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The Dehumanization of Palestinian Men by Western Media

On the 7th of December 2023, images of IDF soldiers conducting mass detentions in Northern Gaza emerged on social media platforms. These depicted dozens of Palestinian men in the town of Beit Lahia kneeling on the ground, stripped naked, with their hands tied behind their backs. Similar episodes of mass incarcerations were repeated throughout Northern Gaza, characterized by the same humiliation of detainees. At first, Israeli officials and media claimed that the arrested men were Hamas members who had surrendered, describing them as “military-aged men who were discovered in areas that civilians were supposed to have evacuated”. Only when people recognized the detainees as their colleagues, friends, or family did Israeli officials admit that the bulk of the captured Palestinians were innocent civilians. Most of the captives were, in fact, people unable to head down South, temporarily sheltering in an abandoned school.

The production of gendered orientalist tropes

 Several activists have denounced these human rights abuses as part of a broader pattern of demonization of Arab Muslim males by Western governments and media, which portray them as inherently aggressive individuals prone to terrorist acts. Law Professor Khaled Beydoun argues that the US war on terror greatly contributed to the creation of an Arab “masculinity conflated with terrorism” according to which it seems reasonable to presume Palestinian men as guilty unless proven. In his 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said uses the term “otherization” to illustrate the way in which the West perceives and depicts the Global South: the latter is bound to be the opposite of the former. Hence, orientalist discourses portray the Arab world as “irrational, depraved, childish,” as opposed to the “rational, virtuous, mature” West. Gender studies scholars have pointed out that, given the patriarchal structure in which Western society is embedded, such neocolonial narratives tend to essentialize men and women into monolithic categories corresponding to socially constructed gender roles. In her landmark work “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has underscored colonial powers’ tendency to deprive women of the Global South of their agency by portraying them as victims of their violent husbands in need of being freed by the West. A notable example can be found in the mass unveilings of Algerian women that took place during the Algerian War of Independence, which were meant to symbolize the Western gift of emancipation towards Muslim women. These gendered orientalist tropes and the alleged necessity to liberate Eastern women did not disappear in the postcolonial period. On the contrary, narratives of “saviourism” penetrated white feminist discourses and have been repeatedly exploited to justify Western interventions in the Middle East. In her first official radio address to the nation, the then first lady Laura Bush described the US invasion of Afghanistan as an attempt to free Afghani women from “imprisonment in their homes”. 

The failure to portray Palestinian men as victims

A consequence of this pervasive gendered orientalist rhetoric is the Western inability to conceive Arab Muslim men as victims. In her 2014 article “Can Palestinian Men be Victims?”, Rutgers Professor Maya Mikdashi underscores Western mass-media tendency to distinguish between the deaths of Palestinian women and children, which are deemed to be mournable, and the deaths of Palestinian men, which are not. This hierarchization of casualties is being currently vehiculated to readers by Western media, which disaggregate statistics of Palestinian victims to portray only the number of children and women killed, and by Western politicians, who condemn the killings of Palestinian children and women, neglecting to mention the atrocities committed against men. Examples of the latter case can be found in French President Emmanuel Macron’s appeal to Israel to stop bombing “these babies, these ladies, these old people” or in Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assertion that the “killing of women, of children, of babies” in Gaza must stop. The scholar Cynthia Enloe has coined the term “womenandchildren” to capture these dynamics which paternalistically grant to women a  “childlike innocence” – a well-suited image for white saviourist claims – while inevitably depicting Arab civilian men as suspect entities.

The presence of such gendered racialized tropes is ubiquitous in Western mass media and it leads to the desensitization towards Palestinian men’s sorrow, who are essentialized as individuals capable only of aggressive feelings. When journalist Ahmed Alnaouq was speaking at Good Morning Britain about the murder of 21 members of his family committed by Israeli airstrikes in October 2023, he condemned Western media’s complicity in hiding the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people. Presenter Kate Garraway abruptly corrected him, stating that “Israel is very clear that this (the war) is against Hamas” and that Alnaouq was being misdirected by his “anger”. The desensitization to the atrocities suffered by Palestinian men and the presumption of guilt attributed to them bears concrete consequences. Journalist Samar Saeed attributes Western media’s readiness to spread the misinformation around Gaza to this “exhausted and dangerous trope” of the Arab barbarically violent man. For example, the rumor of the 40 beheaded babies, before being debunked, quickly went viral and was mentioned by President Joe Biden among others.  

Pinkwashing and the legitimization of genocide

“Pinkwashing” is a term coined by Sarah Schulman illustrating Israel’s weaponization of women and LGBTQI+ rights to justify the crimes committed against Palestinians. This strategy relies on the Orientalist narrative depicting Israel as a gay haven and the Arab world as its otherized opposite. In this way, Palestinians’ alleged hostility towards women and queer people is used as a rhetoric stratagem to justify their occupation and, ultimately, their genocide. Last November, Israel’s official Twitter account tweeted the picture of an IDF soldier Yoav Atzmoni holding a pride flag in front of Gaza’s ruins. Atzmoni asserted to “fully believe in the righteousness of our (Israel’s military) cause” because of the IDF’s inclusivity of gay people. The flag displayed the message “In the name of love,” alluding to Israel’s willingness to “rescue” Palestinian queers with their military operations. This long-standing narrative has been debunked not only by social media – which clearly shows Israel’s current indiscriminate killings of Palestinians – but also by Palestinian queer themselves, who perceive Israel as a genocidal entity, not as a beacon of freedom. 

Pinkwashing techniques coupled with anti-Muslim racism lead to the essentialization of Palestinian men as misogynistic individuals. Western media are complicit in perpetuating this rhetoric. In January 2024, Journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer interviewed the Palestinian politician and physician Mustafa Barghouti. After repeatedly shouting at Barghouti, the British journalist exclaims “Maybe you’re not used to women talking” and concludes the interview by stating “Sorry to have been a woman speaking to you.” Such claims are part of a broader pattern of statements and actions that clearly demonstrate mass-media bias towards Palestinians and the presumed sexism of Palestinian men. 

Western media is complicit in the construction of the image of Palestinian men as misogynistic terrorists and in the fabrication of the narrative according to which around 13,000 Palestinian men killed since October 7th are not victims. Presently, social media constitutes a powerful tool to debunk racist perceptions of Palestinian masculinity which are being endorsed by Western mass media. Considering that Israel’s catastrophic war on Gaza is history’s first live-streamed genocide, numerous images and videos from journalists on the ground show Palestinian men embracing masculinities opposite to the hegemonic one which is commonly attributed to them. A quick look at the Instagram profiles of journalists such as Wissam Nassar, Bisan Owda, or Motaz Azaiza will be sufficient to see images of men caring for their children, crying over the loss of their loved ones, and singing to comfort their people.

Featured Image Source: Israel’s Official Twitter Account.

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