Blog post

The equanimity of lunatics

In response to the conflict in Gaza, the international media has systematically downplayed the severity of the events and aided in Israeli obfuscation and falsehoods. Richard Seymour surveys the media's "lunatic equanimity in the face of barbarism".

Richard Seymour17 October 2023

The equanimity of lunatics


From the start, the framing has been wrong and misleading.

It begins with little things. Hamas’s attack in southern Israel, however grimly, predictably brutal, was not an “invasion” as it has widely been reported. For it to be an invasion, there would have to be a border, which would imply that there is already a two-state settlement. There are not two states, but one apartheid state, in which millions of rightless subjects are ruled, says B'TSelem, by a regime of “Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea”. 

Gaza is not a nation-state. It is not even an “open-air prison” as is often said. It is a fortified ghetto controlled by the state of Israel, and blockaded by the state of Israel, which allows only enough food into Gaza to provide the bare minimum calories for residents, and which has systematically “de-developed” Gaza to the point where more than half of people live in poverty and eighty percent are dependent on humanitarian relief. It is a regime of mandatory hopelessness. That is why Netanyahu favoured funding Hamas. That is what he thought he was paying for. Hamas was to run basic services, sparing Israel the responsibilities of an occupying power and allowing it a free hand to annexe the West Bank and “transfer” the population with pogroms.

The ubiquitous references to “invasion”, which by mere lexical fiat strikes so much recent history from the record, are not innocent. During the March of Return in 2018, for instance, Gazans advanced to the ghetto fence in an act of civil defiance against the regime. Israeli sniper squads cut them down with bullets, killing hundreds and injuring thousands more. Both the BBC and Westminster politicians referred to this as “border violence”. So did the international press from the New York Times to the Globe and Mail. In fact, Netanyahu set the tone, claiming that “our brave soldiers are protecting the border of Israel”. The purpose of asserting that there is a border between Israel and Gaza is to euphemise Israeli violence, and to represent the aggressor as engaging in self-defence.

During the attack on 7th October, Israel was not invaded; its ghetto regime momentarily broke down. The fact that Hamas fighters killed many hundreds of civilians, some in unconscionably sadistic ways, does not obliterate this obvious fact. Nor does it entitle Joe Biden, the Israeli government, journalists, magazines or columnists, to grotesquely compare their actions to the Holocaust. To do so – in full knowledge of the vastly greater amount of carnage wrought by Israel, and in awareness of its status as the occupying power, the aggressor, the purveyor of racist apartheid – is not merely to abuse Holocaust memory but to invert the real relations of power. It is to collude in Israeli representations of Palestinians as the “Nazis”, and of themselves as eternally on the cusp of annihilation, against which any atrocity might be condoned.

In aid of this obfuscation, both politicians and the media have willingly circulated graphic and false Israeli claims about what happened as fact. On CNN, for example, Sara Sidner reported an Israeli media claim that Hamas had beheaded forty babies at the Kfar Aza kibbutz in southern Israel. She was far from alone in doing so. In the UK, the story was reported in The Times, The Telegraph, The Sun, the Daily Express and the Metro. Joe Biden even falsely claimed to have seen photographs of this. This story turned out to be a lie. The Israeli government, naturally, claims it is “sick” to argue about this, as though such details mattered in view of the overall brutality of Hamas’s attack. If it didn’t matter, however, the story would not have made the front pages. And if a false story can command the front pages with seemingly scant or non-existent investigation, this can’t be blamed on the usual online disinformation. It suggests something of the febrile and irrational climate of reporting and of the selective credulity of journalists.

What’s more, it leaves us in some doubt as to what to believe. For example, NBC news now reports that “top secret” Hamas documents prove that there was a plan going back years to attack children and “kill as many people as possible”. The documents were allegedly found on the bodies of Hamas fighters. Is this plausible? Would Hamas fighters with a reasonable expectation of being killed or captured have carried top secret documents around in their pockets? What else might be false?


