The Myth of Incitement

This article was written and researched by a Davidson student who travelled to Jerusalem, but would like to remain anonymous

Several weeks ago, CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed Dennis Ross—former advisor to both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton on Middle East policy—regarding escalating violence in Jerusalem. The conflict, which claimed the lives of at least 69 Palestinians and 10 Israelis in the month of October, has prompted mainstream American news agencies to turn their cameras toward the Holy Land and cover the normally-ignored fields of Israeli and Palestinian politics.

When asked to explain the upturn in violent confrontations in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Ross’s evaluation of the problem leapt immediately to what’s become a buzzword for Palestinian violence: incitement. Ross launched into a lengthy breakdown of the growing prevalence of social media videos and calls to action on extremist blogs, and referenced the ambiguity in Mahmoud Abbas’s speechwriting. His prescription for current events was that Abbas and other Palestinian leaders must “find a way to make violence illegitimate” by using more appropriate language and clearer condemnation of attacks.

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Unfortunately, Ross did not bother to address deep-seated issues that have consistently divided Israelis and Palestinians at the negotiating table, nor did he attempt to explore the web of other forces and injustices that might lead a Palestinian youth to commit such an act beyond implying that they were bored, unemployed teenagers swayed by hate speech. And Ross is not alone in his prioritization of incitement as the cause of violent escalation—other news sources headline the violence with references to social media and extreme rhetoric. All this attention builds the case for the myth of incitement: everything would be fine if people learned to speak respectfully and stop calling for acts of violence.

The truth that lies at the base of the myth of incitement is not that incitement to violence does not occur, or that it does not play a role in terror attacks. Rather, “incitement” as a root cause of conflict is often used as a smokescreen to mask larger and systematic injustices. Palestinian acts of violence do not take place in a vacuum where incitement is the only force present. Youth do not just commit violent crimes against civilians and military personnel because Mahmoud Abbas failed to condemn the last attack strongly enough. They do not stab police, soldiers, and civilians only because a religious leader they may have heard of published an aggressive video. At their core, the violent actions we have seen in recent weeks are responses to a decades-long policy of occupation and oppression that often happen to be influenced by social media and the views of some extreme factions within Palestinian politics and society.

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Analysis given by Ross and other mainstream media “experts” that references incitement without mentioning the deep-seated institutional injustice experienced by Palestinians or deep identity and security concerns of Jewish Israelis falls regrettably short. It reduces a long history of tension between security and freedom to surface-level circumstantial concerns, so as to paint over rooted, structural inequality. Such simplification also ignores the exacerbating effect that Israeli security policy (which includes, as Sultan Barakat notes, extrajudicial killings and the withholding of bodies) has upon already-disillusioned Palestinians. Just like it is unhelpful to mask extreme corruption within the Palestinian Authority by speaking only of the lack of economic opportunity for Palestinians without mentioning institutional failings, it is harmful to Americans’ understanding of a nuanced situation to mask Israeli expansionism and occupation by diverting attention to Palestinian incitement. Yes, there exist Palestinian extremists who, from a political or religious platform, extol violent attacks upon Israeli Jews. But the presence of this incitement is no excuse for media silence regarding the injustice of occupation when “analyzing” escalating violence. Ignoring the underlying forces of injustice, corruption, and political oppression in favor of the cheap thrill of “incitement” insults the intelligence of viewers. The American audience deserves coverage willing to delve into deeper structural problems rather than stopping at showing an inflammatory speech and some burning tires.

All images are from the author

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