Democracy Lab

Words Are Weapons of Mass Destruction

Why Hamas should watch its language.

It should surprise no one that Israel and Hamas are at war again. Though many are following the tactics of this war -- drones deployed, rockets intercepted, and arrests made -- we should also focus on the words that made this war inevitable. Hamas incitement and hate speech have silenced Palestinian moderates, distanced human rights, and dramatically increased the chances of war.

In 2007, Hamas took power in the Gaza strip, imposed a brutal dictatorship and systematically repressed free speech. Palestinian bloggers have been arrested, social media conferences shut down, and dissidents routinely tortured. Meanwhile, what speech does Hamas advocate? Genocide of all Americans and Jews.

On August 10, 2012, the deputy speaker of the Palestinian parliament in Gaza, Ahmad Bahr, shouted: "Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, destroy the Americans and their supporters. Oh Allah, count them one by one, and kill them all, without leaving a single one." Yussuf al-Sharafi, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, echoed, "Allah, take the Jews and their allies, Allah, take the Americans and their allies ... annihilate them completely and do not leave anyone of them." It's hard to take these words as anything but an incitement to genocide, plain and simple.

What makes this incitement particularly dangerous is that they are broadcast live on Hamas TV throughout Gaza. Rwandan radio broadcasts once set the stage for the genocide which killed 800,000 people in one hundred days. Today, senior Hamas leaders are using even more powerful technologies, including social media, to incite violence and extremism against their neighbors and their own citizens. Inexcusably, this outrage has been largely ignored by the United Nations and many in the human rights community. It should be among the top priorities.

There are many lessons to take from the Holocaust. Perhaps the most important one is that when someone (especially a government) threatens to annihilate you, it's best to take them seriously. Incitement to genocide is always the precursor to genocide. It was so in Rwanda, Germany, and nearly every other instance of mass slaughter.

There are differences between Hamas and Al Qaeda, but the language they use in almost every consequential category is identical. Both groups use racist speech and preach genocide. Both glorify suicide bombing and praise the use of civilian shields. Both silence free expression and openly call for the destruction of a member state of the United Nations.

What effect does the language of violence and extremism have in Gaza? Palestinian democrats, liberals, and moderates have been systematically silenced by Hamas. It is this squelching of independent thought and free speech that cements Gaza's dictatorship. Witness Hamas' cultural repression. In May, Hamas closed down a literary festival because it was deemed too critical. In January, it banned "Palestinian Idol" for being too secular. Last October, Hamas dispersed a hip hop party and confiscated recordings of the event. In the summer of 2011, it banned a Palestinian film which showed positive interactions between Israelis and unveiled women. In 2010, Hamas shuttered a youth center because it taught music and dancing.

Instead of welcoming independent thought, Hamas has filled Gaza's airwaves, summer camps, and schools with the most incendiary rhetoric imaginable. Children are taught a mix of unremitting hatred and wild conspiracy. Perhaps most troubling is glorification of death. Hamas leaders like Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh proudly declare that "death for the sake of Allah is our most supreme desire." The deputy speaker of the Hamas parliament, Ahmad Bahr, explicates a hadith by saying, "When a man is having sex with his wife, he should be praying for a son who would wage jihad for the sake of Allah." Of Americans and Israelis, he adds, "They are cowards, who are eager for life, while we are eager for death for the sake of Allah." How can children in Gaza love life over death when their leaders teach the opposite?

It's hard to imagine how Gazans can accept a peace agreement when their leaders make statements like this one from ex-Culture Minister Atallah Abu Al Subh: "The Jews are the most despicable and contemptible nation to crawl upon the face of the Earth." It's hard to imagine how Gazans can reject the views of Osama bin Laden when their prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh (pictured above), declares of him: "[M]ay Allah have mercy upon him and may [he] take his rightful place together with the martyrs and the righteous."

Hamas' uncompromising and incendiary rhetoric cements its dictatorial actions. It calls for killing all Americans and Jews and has no problem launching barrages of missiles at civilians. It glorifies death over life and suicide-terror becomes palatable. It preaches that dissent will be silenced and opposition figures are arrested, tortured, and shot. It imposes the language of terror and its people live in fear.

Democracy in Gaza cannot succeed under such conditions. Language is both a reflection of society and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hamas' rhetorical war on liberalism, dissent, sanity, and compromise is strangling any hope of civil society and democratic transition in Gaza. It's hard to arrest every dissident, but make an example of a few and threaten the rest, and you've achieved the same goal. Tolerance does not occur in a vacuum. It is cultivated in families, schools, media, and the language of everyday life. Stifle free speech and mindless policy has a way of making it to the top.

Some are tempted to draw equivalency between incitement in Gaza and incitement in Israel. It goes without saying that there is a degree of hate-speech in every society. More important than the clear quantitative difference between the extreme rhetoric that sometimes occurs in Israel and the government-sponsored hate-speech in Gaza is the space allowed to confront such extremism. In open societies such as America and Israel, radicalized speech is countered by a vibrant free press in which political leaders are routinely castigated and held accountable for their words. Closed societies like Gaza do not allow for dissent to challenge authority, and therefore hate-speech reigns supreme.

The great Czech dissident Vaclav Havel said, "Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace." The Hamas government denies its citizens internal peace by waging a rhetorical (and often physical) war against them. It is no surprise, then, that external peace is illusory. Is it any wonder that Gaza is at war with its historic enemy when it is effectively at war with its own citizens?

