Building at river by sunset
View of the German Reichstag in Berlin at sunset | Photo: Michabka via wikimedia commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Israel–Gaza: A German War Discourse

The way the escalation of violence in Israel, the Gaza Strip, and adjacent areas in the region is discussed in Germany is, in many respects, not surprising. It follows the structural dynamics of war discourses: the polarization into a friend–enemy schema; the negation of moral ambivalence; patterns of legitimation which suggest that the actions of one side are more than justified by the previous actions of the other side; the compulsion of the threat situation, discrediting reflection and distancing as inappropriate; the construction of unparalleled amorality; the circumvention of humane standards through dehumanization of the enemy; the simplification of an inherently complex situation.

The discourse of war follows such preference structures and marks and disapproves of deviations as betrayal, using them as a reason for fundamental mistrust. These preference structures severely narrow down what can be said and analyzed. The prestructured dynamics of war discourse are contagious and draw even those who previously were only indirectly involved into the “black-and-white” discourse.

This contribution sheds light on the German discourse on the ongoing war in Israel in response to the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians and military personnel on October 7, 2023, which is itself part of a long-standing conflict in the region. This formulation is already an expression of a particular demand for accuracy in the ongoing discourse and may be contested by different sides – which in itself would be a manifestation of the aforementioned dominant discursive dynamics.

We analyze three mechanisms that are typical of wars in general but bear a specific signature in the German discourse. This signature is particularly pronounced in the current conflict in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and adjacent regions: a reduction of social reality to two collectives (“collectivization”), an insistence on declaring allegiance exclusively to one side (“compulsion to confess”), and a lack of explanation of what this confession means concretely, while simultaneously claiming that an explanation is unnecessary (“denial of explanation”).

Collectivization through Slogans

The slogans that are currently circulating in German discourse are ambiguous: “Solidarity with Israel,” “Free Palestine.” On the one hand, they are “empty signifiers” onto which almost all possible interpretations can be projected from inside and outside. On the other hand, they function as identity stamps that should mark, both internally and externally, which “side” one stands on. But they serve neither as a substantive basis for concrete policies nor as a sufficient starting suspicion for moral or even legal condemnations. To be useful for either, slogans must be specified; it must be said what is actually meant.

What does solidarity with Israel mean? With whom is one in solidarity – the government, the state, the people? If the people, who have many factions and voices, with which parts exactly? Beyond the commitment to Israel’s right of existence, does solidarity have limits, or is it indeed “unconditional,” independent of the specific behavior of state authorities and using all available means? How would such unconditional solidarity relate to a commitment to universal norms of international and human rights law? Conversely, does “Free Palestine” mean an end to occupation and blockade and the possibility of equal coexistence of Palestinians and Israelis, either in one state or in two? Or does it signify the same as “From the river to the sea”? The public chanting of this slogan has recently been banned in Germany – but what exactly does it mean?

We know that “From the river to the sea” is in the Hamas charter and that it is used to deny the right of existence to the State of Israel. At the same time, we see that the slogan is used by forces within Israel to denote a maximalist state project in the territory of historical Palestine. We also see appropriations and modifications (“From the river to the sea, we demand equality”) by participants in mass protests in Western cities. They feel offended by the insinuation of genocidal intent and see this allegation as an expression of racism and Islamophobia. And finally, in academic publications, the phrase is used to describe the living conditions of people in a geographic area where a two-state solution appears increasingly unrealistic. This ambiguity is hidden in the slogans, but it is rarely questioned.

Compulsion to Confess through Collectivization

Instead, we see many claims of equivalence circulate. Equating Jews with Israel is typical of war discourse but demagogic. It is sometimes even a form of antisemitism in its own right. Antisemitism is never justified. However, this does not mean that Israel’s policies, Israeli politicians, and the Israeli government are exempt from legitimate criticism. Here, false collectivizations have to be avoided: There is no homogeneous Israeli people, and certainly no homogeneous Jewish people. The best evidence for the required differentiation is the ongoing protests in Israel itself, which oppose the policy of the Netanyahu government and within which minorities have started explicitly calling for a ceasefire.

Putting Palestinians on a level with Hamas, as well as equating demonstrators, migrants, and Muslims in Germany with Hamas supporters, is also demagogic and often a vehicle for racist and Islamophobic agendas. It is, of course, possible to be in favor of the immigration of Muslim men and against antisemitism, no matter how much the either/or logic of some media contributions tries to convince us otherwise, and no matter how bitterly discursive opportunists and war profiteers try to designate antisemitism as an import problem.

Instead of efforts to differentiate, we often hear demands for clear confessions that are equally articulated as formulas. This compulsion to confess is also the basis for limiting the legitimate discursive space and marking taboos, where the argumentation of “the other side” is declared wrong and outrageous from the outset. A discourse built on confessions is normatively to be rejected from the perspective of peace research because it forces us into an either/or logic where a both/and would be possible. For example, insisting on the proportionality of Israel’s military responses to terrorist attacks does not imply denying the cruelty of crimes against civilians by Hamas. Moreover, someone calling for a ceasefire can do so in the face of increasing death tolls and ongoing human suffering in Gaza, without generally questioning Israel’s right to self-defense.

