Undertones: A dictionary to understand the war in Gaza

Image provided by Canva, and edited with permission by Global Voices.

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. Subscribe to Undertones.

Welcome back to Undertones, where we study narratives from around the world. Since the end of 2023, the Civic Media Observatory has started a new project focusing on data governance. But we still have some important stories from our Community Observatory to share. One of them comes from our researcher from Gaza, who's now living abroad but has helped us make sense of the conflict since it started. In December, we published an analysis of critical narratives coming from Israel.

This time, our researcher Haneen Abo Soad and Global Voices’ Middle East and North Africa Editor Mariam A., joined forces to write this piece about finding the right words to describe the conflict that started inside our process within the Observatory.

Decoding language in the ongoing Gaza genocide

In the intricate threads of history, we’ve seen how language has long played a strategic role, especially in the shadows of colonization. Those in power skillfully suppressed native languages to quell resistance. This tactic hasn’t lost its edge; it is alive and well today as contemporary powers manipulate language to “manufacture consent,” justifying oppressive actions and rallying public support.

In the ongoing struggle of our people in Palestine, the dance of words takes center stage. Israel and its supporters wield language, crafting a narrative that strips us Palestinians of our humanity, portraying our resistance as illegitimate, and branding it as either antisemitism or terrorism. Isabella Hammad and Sahar Huneidi, two Palestinian historians, cast light on Israel’s ploy, labeling all our resistance, even peaceful actions like economic boycotts, as terrorism. This characterization extends to the asymmetrical war between Palestinian civilians and the Israeli army, as outlined in a December 21, 2023, article in The Nation.

For us Palestinians, this manipulation of language is not a distant debate, but our daily reality intensified during the current war on Gaza. Israel and its allies wage a multi-layered war, distorting our native words, redefining them, and globally banning them, all to stifle our resistance.

In this tangled linguistic war, Israel and its allies deny the ongoing genocide in Gaza despite the graphic evidence circulating on social media for the whole world to witness. 

We selected a few calculated terms used by global media with the aim of shedding light on our perspective. With 75 years marked by ethnic cleansing, 56 years of military occupation, and 17 years of siege on Gaza, we find our people ensnared in an ongoing genocide. The toll is unbearable: more than 30,000 people killed, 70,000 injured, and many more trapped beneath the rubble. 

Yet, as we watch our children dying daily of bombs, starvation, and thirst, the global conversation fixates on semantic debates, diverting attention from the urgent realities unfolding on the ground.

Evacuation and Nakbah (‘نكبة’ Catastrophe’)

“Don't take all the stuff, Um Ahmed. Just grab the essentials. Come on, my dear, walk ahead of me. It's just two days, and we'll be back.” — Palestinian author Waleed Saif from the series Palestinian Nakbah.

These words resonate with every Palestinian family in the diaspora and in the refugee camps. Echoed by grandparents and parents, they linger in the air, and yet, here we are, 76 years later, and those two days have not yet found their end. 

This is the very reason the term “evacuation” carries the weight of 75 years of displacement and the enduring struggle of millions of Palestinians worldwide. This weight became palpable and pushed itself into our global consciousness on October 13 when Israel ordered 1.1 million people in northern Gaza and 22 hospitals to leave before a ground offensive on besieged Gaza. This directive, condemned by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a death sentence for the sick and injured” and labeled a potential “war crime” by Amnesty International, carried an immense weight of consequences.

The term “evacuation” typically means moving individuals from danger to safety. In Gaza, some were compelled to comply with the evacuation order, while others refused, recognizing the harsh reality that there is no safe place in Gaza, a truth underscored over the last 145+ days.

This picture was taken today in Khan Yunis.

One of the most cruel pictures ever, how can one picture be so loaded with all this misery!!!


For Palestinians, “evacuation” resurfaces haunting memories of the Nakbah (Arabic for “catastrophe”) in 1948 — a traumatic event that violently displaced 700,000 of our kin from their homes and native lands to pave the way for the creation of Israel. This involved the destruction of our society, culture, identity, political rights, and national aspirations. Since then, we have been denied the right to return home, and for more than seven decades, we have been tirelessly fighting for that right. The resonance of the term extends to the ongoing persecution of Palestinians in the West Bank

For Gazans, “evacuation” transforms into a chilling echo of history, thrusting them into forced displacement, this time to the Sinai Desert — with no prospects of returning home under the guise of evacuation.

Hostages and Prisoners (سجناء ‘sojanaa’) 

“If the prisoner is beaten, it is an arrogant expression of fear.” — Ghassan Kanafani

It’s noteworthy that the terms “hostages” and “prisoners” are used to describe both Palestinian and Israeli captives, carrying different connotations. The aftermath of Hamas’s attack on Israeli settlements, killing 1,139 and capturing 250 individuals, led to a focus on the Israeli “hostages.”

This unfolded as Israel declared war on 2.4 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza, using dehumanizing rhetoric by labeling them “human animals.” 

