VICTIMIZATION IN THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT: Operation Protective Edge

LUIS RODRIGO CARBAJAL NOGUÉS

For centuries, humans have been using language to give a meaning to their actions. They have been trying to justify what they are doing in several ways. That is why everything must have a meaning, even the simplest or dumbest action has a reason and represents something. Meanings and justifications are as important as the actions that are being done.

If states and governments are seen as a unity, we could define them as players. They have their own preferences, rationality and behaviour. They will try to achieve their goals and have influence on the society, the world. From this perspective, we can argue that they will also try to assign meaning to their actions. By analyzing how they use language for that purpose, we try to know which are the states’ preferences, beliefs, and ideas to know more about how they behave.

As we can see, the world and its events are the result of complex interactions and processes, where the language plays an important role. Nowadays, unfortunately, the world wants simple and fast answers. We have adopted a paradigm were the reality must be simplified into the dominant universalist theory; understanding the macrocosms, forgetting the specifics. But, digging into the complex situation could help to understand better conflicts and issues, and, therefore, it could represent a way to find innovative solutions for them.

The Middle East had been a conflictive region for several years. Since the creation of Israel, the players have been creating a narrative to justify wars, terrorism, and other atrocities. Struggle after struggle, they have been giving a meaning to their actions, and, also, to the people that gave their lives for their objectives. Analyzing the language and meanings used by the belligerents can give us a different insight of the events.

How victimization has created a narrative to legitimize violence is the topic of this paper. Specifically, we want to see how it affects the peace process in the region. In the following pages, we will create a theoretical frame to analyze this aspect of the conflict and, then, we will apply those concepts to an specific case: Operation Protective Edge in 2014. We will focus on how the Israeli government tried to convince the international community about the legitimacy of the conflict.

Our intuition says that victimization in this conflict works in two main ways. First, it promotes a dehumanized view of the power and capability of the other side, justifying the use of the force. But, at the same time, it generates resentment in the society, obstructing the mechanism to build trust—and, therefore, making the peace process more difficult.

 

POWER AND DISCOURSE

The first step in this analysis will be to create a theoretical framework to analyze the conflict from the perspective of the language of victimization. We will talk about theory in International Relations, the Middle East conflict, and narratives. We will describe the mechanisms used by the actors to create legitimacy and their impact to the current state of affairs.

First of all, we have to acknowledge that this view falls in to the International Relations domain. Our investigation does not adopt a traditional view of this field; instead, it tries to make a dialogue between two of them: realism and constructivism. The paper will take concepts from both paradigms and combine them into a coherent framework.

Realism sees the international context as a place where anarchy prevails. In this situation, states have to be rational actors, fighting to maintain their position in the global arena. They are always competing to gain power and influence around the world because fulfilling this conditions allows them to survive in the state of chaos.

From this perspective, we will recover the concept of states as rational actors. By giving this characteristic to these entities, we are assuming that they will be able to give meanings to their actions and behaviors. If they are able to do so, they will be able to use those connotations in their advantage, to gain more power—a stronger and better position in the international order.

The other International Relations’ paradigm that we are taking into account is Constructivism. This will be the main source of information for our language-narrative analysis. We will take a complete framework from this perspective to make the analysis we want. Constructivism sees the international context as a complex situation full of different meanings which have to be understood outside the current paradigms. Unlike Realism and Liberalism, it does not have a unified and coherent theoretical body. Also, it does seek to have universalist concepts or goals. Instead, Constructivism pledges to have a set of medium-range theories that only explain situations in specific contexts.[1]

 

THE STRUGGLE

Then, it is important to recall the state of affairs in the Middle East Peace Process. For several years, the region has been immersed in a conflict for the territory of the state of Israel. The struggle has been starred, basically, by Arabs and Jews. Both of them claim the land and argue that the other ones are invading their property.

