Linguistic Occupation of Palestine: Why Are the Settlements Unsettling?

03 December 2023 | 10:14 Code : 2023429 General category
Language is a powerful force in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Mainstream media subtly crafts a narrative, shaping how we perceive this complex issue. Join us as we uncover the impact of language in shaping our understanding of this enduring conflict. By Ali Mofatteh.
Linguistic Occupation of Palestine: Why Are the Settlements Unsettling?

A few days ago, I attended a conference in Belgium organized by KU Leuven 4 Palestine. The topic of the conference was the architecture of occupation. The guest speakers discussed the destruction of Palestinian cities through “urbicide.” At some point, the discussion reached the question of “settlements” where I had to raise my concern about how linguistic occupation could blur the truth and (re)construct reality by acquitting the oppressor.

In this article, I want to discuss several examples of “linguistic occupation” in mainstream media, which serve the military occupation of Palestine by Israel. But before we start, I should remind that the word “media” is the plural form of “medium.” Like any medium, we expect that mass media act solely as a means to transfer reality to the audience. Nevertheless, by the end of this article, we will have seen that mainstream media are not solely transferring reality, but in reality, they construct reality! (all the examples in this article have been taken from Reuters).

The Unsettling Settlements:

“While Hamas tightly controls besieged Gaza, the West Bank is a complex patchwork of hillside cities, Israeli settlements and army checkpoints that split Palestinian communities…”

The word settlement has four definitions: 1. an official agreement intended to resolve a dispute or conflict 2. the action or process of settling an account 3. the action of paying money to someone (to clear one’s debt) 4. a place, typically one which has previously been uninhabited, where people establish a community.

Among all the definitions of “settlement,” one common meaning stands out: resolving a conflict! For instance, once someone has settled his debt, then he no longer owes anything to the creditor. Once someone settles a fight with someone else, then there is no longer a conflict between them. Once someone settles an account, then there is no issue of conflict that could cause further disagreement. Even when the word “settlement” is used in the sense of “settling down” in a place, as the Israeli occupiers have been doing for many years, it is still morally and factually wrong to assume that the Palestinian lands have been previously “uninhabited.”

The reality is that dividing the occupiers into “settlers” and “citizens” would be as morally wrong as dividing the members of a mafia group into “members” and the “mafiosos!” Thus, we should clarify this once and for all: there are native Jews, and Zionists. Judaism is about religion, but Zionism is about a racist, colonial and supremacist ideology whose adherents do not belong to Palestine.

Gaza Strip

“Gaza remains closed and residents say they have nowhere to go after southern parts of the Strip are bombarded…”

It is uncanny how the media insist on using the word “strip” when referring to Gaza. For instance, one rarely hears “The British Island,” even when Britain is an island!

The word “strip” is quite an interesting one because, as a noun, it primarily means “remove all coverings from,” and as a verb, it means “an act of undressing, especially in a striptease.” To strip can also mean “remove bark and branches (from a tree” or “remove (paint or varnish) from (a surface).” In all of these definitions, we see an act of “removal,” which shows a power dynamic between the remover and the object which is subject to removal. This power dynamic becomes even more clear when we think of the masculine use of the word “strip” in examples such as “stripping” or “strip club.”

When referring to Gaza as “Gaza Strip,” a power relationship is established by the media where Gaza is presented as the vulnerable and weak female that is being exposed to the more powerful and masculine Israel which is constantly pestering or trying to occupy Gaza. Indeed, the campaign to strip the “Gaza Strip” by violating its space is something Israel and mainstream media have been conducting for a long time! Remember that all you need is a comma or change of intonation to change “Gaza Strip” into the imperative “Gaza, Strip!”

Gaza Enclave

“Aid agencies have said they are aiming to deliver supplies to the northern part of the Palestinian enclave…”

Gaza is not only referred to as a “strip,” it is also presented as an “enclave” which is restrained and held down by the stronger Israel. The word “enclave” means “a portion of territory surrounded by a larger territory whose inhabitants are culturally or ethnically distinct.” What is primarily important here is not even the cultural or ethnic distinction. What is important is the meaning of “enclave” as a “surrounded” place. Mainstream media uses the word “enclave” as a euphemism for “besieged by the occupying Israel” because a territory is considered an enclave only when it is surrounded by the territory that belongs to another, which is not valid in the case of occupying Israel! Besides that, even if you are a zealous fan of Israel and you have no problem with land occupations, you should still ask this question: what rights does Israel have over the marine zone of Palestinian Gaza, and why should Israel block off the Palestinians from reaching the sea to benefit from it, or its gas and fish resources? Thus, we see how the term “enclave” is used by the media to hide the sad fact about “besieged Palestinian Gaza” and to legitimize the ground, aerial and marine occupation of this region!

