Article Discourse Analysis: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

A Critical Discourse Analysis of an article on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

With increasing global media synergies, media studies seems to be gaining popularity in academia. One part of this discipline involves the close examination of media texts, be they written, spoken, or symbolic. To analyse texts linguistically, two dimensions are often considered: that of coherence, involving semantics or the construction of meaning, and that of cohesion, or syntax. This analysis can be done through various types of frameworks, including grounded theory, narrative semiotics, conversation analysis, and critical discourse analysis (CDA).

According to Barthes (1994), texts are always multi-dimensional and their meanings are uncovered differently depending on the reader, context and setting. Particularly in the media, they are interconnected to other texts, through means such as quotations, indirect or direct references, photos or historical facts; thus, it could be said that the media produce and reproduce not only texts, but from these, social meaning, which is then further reinforced through subsequent intertextuality (Ibid). Baudrillard (2000) adds that language itself is not necessarily powerful; what makes it more so is its use by powerful people—in today’s society, this being epitomised by the globalised media.

Critical discourse analysis is also sometimes referred to as critical linguistics (Wodak and Busch, 2004). Its roots lie in classical rhetoric, sociolinguistics and applied linguistics, and it is often used to illustrate the relationships that power, hierarchy, race and gender have with language (Fairclough, 1995). CDA is especially used today by academics that regard the discursive unit of a text to be one of the most basic units of communication. In fact, it is so widely used within scholarly environments that its legitimacy as a tool for examining power imbalances has been called into question by some, such as Billing (Wodak and Busch, 2004). He claims that because CDA has become so entrenched in academic discourses, it is thus subject to the same rituals and jargon as institutionalized knowledge, thus negating its potential to demystify the functions and intentions of CDA research. While these points are interesting and worthy of further exploration, the scope of this paper will not allow such examination, and furthermore, the assumptions of this paper are that CDA does, in fact, provide useful tools for critical analysis of media texts.

Thus, this paper will apply CDA to one article by Rory McCarthy in the Guardian newspaper, dated Wednesday, December 12th, 2007. CDA will be employed to illustrate overt and underlying assumptions and beliefs, as well as the construction of social meaning.

Wodak and Busch (2004) claim that all texts can help reproduce and produce unequal relationships in power between men and women, racial groups, social classes, ethnicities, and nations. This can be done through the creation of the Other, which involves the textual representation of a group as being ‘perpetrators and agents’ operating outside the law (Ibid, p. 99). They further claim that after the terrorist attacks of September 11, anti-Islamic prejudices became more pronounced in the media, which characterizes Muslims in anonymous and criminal terms (Ibid). Additionally, ‘strategies of generalization, blaming the victim, and victim-perpetrator reversal are increasingly prominent’ (Ibid, p.100).

Analysing the text in the Guardian, these strategies do indeed seem to be in place. For example, actions attributed to Palestinians in the article often involved negative activities, whereas verbs related to the Israelis were more neutral:

Palestinian actions: firing rockets, accused, complained, fired back, were detained, were reported, appeared to be

Israeli actions: mounted an incursion, said, issue tenders for

It is only when the voice of the article shifts from the writer to a direct quote from a Palestinian official that any harsher activities are attributed to the Israelis: sabotage, place obstacles

The first sentence of the article is also interesting:

Israeli troops in tanks and armoured vehicles mounted an incursion into Gaza yesterday, killing at least six Palestinians….As many as 30 tanks and vehicles were involved in the operation……

Although the facts in the article imply that the Israeli army killed several Palestinians, it is important to note the syntax of the sentence removes direct responsibility from the army and pins it on ‘the incursion’. What is more, semantically, Israeli activity is never referred to as an ‘invasion’ or an ‘attack’ but is referred to as a mere ‘incursion’ or ‘operation’, or in the title, ‘Israeli tanks enter Gaza’. The Israelis have neutral ‘troops’ which are seeking ‘members of Islamic Jihad’ ‘a hardline Palestinian militant group’ or ‘Palestinian fighters’. These phrases imply that Palestinians are the only ones operating outside the law.