The hostage situation prompted a deal between Israel and Hamas, resulting in a temporary ceasefire and the release of 84 Israeli and 240 Palestinian captives. The ceasefire lasted a week.

Despite being labeled differently, the deal compelled the world to acknowledge the presence of 7,200 Palestinian individuals, including men, women, and children in Israeli prisons.

According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, as of November 2023, 4,764 Palestinians were held on “security” grounds, with the majority never having been convicted of a crime. Human Rights Watch reported 2,000 in administrative detention, where the Israeli military detains a person without a trial, presuming they might commit an offense in the future. 

Associated Press notes that “over 750,000 Palestinians have passed through Israeli prisons since Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem in 1967,” including children.  

Since the second Intifada in 2000, Israeli military authorities have detained, interrogated, prosecuted, and imprisoned around 13,000 Palestinian children, with 86 percent not being informed of the reason for their arrest, as reported by Defense for Children International – Palestine. It is estimated that around 460 children have been detained in the last five months alone.

Furthermore, the conditions within the prisons, the torture, and the degrading treatment of the detainees are highly dehumanizing, constituting a violation of international laws. 

On February 1, 2022, Amnesty International issued a report urging accountability for Israel’s crime of apartheid against Palestinians. In this system, the Israeli government has instituted a two-tiered legal and political structure that affords rights to Jewish Israeli settlers while subjecting Palestinians to military rule and control, stripping them of basic rights under international law. 

The 2.4 million people in Gaza and the 7,200 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons are, unequivocally, hostages just like the 250 Israelis, and they deserve the same attention.

Turning a blind eye to their plight reveals global double standards. Regardless of which term the world chooses to call them, it is crucial to recognize the fundamental truth that no civilian should be subjected to captivity or utilized as a bargaining chip, irrespective of which side they find themselves on.

Collateral damage and Palestinian shuhada (‘شهداء’)

“And if they ask you about Gaza, tell them that it has a shaheed, a shaheed helps him, a shaheed takes pictures of him, a shaheed bids him farewell, and a shaheed prays over him.” — Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian poet and author 

In the poignant words of Mahmoud Darwish, Gaza is painted with the presence of the “shaheed” (plural, shuhada) — not just martyrs, but witnesses to the profound injustices endured. Often mistranslated, misunderstood, and misused by Western audiences, “shaheed” is commonly translated to mean “martyr,” despite its literal meaning in Qur'anic Arabic being “witness.” It appears 35 times in the Qur'an, primarily as “witness” and only once as “martyr.” The term holds a deeper significance as witnesses who stand before God to attest to the crimes committed against them. 

In the Palestinian context, the term encompasses individuals and communities killed by the violence imposed by Israel during the 75 years of occupation. It includes a diverse spectrum, such as resistance fighters, but also grandparents, parents, sons, daughters, siblings, cousins, family members, friends, civil society workers, doctors, teachers, journalists, children, and all innocent civilians impacted by the injustice, irrespective of their religion.

People who were loved, who had lives, dreams, and hopes.

These people are typically dismissed as “collateral damage” by Israel and its allies. This term is grounded in the principle that weighs whether the military advantage achieved from a particular target is “proportionate” or justifies the potential loss of civilian lives. 

A recent investigation by the Guardian and the Israeli publication 972+ Magazine has exposed the Israeli army’s use of artificial intelligence (AI) during the latest war on Gaza. Operating through a platform known as “the Gospel,” this AI technology identifies additional potential targets, resulting in expanded authorization for bombing non-military sites. The report reveals a relaxation of constraints regarding expected civilian casualties. According to +972 magazine, the Israeli army maintains files on potential Gazan targets, pre-determining the projected number of civilians likely to be killed in each attack. “This number is calculated and known in advance to the army’s intelligence units, who also know shortly before carrying out an attack roughly how many civilians are certain to be killed.”

The attack near the Jabalia refugee camp, however, has raised concerns about proportionality, with accusations of war crimes and calls for greater efforts to protect civilians.

This linguistic choice challenges terms like “collateral damage” and underscores the importance of each “shaheed,” portraying lives lost as witnesses rather than casualties, emphasizing the profound impact of every human being affected by the ongoing genocide.

In conclusion, the power of language in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be overstated. Understanding the impact of language is crucial for a nuanced perspective and to acknowledge the ongoing struggle for justice amid the complex realities on the ground. The battle extends beyond the physical realm to the words we choose, emphasizing the profound consequences of linguistic choices in the quest for a just and balanced narrative.

Global Voices special coverage: “Israel's war on Gaza

We encourage you to explore our coverage: “Israel's war on Gaza.”

Global Voices’ statements about the war

  • Global Voices joined 140+ civil society organizations and activists in calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and Israel. Read the statement.
  • Global Voices stood alongside 29 human rights organizations expressing deep concerns regarding the systematic targeting of Palestinian journalists by Israeli forces in Gaza. Read the statement

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