Just last week I visited a well-known high school in Jerusalem. A good many of the students I spoke to told me appalling things. They said: When we are soldiers, we will kill old people, women and children without giving it a thought. They said: We will expel them, we will put them on planes and fly them to Iraq. We will fly hundreds of thousands of them. Millions. And most of the students in the audience applauded those opinions. They supported them even when I pointed out that that is how people talked 60 years ago in Europe.
-- Avrum Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset: On The Eve Of Destruction
Whenever I hear a statement that begins, “The Jews…”, “The Muslims….”, “The Arabs…” etc., I start to cringe as I wait to hear the sweeping generalization that is bound to follow. Here in the U.S. it’s not really politically correct to make racist statements that are openly hostile to Jews or blacks any more (so we use coded language when we do it), but there don’t seem to be any constraints on what we can say openly about Arabs and Muslims. Since 9/11 it really is open season on Islamofascists and towelheads.
It always matters when we use dehumanizing talk to demonize an entire race, because words aren’t passive, but incite and justify action against the people we demonize. I have just finished reading Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, Robert Fisk’s account of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The invasion had the political goal of regime change: Israel intended to install at the point of a bayonet a Maronite President who, in return for the Israelis bringing him to power, would sign a peace treaty with Israel. Because regime change wasn’t such an openly acceptable excuse for invading a country in 1982 as it was in 2003, Israel’s public reason for invading was to combat [Palestinian] terrorism, to eradicate the “vermin”, to clean out the “vipers’ nests” from Lebanon, as the rhetoric of the time put it.
There were a few voices raised in Israel about the danger of using dehumanizing language against the Palestinians to whip up support for the invasion. But as you read the book, more than twenty years after the invasion, you already know that the warning voices are too few and too quiet, because you know how it is all going to end. You feel the “terrorist” drum beat building momentum as the book progresses, and you want to be able to stop it, because you know the frenzy is going to sweep the IDF all the way to Sabra and Shatila, and you know what will happen there. In Lebanon, painting Palestinians as vipers, and vermin and terrorists might have started out as just a political expedient to justify a war, but it ended up becoming a drum beat to a terrible genocide. You want to be able to stop the book and warn everyone in it about how it will end, but you can’t because it was twenty years ago, and now it’s too late.
Sabra and Shatila are one reaon why it matters when we use inflammatory language to dehumanize an entire race. Thirteen-year-old Iman al-Hams is another.
The IDF has killed at least three dozen civilians in the Gaza Strip in the last 10 days, more than half of them children. And, unusually, one of those deaths is actually going to be investigated by the Israeli police. Because this one shocked even the soldiers who witnessed it:
Israel's top military prosecutor is investigating an army commander accused of repeatedly firing at the lifeless body of a young Palestinian girl. Soldiers said they pleaded with the officer to stop as he sprayed Iman al-Hams, 13, with automatic gunfire. She had been shot by Israeli soldiers after straying into a restricted area near Gaza's border with Egypt.
Hundreds of Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli troops during the Palestinian uprising or intifada. It is unusual for the army to launch an investigation into the circumstances of such incidents. But the death of Iman al-Hams is different because soldiers have complained publicly about the behaviour of their commander - who has not been named. Without revealing their identities, soldiers from the Givati brigade platoon told Israeli television how Iman al-Hams had been shot on 5 October in the Tel Sultan neighbourhood of Rafah.
"We saw her from a distance of 70 metres. She was fired at ... from the outpost. She fled and was wounded," a soldier said.
While Iman was lying, wounded or dead, about 70m from the Israeli guard post, the platoon commander approached her and fired two bullets from close range at her head, the soldiers said. He then went back a second time, put his weapon on the automatic setting and - ignoring their objections on the walkie-talkie - emptied his entire magazine into her body.
"We couldn't believe what he had done. Our hearts ached for her. Just a 13-year-old girl," one soldier said. “How do you spray a girl from close range?”
