Middle East

The language of dissuasion

Analyzing the power of semantics

, by Ferran J. Lloveras

The language of dissuasion

Another crisis in the Middle East. As I am writing, it is still a crisis, but if we stick to the SIPRI definition of a war, in two weeks time the death toll will have upgraded the present events to this fairer term.

At the present moment, nobody can believe the military offensive had not been well planned beforehand, the kidnapping of two soldiers by Hizbullah just providing the necessary argument to the Israeli government to claim their right to self-defence and go to war. The government of Israel is speaking the language of dissuasion, they aim to “change the rules of the game” by showing the effects of an incontestable military power that will oblige any potential armed aggressor to consider matters twice. The primary acknowledged goal is to eradicate the threat of Hizbullah’s presence in South Lebanon, or at least severely damage their military infrastructure. What seems very difficult to do in the light of the events between 1982 and 2000. The second unacknowledged goal has been referred above.

Both Hizbullah and Hamas are defined as terrorist groups. This is something definitive in these days of the so-called “war on terror”, where some significant world leaders seem to be intimately convinced of leading a war of good against evil. Yet there is a fundamental difference between the two above mentioned movements and others like Al-Qaeda. While the latter are nothing but a bunch of relentless fanatics, who promote a contemporary version of religious totalitarianism, the former are movements with a considerably broader social base and with organised political presence. This has many implications, starting with the fundamental incompatibility between democratic politics and the use of military means, which in my opinion makes their depiction as terrorist organisations rather reasonable. Particularly when they bomb Israeli cities with rockets with the subsequent damage and casualties. However, this is not the end of it, as matters are a bit more complicated. Their broad social base implies the presence of civilians, which are very likely to become “collateral damages” in any armed action intended against them, i. e. when these groups are using guerrilla tactics.

This is where the language of dissuasion brings us. The Israeli army and government claim they have been insistently calling all civilians to leave the concerned areas in Southern Lebanon - while bombing a whole range of civilian infrastructures in the whole country, particularly harbours, roads, bridges and other ones people would reasonably use to vacate their homes and towns. Therefore, if civilians are killed in a bombing - even if it is a “precise” one - it is nothing but their fault. Even without and open refusal of this logic, there are still many questions arising. How to organise evacuation when all infrastructures are being bombed? How about elder people and all those which simply cannot move by themselves? Not to mention the fact that causing massive population movements in a country by military action is against international humanitarian law.

...the way not to have civilian casualties is not through “targeted bombings” or “intelligent missiles”, but through no bombings at all.

The language of dissuasion also applies to the mistake that killed 4 UN observers, as it applies to those deaths in Qana. Mistakes also have a meaning in the language of dissuasion. For the latter, the message is “leave or lose your life”. For the former, the message is the same given by the refuse of a cease-fire unless an international force is deployed: “any foreign military presence will have to be seriously committed to our objectives - we do not want the usual weak-mandated UN force here anymore”. In both cases we must be wary of the language of dissuasion, because we may forget what is to me a fundamental truth: the way not to have civilian casualties is not through “targeted bombings” or “intelligent missiles”, but through no bombings at all. The mere fact of defining a killing device as “intelligent” illustrates the perverse nonsense of it all.

Aiming at peace - under which conditions?

That is the whole point. The government of Israel will continue speaking this language of dissuasion as long as the international community allows them to do so. It is just a matter of choice. In the end, these kind of military security policies carry interesting side effects with them. The Israeli government knows that the peace path already walked with Jordan and Egypt can also be walked with Hizbullah, with Syria and, particularly and especially, with the Palestinians. This very last one is the fundamental one, as a lasting two-state solution is the only one that could possibly bring peace and prosperity to the whole region. However, the successive Israeli governments prefer military dissuasion, since the principle of land for peace may entail a significant withdrawal of the West Bank and some arrangement for the return of a number of Palestinian refugees to the new state. All of these would go against the present colonization policies in the area, which are rather productive from the economic point of view and which are being secured with the security wall. I am not saying that Israel does not want peace but that their conditions for peace are such that they are not ready to negotiate in the terms they would be proposed. And of course, those who have the power to bring them to the negotiating table openly share their objectives, so no lasting solution out of more death will come in the near future.