Hamas represses free speech while advocating genocide. This is a formula for war, not peace. Palestinian moderates have no chance to succeed as long as Hamas controls Gaza.



Small Arms, Big Problems

Western assault rifles are showing up in the hands of Islamist fighters in Gaza. It's a cautionary tale for arms-exporting countries across the globe.

There's one big problem with small arms: They don't come with an expiration date. These reliable killing machines pass from dead soldiers to living insurgents, and from a country's armory to a militia's safe house thousands of miles away. As soon as weapons crates cross international borders, arms-producing countries lose control over where they head next -- a fact on full display during recent conflicts across the Middle East, and now in the Gaza Strip.

On Nov. 17, Hamas released a video that it said would "shock Israel" -- footage of an insurgent firing a surface-to-air missile at what the Palestinian Islamist group claimed was an Israeli warplane. While it is impossible to verify that the video was shot in Gaza during the current conflict, the footage shows a man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) used for targeting aircraft. However, according to Matt Schroeder, senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, the system is incomplete. "If it is an SA-7 [a type of surface-to-air missile], the battery appears to be missing or altered," he said. "A wire seems connected to the system -- an unusual set-up."

Such a weapon could theoretically down a fighter jet, but it is unlikely. "The presence of SA-7 systems will probably not be a game-changer in the current conflict because they are not sophisticated enough," Schroeder said. "But they are a serious concern for civilian aviation when they are in the hands of trained terrorist groups."

It's not just one stray missile system -- there is also evidence that Western-made weapons are getting in the hands of Gaza-based Islamist militants. Six weeks ago, the al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, organized a military parade in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-funded group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, published several pictures on its official website showing fighters equipped with Belgian FN F2000 assault rifles.

The FN F2000 is made by the Belgian company FN Herstal. Beginning in 2001, the weapon was exported throughout the world to equip a small number of special operations forces. According to Nic Jenzen-Jones, an Australia-based small arms and ammunition specialist, the rifle features a number of "attractive design features" -- notably the forward ejection of spent cartridge cases, ambidextrous design, and a well-integrated grenade launcher. Now, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government mulls a ground invasion of Gaza, Islamist insurgents are preparing to train these weapons on Israeli soldiers.

Nobody can say for sure how the FN F2000 ended up in the arsenal of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. According to the annual report published by the Belgian Walloon Region, the authority owning FN Herstal and issuing arms export licenses for it, the weapon was not exported to the Palestinian territories. FN Herstal confirmed that it did not sell the weapons directly to the Islamist group, as did the Walloon authority: "Wallonia obviously never issued licenses for an arms export to armed groups of this region," a Belgian Walloon government spokesperson said, adding that it would try to identify the origin of the weapons.

Luc Mampaey, director of the Belgian Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security, says the government's investigation efforts will likely be in vain. "There are more questions than answers here," he says. "It is impossible to trace the weapons based on the published photographs, as the serial numbers are not visible. We can only make assumptions."

The best assumption is that the weapons made their way to the Gaza Strip from war-torn Libya. In 2008, Libyan despot Muammar al-Qaddafi ordered 367 FN F2000s, as well as other small arms, to equip the 32nd Brigade, whose official mission was to "protect a humanitarian convoy to Darfur," according to court documents released when the export licenses were challenged by two NGOs. The reality, however, was far different: The elite unit served under the direct command of Qaddafi's son Khamis, who was renowned for human rights abuses even back in 2008 -- a reputation more than confirmed during the 2011 war. According to a U.N. report on the human rights situation in Libya, the 32nd Brigade was guilty of the killing of unarmed protesters, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas during the conflict.

In 2009, the Belgian Walloon Region issued the export licenses FN Herstal needed, and the weapons were shipped to Libya. But in 2011, as the rebels gained ground, the Belgian shipment scattered across the country -- in February 2012, I saw FN F2000 rifles on sale for $5,000. Of course, the weapons proliferation is not limited to just the FN F2000: In November 2011, for example, the authorities of Niger seized a shipment of weapons, consisting of AK assault rifles and FN FAL rifles, on their way from Libya to Mali.

With the end of the Libyan war, many of these weapons began to make their way to the international market. Strife-ridden Gaza, of course, represented an eager market for such armaments: In June 2012, the Egyptian authorities seized Libyan weapons from arms traffickers trying to smuggle them into the tiny coastal enclave.

Without serial numbers to trace, the Libyan scenario remains merely a hypothesis. But the simultaneous presence of AK-103 assault rifles in the al-Quds parade makes it even more plausible. Nic Jenzen-Jones described on his website how the Libyan war was the rare conflict where both weapons appeared simultaneously -- and that the version of the FN F2000 seen in Gaza was similar to that sold to the Libyan army. "The F2000 rifles seen in Libya were sold and equipped with FN Herstal underbarrel 40x46mm grenade launchers, known as the LG1," he wrote. "The F2000s pictured in Gaza also sport LG1s."

Even a year after Qaddafi's fall, the dictator's poisonous legacy continues to live on in conflicts far and wide. Of course, these Belgian-made rifles are not as problematic as MANPADS, which may have also made their way from Libya to Gaza. But although they won't play a decisive role in the Gaza conflict, they do drive home the helplessness of arms-exporting countries in keeping track of the military equipment they sell. And if Egypt or Libya -- incensed over the Israeli crackdown in Gaza -- decide to turn a blind eye to the arms flow, the problem will only get worse.

It's a cautionary tale for countries looking to gain the edge on faraway battlefields by arming their local allies: In the next war, they might find their own weapons turned against them.