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Guest Post: How to Write About Palestine

When I published “What Does ‘I support Israel’ Mean” ten days after Hamas assaulted Israel las October, I got some push-back. In fact, two subscribers left me, ostensibly because I hadn’t sufficiently validated the deaths of 1200 Israelis in the attack and the resulting suffering. So, to further expose my bias in favor of oppressed people, let me repost an article in Flaming Hydra, a cooperative of writers, journalists, cartoonists, and other creative types that launched earlier this year to tell stories the mainstream media can’t stomach, or at least won’t pay for.

I had intended to write this month about how AI infringes on creative work and threatens to dumb us down, but this is more important. So, please welcome Arwa Mahdawi to this publication to explain how reporters can cover the Israel/Palestine conflict without exposing their biases.

From her bio at RSA: Arwa Mahdawi (@ArwaM) is a London-born, New York-based writer, speaker, and business consultant. Arwa writes a weekly column for the Guardian covering everything from politics to pop culture. She is also the creator of the viral website Rent-A-Minority, which is an ‘Uber for diversity.’ (Yes, before you ask, it’s satire.) Her first book, Strong Female Lead: Lessons from Women in Power, draws on original research and interviews with a host of female leaders to reveal what women in power can teach us about leadership.

Damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal aera in Gaza City on October 9, 2023. Photo by Naaman Omar apaimages. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

How to Write About Palestine: A Guide for Confused Western Journalists

Published April 22, 2024 at by Arwa Mahdawi. Reprinted by permission.

Almost twenty years ago the late Binyavanga Wainaina wrote a brilliant essay called How to Write About Africa. In light of the lily-livered way much of the Western media is covering (or rather, providing cover for) an unfolding genocide in Gaza, I’d like to proffer my own guide on How to Write About Palestine.

First, let’s define “peace.” Peace in the Middle East is when Arabs are being killed but Israelis aren’t. Arabs are used to war, you see, used to tumult. They are born with thicker skins than people in the civilized world and it’s perfectly normal for them to live wretched lives and die even more wretched deaths. Suffering is their status quo. Unless Israelis—a civilized people, who share our Western values—are also suffering, there’s no need to make much of a fuss. Two hundred thirty-four Palestinians were killed in the West Bank by Israeli forces and settlers from January 1 to October 7 2023: the deadliest year on record (until now) for Palestinians. That was “peacetime.” As everyone knows, this conflict, this violence, started on October 7, 2023, and there is absolutely no relevant history before that.

It goes without saying that Palestinian lives are always cheap—but it’s still worth keeping an eye on the human exchange rate. Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef helpfully had a go at calculating this for Piers Morgan recently. During the 2014 assault on Gaza, Youssef noted, there were roughly 27 Palestinians killed for every Israeli. “That is a very good exchange rate,” he enthused.

That exchange rate has been fairly durable. Around 1,200 Israelis were killed by Hamas on October 7. Over 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since then at the established 27-to-1 rate.

Now, however, it’s starting to look dangerously like human hyperinflation will kick in. Back in December, public health officials warned that, unless something drastic changed, close to 500,000 Gazans risked death within a year due to hunger and preventable disease. Since December nothing has changed for the better; rather, the bombing of Gaza has continued and the predicted famine has taken hold. And yet, you may have noticed that the official toll of “over 30,000 dead” doesn’t seem to have changed much in recent weeks. It’s possible the numbers are unchanged because Gaza has essentially become a parking lot, and it’s become increasingly difficult to keep records. In any case, “over 30,000 dead” is and will remain accurate for your use.

Early on in the bombardment of Gaza, it was easy to ignore or discredit the civilian casualty numbers. Biden was careful to adhere to Rule Number One of reporting when it comes to the Middle East: don’t trust a word those savages say. “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed,” the president said in late October. “I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.”

I know The Onion has done better analysis on a lot of issues than many prestige outlets, but I should point out that its November headline, “New York Times Invents Entirely New Numerical System To Avoid Reporting Gazan Death Toll,” was a joke. Obviously the New York Times didn’t invent a new numerical system! That would be unethical! Instead it seems that many outlets have adhered to the following informal guidelines when it comes to Palestinian casualties:

  • 100 deaths: Not worth mentioning.
  • 1000 deaths: Express concern.
  • 10,000 deaths: Express grave concern
  • 30,000+ deaths: Stop counting.

Another little journalistic secret to help you minimize Palestinian deaths is to reserve all your emotive language for Israelis. Numerous studies show that words like “brutal”, “savage”, “slaughter,” and “barbaric,” tend to be reserved for violence committed by Palestinians.

Violence committed by America and its allies, on the other hand, is a very different matter. Technology and distance sanitize violence, turning death and destruction into something abstract. Planting a roadside explosive is an act of murder; shooting an exploding missile from a Navy vessel is American benevolence. Leveling an apartment building full of civilians with a 2,000-pound bomb isn’t a “massacre”—massacres are what people do if they can’t afford warplanes.

Speaking of numbers, you should remember that Palestinians tend to age differently than other people, so don’t fall into the trap of calling any of them “children.” “Anyone over the age of four is a Hamas supporter,” former Mossad official Rami Igra said on Israeli TV in February. Ergo, a five-year-old kid in Gaza deserves to be starved to death.

Consider, though, that even if the kid is under four, they’re not really a child if they’re Palestinian: your coverage should make this clear. In January Sky News reported on the IDF shooting of a child in the West Bank using the following language: “Accidentally a stray bullet found its way into the van ahead and that killed a three or four-year-old young lady.”

Which brings us to our final, all-important point: passive language. Use it! Use lots of it! Whenever the facts might make Israel, an important Western ally, look a bit bad, then just speak in vague riddles. Take the man-made famine that is engulfing Gaza, for example. Pretend that you have absolutely no idea why it’s happening. Pretend it has nothing to do with Israel not allowing aid into the strip. Pretend it just somehow spookily emerged. “Starvation is stalking Gaza’s children,” read one New York Times headline. “Starvation stalks children of northern Gaza,” the Financial Times wrote. Someone needs to get that famine a restraining order, stat.

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