These subtle and not-so-subtle dissimulations are the basis for the unqualified international license extended to the state of Israel as it readied its response. They are also the pretext for the Israeli far-right, in command of government, to rehearse their lurid, death-metal fantasies of racist massacre and torture. Intoxicated by their own cruelty, they have gone beyond the usual cold, psychotic bombast to clear expressions of genocidal intent. To which anglophone media has generally responded with an understanding nod, a sigh for the unfortunates “caught in the crossfire”, and tactful silence. It has swerved effortlessly as it always does from banality to barbarism, banalising barbarism, barbarising banality. 

Consider, for example, the BBC’s interview with millionaire techbro and leader of the Israeli far-right Naftali Bennett on 7th October. Introducing him only as a former Israeli prime minister, the anchor asked a series of softball questions, allowing Bennett to reel off a litany of civilian targets that Israel would be going after. “A home, a school, a hospital, that hosts terrorists,” he said, “is not a home, is not a school, is not a hospital. It's a terror base.” To which the anchor, unruffled, blandly inquired: “If you were still Israeli Prime Minister, would you recommend that Israel goes back in and takes control of Gaza?” One could even admire such a glib segue, decorously omitting the opportunity to raise Israel’s habit of targeting homes, schools and hospitals, or anything about the criminal blockade of Gaza, or indeed anything the least bit challenging, if it had required the least bit of thought. To the contrary, it appeared entirely spontaneous, as mindlessly automatic as the Duracell bunny.

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And so it continued as Israeli politicians, with evident glee, described the war crimes they were preparing. “We are fighting human animals,” Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant explained in justification of a full siege of Gaza, cutting off food, water, electricity and fuel. Energy minister Israel Katz spoke in similar terms in favour of collective punishment. Gallant’s declaration was reported, but the story was missed. The BBC’s report on the statement omitted mention of the Geneva convention, which forbids such collective punishment. So did ITV News which, like the New York Times and Sky News, also neglected to mention Gallant’s reduction of his victims to bestiary. So did most English-language press and broadcasters. 

Israeli president Isaac Herzog insisted that “an entire nation” was to blame for Hamas’s actions, and that the idea of “civilians not being aware, not involved” was “absolutely not true”. While Rageh Omar reported on this for ITV News, it did not make the BBC or the New York Times or Sky News. Nor did it make most anglophone outlets. Ariel Kallner, in a now-deleted tweet, called for another Nakba on the Palestinians, repeating the crime of 1948 in which 700,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed. “Right now, one goal: Nakba!” He exhorted. “A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48.” This was picked up by Associated Press but missed by most anglophone broadcasters and press. When Tally Gotliv, a Knesset member for Likud, called for a nuclear strike on Gaza – “Jericho Missile! … Doomsday weapon!” ­– and for “crushing and flattening Gaza … Without mercy! Without mercy!”, this also went curiously unnoticed.

Again, when an anonymous Israeli defence official briefed Israeli broadcasters that Gaza would become “a city of tents” where “there will be no buildings”, it was largely ignored. When Sara Netanyahu’s advisor, Tzipi Navon, said that it would not be enough to “flatten Gaza”, and that Palestinians suspected of involvement in the Hamas attack should have their nails pulled out, their genitals removed and their tongues and eyes saved for last “so we can enjoy his screams”, “so he can see us smiling”, that too was curiously overlooked.

The studied obtuseness of Western media includes carefully ignoring the most severe warnings about what is about to be done by Israel to Gaza. On Friday 13th, Israel ordered residents in the north of Gaza to “evacuate” to the south within 24 hours on pain of being bombed. Former Israeli ambassador Danny Ayalon suggested with a cynical smirk that they could go to the Sinai desert and live in “tent cities”. The Biden administration appears determined to enable this to happen, lobbying Egypt to take the refugee population. The language of evacuation, widely used by newspapers, was euphemistic. Over a million Gazans had just been given a death threat. They were being told at gunpoint to flee in an unrealistic amount of time, on just two roads that they were assured were safe from bombardment, only for a convoy fleeing south to be bombed, killing seventy people. They had no reason to believe they could ever return to their homes or that their homes would even exist. Here was the second Nakba that Ariel Kallner shouted for. A UN press release warned of “mass ethnic cleansing”, that would repeat the Nakba of 1948 “yet on a larger scale”. Two days after that warning, only the Independent among British newspapers had covered it. One honourable exception to the general omerta on explaining what the “expulsion” order means is the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire who, interviewing former Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, quoted former UN head of humanitarian affairs Jan Egeland, saying: “The Israeli order for civilians to move from north to south is impossible and illegal. It amounts to forcible transfers and a war crime.”