After the Israeli Independence War of 1948, the status quo in the region changed dramatically. Arabs and Jews have been trying to create a narrative to support their claims. The first ones are willing to recover their land by any mean, they even adopted terrorism as a tool to obtain their claims. The second ones have been trying to justify their existence as a state to the international community—specially to the Arab nations.

In his book, Berry Morris analyses how Israelis and the Palestine’s people have been developing a narrative about the conflict. He asks about the meaning of the settlers in the Palestine territories, the Arab refugees, and all of the victims of this prolonged conflict. He deepens in the narratives uphold by both sides—the justifications that enabled the continuance of the conflict. At the end of this meditation, he states that the escalation of violence has been caused by the incitement on the area, obstructing any attempt for achieving peace.[2]

Before Protective Edge, serious efforts were being made by the Secretary of State from the United States to achieve a long term peace agreement in the region. The Kerry Plan started after the re-election of Obama in 2012. At the beginning, the initiative was very ambitious and wanted to cover several aspects; but not all the actors were happy. Before starting the negotiations, Israel and the Palestinian Authority asked for several conditions. Kerry managed to fulfil in some extend those requirements, but the misunderstandings did not finish. After several tense situations, the talks were frozen. The sides realized that they politically gained more from blaming each other for the situation, from the failure of achieving a peace agreement.[3] The only factor that worsened the situation was the unity government that took control of the Palestinian Authority. Suddenly, Abbas allied with Hamas, and the situation for Israel was unacceptable.

 

ASSIGNING MEANINGS

Continuing with the definition of essential concepts for this analysis, it is important to describe the process in which successes gain a special meaning. How the different actors are able to assign different meanings to a diversity of success; how the set of symbols, the language is created. For this mission, we are going to define the concept of collective narratives.

Social Beliefs

The obligated reference to this section is Daniel Bar-Tal. One of his main contributions was the concept of societal beliefs. This idea talks about the “enduring beliefs shared by society members on topics and issues that are of special concern for the particular society, and which contribute to the sense of uniqueness of the society’s members”.[4]

To create a common language, first, it is important to define the people who will be sharing common symbols and meanings. Also, this concept helps to classify people that are not part of a group, the strangers, and the enemies. In summary, the importance of these beliefs is that they create identity in the group, a meaningful core of ideas—and, maybe, ideals.

Collective Narratives

But, without any doubt, the most important concept is the “collective narrative.” He describes it as “social constructions that coherently interrelate a sequence of historical and current events; they are accounts of a community’s collective experiences, embodied in its belief system and represent the collective’s symbolically constructed shared identity”.[5]

This concept is cornerstone of our research. This idea symbolizes the way society and states give special meaning to the events that have been happening in their surroundings. Collective narratives cluster the beliefs of a society into a coherent set of symbols that can be used for different purposes—in our case, legitimizing states’ actions.

It is important to stablish that narratives could create or eradicate socio-psychological barriers in the society. This type of barricades is defined as “cognitive and motivational processes that impede mutually beneficial exchanges of concessions and render seemingly tractable conflicts refractory to negotiated resolution”.[6]

Collective narratives could also have non-expected outputs. In this case, these accounts generate barriers, barricades that block any interaction beyond the official discourse. We will have to keep in mind this danger while we investigate the study case. We must be aware of any unexpected result of this type of the narratives we uncover. And, if it is present, we must deeply analyse its impact to the peace process. Is this the main source of barriers for achieving peace?

If we talk more about the importance of narratives, it is important to mention their main purpose. Narratives are essential for intractable conflicts; they create a language that helps people to cope with the nature of the struggles. It is not easy for people to get over conflicts because they involve human losses and suffering; in other words, they lead unavoidably to chronic stress and social distress.[7]

Talking more about Bar-Tal’s theory, we must highlight his views about the construction of the conflict-supportive narrative. In one of his articles, he makes a list of the steps needed to create this type of myth. The main stages of this process are: (1) relying on supporting sources; (2) marginalization of contradictory information; (3) magnification of supportive themes; (4) fabrication of supportive contents; (5) omission of contradictory contents; and (6) use of framing language.[8]

For Bar-Tal narratives work in different stages, that is why he also speaks about the two dimensions in which the concept works. For him, legitimization comes from two different sources: the internal and the international actors. In this sense, its collective narratives are playing a two level game—in Putnam’s sense.