-- BBC News: Israelis probe Gaza girl shooting
The IDF lies. It lies on a grand scale, as when it claims that the massive home demolitions in Rafah are simply a security measure to find smugglers’ tunnels (which could be found much more accurately by equipping with ground sensors the already fully-fenced border between Egyptian and Palestinian Rafah), through which ever more apocalyptic weapons are being smuggled that threaten to alter the balance of power between the Palestinians and the second most modern army on earth. In 2002, the alleged smuggling of “surface-to-air missiles” was the IDF’s justification for the home-destroying destruction of Operation Root Canal in Rafah; this year's Operation Rainbow was justified by the pretence that it was necessary to stop smuggling in of “Katyusha rockets”. And when the respective operations were over, and neither SAMs nor Katyushas were found, no one called the IDF on its lies; no-one asked why, if the Palestinians really have SAMs, they have not used one in four years of fighting; and if they have Katyushas why are crappy homemade Qassems landing on Sderot, rather than Katyushas on Ashqelon? Because at some level we understand that you don't raze thousands of homes to search for 2 or 3 hand-hewn tunnels, that there is something else altogether going on here. But it's just easier to accept the lie than face the reality of ethnic cleansing and collective punishment, all paid for by us.
And the IDF lies on a smaller scale. It lies when it says it is forced to shoot dead stone-throwing children (200 shot through the head so far), because they are used as human shields by Palestinian gunmen who hide among them: gunmen that in four years of intensive coverage have still not been spotted by international eyewitnesses and reporters . It lies when it says it uses lethal force only when soldiers' lives are in danger, even when international observers have personally witnessed the shooting of children who pose no danger to the troops on the ground . It lied when it said that Asma (16) and Ahmed (13) Mughayer were killed by a Palestinian bomb on the roof of their home, and not by the Israeli sniper stationed on the roof overlooking their house... even though the only marks on their bodies are a single shot through the head. It lied when it said that one of its tank crews had to kill Ahmad Abu Aziz (6) and his 13-year-old brother, Jamil, because they were part of a crowd that was threateningly approaching a tank, when in fact video footage showed they were shot at point blank range by a tank that surprised them as they rode their bicycles in the street and tried to ride away. It lied when it said it had no way of knowing who killed Dalal al-Sabagh, who was hanging out laundry on her roof when she was shot between the shoulder blades by a single shot fired from an Israeli sniper position overlooking her house. It lied when it said it didn’t fire a tank shell into a crowd of civilians, decapitating four schoolboys and killing four other civilians as they watched a firefighter at work in Jabalia refugee camp… but international TV footage showed that it had. It lied when it denied that an assassination team in Nusseirat refugee camp had used an illegal flechette munition that had indiscriminately killed as many as fourteen bystanders and horribly maimed many more, and even produced video footage “proving” it was telling the truth. It would no doubt still be flaunting the same footage today as proof of its phoney story were it not for the decency of a single Israeli Knesset Member, Yossi Sarid, who knew from a classified security briefing that the IDF was lying about Nusseirat, and forced it to confess by warning that unless it owned up, he would release the classified details to the media.
And it is lying about the death of Iman al-Hams.
In the Gaza Strip, Israel is making war against an asymmetric enemy it can’t see – and won’t make peace with - by shooting devastating hi-tech weapons into the paths and alleyways of most crowded refugee camps on the face of the earth, knowing full well that a large proportion of its victims will invariably be civilians and especially children. (Half of the inhabitants of Gaza’s camps are under 16 years of age). And then it has to lie about why all those civilians are dead by making up demonizing stories about Arabs not loving their kids and using them as “human shields”, because then it’s the Arabs’ fault that the IDF has blown their heads off as they stand in their doorways , or make bread in their backyard , or sleep in their own beds , or dare to stray off their usual path to school and wander within range of an IDF guard post.
In the case of Iman al-Hams, Israeli Chief of Staff Lt-Gen Moshe Ayalon defended the killing on the grounds Iman had been sent towards the outpost to draw out the soldiers so that Palestinian snipers could fire at them. Really? Palestinian snipers were lying in wait for an IDF soldier to leave his protected position so they could shoot him, but when an IDF officer does exactly that – walking 70m from his guard post then standing over the body of a child to shoot her twice in the head, then stepping back and emptying his magazine into her – he walks away unscathed, untouched by the very snipers who are lying in wait for him? So did the snipers forget to shoot him? Or snipers did try to shoot him, and the Israeli soldiers who complained about Iman's shooting just didn't notice this, or think it worthy of mention? Or perhaps the snipers don't actually exist. Perhaps it’s the weakness of the “sniper” story that made other IDF spokesmen fall back on the “we had to shoot her because we feared there was a bomb in her backpack” explanation, that quickly followed the sniper story.