No anglophone newspaper, of course, mentions the word “genocide” in this context, though that is the term used by both Palestinians and Jewish groups opposed to Israel’s war, and is clearly what is implied by Israeli statements and actions. As Mustafa Barghouti told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Israel is inflicting the triumvirate of “siege and collective punishment”, “genocide” through bombardment, and “ethnic cleansing”. The Israeli historian of the Holocaust, Raz Segal, describes Israel’s indiscriminate war on Gazan civilians and its assault on the conditions for life for the whole community, as “a textbook case of genocide” unfolding in front of us. For the press and the majority of pundits, the problem cannot be named. At most, liberal dissent attains to the insight that vengeance is not justice, as though what Israel is now threatening is merely reactive rather than programmatic.

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This is not to say that Western media is entirely unaware of what awaits Gaza. On Fox News, the guests, flushed with excitement over the possibility of annihilation, simply yell outright for murder. “Level the place!” exhorted Senator Lindsey Graham. “Finish them. Finish them,” pleaded Nikki Haley on the same august channel. On CNN, however, where anguished hand-wringing is the more usual tone, former AIPAC staffer Wolf Blitzer tactfully compared the coming slaughter to Fallujah where “a lot of innocent civilians, unfortunately … were killed and injured in those confrontations”. This, not to condemn by comparison with one of the worst atrocities perpetrated by the US military, but to rationalise. Retired Colonel Cedric Leighton agreed: “Absolutely, well look, that’s one of those areas where you really can’t help it as much as you try to avoid civilian casualties”. Meanwhile, Anderson Cooper solemnly helped an IDF spokesperson to deflect humanitarian opposition to Israel’s expulsion order to Gazans by inviting him to blame Hamas for Israel’s killing of civilians because they had asked them not to obey an order that he admitted the UN said was impossible anyway.

Yet, their best efforts at decorum are continually upended by Israeli personnel either unable to feign the slightest sympathy for their victims or full-throated in their justification of atrocity. Asked politely about civilian casualties in Gaza by a Sky News host, Naftali Bennett exploded. “What’s wrong with you? Have you not seen what’s happened? We’re fighting Nazis!” Israeli Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely, a religious-right advocate of a “Greater Israel”, invited by a hardly hostile Kay Burley to sound even remotely humane, chillingly insisted against all evidence that there is “no humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, falsely and illogically brushing off the issue on the grounds that “Hamas is in charge of the safety of Palestinians”. Jake Tapper invites Israeli ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, to sympathise with innocent Gazan civilians as any half-decent propagandist could manage, only to be met with a far from convincing: “I really feel sorry for the suffering of the people of Gaza but we should all remember, they elected Hamas eighteen years ago.” With no encouragement from his CNN interlocutor, an IDF soldier explained, in fact insisted, that “the war is not just with Hamas, the war is with all the civilians that cannot see us as human beings”. An Israeli policeman, after threatening a reporter from the London-based news channel, Al-Araby, faced the camera and shouted: “We will turn Gaza into dust!”

Such sentiments are not unusual in Israel, where the idea of “tihur”, the forcible “transfer” of the Palestinian population, has long been part of Zionist ideology. This idea is openly advocated by leading Israeli politicians, and appears to be supported by roughly half of Jewish Israelis. As the sociologist Martin Shaw points out, “tihur” has an innately genocidal logic

When journalist Haggai Matar notes that Israeli social media is seething with “calls for actual, literal genocide”, that too is not unusual. “Death to the Arabs” is a familiar cry of Israeli pogromists, as is “burn them, shoot them, kill them”. During the 2014 assault in which Israel killed over 2,300 Gazans, far-right Israelis celebrated by chanting: “Gaza, Gaza, Gaza is a cemetery!” Nor are such sentiments only for the hoi polloi. Genocide apologetics have appeared in the Israeli press. A deputy defence minister has threatened Gaza with “holocaust”. A deputy speaker of the Knesset has called for Gazans to be “concentrated in camps” and for all resistance to be “exterminated”. If British or American journalists know any of this, they swiftly forget it as soon as Israel is on a war footing and their government demands loyalty.