What could be done?

The next US presidency may help, simply because it is really difficult it could be worse in terms of counterproductive autistic military unilateralism. They may one day realize that all what Palestinians want is peace with a certain dignity; that talking to Syria could make some sense in the present situation, that Iran will undoubtedly be - thanks to the help given by the very US army in Iraq - an important actor in the region, and fighting them through Israel can have a very high price. Meanwhile, it may take a decade(s) for the Europeans to realise that agreement is really in their interest. Therefore Israel has the time to overreact and carry on with the destruction of Lebanon and Gaza and the colonization of the West Bank, as long as their leaders are commensurate enough not to inflame the whole region. However, we know the kind of response that the language of dissuasion brings.

The language of dissuasion is not aligned with international law and can only be justified through double standards or through the above mentioned divide between “good” and “evil”. This is the reason it exacerbates hatred which eventually results in indiscriminate terrorism directed to all those perceived to go with it. I hope neither me nor you, dear reader, will ever be victims of it, if it was only because the perpetrators might consider us as “collateral damage”.

Your comments
  • On 7 August 2006 at 21:26, by Valéry-Xavier Replying to: Israel’s language of dissuasion

    How does this article relate to the editorial charter of this magazine or website ? what is the connection between this isue and JEF, Europe, federalism ?

    I understand that the presetn events and the war against terrorism in Lebanon are interesting issues but I wonder if this website is really the place to deal with these issues.

  • On 9 August 2006 at 15:15, by Peter M Replying to: Israel’s language of dissuasion

    I believe it is important to tackle issues from different points of view and sometimes it is very useful to also ’think out of the box’ and analyze the use of language by parties implicated in a conflict. Doing this can provide additional information that one might not think of normally and serve as a basis for a broader discussion on the role of JEF, federalism and Europe in the Middle East. But that’s just my personal opinion;)

  • On 9 August 2006 at 16:23, by David Replying to: Israel’s language of dissuasion

    I think everyone agrees on what you say Peter, but still, this article has no link whatsoever with Europe or federalism. It is possible to speak about the present crisis in a European perspective or in federalist perspective. But it is not the case of this article who simply tries to say who’s right and who’s wrong in the conflict.

  • On 9 August 2006 at 17:16, by Ferran Replying to: Israel’s language of dissuasion

    Please allow me to make some quick comments:

    David, my article is not intended in any way to argue on who is right and who is wrong, because simply I belive no one is right. It is just a cry to express my refusal of a number of assumptions contained in the language used by one of the respective parties in the conflict and its allies since the “war of terrorism” started. My assumption -which I possibly didn’t make explicit enough- is that the other party’s language -at least as far as the armed actors are concerned- is plainly unacceptable. Nevertheless I simply don’t buy this depiction of fight between “good and evil” or, for that matter, between “our interests and theirs” that I have seen in other articles in this section.

    Valéry-Xavier, notwithstanding the remarkably interesting debate you and other people I know and respect are having on the French version of the site, which, at least in its latest posts, appears to me to be as related to the issues you point out as my article, I admit again I possibly should have made explicit something I understand as implicit but yet evident: Europe must have a position and a role in the resolution of the problems in the Middle East, owing to its historical responsibility and to its interest. I believe such role should be on the lines of the one it had so far, but with much more impetus. In addition, the language of Federalism is by definition the language of dialogue, not that of dissuasion.

    I wish I had more time to develop these points more extensively. In any event, I have to admit I am a bit dissapointed that the reactions to my text focused on its pertinence rather than on its content.

    With my best regards,


    PS: Please also note for the record that 1. the original title I submitted was “The language of dissuasion”, meaning that not only Israel uses it. 2. I am not responsible for the titles of the paragraphs. I do not feel comfortable with "(Mis)use of the word ’terrorist’, to which I would at least put a question mark. The paragraph was intended to reflect on the use of this word with a practical example, which is to my understangind important since a proper definition in legal terms has not been internationally agreed (yet).

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