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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

“Both Sides” and “Innocent Civilians”:
The Psychological Effect of Language in the Gaza War

Filed under: Hamas, Operation Swords of Iron, U.S. Policy

“Both Sides” and “Innocent Civilians”: The Psychological Effect of Language in the Gaza War
Palestinian civilians from Gaza enter an Israeli community on October 7, 2023, following on the heels of Hamas’ invasion that killed over 1,200 Israelis and took over 200 hostages. (AP Photo)
  • During war, as during peace, language and terminology create attitudinal truth.
  • The words “both sides” and “innocent civilians” have entered popular discourse as a matter of fact, posing as a cognitively inconsistent mantra.
  • While the terminology may appeal emotionally, it lacks moral rigor when subjected to the test of reality. It also results in illegitimate criticism and action towards Jews and Israel and obscures Palestinian rejectionism.
  • Multiple sources have documented societal support within the Palestinian population for racist attitudes towards Jews, historical revisionism, and education to violence.
  • Israel is required to treat Palestinian civilians within the parameters of international law. However, evidence has shown extensive Palestinian civilian involvement in the support and abetting of Hamas.
  • Legal requirements should not be confused with moral standards, which show Palestinian society suffering from serious violations stemming from antisemitic ideology and reinforcement of terror that has been groomed over the years.

President Biden recently condemned antisemitism, but, in the same statement,1 he criticized those who don’t “understand” what’s going on with the Palestinians; he personified the essence of the “both sides” argument. This argument then moved from the abstract to the actual when he announced on May 8, 2024, a conditional halt on arms shipments to Israel, saying, “We’re not walking away from Israel’s security. We’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in those areas.2

The “both sides” mantra appeals to our hearts but betrays the logic of our brains. It is a cognitively inconsistent mantra that fails to assign responsibility and has permeated public discourse to create an ugly reversal of reality where Israel is accused3 of genocide, Israelis and Jews are harassed4 and attacked5 openly, and where political leaders parrot “solutions” that are just temporary respites6 on the road to what the Palestinian world has long sought and openly demands in Arabic: The elimination7 of Israel as a Jewish state. Period.

The appeal of “both sides” is a psychological mechanism people use to assume an air of fairness. It is a delicately articulate “cop-out” cloaked in false righteousness and misplaced assumptions regarding “innocent civilians.”

The evidence is extensive. It is in Palestinian culture that educates children to hate Jews,8 to glorify violence,9 to aspire to displacing their neighbors and “returning10“ to places they claim rightfully belong exclusively to them. In the eyes of demonstrators chanting “free Palestine,” it means only one thing.11 It is also in the words of international political leaders who decry the violence of October 7 but then express sympathy for the people who still support the atrocities perpetrated by the Palestinians’ Hamas leaders and heroes. International leaders claim to support Israel’s fight against Palestinian terror but then castigate Israel when Israelis actually do fight.12

Some 60 years ago, a United States senator defined the term “even-handedness” as the “palm of the hand to the Arabs” and the “back of the hand to Israel.”13 The “both sides” attitude exemplifies this contradictory and ethically questionable behavior.

Are There Two Sides?

The evidence shows that “one side” predominates regarding moral standards. Israel is the side supplying humanitarian aid14 to an enemy population while the other is illegally holding hostages incommunicado.15 Israel has to defend against a wrongful accusation of “genocide,” while the other “side,” which actually sought to commit genocide and promises to try it again,16 is overlooked. Palestinian protagonists are in the streets calling for freedom for the Palestinians but denying self-determination for Jews.17 Hamas and other Palestinian groups could save their civilians by laying down their arms18 and releasing Israeli hostages, but they choose to sacrifice their people on the altar of Jihad.

Jewish tradition teaches us that compassion for the enemy is not misplaced. On Passover, we are taught that the Hallel prayer of praise is shortened as a sign of muted joy19 because of the death of Egyptians who drowned after the parted sea closed on them. But compassion for the enemy should not be confused with their innocence. The Egyptians who drowned were not “innocent,” and despite the difficulty of saying so, neither are so many of the civilians in Gaza.

Like most Palestinians, residents of Gazan overwhelmingly supported20 and even joined the massacre of October 7. While Israel should take and has taken concrete measures to limit civilian casualties,21 a population that supported the terror that Hamas wrought on Israeli civilians for years is now experiencing the dangers of war, much as civilians in all conflicts have.

After October 7, the outpouring of support22 for Hamas, not only in Gaza but throughout the Palestinian territories, in Jordan, and on the streets of Europe and the United States, has shed a fresh light on the term “innocent” civilians. Barely a day passes in Israel that does not have another anonymous Palestinian civilian terror attempt,23 sometimes successfully, to shoot, stab, or run over Israelis. The source of the hatred that fuels these actions has been part of the Gazan/Palestinian culture for years. The children who have been raised to hate and attended summer terrorist camps24 have matured into young adults who now view online videos25 supplied by Hamas that detail how to stab, attack, and kill Jews. Palestinian civilians also participated in the looting of Israeli communities,26 following Hamas terrorists into Israel. Their goal is not peaceful coexistence or liberation, but rather violent resistance and elimination of Israel.

Palestinian camp for children in Jordan, 1970
Yasser Arafat’s “tiger cubs,” photographed in 1970…
Hamas children's camp
…and their grandsons 50 years later.

The Western view of these civilians is blithely ignorant and foolishly hopeful. The United States ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, best expressed that view when she said that the lack of “calling out” Hamas is due to “fear on the part of the Palestinians who are being held hostage…by Hamas.”27 While that may be true for some, the evidence to date shows that for most Palestinians, Hamas is something to be admired more than feared. Unlike in Iran, Syria, and Iraq, organized civilian opposition to Hamas and its ideological twin, the Palestinian Authority, does not exist.

Israel’s challenge in protecting civilians, even those that plundered Israeli communities and celebrated the massacre of Israelis along with Hamas, is made more difficult because Hamas does indeed embed itself within the civilian population.28 But the amount of weaponry,29 hateful antisemitic literature,30 and escape tunnels31 found by IDF soldiers in the homes of “ordinary civilians” in Gaza belies the notion of benign innocence on the part of many Gazans.

Ideological Poison

The evidence32 against the average Gazan is damning. None of this changes Israel’s responsibility to protect them, but while Gaza civilians may be victims of Hamas exploitation, they are by no means without responsibility for their plight.

The Allies, after World War II, recognized the toxic poison injected by the Nazis’ indoctrination into the souls of German civilians. The Allies introduced a comprehensive social and educational program to “denazify” the general public.33 At the behest of the United States, Japan also extensively reformed its educational system.34 Any possible coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians requires a similar approach. This approach has been suggested concerning the Palestinian leadership, even before the atrocity of October 7, 2023.35 While some feel that this would only achieve partial success, the philosophical foundations of relating to Jews and Israel that lead to a failure even to recognize that “innocent” Israeli civilians exist36 require significant change.37

Not all Gazans may be guilty, but neither are all “innocent.” Despite the emotional difficulty of accepting this, moral clarity requires it to be at the forefront of everyone who looks at “both sides.”

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  13. Congressional Record,↩︎