Don’t call it a “clash”: Why words matter in covering Israel and Palestine

Al-Jazeera journalists stand next to the rubble of Jala Tower, which housed Al-Jazeera and Associated Press offices, following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip on May 15, 2021. (Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images)

As violence has escalated in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, newsrooms across the country have a chance to re-examine their longstanding linguistic practices in covering the news from the region and break from decades of repeating a largely homogenized script. 

Many American news outlets reported that it all began in response to the pending “eviction” of a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem called Sheikh Jarrah. (Violence is often framed as beginning with Palestinian resistance, rather than ongoing mass displacement, military occupation, political repression or imposed poverty.) 

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But the term “eviction” implies a landlord-tenant real estate dispute. In fact, the expulsion of 27 families from Sheikh Jarrah — refugees and their descendants who were displaced from their previous neighborhood in West Jerusalem when Israel took it over in 1948 — is part of an Israeli government policy to limit the number of Palestinians to maintain a demographic balance that is artificially skewed to keep them in the minority.  

As with any news story, word choices that demonstrate journalistic scrutiny and a healthy skepticism of official statements from government sources will produce the most accurate and ethical reporting. 

Ultimately, we would be doing our audiences a much greater service if we merely followed the same guidelines we use when writing about other issues. 

Avoid passive voice.  

Too often, headlines and news text attribute violence only to one side and not another, particularly when announcing casualties. Nearly always, the Israeli toll of war is phrased in active voice and Palestinian in passive, as though what (or who) killed them is unknown. This disparity risks obscuring the facts, because who is doing what is not named.  

“Rockets kill 2 Israelis; 28 die in Gaza as Israel Hits Hamas,” read an AP headline last week. A reader could be forgiven for not knowing who died in Gaza, or from what cause.

tweet from The New York Times said, “A week of fighting between Israel and Hamas has left more than 200 people dead.” The verb choice shrouds the fact that at that point, 232 Palestinians had been killed by Israelis and 12 Israelis had been killed by Palestinians.

Don’t use words that erase historical context. 

The terms “clashes” and “war” are doing a lot of work in headlines, articles and segments.  Clash, used as an intransitive verb, elides the cause and subject of the action, much like the use of passive voice. It’s commonly interpreted to mean two equal sides, or an unknown instigator, erupting in violence. It’s a vague term that glosses over the reality of the ongoing power imbalance between the Israeli Defense Forces and the stateless Palestinians over whom they impose their rule and reduces it to “both sides” skirmishes with equivalent power, responsibility and force. This has the impact of effectively deleting the historical context in the reader’s understanding of the situation. 

“War,” meanwhile, is a declared armed conflict between nations, and also suggests some degree of equal or near-equal footing. As tempting as it is to use a three or five character shorthand, accurately describing the events can help writers avoid risking an unintended mischaracterization.

Don’t repeat propaganda terms.  

Stakeholders can manipulate press coverage without our knowledge by using coded language and dog whistles to further their agenda. “After Years of Quiet, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Exploded. Why Now?” asked a New York Times headline. Aside from begging the question “quiet for whom?” it’s unlikely that Palestinians would describe 2019 as “quiet,” as B’Tselem, the largest Israeli human rights organization, says Israel killed 133 Palestinians, 28 of them children, that year. Between continued land theft, mass political imprisonment, economic exploitation, control of all resources and the land, sea and air blockade of Gaza from the outside world, the characterization of the situation as “quiet” completely erases the existence of the military occupation. 

Moreover, “quiet” is a term that has been used by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by the Israeli military in public statements as shorthand for the military objective of suppressing Palestinian resistance without changing the underlying conditions Palestinians resist. In the past decade, Netanyahu has used the phrase “the big quiet” to refer to the tense stasis wherein Israelis experience calm and peace while Palestinians remain violently controlled. As the civilian death toll in Gaza climbed last week, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared the attacks would continue, saying, “Only when we achieve complete quiet can we talk about calm.” 

Call Palestinians “Palestinians.”

Reporters sometimes refer to “Israeli Arabs,” or otherwise use the term “Arab” to refer to the Arabic-speaking, largely indigenous occupants of the region who are now second-class citizens of Israel. But they themselves reject this term and consider themselves Palestinians, with more in common with their relatives in the West Bank and Gaza than with their Israeli occupiers. See, for example, this week’s viral videos of Palestinians in Israeli cities like Haifa and Jaffa gathering in the street to sing the Palestinian national anthem in support of their country people in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank. Most of the Palestinians who live in Israel are indeed Arabs, but some are Armenian, African or another ethnicity.  

Moreover, not calling Palestinians “Palestinians” reinforces a longstanding Israeli propaganda tactic to conflate Palestinians with other Arabic-speaking people so as to dismiss their connection to the land, making it seem as though they could easily be repatriated in any other country in the Arab world. The more ethical practice is to call communities what they call themselves, not what their adversaries call them.

Nadia Taha

is a union organizer and journalist in Los Angeles who has wanted to be a professional media critic since she was a teenage journalism major at Rutgers University. She now leads the staff and is a proud member of Media Guild of the West, a local of the NewsGuild-CWA. She previously worked for eight years as a web producer at the New York Times and was later a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center.