Of course, there was no evidence whatsoever that Iman was actually carrying a bomb either. But just the claim that she might have been is justification to kill her. That’s the great thing about a concerted campaign to dehumanize your enemy – it removes the need for troublesome things like evidence. Once you’ve drummed it into people’s heads that “our” side is always moral and good and upright, and “their” side is inherently wicked and evil and not quite human like us, you don’t need evidence any more. It allows soldiers to kill, and allows the rest of us to rationalize that killing, based solely on our manufactured prejudices and happily unencumbered by facts.
And, before we lose them in a sea of IDF hasbarah, what are the facts here? A 13-year-old girl strayed to within 70 metres of an IDF post and was shot for it. According to eyewitnesses, she tried to flee, but collapsed and was finished off at close range by a soldier "confirming the kill". She was said to be a decoy sent out by Palestinian snipers, but the fact is that there is no evidence such snipers existed. She was said to be carrying a bomb in her backpack, but the fact is that her backpack was found to contain only schoolbooks. She was not killed because she did anything to threaten the soldiers under cover 70 metres from her. She was killed – according to the eyewitness testimony of the soldiers who witnessed her death - by an Israeli officer who shot her 20 times at close range, with a burst of automatic fire so devastating that it severed her head from her 13-year-old body, simply because: "He was hot for a long time to take out terrorists and shot the girl to relieve pressure". Those are the facts: everything else is just spin to justify after the event the murder of a child by an occupying army whose very presence in that place is illegal.
And that is why words matter. Because it’s only easy to murder Palestinians, and to justify their deaths to a credulous public, if you repeat over and over they’re all “terrorists”, they’re genetically defective, they’re not quite human  like us. Blowing the head off a 13-year-old girl at close range is so much easier when you’re not really killing a person, much less a child, just taking out a “terrorist”, a defective, or a subhuman. As long as your enemies are people, you can talk with them, compromise with them, and live alongside them; but make them subhuman, and it becomes easy – in fact, the natural order of things – to kill them. Even when they’re only thirteen years old, and just trying to find a shortcut because they're late for school.
This is the funeral of Iman al-Hams. That man stroking her hair to tell her goodbye is her father. He has nine sons and he used to have a daughter too, but she dared to walk within 70m of an IDF guard post on her way to school. Look at him and tell me Arabs don’t love their kids. And then tell me that demonizing Palestinians doesn’t matter.
 For example: There is no evidence that children have fired weapons at soldiers or that they in any way presented a threat to the lives of soldiers. None of the cases of children killed mentioned by Amnesty International involved a child carrying a gun, nor is any such case known to Amnesty International. Other correspondents have said that Palestinians firing guns may be hidden by Palestinian children throwing stones. Again, none of Amnesty International's cases of children killed relates to any such incident; nor has Amnesty International received details of any such incident. However, if such an incident occurs, according to the IDF Orders for Opening Fire, those not involved in shooting should not be targeted: "The firing is intended to hit the assailant alone, in the measure necessary for preventing the danger".
-- Amnesty International Secretariat, 15 Dec 2000: Israel's Responsibility for Killing Children
 For example: A group of Western diplomats traveling from Jerusalem to Ramallah claim they saw Israeli troops near Jerusalem firing live ammunition at a group of children throwing stones, even though the children were too far away to pose a risk to the soldiers...They also think that one of the children was injured, because shortly after the shooting, the group of children gathered around one youngster... One of the diplomats...says that he saw a second soldier in the observation tower clapping and raising his hands as if in victory after his colleague fired at the children.
-- Amira Hass, Envoys say they saw IDF fire at children; 16 July 2001.
