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa, with an anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned there. He and his colleagues were considered “terrorists” in the eyes of the white government. This generic word, which repressive regimes use freely, is part of the dehumanization of opponents and the criminalization of the resistance.
“Terrorist” is probably the most common word in the Israeli media these days. No wonder, when in the last two weeks five Jews were murdered in knife attacks, 16 Palestinians suspected of stabbings were killed by soldiers, police officers, citizens holding a gun license or settlers. Fear has fallen on the streets and the green light to execute every stabbing suspect, even if he poses no threat to life, has so far failed to deter other Palestinians from taking up knives.
“Terrorist” saves words when writing and editing. “Suspected of stabbing a soldier”; “Palestinian boy who Border Police officers claimed tried to stab them”; or “The 13-year-old Palestinian boy who was seen stabbing a Jewish child is from refugee camp X” – such phrasing just complicates the sentence, especially when reporting on a number of stabbing attacks in one day.
The short time and space demand a simplified language, and the simplification and shorthand language adapt themselves to the general hysteria. The police, IDF spokesman or any other official body supply ready-made statements, filled with words such as “terrorist” and “neutralize.” The copying, or near-copying, of them saves time and hassle. That is why the descriptions are so similar in all the different media reports.
Unifying the terminology makes it possible to ignore the fact that many of the assailants are from East Jerusalem; that some of those stabbed are in uniform and armed; and that others were stabbed in settlements (including neighborhoods in East Jerusalem). Without receiving political orders from above, those deciding to launch knife attacks (and be killed) have focused on the most brutal symbols of the occupation: the army, police and settlers. The “neutralizers” are acclaimed, as long as the attacker is Palestinian and the victims are Jewish. Eden Nata-Zada murdered four Palestinian Israelis in 2005. He was “neutralized,” and his “neutralizers” were put on trial and their acts described as a “lynching.” They, of course, were not Jews.
True, Nata-Zada was also characterized as a “terrorist” in many newspaper reports. In comparison, when a 17-year-old from Dimona recently stabbed two Bedouin who are Israeli citizens and two Palestinian workers from the West Bank in a revenge attack, most media outlets (except for Haaretz) sufficed with noting his age and the fact that his past and psychiatric condition were known to the police. It goes without saying that the security forces subdued him without injuring or killing him.
In any case, defining a few Jews as “terrorists” does not change the original function of the generic term: To erase from the sight of Israelis any political, sociological and historic context for the Palestinians’ decision to kill Jews. This is dehumanization whose logic goes as follows: those attacking Jews are terrorists. The attackers are Palestinians. The Palestinians are terrorists, the murderousness is ingrained in them – and that is the source of our problem. Not the foreign control, not the settlements, not the police abuse of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents.
The word “terrorist” also exempts journalists in advance of the obligation to check the accuracy of the police or military statements after an attempted attack, or to examine the real meaning of “neutralize” and how it was done.
Palestinian media outlets, following Facebook posts, did not show the full picture of the stabbings, and presented the results as the murder of Palestinians for simply being Palestinian. They also contributed to the hysteria – the Palestinian one. The official Palestinian Wafa news agency website did not note the circumstances in which each of the 37 people (as of Saturday) were killed. Nine students from Gaza were killed by IDF soldiers during an unarmed demonstration at the border fence. Mother Noor Hassan and her baby daughter Rahaf were killed after an Israeli airstrike near Gaza City. But 26 of the Palestinians were all from one group: protesters and suspected knife assailants. There was no way of knowing who was who.
Every Palestinian understands the despair that drives a person to stab Israelis. Many also justify the act, when there is no doubt it was done. But the missing reports in the Palestinian media and the amalgamation of names in the official list of those killed also shows the confusion and fear of a wave of copycat suicide attacks.