Israel has effectively ‘weaponised’ PTSD by disseminating bites via social media in order to legitimise its offensive.
Social media and the discourse of trauma during ‘Pillar of Defence’
The first Israeli military tweet reads “‘Harmless’ rockets? Staggering number of kids in southern #Israel have PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]“. And a few minutes later: “Photo: Israeli children and parents sleeping in a bomb shelter in Ashkelon yesterday”. Clearly, the use of social media during war is becoming more and more extensive, but what, one might ask, lies behind the communicative strategy that accompanied operation “Pillar of Defence”?
On one level, it is a struggle over “facts”. Using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the Israeli military provided information about the targeting of Palestinian militants, houses, public buildings and infrastructures. To assume the aura of “facts”, they offer figures, images, videos, and statistics. Other more explicative messages tried to convince the audience that Israeli assaults were carried out in accordance with International Humanitarian Law: “VIDEO: #Israel Air Force Calls Off Airstrike When Civilians Seen Near Target in #Gaza”. A number of posts tried to persuade the international public about the “necessity” of Pillar of Defence: “Hamas has been firing rockets at #Israel for over a decade. Months & years ago, rockets from #Gaza were still a regular occurrence”.
But besides the communicative form it adopts in the era of social media, this campaign tells us something about another chapter in the claim of morality by the perpetrators of colonial violence. We have to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of these messages was that of adorning the supposed military right to kill with an aura of morality – while trying to “demoralise” the resistance of the colonised: “Hamas’ strategy is simple: Use civilians as human shields. Fire rockets from residential areas. Store weapons in mosques. Hide in hospitals”.
The Israeli Army often claims to be one of “the most moral army in the world”. This false assumption has been widely criticised and debunked, but in order to keep this important work of demystification alive we have to continue to pay attention to the new forms mystification takes. During “Pillar of Defence”, this claim of morality has welded with the reference to trauma and PTSD: A new assemblage – intertwining moral legitimacy and politics of trauma – emerged.
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One of the most striking elements during Pillar of Defence is the Army Spokesperson’s frequent reference to some unusual figures about trauma, like in this tweet: “75% of children in Sderot, Israeli town bombarded by rockets, suffer from PTSD. RT [Retweet] to show their reality”. A link opens a YouTube video produced by the Army in which young people look for a shelter while sirens sound. A military official states: “No democratic state would accept a situation in which its citizens experience suffering like this”, and the mayor of Sderot quotes alleged figures about children with PTSD. The south of Israel is presented as an area subject to traumatisation. The tweets continue to flow; new “surgical killings” are announced.
It would be a mistake to consider this reference to PTSD as an element of complete newness in the political debate. The Israeli army has progressively accepted to deal with its soldiers through the lenses of PTSD. Israeli society at large is more and more recurring to the notions of distress and the discursive arsenal of the politics of trauma. A conspicuous scientific production has emerged in the last decades, one in which the grammar of distress, political violence and violence of politics have repeatedly merged at the public level. The recent assault on Gaza highlighted this welding between scientific, public and military spheres. Some articles in the mainstream Israeli media (ie Ha’aretz) accompanied the Israeli army tweets by abundantly referring to this scientific production on PTSD in southern Israel. The clinical weapon of PTSD and its aura of scientificity become tools for the moralisation of killings. Thus, the subtext reads: Killings are moral because they help to reduce and prevent PTSD.
The main question is not that of denying or asserting the presence of trauma among Israelis living in the proximity of the Gaza Strip. Rather, it is important to understand how the reference to a scientific literature postulating the existence of widespread trauma is transformed into an instrument for legitimising the assumption that Palestinian lives can be sacrificed. Killings assume a sort of macabre therapeutic function.
In many social contexts, trauma and PTSD are instruments for claiming different forms of rights. What is striking here is that in the case of Israel, these same instruments become discursive and practical tools for inflicting death and collective punishment. We cannot isolate PTSD from its colonial relationality, that is to say from its weaponisation against the Palestinians. The moral economies of violence – destruction and killing as “prevention of suffering” and “trauma” – unveil the forms that colonial discourses and practices can assume, and the different values attributed to the lives of colonial citizens and subjects.
Nicola Perugini is an anthropologist who teaches at the Al Quds Bard Honors College in Jerusalem. His work focuses on colonialism, space and law. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.