And: [T]he Amnesty reports (sic) cites testimony by members of its delegation who witnessed a demonstration in Rafah on October 10, 2000, in which about 200 people participated, most of them elementary school students, who threw stones. According to the Amnesty representatives, even though there was no danger to the lives of IDF soldiers, the soldiers used unjustified deadly force, firing live ammunition at the demonstrators. The shooting injured Sami Fathi Abu Jazar (12) in the head; he died the following day of his injuries. Six other children were also wounded.
-- Joseph Algazy, Crimes, no punishment.
 Relatives of four-year-old Palestinian boy Luay al-Najjar mourn over his body during his funeral in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip (news - web sites), Monday, Oct. 4, 2004. Al-Najjar was killed by tank fire as he stood in the doorway to his house, residents said. The Israeli military said there were no shootings in the area. (AP Photo, click to enlarge)
 Islam Dwidar's classmates were still taking in her shocking death - the teacher weeping outside before facing the girls, her closest friend recounting how they walked to school together each day - when the news arrived about Tahreer Abu El Jidyan. The two 15-year-old pupils at Jabaliya's school were both shot in the head by Israeli soldiers inside their homes just a few blocks and several hours apart. Islam (left) died almost immediately after the bullet smashed through her forehead as she baked bread with her mother in their yard on Sunday. Tahreer is still on life support at a Gaza hospital after an operation to remove shards of shattered skull from her brain.
-- Two Palestinian Girls, Two Shots To The Head; The Guardian, 6 Oct 2004.
 A Palestinian boy is carried to a hospital in Jabalya after he was wounded when an Israeli tank fired a shell while he was sleeping at his home, in Beit Lahiya town north of Gaza Strip, October 6, 2004. Israeli tanks shelled a town in the northern Gaza Strip early on Wednesday, killing three Palestinians and wounding 10 children in their houses, witnesses and medics said. (REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)
 "There is a huge gap between us and our enemies, not just in ability but in morality, culture, sanctity of life, and conscience. They are our neighbors here, but it seems as if at a distance of a few hundred meters away, there are people who do not belong to our continent, to our world, but actually belong to a different galaxy." - Israeli president Moshe Katsav; The Jerusalem Post, 10 May, 2001.
Update 1, 16 Oct 2004. In an internal inquiry, the IDF has cleared itself of "unethical behaviour" in the killing of Iman al-Hams, explaining that the IDF soldiers who saw their officer empty his magazine into the child's body were confused, and were actually seeing him empty his magazine into the ground near her body, in response to sniper fire. As BBC News points out, an IDF spokesperson was unable to explain why the officer in question would have wanted to respond to sniper fire by firing his gun into the ground. The police investigation in Iman's death continues. Don't hold your breath.
Update 2, 18 Oct 2004. Gideon Levy, writing in yesterday's Ha'aretz, discussed the appalling number of children killed by occupation forces in the Territories, and considered the dehumanization of Palestinians that makes such behaviour by its army acceptable to Israelis:
[T]he question of who is a terrorist should have long since become very burdensome for every Israeli. Yet it is not on the public agenda. Child killers are always the Palestinians, the soldiers always only defend us and themselves, and the hell with the statistics.
The plain fact, which must be stated clearly, is that the blood of hundreds of Palestinian children is on our hands. No tortuous explanation by the IDF Spokesman's Office or by the military correspondents about the dangers posed to soldiers by the children, and no dubious excuse by the public relations people in the Foreign Ministry about how the Palestinians are making use of children will change that fact. An army that kills so many children is an army with no restraints, an army that has lost its moral code.
... An army doesn't make more than 500 day-to-day mistakes of identity. No, this is not a mistake but the disastrous result of a policy driven mainly by an appallingly light trigger finger and by the dehumanization of the Palestinians. Shooting at everything that moves, including children, has become normative behavior. Even the momentary mini-furor that erupted over the "confirming of the killing" of a 13-year-old girl, Iman Alhamas, did not revolve around the true question. The scandal should have been generated by the very act of the killing itself, not only by what followed.
Levy says everything I was trying to say here, only better and more concisely. So go read Killing children is no longer a big deal instead.