If the dreams of racist mass murder that inform and motivate the current war on Gaza’s civilian population are tactfully ignored or glossed over so that its liberal backers can perceive only accidental casualties – caught, as newspapers and broadcasters love to say, “in the crossfire” – its opponents are systematically smeared. As European states banned pro-Palestine protests, Ido Vock managed to report on this sinister development for the BBC without mentioning a single word about the reasons for the protests, citing only disingenuous official claims that the protests may host antisemitism. Thus, the opponents of a Gaza genocide, an extremely broad coalition of socialists, Muslims, Jewish groups, human rights activists, liberals and Palestinian campaigners, is collectively libelled.

Meanwhile, the BBC has been forced to admit that its own reporting on pro-Palestine protests seriously breached impartiality guidelines when a news anchor announced that they had “voiced their backing for Hamas”. In a context in which the British Home Secretary Suella Braverman has sought to criminalise pro-Palestine protesters who, for example, wave the Palestinian flag, and in which Hamas is a proscribed organisation in the UK, and in which counter-terrorism police are evidently harassing Britons with a connection to Gaza, this is far from innocent. Palestinian guests on news programmes are subject to the same automatic suspicion and hostility. They can scarcely get one word in before their interlocutor ambushes them with bad faith demands that they condemn their own side, or even that they approve in principle of Israel “wiping out” Hamas. 

And while support for the Palestinians is interrogated through the prism of alleged antisemitism, in a country where bad faith allegations of this kind have recently been the basis for neo-McCarthyite hysteria against the Left, including a disproportionately large number of Jewish socialists, British media is intensely relaxed about or even welcoming of racism toward Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims. Consider, for example, Jake Wallis Simons, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, notorious for its extremely poor journalistic standards and habit of libelling people. Just days after he claimed, in a now-deleted tweet, that “much of Muslim culture is in the grip of a death cult that sacralises bloodshed”, he was welcomed on to a BBC Question Time panel that included not a single pro-Palestinian voice. Challenged by an audience member about his words, he dissembled about what he had said, and offered what can therefore only have been an utterly insincere apology.

The media, however, partly accepts the boundaries of debate established by the state and national political parties. In this context, Tories like Rishi Sunak and James Cleverly, as well as Labour Party frontbenchers like Sir Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry insisting that Israel is within its rights to cut off food, water, electricity and fuel to Gazans, are culpable and complicit in war crimes. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, when asked by Nick Robinson about what “they call Palestine”, is also culpable in insisting in defiance of international legal consensus that “Gaza is not occupied by Israel”. In the US, the Biden administration sets the boundaries of legitimate debate by, for example, describing congressional calls for a ceasefire as “repugnant … disgraceful”, or telling the world that “no one has the right to tell Israel how to defend itself” – not even, presumably, the Gazans under assault.

Nor is the pro-Israel consensus without its faultlines and contradictions. Despite the idiocies and moral indolence of the media with regard to Palestine, despite its lunatic equanimity in the face of barbarism and disastrous obliviousness as to where Israeli society and state are headed, despite how thoughtlessly it falls into step with the general political derangement at times like this, and despite the sinister baiting of Palestinians and pro-Palestine protesters, it is probably fair to say that there have been more Palestinian voices on television, radio and in print than before. Israeli propaganda has never been so crassly ineffectual in its residual efforts to humanise its brutality, or even to appear vaguely coherent. The position of politicians rallying behind Israel has never looked so tenuous or so self-evidently monstrous. The consensus for barbarism need not hold.


Richard Seymour is a writer and editor based in London. He is the author of The Disenchanted Earth (2022), The Twittering Machine (2019), and Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (2017). He is a founding editor of Salvage magazine. His next book, published by Verso, is Disaster Nationalism (2024).


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