Hostages vs. Prisoners

“A total of 50 hostages are to be exchanged for 150 Palestinian prisoners over four days under the truce…”

Mainstream media often calls the prisoners in the custody of the government in Palestinian Gaza as “hostages.” However, the Palestinians who have been held by Israel, and among whom there have been hundreds of children and women exposed to torture are presented as “prisoners” or “jailed.”

 Who is a hostage? A hostage is “a person seized or held as security for the fulfilment of a condition.” A hostage is someone who is held without having committed any crime. For instance, bank robbers could take the clients hostage, or hijackers could take the passengers hostage. Hostage-taking is not morally or legally accepted and it is often regarded as an act of bullying by the weaker criminals. A prisoner, on the other hand, is someone who is “ legally committed to prison as a punishment for a crime or while awaiting trial.” A prisoner, unlike a hostage, is not innocent. He or she has committed a certain crime and is waiting for the legal procedure which includes a trial.

For a second, let us forget the fact that Palestinians have been taken hostage by Israel solely because they have been resisting the Israeli occupation. For a moment, let us only talk about the Palestinian children who have been taken hostage by Israeli occupiers. Are they prisoners or hostages? If they are prisoners, then Israel should be held accountable for detaining the minor. However, if we accept the international law according to which children cannot be jailed, then the only remaining option to describe the Palestinian children in the Israeli hostage is to call it as it is! The following excerpt from Reuters sheds some light on how mainstream media is taking sides with Israel in oppressing Palestinian children: “Israel will on Friday release 39 Palestinian prisoners, among them 24 women and 15 teenaged males, in the occupied West Bank in exchange for 13 hostages due to be freed from the Gaza Strip by Hamas, a Palestinian official said…That would coincide with the planned handover at the Gaza-Egypt border of 13 women and children who were among some 240 people taken hostage by Hamas gunmen during a deadly Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel.”

Whereas Palestinians held by Israelis are presented as “prisoners,” Israelis held by Palestinians are depicted as “hostages.” What is even more interesting is the use of “teenage males” for Palestinian kids, some of whom have to spend the entire of their youth under siege in siege or occupation in occupation!

A War Between Israel and Hamas

“The director of Al Shifa Hospital in the Gaza Strip was being questioned on Thursday over evidence the Israeli military said showed the facility had been used as a command and control center for the Islamist movement Hamas…”

The last Palestinian election was held in 2006, and unknown to many in the West, Hamas won it! Even the EU sent its observation mission to oversee the voting process, and their final report stated the following: "There was nothing which would indicate that the final result was not the outcome chosen by the voters". However, there was only one problem for the EU and its allies, and that was the unexpected victory of Hamas against Mahmoud Abbas’s party, which was favored by the West. Had the West and Mahmoud Abbas accepted the decision of the Palestinian people, Hamas would have been the ruling party not only in Gaza but in the West Bank and all of Palestine!

Now, to call the oppression of Palestinians a “war between Israel and Hamas” would be as reductionist and absurd as calling it a “war between Likud (Benjamin Netanyahu’s party) and Hamas.” Nevertheless, it seems that for mainstream media, it is hard to accept that a West-Asian nation could have its political party and win the favor of the electorates who demanded resistance against occupation. The reductionist approach that presents the resistance of Palestinian people as a fight by the “Islamist movement Hamas” allows mainstream media, together with Israel, to present Israel as a “state” with its political parties against a divided Palestine that is partly ruled by an “Islamist movement.” This construction of reality runs the risk of changing the Israel-Palestine confrontation which is a battle between the occupier and the occupied into a question of state vs. a radical Islamist group!

