The language of genocide: How Israel dehumanises Palestinians

When the existence of an entire people is denied, when their humanity is denied again and again and again, when they are simultaneously cast as non-existent and terrorist — we see what is happening in Gaza.


When the existence of an entire people is denied, when their humanity is denied again and again and again, when they are simultaneously cast as non-existent and terrorist — we see what is happening in Gaza. PHOTO: DAWN

November 8, 2023

ISLAMABAD – When the existence of an entire people is denied, when their humanity is denied again and again and again, when they are simultaneously cast as non-existent and terrorist — we see what is happening in Gaza.

When the Soviets liberated the Majdanek concentration camp from the Nazis in the summer of 1944, it was the first real view the world had of the horrors of the Holocaust. And the world reacted with disbelief. “Maybe … we should wait for further corroboration,” wrote the New York Herald. “This … sounds inconceivable.”

Today, we see an endless stream of Israel’s war crimes in Gaza. We see the brutalised bodies of men, women and children, and we see the broken souls left mourning them. We see schools, hospitals, refugee camps, mosques and churches being bombarded by Israeli airstrikes without discrimination. We see a land under siege, with no food or water, no medicine or fuel let in. We see what can be described as a genocide, or at the very least an ethnic cleansing, of the people of Gaza. And once again it seems inconceivable.

It is inconceivable — the idea that anyone would deliberately kill other humans en masse in such a way. And this is often the question we are left asking: how is it humanly possible to treat thousands of other humans — even infants — in such a manner?

The immediate instinct might be to think the perpetrators were simply ‘evil’ or ‘madmen’. Yet we also find ordinary people, people like you and I, taking part in the violence, urging it on, reveling in it. This was the case in Nazi Germany. This was the case in Rwanda. This is the case in Palestine. How can they do it?

It’s easy enough. You just have to know the right words. The ones that will allow both observers and perpetrators to think: This is fine. This is acceptable. This is what the victims deserve.

Dehumanising the other

The first step in normalising death and destruction on such a massive scale lies in turning society against the victims — whip up the hatred that drives the juggernaut of violence forward.

How do you do that? The answer is dehumanisation.

The victims, as a group, are turned into a symbol of fear and loathing. With the help of propaganda, leaders steer the narrative to reduce them to subhuman creatures — vermin and savages and monsters who will only destroy society if allowed to remain. They’re not really people, not in the sense that others are. They are less than human, they are dangerous to humans and so, enslaving them, torturing them, even killing them is justifiable.

Such stereotyping served as the foundation for colonial violence, with Orientalist perspectives of the colonised peoples as being ‘less than’ the European overlords too.

The ‘merciless Indian savages’ of America, the slavish Africans, the barbarian Arabs and Indians — the idea of ‘civilising the natives’ in these foreign lands served to justify massacres upon massacres, slavery and endless misery. The same stereotypes of the uncivilised Third World now serve to justify Western interventions here, saving ‘helpless natives’ from ‘vicious terrorists’ who must be destroyed.

Activist Mona Eltahawy sprays paint on a pro-Israel ad in New York, 2012. Photo courtesy Mona Eltahawy via X [formerly Twitter]

The Nazi Third Reich, too, used tactics of dehumanisation as it came up with the label of Untermenschen (subhuman) for the ‘inferior’ non-Aryan races — the Jews, the Roma, the Slavs. The European Jewish community was, of course, at the centre of their hatred, supported by the pre-existing anti-Semitism in the continent.

Considered immoral and corrupt, constantly scheming to take over the world, the Nazis denigrated them as vermin and racially inferior beings, with master propagandist Joseph Goebbels turning to caricatures, books and film to render German society amenable to their genocide.

The Eternal Jew, a ‘documentary’ produced at Goebbels’ insistence, for example, emphasised the otherness of the European Jew, with one scene comparing Jews to rats that spread disease and devour resources across the continent.

Film poster for ‘The Eternal Jew’

A page from the anti-Semitic German children’s book, “Der Giftpilz” (The Poisonous Mushroom). The text reads, “The Jewish nose is crooked at its tip. It looks like the number six…”

The comparison of victims to vermin is a common one for the perpetrators of genocide. The Nazis compared Jews to rats and serpents, with numerous cartoons showing these animals with exaggerated ‘Jewish’ features.

In Rwanda, the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which played a vital role in inciting racial hatred against Tutsis during the genocide in 1994, frequently exhorted Hutus to ‘kill the cockroaches’. The idea behind comparisons to vermin is clear — when you have such an infestation plaguing society, what is one to do but exterminate them?