In the internal level, the states must create narratives that fulfills their citizens’ needs. They have to create unity between the population around a certain topic, create empathy, and—more important—win the support for the agenda they are developing. For this purpose, Bar-Tan develops a guideline with the aspects he considers will guarantee any government the legitimization of their narratives in the national level.

On the other hand, states will want to win the trust of other countries or international actors for several reasons. First of all, “the goal [of the narratives] is to influence this [international] community, since the in-group needs moral—and often diplomatic—support from international organizations, as well as their tangible assistance with certain resources (both financial and military)”.[9]

This perspective is even more important for our investigation. It is a quick glimpse on what the governments try to achieve when they project their narratives to the members of the international community. Nevertheless, legitimization in this field could be difficult to achieve, due to the big number of players with different goals that belong to this level.

Victimization

Victimization is the last concept we will talk about. Death is the only thing all human beings have for sure—everyone will eventually die. Nevertheless, the way in which someone loses its life could be really meaningful for a society or a state. Dead people could be to use to legitimize or not a movement, an action.

Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio wrote that “deaths have always consecrated any cause as fair, real, and great” because humans tend to gave “respect to the lives that have been lost”.[10] Less people question the legacy of someone who is already dead than someone who is still alive. In this sense, he claims that deaths could be useful—even more, they must be worthy—because dead people have an advantage: they have the privilege of being an end by themselves.[11]

In other words, the victims of a conflict could be use as a symbol during the creation of a collective narrative. The meaning fatalities have is a powerful tool to generate empathy within the population or other actors. They could be portrayed as martyrs of a cause, examples to be followed, a source of motivation for the rest of the population.

If we see this concept as a collective narrative—or, at least, as a way to create new collective meanings—, we will be able to fit it into our study. As we have said before, societies and culture have made the memory of dead people a narrative that cannot be questioned, making them a powerful language tool to motivate and legitimize their behaviours.

After completing the theoretical frame of our analysis is now time to see how our concepts work in the reality. For this reason, we are going to analyse a case, Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. We are looking for the narrative beyond the military intervention, the way the Israeli government justified and legitimized the use of violence before the international public opinion. In this case study, we are going to pay a special attention on how the state used victimization as a tool to create empathy and other components of their discourse.

 

LEGITIMIZING PROTECTIVE EDGE BEFORE INTERNATIONAL OPINION

Escalation of violence is one of the explanations behind the failure of the Kerry Plan. In 2014, this process led to an Israeli military of the Gaza Strip. In this sense, Operation Protective Edge has to be understood as the last step in growing spiral of violence. The tension began with some attacks in Israel and the West Bank.

For the Israeli discourse, one of the most important causes that led to the escalation of violence was the kidnapping of three Israeli kids in the West Bank. The Israel Defence Forces launched a mission, looking for them. After many weeks, they discovered the kids were murdered by, supposedly, Hamas militants.[12]

Here, we must say that the search led by the Israeli army provoked many victims in the Palestinian side. In their attempt to find the murderers, the IDF’s units angered many Palestinians by their military actions on the West Bank. This disagreement led the Arabs to raise against the Israelis, escalating the level of violence; riots and demonstrations erupted across the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

In this ascending spiral there was a point were Hamas launched rocket attacks from Gaza to several Israeli cities. This situation turned to be unacceptable to the Israeli government, they decided to stop the attacks by striking the launching spots. Operation Protective Edge was launched to perform this mission. Israel Air Force began to bomb targets in Gaza. Then, the IDF decided to put boots on the ground and intervened on the Strip. They were supposed to find the launching sites and neutralize them. But there was a problem: to the eyes of the international community the manoeuvre was not legitimate. The State of Israel had to justify its action, how did they do it?

