The twisted thinking behind Israel’s peaceful euphemisms for violence

Gwyn Daniel

Middle East Eye  /  September 20, 2023

Israel dubbed its recent orgy of brutality in Jenin ‘Operation Home and Garden’, the latest in a line of twee euphemisms that fuel the occupation’s psychotic denial.

The other day, I went on an errand to my local garden centre. The sign outside declared “Home and Garden”. It reawakened the shock of first learning that this peaceful, bland and familiar phrase was the exact name Israel gave to its recent orgy of violence and destruction against the refugee population in Jenin.

Home and Garden conjures up images from expensive glossy magazines advertising eye-watering, beautiful country houses or the very latest in interior decoration or garden design.

In whose distorted imagination, in what psychotic world, could this sobriquet possibly have been dreamed up for a military assault involving the destruction of whatever beauty and homeliness the inhabitants of Jenin refugee camp have been able to create for themselves?

Leaving aside the short supply of gardens within the massively overcrowded confines of Jenin, could perhaps the “Home” part of the operation refer to converting children’s bedrooms for their use as snipers’ nests? Or could punching through connecting walls in homes to facilitate the tramping of heavily armed troops through intimate domestic space be some futuristic design feature?

Violent and destructive Israeli incursions against Palestinians are quite often couched in terms of seemingly innocent and domesticated language. In 1948, Operation Matateh (broom) was the name given to a military operation in the Galilee, “sweeping” Palestinians out of their homes and villages to make way for Jewish expansion.

Repeated deadly assaults on Gaza in recent times have been referred to by the military as “mowing the lawn”. And now, most bizarre and disturbing of them all is this code name for the attacks which pulverized Jenin refugee camp. Whose home? Whose garden?

In what parallel universe could this ugly and vicious destruction be couched in such incongruously cosy language? Someone in the Israeli military clearly thought this was an appropriate name.

Obviously, a focus on the name pales into significance beside the horrific violence and long-term destruction visited upon the inhabitants of the Jenin camp. The material and psychological consequences of two days of intense bombardment are still being suffered, even though the world’s attention has moved on.

Yet it is striking that this bizarre name seems to have attracted little criticism, often repeated without comment even by those who condemned the operation. Perhaps the euphemisms and distortions that flow from the Israeli hasbara machine are now so familiar that they are hardly deemed worthy of comment.

‘Psychotic thinking’

However, language matters and I think it is worth digging a little deeper into what it might signify about the Israeli military occupation of Palestine.

In settler colonial societies, the language employed in sanitizing acts of extreme racist brutality has its own long history. The dispossession and elimination of others are usually placed within a justificatory narrative to maintain the fiction of a benign, temporary or otherwise justified occupation of others’ land.

Since Israel embarked upon a settler colonial venture well over a century after the colonizers of the US, Canada or Australia, and in a different political climate, it has devoted a more intense effort to the manufacture of euphemisms.

Frantz Fanon and Edward Said each provide valuable insights into the extreme distortion of language that Operation Home and Garden presents.

“The settlers’ town is a strongly built town,” writes Fanon, providing a starting point for Lara and Stephen Sheehi’s exploration of settler colonialism in their paper Fanon in Palestine.

“The settlers’ town is a satiated town, relaxed, its belly is perpetually full of good things. The settlers’ town is a town of white people, of foreigners… the town of the colonized … is a place of ill repute, populated by evil men… it is a world without spaciousness… the town of the colonized is a starving town, starving of bread, of meat, of shoes… of light. The town of the colonized is a squatting town, a town on its knees, a sprawling town.” 

Fanon also wrote that “the colonial world is a compartmentalized world”, and this refers not just to the fragmented enclaves forced upon the colonized but to compartmentalized thinking in the colonizers and in those who support them.

Employing an offensive euphemism such as Home and Garden makes sense if we heed Lara Sheehi’s argument that “psychotic thinking is at the heart of the logic of Zionist settler-colonial logic”.

Denied reality

It is mirrored in the countless bland or mendacious statements made by western leaders such as Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who praised Israel this year on its 75th birthday for “making the desert bloom” and made no mention of the occupation or the Palestinians.

The “strongly built town” is, of course, an illusion because it’s very “strength” resides in the denied reality that it is built on stolen land that it can never legitimately occupy. It thus always exists in the fear that the indigenous people will return to reclaim their land and wreak vengeance on those who dispossessed them.

When this reality intrudes in the form of attacks on settlers, the response is hysterical rage and instant retribution.

The settlers’ towns are not just strongly built but often built with the labour of the very people whose land has been illegally seized, as Andrew Ross explores in Stone Men. In this way, we see the violence and ruthless exploitation that underlie the creation of homes and gardens in these “strongly built towns”.

Deliberately occupying the highest ground, they squat on hilltops above Palestinian villages, their uniform and incongruous red-roofed houses exuding suburban domesticity; their trees, shrubs and swimming pools – even small boating lakes – attesting to their ruthless diversion of water supplies.

They often display trophies in the form of old olive trees dug up and stolen from Palestinian farmers. The strongly built town is both a fortress and a pretence at normality. “Beautification” is part of this pretence because, as well as its outright theft of land and resources, it results in the “uglification”, pollution and degradation of the surrounding Palestinian villages.

Repulsive moniker

Edward Said draws attention in Culture and Imperialism to the way that imperialism consists of “the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory”.

In exploring the relationship of English novels – such as those of Jane Austen – to these practices, he highlights the means by which the elegant country estates that feature in her novels exist in an aesthetic world that is seemingly quite detached from the brutally exploitative slave-owning practices overseas which finance them.

Settler colonialism does not, by its very nature, allow for such geographical detachment but it involves similar processes of psychotic denial.

What do Israeli settlers see when they gaze out from their neat well-tended homes and gardens or travel to and from them on their exclusive roads? They are likely to see degradation – dirt tracks leading to villages sealed off with concrete blocks, rubbish-strewn streets, parched, untended fields and ramshackle houses and they are likely to conclude, as all settler colonials do, that this marks the inferiority of the “native” rather than direct results from their own exploitation.

“Home and Garden” – whatever the motivation behind coining this repulsive moniker – stands for something profound and disturbing: its insistence on the illusion that somehow the settler population should be able to live in a comfortable aesthetic world detached from the brutalizing ugliness and violence it unleashes on its environment, both human and natural.

Indeed, as Fanon noted, it projects these very features onto the colonized.

The apartheid wall is designed in many parts to barely intrude upon the homes and gardens of adjoining Israeli settlements whereas it looms in all its ugly intrusiveness over the homes of Palestinians, frequently separating them from the orchards, fields and gardens they have tended for generations.

Cruel juxtaposition

The beloved landscape mourned by Raja Shehadeh in his elegiac book Palestinian Walks testifies to the immense harm that destroying the beauty of a familiar natural world does to the human spirit.

If we think about homes, the images that might arise are those of safety, security, a refuge from the outside world, a place for family and for nurturing the development of children. If we think of gardens, the images might be of vegetables and flowers, of beauty, productivity and likewise of nurturing growth.

The seemingly absurd and cruel juxtaposition of these images with the death and destruction visited upon Palestinians throughout their occupied lands and more recently upon Jenin reveals the deeper processes at work in a settler colonial society.

There, privileged, exclusive and ever-expanding fortresses can only exist through the use of extreme force and by destroying the possibilities for the indigenous population to flourish in their homes or grow their gardens.

Gwyn Daniel is a UK psychotherapist, trainer and writer; she is a member of the UK Palestine Mental Health Network and a patron of the Palestine Trauma Centre which works in Gaza and has presented and published on the impact of Israeli military occupation on Palestinian family lives