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Israel-Palestine war: How racist discourse fuels Israel's settler colonial genocide

To provide cover for its mass slaughter in Gaza, Israel has waged a rhetorical war of racist dehumanisation of Palestinians, exposing its settler colonial foundation
A Palestinian drags bricks at a camp for displaced people in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip where most civilians have taken refuge, on 13 December 2023 (AFP)
A Palestinian drags bricks at a camp for displaced people in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip where most civilians have taken refuge, on 13 December 2023 (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Since Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza, its leaders and supporters have intensified their racist and dehumanising rhetoric against Palestinians.

In his declaration of war, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant infamously referred to Palestinians as “human animals”. Similarly, Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to Germany, called them “bloodthirsty animals”, and former Israeli ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, referred to Palestinians as “horrible, inhuman animals”.

This racist, colonialist dehumanisation of Palestinians is a deliberate rhetorical strategy to enable Israel and its western allies to carry out its mass slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. In The Wretched of the Earth, anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon outlines this “colonial vocabulary”, including how the colonist turns the colonised into the quintessence of evil by representing the colonised, indigenous people as animals: “In plain talk,” Fanon states, the colonised subject “is reduced to the state of an animal”. The coloniser “dehumanises the colonial subject....when the colonist speaks of the colonised he uses zoological terms…the colonist refers constantly to the bestiary,” he writes.

The zoological and animalistic representation of the indigenous Palestinians by their Israeli colonisers renders the population as a teeming, nameless mass that needs to be exterminated.

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Israel’s current deployment of this language is a continuation of centuries of racist European colonial discourses that were marshalled in the service of genocides of Native Americans, Africans, and Pacific Islanders, among many others.

Colonial dehumanisation

Palestinian life under oppressive conditions in Gaza, which many have likened to a concentration camp, is rendered “creaturely”, bordering on the unnatural and monstrous. Europeans have long considered indigenous people to be further away from humanity, even since the earliest colonial projects in the Americas and Global South.

Israeli denials of Palestinian existence and invasion of what they claimed was 'a land without a people' mirror the European settler colonial justifications of genocide

Shakespeare’s indigenous figure of Caliban in his play The Tempest evokes this part human, part animal who is subjected to slavery and dispossession when his home island is taken away from him by the magician Prospero.

European discourses of native people frequently referred to them as part of the “natural history” of various geographies, and many times included barbarous or quasi-animalistic traits that stress their departure from human norms.

Indigenous Africans, Americans, and Asians were frequently kept in “human zoos”, displayed in colonial capitals in the US and Europe, in exhibits meant to display the “natural” or “primitive” habitat of captured and imprisoned human beings who were shown off as animals.

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The European “Doctrine of Discovery”, only repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church in March 2023, gave European settlers ownership of all “discovered” lands, including enslaving the local population in perpetuity. The stripping of sovereignty from native peoples remained part of the colonial programme globally for the next five centuries.

Indigenous peoples’ humanity has always been denied, and their existence itself was always questioned. Describing the racist dehumanisation of indigenous people in the US, political scientists Ashley Jardina and Spencer Piston explain that “the land European settlers coveted was often depicted as vacant”. Israeli denials of Palestinian existence and their invasion of what they claimed was “a land without a people” mirror the European settler colonial justifications for their genocide and land theft.

European colonial writers wrote extensive encyclopaedic natural histories of the Americas that represented native peoples as cannibals, to justify their conquest, conversion, and enslavement. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, describes Filipino targets of the US empire in the Spanish-American War of 1898 as “half-devil, half-child”.

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Portraying colonised and indigenous people as monstrous and animalistic is part of the European colonial ideology. Israel’s settler colonial project, which follows the European blueprint in the current geopolitical order under “international law”, is easy to recognise: dispossession of lands, erasure of the sovereignty of the local population, and the rhetorical dehumanisation of Palestinians as “animals” subject to colonial violence.

Israeli rabbi Meir Maroz said on Israeli television that “if they [the people of Gaza] were humans, we would have sent them humanitarian aid...but this is about animals.” Other Israeli influencers have referred to Palestinians as “monkeys” on social media after Gaza’s zoo animals were filmed roaming the ruins of a destroyed urban area in Gaza.

Palestinians on social media are routinely depicted as insects or rodents, as when so-called “human rights lawyer” Arsen Ostrovsky shared a cartoon drawing on X, formerly Twitter, of a Palestinian depicted as a cockroach about to be crushed by a boot labelled “IDF”. The social media platform later placed a "community note" below the post about the historic use of the image of cockroaches to depict Jews during the 1930s and '40s.

Race and biopolitics

Over the last two decades, Israel's blockade of Gaza has featured two brutal methods of collective punishment that exemplify how this racist discourse was exerted onto Palestinians, who were reduced to creaturely, or bare biological, life: “mowing the lawn” (or grass) and the “starvation diet”.