The Israeli Government

Collective narratives could be made by everyone. They start just as a segregate idea in someone’s mind. For this ideas to spread, it is important that an actor has some interest and the right resources to do so. To understand how the collective narratives about Operation Protective Edge were made, it is important to understand who was serving in office, who headed the Israeli government—the most concerned actor, the one who wanted to legitimize its actions.

A year before, on January 2014, elections to the Knesset were held. A coalition government was formed by the Likud party;[13] Benjamin Netanyahu was appointed as Prime Minister. The agenda of the new parliament included a strong emphasis on national security through army operations; they wanted to eradicate any threat to the State of Israle.[14]

Channels

Continuing with the analysis, it is important to study which were the main places in which the Israeli government placed the narrative they had. Here, we must be careful of many things. First, the place or platform used to spread the message. Second, symbols appealed by the sender. And, third, the language used—including the type of words. These aspects can tell us much about the intended receptors and their expected reactions.

First, the platform used delimits the audience of the message. When choosing an specific place to spread your message, you are also selecting which will be your audience, readers, listeners, or viewers. Here, it is important to look into the many types of media and diplomacy channels. For this paper, we are going to concentrate on the former.

Nowadays, after the internet revolution, online platforms are one of the most important media around the world. A great percentage of the population have access to this kind of platforms. In this context, we can understand the importance to have a strong presence in the social media: promoting your narrative trough this channel is effective and efficient.[15]

Another reason to have a strong presence in this type of mechanisms is the presence of the enemy and their attempts to delegitimize your position in this arena. The Israeli government must have someone defending their point of view on social media, an active responder to all the questions posted at this space, someone to share and defend their narrative against the online attacks from Hamas.

The Israeli government promoted their point of view in many different platforms. From Facebook to Instagram, on Twitter and on the web;[16] they were trying to legitimize their military operation around the world. By the usage of this type of technology, we can see that the Israeli officials tried to target a relatively young population—people who have easy access and understanding of computers.

They were trying to gain their attention and trust to push their agenda to other sectors of society. They taught that this section of the population could make a change and encourage their leaders to support the Israel cause. The impact of this strategy is difficult to measure, but it would be interesting to study more about that topic from the social media perspective.

Another channel used to place the Israeli message was the traditional social media, named television and radio.[17] The main ways to express the narrative was through statements about the current situation and the appearances on the news. This channel was intended to cover a mature audience that has limited or null access to internet, but is interested in the conflict. The problem with this type of platforms is the limited amount of time given to expose a point of view.

Symbols

Second, we must talk about the symbols used to legitimize the use of violence. In this case, many symbolic elements could be found, but the most important one is victimization. Israel wanted the international opinion to think of them as victims, people who was suffering from attacks and terrorism of extremist groups.

For this purpose, the government used an existent myth about the differences between Israelis and their enemies. They defined the other faction as terrorists without any kind of respect to the human life and as threat to western civilization. Also, they exploited many of the casualties of the conflict, glorifying their efforts and asking the international opinion to follow their example.

Language

Most of the messages using on-line platforms and intending to reach an international audience were written or recorded in English. With this strategy, the Israeli government wanted to reach a great amount of population, given the large dissemination of this language around the world. Also, it is really important to mention the type of words or images most of this messages used.

By using an easy language—direct words and short sentences—, they were trying that their narrative arrived to a wider audience. This way of transmitting messages has two advantages: (1) the little amount of time necessary to understand the message; and (2) the possibility that more people could get an idea of the narrative—considering that not all the population has the knowledge to analyze the situation in the Middle East. But the main disadvantage is that some information could be partial, incomplete, or faulty; by giving a reduction, a simplified version of the conflict, they could be lying about what was really happening.

