Dehumanisation of the Palestinians

Azza Radwan Sedky
Tuesday 28 Nov 2023

The Western media is reluctant to allow the Palestinians their full humanity, often reducing them to statistics rather than seeing them as human beings, writes Azza Radwan Sedky


In a respite from the bombing that will not last long, Israel has maintained its part in the truce in the war on the Gaza Strip. It has temporarily stopped bombing Gaza, so that the Israeli hostages held by the Palestinian group Hamas can be freed and returned to their homes.

The event has been depicted with anticipation and heartfelt anxiety in the Western media. However, the imbalance in the reporting of it has been blatant.

I watched the mainstream Western media as the Israeli hostages were about to be freed. There was an aura of elation and relief on the Israeli side, even as it did not expect Hamas to deliver on its promises.

Western reporters, seen standing on Israeli soil, were determined to highlight the feelings of Israelis. They named the hostages and displayed their photographs, a fundamental act in the humanising process. They spoke to their kin and cited anguished family members. They presented viewers with information about the hostages, who they are, what they enjoy, and what they favour.

They also went further and spoke about what the hostages could have been exposed to, what they should not be asked, and the medical procedures they were about to face. They focused on the needs of the hostages, whether psychological, emotional, or medical.

The presenters also showed maps to help viewers to understand the route the hostages were about to take from Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip to the Rafah Crossing on Egyptian soil and then on to Israel where they would undergo initial medical checkups and be reunited with their families. The channels outdid each other in detailing the suffering that the hostages had experienced in their 49 days of captivity and the process of their returning home.

Much as I sympathised with the hostages and was overjoyed at their being reunited with their families, something was lacking in the coverage of this event: balance. What the channels did was have their viewers empathise with the hostages by talking about their lives and their agonising experiences, but the fact that the Palestinian prisoners that were also about to be freed were not given names or stories was dehumanising.

The 5,000 Palestinian children who have thus far died as a result of the Israeli war on Gaza were presented as merely statistics instead of human beings. The elation of the families awaiting the 39 freed Palestinian prisoners was ignored. This is what the Western media have been doing all along, and it is revolting.  

When you relate to a person, you empathise with him or her, seeing him or her as a full human being. When you do not relate to a person, he or she remains unidentified and less fully human. A tweet by US commentator Juan Cole on X (Twitter) put it this way by saying “Hey @msnbc why are released Israeli hostages humanised (as they should be) as dads and kids, but released Palestinian hostages are given no names or families and called ‘males’ and ‘females’ as though they were animals?”  

The racist rhetoric is deliberate and calculated unless, indeed, the Palestinians really do not matter much to the Western media.

It goes without saying that the Western media has adopted a pro-Israeli stance in the current war. The Palestinian NGO the Institute of Palestinian Studies, in a series titled “Genocide in Gaza,” says that its “racist rhetoric is intended to dehumanise the Palestinians in order to neutralise public outrage at what may amount to the worst ethnic cleansing since the 1948 Nakba and what constitutes a genocide at the hands of one of the most advanced militaries in the world, while all the world powers watch and do nothing.”

The same article says that “the American government props up an Israeli military that openly condemns Palestinian children to death and refers to Palestinian civilians as ‘human beasts.’ Palestinian life does not hold value in the profane equation of American power, wherein the bombing of a hospital in Gaza is rendered as ‘an explosion.’”  

The Western media parrots what Western politicians say. When the leaders of major Western countries like the US and the UK promote the daily aggression by Israel against the Palestinians as the “right to defend itself” and give Israel the green light to commit genocide, it is no surprise to hear the same sort of rhetoric from the media.

The sheer imbalance in the presentation of the lives of Palestinians and Israelis has never been more obvious. Each time a Western television channel interviews an Arab or Palestinian spokesperson, the question is asked whether the interviewee “condemns” the actions of Hamas on 7 October.

Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian politician, and Bassem Yousef, the Egyptian satirist, were asked this question during Western media interviews. Palestinian Ambassador to the UK Husam Zomlot was also asked it, and he responded by noting “the business of always being obsessed with blaming the victim, the occupied, the colonised, the besieged, when in fact I didn’t see you asking her [the Likud politician also being interviewed] to condemn… with your first question the killing of an entire family [in Gaza] that your reporter just mentioned.”

Words are used to dehumanise the Palestinians. Israelis are “killed,” while Palestinians “die.” Palestinians are “terrorists,” while Israelis “have a right to defend themselves.” Israeli sources report the “facts,” while Hamas or Arab sources make “allegations” or “claims.” Words can be powerful and manipulative, and the Western media uses them craftily to mislead. The double standards are glaring.

The New York Times changed its original headline after the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza was attacked. Originally, this said “Israeli attack,” but then it was changed to “attack on the hospital in Gaza,” and finally to “explosion at the hospital in Gaza.”  

The Washington Post’s headline on the same attack was “Hundreds feared dead in Gaza Hospital attack,” which made it seem as if the Palestinians involved had died of other causes and not because of the attack on the Hospital. The euphemism used to dilute the violent Israeli attack is undeniable.

No Western media outlet mentions the injustices committed by Israel; no Western media outlet talks of what happened in 1948 as being the main cause of the current crisis; no Western media outlet points to Israel not wanting a permanent peace with the Palestinians or recognises that its intention is to displace the Palestinians by sending them off to other countries.

Will there ever come a day when the Western media is impartial and avoids biased disinformation? I doubt it.


*The writer is former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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