What Israel Is Doing In the Gaza Strip Is Not "Defense"

When harm is overstated to justify even worse harm

Alex Mell-Taylor


Photo by mohammed al bardawil on Unsplash

The word “defend” originates from a combination of the Latin word de, meaning “from or away,” and fendere, meaning “to strike, hit, or push.” It is a word about resisting attack from others, literally pushing a force away. At some point, the need for defense ends. The attacker is repelled, and if successful, you, as the defender, have the upper hand.

A question naturally arises of when the defense ends, one that is saliently linked to the current issue in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Over the past few days, a narrative has emerged that in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israel, which tragically killed over 1,300 civilians (though that number is hotly contested), Israel has every right to “defend itself.” As President Biden remarked shortly after the attack: “In this moment, we must be crystal clear: We stand with Israel….And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, and respond to this attack.”

The Israeli government has military superiority and appears to be leveling Gaza City as we speak, but curiously, this language of defense has been front and center. Attack and defense are moral positions as much as they are definitional ones. A defender is largely considered to be in the right, while an attacker is deemed the opposite. If an attacker is killed during their attack, the defender is morally considered not to be in “the wrong” for such an action: they were merely “defending” themselves.

Therefore, parties are incentivized to label their actions as defensive. Whether we are talking about an individual or, as in the case of Israel, an entire country, those who are defending themselves generally “win” in the court of public opinion, and that’s what we are seeing with this current media campaign.

And yet, when we focus on the actual word “defend”, we find this framing is inaccurate and manipulative. Political figures are ultimately perpetuating propaganda to justify harm on a massive scale and duplicitously branding it as harm prevention, twisting the very nature of language in the process.

War is not defense