Israel’s Leaders Struggle with Rhetoric Amidst Escalating Conflict
In the wake of the recent devastating attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians and soldiers, Israel has been engulfed by shock, grief, and a desire for retribution. However, the language used by the country’s leaders and public figures has raised concerns, with critics arguing that it often veers into incitement.
The Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, referred to the adversaries as “human animals” and outlined the military’s intention to eradicate Hamas in Gaza. Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett compared the conflict to fighting Nazis, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to scripture, mentioning Amalek, an ancient enemy of the Israelites, which some scholars interpret as a call for extermination.
This rhetoric is not confined to political leaders. Journalists, retired generals, celebrities, and social media influencers have also employed inflammatory language, contributing to what experts claim is the normalization of discussions involving extreme ideas. Calls for Gaza to be “flattened,” “erased,” or “destroyed” have surged on social media, raising concerns about the impact on public sentiment.
According to FakeReporter, an Israeli group monitoring disinformation and hate speech, such phrases have been mentioned around 18,000 times in Hebrew posts on the social media site X (formerly Twitter) since October 7. This marks a significant increase from the 16 mentions in the month and a half leading up to the conflict.
While inflammatory rhetoric is not unique to Israel, the proliferation of such language within the country has triggered a debate. Far-right and ultranationalist politicians have been pushing the boundaries of acceptable speech, with some figures making incendiary remarks about Palestinians. Concerns are mounting that this rhetoric may desensitize Israelis to the civilian toll in Gaza as the conflict persists.
The suggestion of a nuclear strike on Gaza by right-wing minister Amichay Eliyahu further fueled the debate. Netanyahu, while suspending Eliyahu, asserted that the comments were “disconnected from reality.” Despite claims by the Israeli military that they are working to prevent harm to civilians, skepticism has grown as the death toll in Gaza surpasses 11,000, according to the Gaza health ministry.
The rise in incendiary statements is not occurring in isolation. Violence in the West Bank has escalated, with Israeli soldiers reportedly killing 150 Palestinians, including 44 children, in clashes since October 7. Settlers, some informally allied with the military, have also been responsible for deaths. In turn, Palestinians have targeted Israelis, resulting in three deaths.
The psychological impact of the brutal attacks by Hamas has led to a surge in calls for clear answers from the Israeli public. Eran Halperin, a psychology professor at Hebrew University, argues that in the face of an existential threat, people seek simplicity, categorizing the situation into clear distinctions of good and bad.
However, critics warn that dehumanizing the people of Gaza may lead to further discrimination against Palestinian citizens in Israel and make Israelis more desensitized to civilian casualties in Gaza. Human rights lawyer Michael Sfard contends that such language jeopardizes the chance of a peaceful resolution, erodes Israel’s democracy, and influences younger generations.
As the conflict unfolds, the impact of the rhetoric on public opinion and the potential long-term consequences remain subjects of intense debate within Israel and beyond its borders. The international community continues to watch closely as the region grapples with the complex challenges of this longstanding conflict.