Also, it is important to highlight that almost a hundred percent of the posts included an image or an infographic. This can also help people to understand easily the information given by the sender. By adding this type of resources, the messages become more attractive and people will actually try to know more about what is being said.

Evolution of the Legitimization Narrative

After analyzing the technical things about the messages, we will dig deeper into the content of the narrative supported by Israel. In this case, we will see how the collective narratives are made, what are their foundations. Also, we want to discover how and why the narrative changed during Operation Protective Edge.

At a first moment, the Israeli government used the West Bank’s kidnapped infants as a source of legitimization for the abrupt escalation of violence. In their attempt to recover those children, they used the force against the Palestinian population, creating indignation in the international community. To counter this situation, Israel argued that their main goal was to bring those kids back home and to dismantle any terrorist cell in that territory to avoid any success of this nature in the future.[18]

The operations conducted in the West Bank and the following Netanyahu’s declarations about the perpetrators of the crime created a serious response from Gaza. In this case, Hamas responded by attacking Israeli cities with rockets. This situation led to another step in the escalation of violence and, at the same time, to an evolution of the narrative used by Israel.

With rockets being fired from Gaza and the necessity to stop the threat, the Israeli government was forced to legitimize an intrusive operation in that area. For this purpose, they alluded to the—possible—victims of this attacks. They argue that people in the main cities of the country were not safe, and, since the main goal of the government is to protect their citizens, the must do whatever it takes to stop that threat.

During Operation Protective Edge, Hamas tried to delegitimize the actions of Israel by highlighting the “crimes of war” committed by the IDF. They argued that the armed forces were targeting the civilian population, attacking schools and hospitals, killing children and women. Israel had to act quickly and adapt their narrative to this step.

Their response appeared soon. They said that Hamas was the real threat to the Gaza citizens; with their actions, the terrorist abandoned their citizens. In this moment, Israel tried to differentiate from Hamas and argue a moral superiority by constructing a narrative about how they relate their citizens and their armaments. During this war, a common phrase used to legitimize the conflict said that Israel had weapons to defend their citizens and that Hamas used the citizens of Gaza as shields to defend their weapons.[19] Here, we can see how Israel did not want to lose its legitimacy, counter backing any disqualification made by the other side.

Finally, after many weeks of fighting, Israel decided to withdraw its forces from the Gaza Strip, but the legitimization issue was not over. After the conflict, the government had to continue arguing about the legitimacy of its military actions. In social networks, newspapers, television, radio, and other media, Israel wanted to highlight the results of their intervention.

They thought that, if they presented the operation as a success and highlighted some figures about its efficacy, the international opinion will support it. In this tone, is how we can explain the document released by Benjamin Netanyahu’s office one year after the conflict ended on the factual and legal aspects of the operation.[20]

 

REPERCUSSIONS ON THE PEACE PROCESS

Some people will argue that calm comes after the storm, but in the case of Operation Protective Edge this might not be true. The aftermath of the conflict raises more questions about the possibility of peace in the region. Israel showed a firm commitment to destroy any threat to its survival, but, at the same time, created a collective narrative that questions the other side’s commitment to peace.

This kind of narratives creates barriers to the peace process. Portraying part of the Palestinian Authority as a terrorist organization is dangerous. If Israel does not agree with terrorism, how can they negotiate with the people who support it. So, if Israel wants to achieve peace, they must go against its own narrative. For this country it is difficult to get over this contradiction; that is how a narrative could create a barrier for following events. The way narratives created during Operation Protective Edge and their content support this idea. Israel tried to legitimize its actions by pointing and blaming an actor that in the future could become a peace partner. This situation stops any peace attempt because the possible peace partner could lose trust in Israel’s commitment to peace.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Narratives are made as a way to express someone’s point of view about a certain situation. They use language and symbols to express more than a single fact; trying to explain the state of affairs, most of the times they are used to legitimize actions and situations. The Middle East conflict does not escape from this social constructs. Everyday, we can see governments, people, leaders, organizations, and other actors trying to influence the international opinion with their understanding of reality.