Although it is clear from the facts stated in the article that Israel is the aggressor in this particular case: (tanks enter Gaza, killing at least six Palestinian militants) the writer felt it was necessary to include the feeble reaction of the Palestinians to this ‘incursion’ even though no Israelis were killed or even injured by the Palestinian action: ‘Palestinian fighters fired back’. This structure implies a fair battle, although it is abundantly clear that Israel is the only party here with fierce military power.

The body count is kept low in the piece, which claims ‘at least six Palestinian militants’ were killed, rather than emphasizing a larger number, such as ‘about ten’ or even ‘half a dozen’ even though it seems certain that more than six were killed. Importantly, only the deaths of the ‘militants’ are mentioned here: it could be quite possible, then, that several hundred civilians were also killed.

Although ‘as many as 30 tanks and vehicles’ seems a high number, the fact that these machines, and not people, were semantically involved in the invasion diminishes personal, human responsibility for the invasion and deaths. The sentence: ‘most of the dead appeared to be members of Islamic Jihad…’ only slightly suggests the possibility that ‘innocent civilians’ were also killed in the attack, and the words ‘appeared to be’ mean that there was no firm confirmation that the dead were, in fact, members of Islamic Jihad. ‘Several Palestinians were reported injured’ is another vague sentence which refuses to offer quantitative data regarding how many were injured, or give information about who, exactly, gave this report, which makes it sound dubious. The simple use of Palestinians is also vague and fails to clearly state the possible injury of ‘innocent civilians’.

The situatedness of this text historically and politically supports Barthe’s claim that social meaning is reinforced through intertextuality. There is no mention or even implication that the Palestinians are, in fact, fighting to free their homeland from an illegal oppressor, and there is also no overt mention of the illegitimacy and illegality of Israel’s acts: for example, by choosing the word ‘settlement’ in the sentence: ‘…an Israeli decision…to issue tenders for more than 300 houses in the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa’ allows for a form of Israeli ‘newspeak’ to whitewash what is essentially an illegal occupation that has destroyed the natural environment of the Abu Ghneim forest and stolen more land from the Palestinians ( . Moreover, there is no mention of how Israel has repeatedly been condemned by the United Nations for its illegal ‘settlements’ such as that in Har Homa (Ibid). In fact, after reading such an article as the one in the Guardian, readers could well be left wondering just why the Palestinians have been ‘firing rockets’ or why they have been ‘detained’ or have become ‘militants’, although the article makes Israeli grievances easier to understand by employing the very lexis just mentioned previously (as well as: Islamic Jihad, accuse, complain). Thus, victim-perpetrator relationships are skewed by the semantics and syntax used in the article.

There is no doubt that Israel is an oppressive power and disturbing presence in the Middle East, yet it is rarely portrayed as such in the media. There could be several reasons for this, but one may reside in Foucault’s notion of discourse, which states that discourse is an institutionalized way of thinking about something, or in other words, it defines the limits of what constitutes acceptable speech on a topic. Discourse is thus related to power, and defining discourses are often taken to be defining of reality itself (Foucault, 1997).

Wodak and Busch (2004) state that the dominant discourse on Israel generally supports this state, possibly as a kind of backlash after the blatantly anti-Semetic propaganda that was once so common in Europe before and during the Second World War, but also because power relationships have shifted: Israel is a key ally to the most powerful nations in the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States, and as mentioned by Baudrillard (2000), the powerful use language to keep power structures intact.

The final sentence of the article illustrates this point well:

Although Israeli and Palestinian leaders and negotiators have been meeting regularly for months, today’s meeting marks the beginning of talks intended eventually to bring the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

This paragraph implies that talks to create a Palestinian state are just beginning, and that a Palestinian state could possibly be created for the first time. Both of these assumptions are erroneous. Without delving too deeply in the politics of the Middle East, it is generally known by most that shortly after Israel’s inception, talks to negotiate Arab/Jewish territory have gone on almost continually.