Israeli military and government officials refer to the periodic mass assaults on the besieged Gaza Strip as “mowing the lawn” or “mowing the grass,” a gardening metaphor utilised to refer to Palestinians as “weeds”, undesirable elements in a lawn, to reduce the population through indiscriminate bombings.

The entirety of the populated Gaza Strip has been fenced in, cordoned off, and placed under a crushing military siege and embargo since 2006, a punitive measure imposed on the 2.3 million residents.

Israel, which controls the totality of goods that enter and exit Gaza, further imposed what is known as the “starvation diet” upon the collective Palestinian population.

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Israeli health officials, for example, provided calculations of the minimum caloric intake that is needed by Gaza’s population to avoid malnutrition and starvation, while banning such foods as cilantro and chocolate. The blockade has also hindered food production in Gaza, with shortages of seeds and farm animals such as chickens. Such inhumane military tactics recall those mediaeval sieges where walled towns were denied food and water to hasten their collapse.  

These conditions have been exacerbated to their extreme since October, with Israel's systematic destruction of civilian food infrastructure, including bakeries, and water filtration and desalination systems - moving a near-starvation diet to actual large-scale starvation.

These policies were designed to reduce Palestinian life not only rhetorically, but in the material conditions of existence. The racist depiction of Palestinians we see by Israeli military officials as “weeds”, and the calculation of their caloric intake, strips Palestinian life in Gaza down to a bare, biological life devoid of a political identity, citizenship, and legal status. It is an attempt to transform all politics inside the camp into biopolitics, to subjugate and control Palestinian life through biopower, or the power over the ability to sustain life. 

Israel, as the sovereign occupying and controlling power, maintains the power over life and death in the Gaza Strip, through hunger, thirst, violence, and the totalitarian conditions under which Palestinians are allowed to survive.

'No innocent civilians'

In the logic of the concentration camp, according to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the camp is a suspension of the law, a legal state of exception arising from martial law and the “creation of the space in which bare life and the juridical rule enter into a threshold of indistinction”. In other words, the inhabitants of the camp have their lives reduced to bare, biological life, in less-than-human terms.

When human life is reduced to a biological, rather than political, reality, the state of exception that arises out of martial law becomes permanent. Because no law can reach the subjugated body of the camp’s inhabitants, no crime can be committed.

Killing is not murder (as murder assumes a recognition of political belonging) since the concentration camp inhabitant exists in a legal zone of indistinction. In this way, a whole civilian population has been cast outside the law, which is why French-Israeli lawyer Nili Kupfer-Naouri can assert that there are “no innocent civilians in Gaza,” including newborn babies because they are all “guilty” of the crime of antisemitism.

Likewise, Israeli soldiers were filmed chanting “no innocent civilians” and referring to Palestinians as “Amalek”, the Biblical nation Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to in his genocidal call for violence against Gaza. Perpetrator-less killings apply to more than simply the residents of Gaza, as Palestinians in the West Bank, including journalists like Shireen Abu Akleh, are routinely killed by Israeli forces with complete impunity.

It is also why western media sources can mention Palestinian deaths without perpetrators. Israelis are “murdered” by what Piers Morgan calls “mediaeval barbarians”, but Palestinians “die mysterious deaths” without being murdered.

The consistent racist depictions both visually and verbally by Israeli and western government officials, media figures, and social media personalities have led to murders and attempted murders of Palestinians in the US, including the stabbing death of six-year-old Wadea al-Fayoume in Chicago on 14 October and the shooting of Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ahmed in Burlington, Vermont on 25 November. Wide-scale crackdowns on pro-Palestine speech by universities, governments, and media corporations have followed as well.

The violence inflicted on Palestinian bodies is accompanied by the very same racist discourse that attended the violence against Black and Indigenous peoples across the Global South at the hands of European colonisers and invaders. The racism against Palestinians (and by extension Arabs and Muslims) in the US and Europe cannot be understood without addressing the material subjugation of Palestinians in Gaza through military and political force by a settler-colonial apartheid project.

Israeli and western governments have deployed racist discourses in their rhetorical war to justify the killing and displacement of Palestinians in Gaza

For decades, Israeli policies were designed to reduce Palestinian life to its most basic components, stripping Palestinians of their lands, resources, and humanity, herding them like cattle in security checkpoints, shooting them like "ducks", labelling their children as "little snakes", and calling for their mass slaughter.

Since 7 October, Palestinians have become further dehumanised in brutal concentration camp conditions in the besieged Gaza Strip and the cantonised West Bank. Zionist Israeli and western governments have deployed racist discourses in their rhetorical war to justify the killing and displacement of Palestinians in Gaza.

While this white supremacist dehumanisation might have purchase among western politicians and media elites, for others, it has laid bare how Israeli settler colonialism is an extension of the European colonial project and united the Global South in solidarity with Palestine, foregrounding Palestinian humanity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Adam Miyashiro is Professor of Literature at Stockton University in New Jersey and teaches courses in medieval literature and postcolonial studies.
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