Soldiers vs. Fighters

“The Israeli military said its troops had advanced into the heart of Gaza City, Hamas' main bastion and the biggest city in the seaside enclave, while the Islamist group said its fighters had inflicted heavy losses…”

The insistence by mainstream media on depicting Israel as a state and Palestine as anything but a state also shows itself in the way the media speak about the military operations: Hamas “fighters,” “gunmen” or “militants” are terms that we often see or hear when speaking about Palestinian resistance. All these terms stand in contrast to Israeli “army,” “soldiers,” “troops,” or “IDF (Israel Defense Forces).” Hamas “fighters” fight, but Israeli soldiers defend thanks to their “defense forces.” This biased use of language has further consequences on what types of rights we would like the two sides to have because professional state soldiers are entitled to a different set of rights under international law from which the “fighters” or “gunmen” are deprived!

The same strategy to wrap Israel in an aura of officiality and legality continues in the statements about the officials in Palestine and Israel: Unlike the Israeli “government,” it is Palestinian or Hamas “authority” that speaks. The use of the word “authority” to convey illegitimacy on the Palestinian side and its association with “authoritarianism” is quite frequent in mainstream media. This goes hand in hand with the term “the Israeli government” in contrast to “Gaza's ruling Islamist group Hamas” or Hamas “figures” in an attempt to delegitimize the governing body in Palestinian Gaza. Let us not forget that “to rule” primarily means “to control” or “to exercise ultimate power or authority over (an area and its people).” By using the vocabulary that is associated with authoritarianism, control and power, Palestinian Gaza is depicted as a pre-modern and pre-political society which stands in contrast to the more advanced Israeli “polis.”


“Hundreds of thousands of Gaza's 2.3 million people have fled their homes to escape the violence as conditions grew ever more desperate, with food, drinking water, fuel and other basic supplies running short…”

We should also discuss “mystification” and “obfuscation” of reality. For instance, we often see the use of the passive voice when discussing the occupation. In reality, basic supplies do not “run short,” but Israel cuts them! The houses are not “hit,” but Israeli invaders destroy them.

In an article about the Al-Shifa hospital as a place “where thousands of civilians had sought shelter from air strikes that have killed thousands,” Reuters not only fails to specify who carried out the airstrikes and from whose airstrikes the civilians sought shelter, but it also fails to specify the identity of those who actually sought shelter in the hospital. The strikes happen, and shelter is sought! Where is the subject of injustice and where is the subject to injustice? 


Although mainstream media presents Israeli aggression in the passive voice, they do not hesitate to use the active voice whenever there is a need to present Israel as a force for good: “Israel agreed on Wednesday to a ceasefire with Hamas for four days to let in humanitarian aid and free at least 50 hostages held by militants in exchange for at least 150 Palestinians jailed in Israel.” It is Israel, the good subject, that agrees with the ceasefire! The depiction of Israel as a party which agrees with the ceasefire could be seen either as an attempt to present the occupier as the good side of the story and attentive to the civilians or it could be seen as an attempt to present it as the side with agency that is able to dominate Palestine.

Occupation through Compartmentalization

Take these terms: Rafah crossing, Sheikh Jarrah, Beit Hanoun, Khan Younus, Nablus, Ramallah, Jabalia, Gaza, West Bank, Al-Qassam Brigade, North of Gaza, Centre of Gaza, South of Gaza.

When it comes to Palestine, and I want to highlight the name “Palestine” here, mainstream media engages in a kind of compartmentalization campaign. This compartmentalization of Palestinian land in media goes hand in hand with the Israeli technique of occupation that cuts off Palestinian cities and villages from each other until gaining total control over them. Whereas Palestine is simultaneously dissected and reduced to its parts, Israel is often presented as a whole. This masculine inspection of Palestine and its objectification through compartmentalization ignores the fact that Palestine has always existed as a whole and has suffered Israeli oppression for several decades. The orientalist way of depicting the East as complex, mystic, opaque and enigmatic which is expecting to be unraveled by the Westerners stands in contrast to the depiction of Israel as a rational, coherent and consistent entity. Precisely this compartmentalization technique prevents the reader from understanding the simple brutality of occupation: If a house is on fire, you do not say that the stove in the kitchen is on fire, and the bed in the bedroom is on fire, and the sofa in the living room is on fire! You pronounce it as it is: the entire house is on fire! And so is Palestine, the house of Palestinians!

tags: Palestine gaza strip

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