Secondly, in 1919 Palestine was provisionally recognized as an independent nation by the League of Nations in League Covenant Article 22(4) as well as by the 1922 Mandate for Palestine that was awarded to Great Britain. This recognition continues today due to the conservatory clause found in Article 80(1) of the United Nations Charter (Boyle, ) . Thus, ‘the creation of an independent Palestinian state’ negates the fact that such a nation has already existed. Incidentally, legally, Israel does not have fixed and permanent borders (except most recently with respect to Egypt) and yet it is generally considered by the media to be a legitimate state (Ibid).

What is important to note here is that history is practically being rewritten in the Guardian text. Van Djik’s (1990) explanation as to how this is possible is closely connected to Barthes (1994) and Baudrillard’s (2000) ideas mentioned above. He claims that journalists and media consumers own ‘mental models of the world’ and thus any text that is understood contains only the ‘tip of an iceberg of information’ (Ibid, p.6). The tip is expressed through syntax and semiotics, but the rest is assumed to be supplied by the underlying knowledge of previous texts. For this reason, Van Djik states that ‘the analysis of the implicit…is very useful in the study of underlying ideologies’ (Ibid, p.6).

In conclusion, this paper has illustrated how critical discourse analysis can be a useful tool for unearthing implicit meanings in text, through the analysis of syntax, semiotics, and assumptions implicit through intertextuality. Furthermore, it has given examples of how current discourses of power can influence the content of media texts. There is no doubt that after several years of exposure to standard news formats, broadcasters and audiences alike are prone to overlooking the covert messages in news content. For this reason, a critical perspective is certainly important, and furthermore, if news texts are assumed to be a system of encoding reality, then the agendas of the encoders must be understood before a thorough deconstruction of their messages can be possible.

Appendix 1

Israel tanks enter Gaza on eve of peace talks

Rory McCarthy, Jerusalem

Israeli troops in tanks and armoured vehicles mounted an incursion into Gaza yesterday, killing at least six Palestinian militants on the eve of a new round of peace talks. As many as 30 tanks and vehicles were involved in the operation in southern Gaza, near the Sufa crossing and close to the town of Khan Yunnis. Several Palestinians were reported injured.

The Israeli military said it was a routine operation against militants, but Palestinian officials accused Israel of trying to disrupt the peace talks. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were to meet today at the King David hotel in Jerusalem to start a new process of talks in the wake of the Middle East conference in Annapolis late last month.

Palestinian officials have already complained about an Israeli decision last week to issue tenders for more than 300 houses in the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa. ‘The Israeli policy of escalation aims to sabotage and place obstacles before the negotiations even before they start,’ said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Most of the dead appeared to be members of Islamic Jihad, a small but hardline Palestinian militant group which ahs been responsible for firing makeshift rockets from Gaza into Israel. Around 60 Palestinians were detained in what was the largest Israeli operation in months. Palestinian fighters fired back and hit one Israeli tank.

Although Israeli and Palestinian leaders and negotiators have been meeting regularly for months, today’s meeting marks the beginning of talks intended to eventually bring the creation of an independent Palestinian state.


Barthes, R, (1994) Mythologies, Hill and Wang, London

Baudrillard, J, (2000), Routledge Critical Thinkers, Routledge Publishing, London

Boyle, F, (2007) Elements of Palestinian Statehood, in The European Journal of International Law, Vol.18 No 3

Fairclough, N (1995) Critical Discourse Analysis, Longman, Harlow.

Foucault, M (1997) The Politics of Truth, Semiotext(e), France

McCarthy, R, Israel tanks enter Gaza on eve of peace talks, in the Guardian, December 12, 2007

Van Djik, T. A. (1990). Discourse & Society, in Van Djik, T. A (ed.), (2007) A New Journal for a New Research Focus, Volume 18 No 2, Sage Publications, London

Wodak, R and Busch, B, (2004) Approaches to Media Studies, in Downing, J, The Sage Handbook of Media Studies, Sage, London

Bill Carlson

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