In this paper, we analyzed messages, senders, receivers, and channels. We tried to understand how narratives of a conflict are made, shared, and adapted to a world in constant change. At the same time, we uncovered the unexpected results from this legitimization attempts, looking at how they work against the peace process. In summary, we can say that Protective Edge legacy goes beyond the military operation and its political results; it created a myth about how the State of Israel sees the conflict and their commitment to achieve peace.

It is difficult to predict what will happen next. Governments and coalitions may change in the following years. Leaders could declare war or sign a definite peace agreement. New actors can come to stage and redefine our understanding of the conflict. Nevertheless, the only thing we can foresee is the creation of new narratives about the situation in the Middle East.

 


NOTES

[1] The ideas about constructivism here expressed were part of Galia Bar-Nathan’s class about the cooperation mechanisms. Galia Bar-Nathan, Challenges of Regional Cooperation, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 2016.

[2] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims, Vintage Books, New York, 2001, p. 676-694.

[3] For more information about the Kerry Plan, please refer to Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon, “The Explosive, Inside History of How John Kerry Built an Israel-Palestine Peace Plan—and Watched It Crumble”, in The New Republic, July 20, 2014, available in: http://goo.gl/xgMko5.

[4] Daniel Bar-Tal, “Israeli-Jewish Narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Evolvement, Contents, Functions and Consequences”, in R.I. Rothberg (ed.), Israeli and Palestinian narratives of conflict: History’s Double Helix, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2006, p. 2

[5] Op cit, p. 3

[6] Daniel Bar-Tal, “Socio-psychological barriers to peace making: An empirical examination within the Israeli Jewish Society”, in Journal of Peace Research, 2011 (48), p. 638.

[7] Daniel Bar-Tal et al, “Socio-psychological analysis of conflict supporting narratives: A general framework”, in Journal of Peace Research, 2014 (51), p. 662.

[8] It is relevant to say that the order of the steps presented is not important. Op cit, pp. 666-667.

[9] Op cit, pp. 668-669.

[10] Rafael Sánchez, Mientras no cambien los dioses, nada ha cambiado, Alianza, Madrid, 1986, p. 21

[11] Ibid.

[12] For more information about the Operation Protective Edge, visit http://goo.gl/iZnxRO.

[13] Who ran together with the Jewish Home Party.

[14] Elie Leshem, “Netanyahu, Liberman announce they’ll run joint list for Knesset, pledge strong leadership”, in The Times of Israel, Israel Inside, October 25, 2012, available in http://goo.gl/po1xdF. (Consulted on May 24, 2016).

[15] Effective because the message arrives to a great quantity of people; efficient because it does not need a great amount of resources (just one social media manager could spread a message throughout the world in less than a minute).

[16] Several accounts were used to promote the Israeli narrative. From the Prime Minister’s accounts in the social media, to the IDF’s sites. Also, it is important to mention that this posts were supported and share by many other people and organizations who sympathized with the cause, this intervention helped to spread the message to an even wider public.

[17] Important to mention that messages transmitted through this type social media were also uploaded to the online platforms.

[18] For more information, visit: http://goo.gl/mT3MCD.

[19] Examples of this narrative could be seen in articles like: Mortimer Zuckerman, “Israel Has a Duty to Defend Its Citizens”, in USA News, Opinion, August 6, 2014, available in http://goo.gl/pIVcNP. (Consulted on May 23, 2016).

[20] A copy of the document could be found in: http://goo.gl/m3alg4.


Responder

Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de WordPress.com

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de WordPress.com. Cerrar sesión / Cambiar )

Imagen de Twitter

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Twitter. Cerrar sesión / Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Cerrar sesión / Cambiar )

Google+ photo

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Google+. Cerrar sesión / Cambiar )

Conectando a %s