Denial of Explanation through Compulsion to Confess

Speaking in slogans and collectivizations as well as the prioritization of confessions should also be rejected from an analytical point of view, as they prevent engagement with the causes, course, and consequences of the Hamas attack on October 7. Besides the most brutal, transgressive, and propagandistic terrorist violence against civilians, the attack also included forms of guerrilla violence against security forces. It is still unclear who planned and ordered it within Hamas, who was informed within the organization at what time, and who, beyond Hamas, was involved in the violence.

It is also still contested how the relationship between Hamas’s agency and actors in the self-proclaimed “Axis of Resistance” came into play during the terrorist attacks. The axis consists of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and more broadly, the Yemeni Houthis and several Iraqi militias – and indeed, Hamas, which has experienced a turbulent recent history here. Just a decade ago, a rift lasting several years (2012–2017) between Hamas and the Syrian regime began because Hamas sided with the Syrian protest movement and, in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian opposition. As a result, the alliance of Hamas with Iran and Hezbollah was temporarily suspended.

Embedding the attacks by Hamas analytically into the history of the conflict and regional politics does not mean wanting to relativize or justify them. The normative question of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the use of violence is central but should be distinguished from a perspective that analytically examines the choice of terrorist means by actors in an ongoing conflict. Both perspectives are relevant for drawing the right conclusions for future conflicts and their resolution.

Loudspeakers for the Nuances – Understanding What Is at Stake

Slogans, collectivizations, and the compulsion to confess also impair strategic ability. They prevent thinking about next steps, options, and realistic utopias beyond antagonisms. We must hear and amplify the nuances that have started to be voiced from politics, civil society, and science. Enlarging these spaces of ambivalence in this way should be the goal of a differentiated, empathetic, and democratic discourse culture, especially in the face of an all too painful, all too pressing, and extremely disturbing reality of conflict and escalation of violence.

A lot is at stake: every day, the lives of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli military strikes, starving and thirsty on the run, and receiving inadequate healthcare; every day, the lives of Israeli and international hostages who have not been rescued or released; every day, the safety of Israeli civilians threatened and injured by Hamas rocket attacks; every day, the safety of Palestinians in the West Bank attacked by militant settlers; every day, the safety of Jews in Germany frightened by antisemitic attacks, feeling exposed; every day, the safety of individuals read as Muslim, Arab, or migrant. The latter, as Germans or non-Germans, no longer feel heard and included in our midst, with parts of the state and society openly threatening them, suggesting that they might forfeit their rights to protection and that their belonging to this society is conditional.

And finally, it is about peaceful and respectful coexistence in our society, which has long been under attack and urgently needs defending and repairing. Asserting and demanding radical universalism of human rights, of empathy in the face of human suffering, and of human security has not been en vogue for a long time – and is now more urgent than ever.

This article is an English translation of an article that has first been published on November 21, 2023 on PRIF Blog.

Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer

Prof. Dr. Hanna Pfeifer ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Radikalisierungs- und Gewaltforschung in Kooperation mit der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt und Leiterin der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ am PRIF. Sie forscht u.a. zu staatlichen und nicht-staatlichen Gewaltformen und –akteuren in der MENA-Region. // Prof. Dr Hanna Pfeifer is Professor of Political Science with a Focus on Radicalisation and Violence Research at PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as head of PRIF’s research group “Terrorism”. Her research interests include, inter alia, state and non-state violence and actors in the MENA region. | Twitter: @hanna_pfeifer
Irene Weipert-Fenner

Irene Weipert-Fenner

Dr. Irene Weipert-Fenner ist Projektleiterin im Programmbereich „Innerstaatliche Konflikte“, Koordinatorin der Forschungsgruppe „Regimewettbewerb“ und wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin am PRIF. Sie forscht zu autoritären Regimen, Demokratisierung und politischer Transformation, Protest und sozialen Bewegungen. Ihr regionaler Fokus ist Nordafrika. // Dr Irene Weipert-Fenner is a Senior Researcher, Project Director of the Research Department “Intrastate Conflicts”, and Coordinator of the Research Group “Regime Competition” at PRIF. Her research focuses on authoritarian regimes and political transformation as well as social movements and social justice conflicts, with a regional focus on North Africa. | Twitter: @iweipert

Hanna Pfeifer

Prof. Dr. Hanna Pfeifer ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Radikalisierungs- und Gewaltforschung in Kooperation mit der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt und Leiterin der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ am PRIF. Sie forscht u.a. zu staatlichen und nicht-staatlichen Gewaltformen und –akteuren in der MENA-Region. // Prof. Dr Hanna Pfeifer is Professor of Political Science with a Focus on Radicalisation and Violence Research at PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as head of PRIF’s research group “Terrorism”. Her research interests include, inter alia, state and non-state violence and actors in the MENA region. | Twitter: @hanna_pfeifer

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