Cartoon depicting Jews as rats being swept out of Germany and denied entrance to democratic European countries. — Photo via
Anti-Semitic propaganda poster from Nazi-occupied Denmark, stating: ‘The rat – exterminate it’. — Photo via

The hate is intrinsically tied to fear. The Nazis stoked fears of the ‘insidious’ nature of Jews taking over society. The leaders of the Rwandan genocide and the media convinced thousands of Hutu that the Tutsi were coming to take over the country — and to kill them; it was this fear that was one of the main factors mobilising the genocidal attacks on the Tutsi.

In such a scenario, when your way of life — your very life, even — is at risk from the ‘others’, moral exclusion isn’t difficult. The same morals and rules don’t apply to the threatening group, and it makes sense to get rid of it.

There’s no shortage in history of marginalised groups being dehumanised as a prelude to the justification of injustices towards them. Israel’s history, too, shows numerous examples of the dehumanising caricaturisation of Palestinians and Arabs.

Fear and loathing in Israel

Today, Telegram channels of Israelis cheering on the destruction in Gaza appear to refer to Palestinians as ‘cockroaches’, ‘microbes’ and ‘pigs’. But they are only following the lead of those in power.

Announcing a ‘complete siege’ of Gaza two days after Hamas’ attack on Israel, the latter’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, was straightforward about his view of Palestinians. “There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel, everything will be closed. We are fighting against human animals and will act accordingly.”

Even this is a throwback to earlier comparisons. In a speech to the Knesset in 1983, then IDF chief of staff Raphael Eitan declared: “When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.”

When stereotypes of hate, rooted in fear, are taught to society, dehumanisation is no surprise. It is no surprise when right-wing Israelis at the annual Jerusalem flag march shout: “A good Arab is a dead Arab.”

It is no surprise when children sing:

It is no surprise when, in the ongoing massacres of Gazan citizens, the deaths of thousands of Palestinians were turned into a mocking meme by Israeli TikTokers, complete with the exaggerated features of the ‘stereotypical Arab.’ Nor is it a surprise when Palestinians in the West Bank are rounded up and humiliated by Israeli soldiers and settlers — and when that too is turned into a grotesque meme.

When racist sentiment becomes so deeply embedded in society, it is fairly easy to convince the average citizen that the ‘other’ must be removed. The Hamas attack on October 7, vicious as it was, allowed hawks in the Israeli government — including Prime Minister Netanyahu himself — to justify the ongoing destruction of Gaza.

In this conflict, it becomes easy to see Gazans as one of two things: “simply details”, as Israeli politician Benny Gantz said dismissively, or complicit with Hamas themselves.

Portraying the conflict as a biblical one, Netanyahu has called Hamas the ‘children of darkness’ — as compared to Israel, the ‘children of light’ — multiple times, insisting that “the good will defeat the extreme evil that threatens us and the entire world.”

Once again, we see the enemy as an inhuman threat — and it is an enemy that is equated with the Palestinian people as a whole.

“It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible [for the Hamas attack]. This rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved, it’s absolutely not true. They could’ve risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime,” said Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, in a speech rationalising his government’s relentless bombing and siege of the Gaza strip.

This isn’t the first time Israeli politicians have called for all Palestinians to be considered the enemy. In a deleted Facebook post in 2014, then-lawmaker Ayelet Shaked wrote: “What’s so horrifying about understanding that the entire Palestinian people is the enemy?”, arguing that dozens of civilians stand behind every terrorist, making them fair game too.

When an entire people is your foe, it makes perfect sense to target them all in any retaliatory actions.

It makes sense when members of the Knesset say “Gaza should be erased”, or when they call for “a Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 1948!”

It makes sense when an Israeli minister declares that dropping a nuclear bomb on the “monsters in Gaza” is an option; that anyone waving the Palestinian flag “shouldn’t continue living on the face of the earth”.

It makes sense when Netanyahu tells his people to “remember what Amalek has done to you” — a biblical reference to the rivals of ancient Israel, about whom the Israelites were commanded to “go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

There is, after all, a reason why dehumanisation is considered a preparatory stage for genocide. But it is still not enough to finish off the job. Ideally, the victims must be dehumanised further — enough to allow your troops to engage in mass violence against even civilians — even children, even infants.

