Words Are Weapons of Mass Destruction

Why Hamas should watch its language.


It should surprise no one that Israel and Hamas are at war again. Though many are following the tactics of this war — drones deployed, rockets intercepted, and arrests made — we should also focus on the words that made this war inevitable. Hamas incitement and hate speech have silenced Palestinian moderates, distanced human rights, and dramatically increased the chances of war.

In 2007, Hamas took power in the Gaza strip, imposed a brutal dictatorship and systematically repressed free speech. Palestinian bloggers have been arrested, social media conferences shut down, and dissidents routinely tortured. Meanwhile, what speech does Hamas advocate? Genocide of all Americans and Jews.

On August 10, 2012, the deputy speaker of the Palestinian parliament in Gaza, Ahmad Bahr, shouted: "Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, destroy the Americans and their supporters. Oh Allah, count them one by one, and kill them all, without leaving a single one." Yussuf al-Sharafi, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, echoed, "Allah, take the Jews and their allies, Allah, take the Americans and their allies … annihilate them completely and do not leave anyone of them." It’s hard to take these words as anything but an incitement to genocide, plain and simple.

What makes this incitement particularly dangerous is that they are broadcast live on Hamas TV throughout Gaza. Rwandan radio broadcasts once set the stage for the genocide which killed 800,000 people in one hundred days. Today, senior Hamas leaders are using even more powerful technologies, including social media, to incite violence and extremism against their neighbors and their own citizens. Inexcusably, this outrage has been largely ignored by the United Nations and many in the human rights community. It should be among the top priorities.

There are many lessons to take from the Holocaust. Perhaps the most important one is that when someone (especially a government) threatens to annihilate you, it’s best to take them seriously. Incitement to genocide is always the precursor to genocide. It was so in Rwanda, Germany, and nearly every other instance of mass slaughter.

There are differences between Hamas and Al Qaeda, but the language they use in almost every consequential category is identical. Both groups use racist speech and preach genocide. Both glorify suicide bombing and praise the use of civilian shields. Both silence free expression and openly call for the destruction of a member state of the United Nations.

What effect does the language of violence and extremism have in Gaza? Palestinian democrats, liberals, and moderates have been systematically silenced by Hamas. It is this squelching of independent thought and free speech that cements Gaza’s dictatorship. Witness Hamas’ cultural repression. In May, Hamas closed down a literary festival because it was deemed too critical. In January, it banned "Palestinian Idol" for being too secular. Last October, Hamas dispersed a hip hop party and confiscated recordings of the event. In the summer of 2011, it banned a Palestinian film which showed positive interactions between Israelis and unveiled women. In 2010, Hamas shuttered a youth center because it taught music and dancing.

Instead of welcoming independent thought, Hamas has filled Gaza’s airwaves, summer camps, and schools with the most incendiary rhetoric imaginable. Children are taught a mix of unremitting hatred and wild conspiracy. Perhaps most troubling is glorification of death. Hamas leaders like Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh proudly declare that "death for the sake of Allah is our most supreme desire." The deputy speaker of the Hamas parliament, Ahmad Bahr, explicates a hadith by saying, "When a man is having sex with his wife, he should be praying for a son who would wage jihad for the sake of Allah." Of Americans and Israelis, he adds, "They are cowards, who are eager for life, while we are eager for death for the sake of Allah." How can children in Gaza love life over death when their leaders teach the opposite?

It’s hard to imagine how Gazans can accept a peace agreement when their leaders make statements like this one from ex-Culture Minister Atallah Abu Al Subh: "The Jews are the most despicable and contemptible nation to crawl upon the face of the Earth." It’s hard to imagine how Gazans can reject the views of Osama bin Laden when their prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh (pictured above), declares of him: "[M]ay Allah have mercy upon him and may [he] take his rightful place together with the martyrs and the righteous."

Hamas’ uncompromising and incendiary rhetoric cements its dictatorial actions. It calls for killing all Americans and Jews and has no problem launching barrages of missiles at civilians. It glorifies death over life and suicide-terror becomes palatable. It preaches that dissent will be silenced and opposition figures are arrested, tortured, and shot. It imposes the language of terror and its people live in fear.

Democracy in Gaza cannot succeed under such conditions. Language is both a reflection of society and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hamas’ rhetorical war on liberalism, dissent, sanity, and compromise is strangling any hope of civil society and democratic transition in Gaza. It’s hard to arrest every dissident, but make an example of a few and threaten the rest, and you’ve achieved the same goal. Tolerance does not occur in a vacuum. It is cultivated in families, schools, media, and the language of everyday life. Stifle free speech and mindless policy has a way of making it to the top.

Some are tempted to draw equivalency between incitement in Gaza and incitement in Israel. It goes without saying that there is a degree of hate-speech in every society. More important than the clear quantitative difference between the extreme rhetoric that sometimes occurs in Israel and the government-sponsored hate-speech in Gaza is the space allowed to confront such extremism. In open societies such as America and Israel, radicalized speech is countered by a vibrant free press in which political leaders are routinely castigated and held accountable for their words. Closed societies like Gaza do not allow for dissent to challenge authority, and therefore hate-speech reigns supreme.

The great Czech dissident Vaclav Havel said, "Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace." The Hamas government denies its citizens internal peace by waging a rhetorical (and often physical) war against them. It is no surprise, then, that external peace is illusory. Is it any wonder that Gaza is at war with its historic enemy when it is effectively at war with its own citizens?

Hamas represses free speech while advocating genocide. This is a formula for war, not peace. Palestinian moderates have no chance to succeed as long as Hamas controls Gaza.

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