Germany's war discourse

Newspaper coverage of the Middle East conflict
Coverage on the war in the Middle East: the way the debate has developed follows a dynamic researchers recognise from previous conflicts (image: private)

The manner in which the escalation of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip is being discussed is, in many ways, unsurprising

Essay by Hanna Pfeifer & Irene Weipert-Fenner

There are the structural dynamics typical of war discourse: polarisation into friend-or-foe thinking; the negation of moral ambivalence; patterns of legitimation suggesting the actions of one side are more than justified by previous actions undertaken by the other side; a fixation on the threat situation; the discrediting of reflection and distancing as inappropriate; the construct of unparalleled amorality; circumventing humane standards by dehumanising the enemy; and the simplification of an inherently complex situation.

War discourse adheres to such preference structures, noting and disapproving of deviations as betrayal, and using them as a reason for fundamental mistrust. These preference structures severely restrict what can be said and analysed. Pre-structured war discourse dynamics are contagious, drawing even those who were only indirectly involved previously into a debate that knows only black and white.

This article aims to shed light on the German discourse with regard to Israel's ongoing war in Gaza – its response to the Hamas attack on civilians and military personnel on 7 October 2023, which itself is part of the long-standing conflict in the Middle East. On the one hand, this formulation expresses the need for particular precision in the ongoing discourse; on the other, this in itself is already a manifestation of the aforementioned dynamics dominating the debate.

People in Berlin commemorate the victims of the terrorist attack in Israel
People in Berlin commemorate the victims of the terrorist attack in Israel (image: Annette Riedl/picture alliance/dpa)

Ambiguous slogans

Let's look at 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.

It includes a reduction of social reality to two collectives ("collectivisation"), an insistence on declaring allegiance exclusively to one side ("compulsion to confess"), and a lack of explanation as to what this confession specifically means, while simultaneously claiming that explanation is unnecessary ("denial of explanation").

The slogans currently circulating 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, they function as identity stamps intended to mark – both internally and externally – which "side" one is on. 

Yet they serve neither as a substantive basis for concrete policies, nor as sufficient initial grounds for moral or even legal condemnation. To be useful for either, slogans must be specified; it needs to be said what is actually meant.

Solidarity and human rights law

What does solidarity with Israel mean? With whom is one in solidarity – the government, the state, the people? If with the people, with their many factions and voices, then with which elements precisely?

Beyond committing to Israel's right to exist, does solidarity have limits, or is it indeed "unconditional", independent of the specific behaviour 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 co-existence 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 the slogan being used by forces within Israel to denote a maximalist state project throughout 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 rarely questioned.

Search for people buried under rubble in Khan Younis
Search for victims buried under the rubble in Khan Younis, southern Gaza (image: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

Instead, we see many claims of equivalence circulate. Equating Jews with Israel is typical of war discourse, but is demagogic. Sometimes it is even a form of anti-Semitism in its own right. Anti-Semitism is never justified. 

Yet, this does not mean that Israel's policies, its politicians and the Israeli government are exempt from legitimate criticism. Here, false collectivisations have to be avoided: there is no homogeneous Israeli people, and certainly no homogeneous Jewish people. The best evidence for the need to differentiate are 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 frequently a vehicle for racist and Islamophobic agendas. It is possible to be in favour of the immigration of Muslim men while being against anti-Semitism, no matter how much the "either/or" logic of some media companies tries to convince us otherwise, and no matter how bitterly discursive opportunists and war profiteers try to define anti-Semitism as an import problem.

Rather than efforts to differentiate, we often hear demands for clear confessions, which 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. 

From the perspective of peace research, a discourse built on confessions is normatively to be rejected, 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, people may call for a ceasefire in the face of increasing death tolls and ongoing human suffering in Gaza, without generally questioning Israel's right to self-defence.

Agonising wait for news about the release of Israeli hostages
Agonising wait for news about the release of Israeli hostages (image: Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS)

To analyse does not mean to relativise

Speaking in slogans and collectivisations, as well as prioritising confessions, also needs be rejected from an analytical standpoint, since such behaviour prevents any engagement with the causes, course and consequences of the Hamas attack on 7 October. 

Besides being a most brutal, transgressive and propagandistic act of terrorist violence against civilians, the attack also included forms of guerrilla violence against security forces. It remains unclear who planned and ordered it within Hamas, who was informed within the organisation at what time, and who, beyond Hamas, was involved in the violence.

It is also still contested how the relationship between Hamas' agency and actors in the self-proclaimed "Axis of Resistance" came into play during these 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, whose relationship with the axis has seen turbulence in recent times. 

Just over 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 represent an attempt to relativise or justify them. The normative question of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the use of violence is central.

This does, however, need to be distinguished from a perspective that seeks to analyse 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.

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"We must hear the nuance"

Slogans, collectivisations and the compulsion to confess also impair strategic ability. They prevent thinking about next steps, options, and realistic utopias beyond present antagonisms. 

We must hear and amplify the nuance that has started to be voiced by politics, civil society and science. Enlarging these spaces of ambivalence should be the goal of a differentiated, empathetic and democratic culture of discourse, especially in the face of the all-too-painful, all-too-pressing and extremely disturbing reality of conflict and escalating violence.

A lot is at stake every single day: the lives of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli military strikes, those starving and thirsty on the run, and receiving inadequate healthcare, as well as the lives of Israeli and international hostages who have not been rescued or released. 

Equally, every day there is the safety of Israeli civilians threatened and injured by Hamas rocket attacks to be considered; not to mention the safety of Palestinians in the West Bank attacked by militant settlers.

Every day, the safety of Jews in Germany is in jeopardy, frightened by anti-Semitic attacks, feeling exposed; every day, also, the safety of individuals seen to be 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 they might forfeit any rights to protection and that their belonging to this society is conditional.

And finally, it is about peaceful and respectful co-existence in our society, which has long been under attack and urgently needs defending and repairing. 

Today, the need to assert and demand the radical universalism of human rights, empathy in the face of human suffering and human security for all is more urgent than ever.

Hanna Pfeifer and Irene Weipert-Fenner

© 2023

This article first appeared on the blog of the Leibniz Institute for Peace and Conflict Research.

Hanna Pfeifer is professor of political science with a focus on radicalisation and violence research in cooperation with Goethe University Frankfurt and head of the "Terrorism" research group at the Leibniz Institute for Peace and Conflict Research (HSFK). Her research interests include state and non-state forms and actors of violence in the MENA region.

Irene Weipert-Fenner is project manager in the programme area "Domestic Conflicts", coordinator of the research group "Regime Competition" and research associate at the HSFK. She conducts research on authoritarian regimes, democratisation and political transformation, protest and social movements. Her regional focus is North Africa.