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Official enemies and Western ‘Newspeak’ on Israel-Palestine

‘Us’ and ‘them’ narratives are a convenient way of keeping serious issues crudely simple and focusing anger on external enemies

Middle EastMedia War ZonesHuman Rights

Protesters, one holding a Palestinian flag, gather in London’s Trafalgar Square, October 14, 2023. Photo by Alisdare Hickson/Wikimedia Commons.

When reading the Western press I sometimes feel like I am in a Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque world where George Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ is the official language. One word in particular elicits that feeling more than others: “unprovoked.” Not only does this word have the prefix ‘un-’ that is conveniently a hallmark of Newspeak, but is used to blind readers to the realities of international affairs and to remove, in a single word, any credibility from the side that was supposedly ‘unprovoked’ in its actions. Not only has the word been used ad nauseum by Western politicians, journalists and commentators with regards to Russia’s war in Ukraine, but has now reared its ugly head to describe the recent Hamas attacks on Israel.

The White House was quick to come out with the stock ‘unprovoked’ line when National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson stated that “The United States unequivocally condemns the unprovoked attacks by Hamas terrorists against Israeli civilians” in a release of October 7. The following day, the influential US weekly Time ran a piece entitled “Why Hamas Tried to Sabotage Arab-Israeli Peace Prospects With a Massive Unprovoked Attack.” Boom—ergo all Palestinian resistance to Israeli domination of their homelands is for the foreseeable future rendered illegitimate and anything that is done in response by the ‘good’ guys is justified.

Like any reasonable human being watching events unfold in the Middle East from afar, I am appalled by the way in which Hamas fighters slaughtered Israeli civilians, and I am equally appalled by the way the Israeli armed forces are laying siege to the Gaza strip with at best scant regard for civilian lives. But in line with the stock Western narrative in which the ‘good’ guys fight the ‘bad’ guys (our official enemies), the ‘good’ guys can not only righteously and indeed literally get away with murder now, but their past crimes can be brushed further under the carpet.

I don’t know whether Western politicians and a sizeable number of journalists and commentators are giving any thought to their endgame in all of this, but just as their utterances often seem Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque, they seem intent on dividing Eurasia into two armed camps in the fashion of Oceania and Eurasia. The ‘good’ guys on the Western ‘team’ are set free to pursue their goals without much restraint and without any meaningful acknowledgment of legitimate grievances that supporters of or those associated with the ‘bad guys’ might have. Consequently, there isn’t really much scope for meaningful negotiation—the only acceptable outcome is some sort of nebulous total victory for the ‘good’ guys. With the complexities of the situation involved suppressed, a Western audience is shielded from the reality that total ‘victory’ is unlikely, and that the likely outcome is in fact the continuance of wars that have all the makings of forever wars.

In desperate moves to strengthen the crude ‘them’ against ‘us’ narrative, attempts to implicate Russia in the Hamas attack on Israel have appeared in the Western press, with Euronews on October 18 going as far as suggesting that “The Israel-Hamas war is the latest proof Russia is a global agent of chaos.” Other than suggesting—without a source—that “that the Palestinian militants partially financed their operations by purchasing cryptocurrency in Russia,” the piece goes on to suggest that, “Beyond that, there is no evidence that the Kremlin actually supplied Hamas or any other extremist group in Palestine with weapons, or that it took part in the planning of any of their operations.” Nonetheless, the piece can’t help but conclude that Russia is nonetheless an “an agent of chaos, trying to fuel any conflict in the borderlands of the democratic world.”

In the black and white mainstream Western media world of international politics the ‘bad’ guys do bad things, and in Western politics and the press you don’t require evidence to implicate them in whatever is going on that can be labelled as such. If the author of the Euronews piece paid attention to the Kremlin’s actions and the Russian media on the matter he would have seen that Russia is actually trying to walk a fine line that doesn’t alienate either Iran and much of the Arab world or Israel. The Russian media was undoubtedly sympathetic to the plight of Israeli citizens when Hamas fighters were slaughtering them and in the aftermath of these abhorrent acts, but has now switched to an emphasis on sympathy for Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip who are now the ones being slaughtered. If Russia is looking to fan the flames of conflict in the Middle East, it has a funny way of going about it. But that doesn’t matter—Russia is an official enemy, and there must be some sort of dastardly scheme beneath Russian attempts at the UN to bring about a ceasefire.

Creating ‘us’ and ‘them’ narratives is a staple for many governments—a convenient way of keeping things crudely simple and trying to unite a population at home that might be willing to focus negative feelings on external enemies rather than domestic concerns. Only by resisting such ploys can we play a small part in creating a more stable and just world, ensuring that our attentions and energies are not unduly distracted from more pressing concerns both at home and abroad than dealing with caricature ‘bad’ guys.

Professor Alexander Hill teaches at the University of Calgary, and is a leading expert on the military and political history of Russia and the Soviet Union since 1917.

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