Euphemisms of death

In 1942, radio orders requested permission for a truck to be sent to Dessau, Germany, to “fetch material for special treatment”. An innocuous enough request — except that it came from the notorious Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. The ‘material’ in question? Detainees for the concentration camp. The ‘special treatment’ they were to receive? Extermination in the gas chambers.

The Nazis were experts at such euphemisms — a spade was never a spade, murder was never murder. Everything was clinical, sanitised. After all, they were the ones who came up with the term Endlösung der Judenfrage — the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’. We know this better as the Holocaust, the mass slaughter of six million Europeans Jews.

Why? To make it easier to kill.

To make it easier for the bureaucrats at their desks to dissociate from what they were signing off on. To make it easier for society to digest what was happening. Why are the Jews, the Roma getting on the trains? Why, they’re only being ‘resettled to the East’. And so, everyone else can go on with their lives.

We talk about the Nazi killing machine and its bureaucratic impassivity as if they were anomalies, but truth be told, we do the same when it comes to warfare and conflict nowadays too. ‘Collateral damage’ to smooth over the loss of civilian life; ‘interventions’ to make invasions more acceptable; ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to make torture more palatable.

And in Gaza today — ‘human shields’ to justify the bombarding of an entire territory. Not only does it reduce every single person in Gaza to pawns, it blames them for their own death — for why didn’t they leave? Why did they allow themselves to be put in this position, to be used by Hamas?

The Gazan workers detained in Israel also revealed another chilling parallel of dehumanisation upon their release on Friday, with the numbered bracelets on their ankles bringing to mind the tattoos used to identify prisoners at Auschwitz concentration camps.

What’s the purpose of labelling and numbering victims in this way? The words we use influence our realities, they frame our narratives and mould our perceptions. If we describe victims in technical, ethically neutral ways and diminish them to nameless, faceless statistics, we can reduce them to inanimate objects.

Humanity, then, loses its distinctiveness — and once they are no longer human, once they have been dehumanised, empathy is no longer needed for them. Their suffering no longer matters. We can squash our ethical and moral impulses and look upon them with indifference. And ultimately, killing them becomes a matter of routine.

Even the method of murder for the vast majority of the Holocaust’s victims was dispassionate and mechanical — gas chambers rather than killing up close. Why? Mass shootings in front of open pits had become too upsetting for the Nazi troops, who kept having nervous breakdowns. They needed a “more humane” way to go about it — more humane for the perpetrators, at least.

The Rwandan genocide was more hands-on, with machetes being a widely used weapon. But the killers would try to get the victims to turn away as they chopped them down. What frustrated them, according to genocide scholar James Edward Waller, was when the victims refused to do so, when they looked at them squarely in the face — when the violence became too intimate.

It’s easier to kill from a distance. It’s easier to commit atrocities from a distance. This holds true for the Nazi gas chambers; it also holds true for aerial bombing and drone strikes. Sure, it makes it safer for the perpetrator too — the pilot is less likely to die than those involved in hand-to-hand combat.

But for pilots and especially for drone operators, the disconnect may be heightened too. Ethics experts have worried about how it may lead to a “Playstation mentality” for death, reducing human targets to mere blips — or ‘bug splats’ — on the screen. When you’re hitting a target, a bug on a screen, instead of another human, it’s easier to disengage from the enormity of taking a life.

A land without a people

The slogan is familiar. A land without a people for a people without a land. The project of Israel “from beginning to end … involved acting as if the Palestinian people not only must not exist, but had never existed,” according to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. And this is precisely what Israelis — such as former prime minister Golda Meir, who famously proclaimed that “there was no such thing as Palestinians” — have done throughout Israel’s history.

When the existence of an entire people is denied, when their humanity is denied again and again and again, when they are simultaneously cast as non-existent and terrorist — we see what is happening in Gaza. As Palestinian-American writer Hala Alyan points out in a New York Times op-ed: “A slaughter isn’t a slaughter if those being slaughtered are at fault, if they’ve been quietly and effectively dehumanised — in the media, through policy — for years. If nobody is a civilian, nobody can be a victim.”

In Western media, we see Palestinians being asked, again and again, whether they condemn Hamas. Why? Because unless they, these terrorists, first disavow violence — violence they are not responsible for in the first place — they are not seen as rational. They are not seen as human.

And so, we also see what we have been seeing on social media every day for the past month, for the past years, for the past decades. Palestinians, forced to put their suffering on display to the entire world — so that maybe, just maybe, the world will rehumanise them.

Maybe, just maybe, it will see them as humans who deserve to live too.

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