Soundtrack to genocide: Inside Israel's military-pop complex
Stationed by the border, a group of Israeli soldiers huddle together, waiting for the army’s in-fight entertainment to begin.
The atmosphere seems festive, there’s a live band and what appears to be a well-lit stage, though the brightness comes from cameras and scanners that surveil the base. A radio pylon looms over a dusty backdrop. We’re reminded this is Gaza, not Glastonbury.
“Gaza, you b*tch,” Israeli pop star Lior Narkis shouts to raucous applause. “Gaza, you daughter of a huge wh*re, like your mother, Gaza. Gaza, you wh*re.”
"October 7 has aligned ultra-right-wing rhetoric with rhythm; Israel’s music taste a reflection of Netanyahu’s vengeful intent"
Lior Narkis is far from the only openly racist musician touring Israel at the moment. For the past month, the most-streamed song in Israel, Ness Ve Stilla’s Charbu Darbu, has topped the charts by encouraging genocide in Gaza.
Described by American music critic Antony Fantano as “tacky, militaristic cringe”, the Israeli drill track — viewed more than 9.3 million times on YouTube — asks soldiers to write their grandparents’ names on warheads for Gaza’s children, threatens to “rain down a storm on you [Gaza], you f**kers,” and incites Israeli units to “one, two, shoot” in the chorus.
And if the lyrics weren’t enough, the song’s name — itself derived from Syrian Arabic — is Hebrew “criminal slang” for “swords and strikes”, a reference to Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, Operation Iron Swords.
For the first time, October 7 has aligned ultra-right-wing rhetoric with rhythm; Israel’s music taste is a reflection of Netanyahu’s vengeful intent. Remember, domestic support for Israel’s war remains unanimous; 94% of Jewish Israelis believe that Israel is using too little or just enough firepower in Gaza.
As a result, a new kind of battlefield ballad has emerged from the Nova music festival attack on October 7, one that takes from the sounds of nursery rhymes to techno and everything in between.
From 1967 to 2023: A radical shift?
While the obscuring of occupation has come to define Israeli war music, songs to galvanise efforts weren’t always so genocidal.
In 1967, during the Six-Day War, the song Sharm el-Sheikh focused on the fog of war, while Lu Yehi — written during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and inspired by the Beatles' Let It Be — wistfully sang of war’s end.
There are, of course, exceptions — 1967’s Jerusalem of Iron boasts of Israel’s expansionism, including the exploitation of Al-Aqsa, “It’s free to access Temple Mount, and the Western Wall/Here you are under evening light, almost all of you wrapped in gold,” and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, “The road to the Dead Sea is open, on the way down to Jericho.”
One song, The Evils, otherwise known as the Friendship Song, has remained in the Israeli canon throughout. It’s been played at milestone anniversaries for the state of Israel, memorials for assassinated Israeli prime ministers, and has now been readapted for Israel’s latest assault on Gaza.
But while the original lyrics draw on conventional mourning of fallen soldiers against an abstract “evil” enemy, the meaning behind the lyrics for Friendship Song 2023 is clear: to destroy Gaza in its entirety.
In November, a group called The Civil Front — founded after the October 7 attack and made up of families of victims and members of the military — released the chilling video for the Friendship Song 2023 in which children sing of the destruction of Gaza: “In another year there will be nothing there/And we will return safely to our homes/Within a year we will annihilate everyone/And then we will return to plough our fields.”
"While survivors in Gaza do not know when their next meal will come, Israelis are using Charbu Darbu to soundtrack TikToks of them making sushi"
While the children sing, CGI-enhanced video of bomb blasts in what appears to be Gaza plays, as does footage of Israeli soldiers in combat or mourning their fallen comrades.
In what could be read as a co-sign from Tel Aviv to Friendship Song 2023’s production, the video was shared by Israeli state-owned channel Kan on its website — though it was quickly taken down. The Civil Front also appears to have removed the video from all its social media channels.
The Civil Front — who have the stated aim of “restoring the confidence of the people of Israel in the security systems” — has released other refrains for revenge on Gaza sung in a childish voice.
On December 7, the group released a video of soldiers strapping up for duty and sweeping drone images again of what looks like Gaza, while what sounds like a children's chorus sings "We kick the darkness with light" over a drill beat similar to Charbu Darbu. “Together the darkness is banished! Happy Hannukah!” read the accompanying caption on X.
The Civil Front’s videos, or what remains of them, have not garnered massive attention, but the drill-inspired Charbu Darbu has stood at number one in the official Israeli charts for several weeks.
On TikTok, the song is being picked up for choreographed videos, by teens in their bedrooms and by soldiers in their downtime alike. And while survivors in Gaza do not know when their next meal will come, Israelis are using Charbu Darbu to soundtrack TikToks of them making sushi.
‘First our land, now our music’
Like much Israeli cultural output, songs created to fuel Israel’s latest war have been labelled as brazen theft of Palestinian culture.
Charbu Darbu's uninspired drill beat drew accusations of theft from Lebanese-American media personality Mia Khalifa, who was named in the song as a deserved target of retribution for her public displays of support for Palestinians.
Drill, a subgenre of hip hop created by Black artists from Chicago’s South Side in the 2010s, features heavily in Palestinian rap, including in songs currently being used to soundtrack videos of Palestinian protests, riots, or other forms of resistance — see Al Nather, Daboor and Shabjdeed's Inn Ann.
Thousands of miles from Israel, cultural commentators — including those from Chicago — have said that Charbu Darbu flies in the face of hip hop's history of resistance to state-sanctioned oppression.
Even the most explicit musical expressions of Palestinian resistance have been co-opted by Israelis in their war effort.
Dammi Falastini (My Blood is Palestinian), a vow from Gazan singer Mohammed Assaf to remain steadfast in the face of Israeli oppression, has for years been a standard for Palestinian and pro-Palestinian resistance. Released in 2015, the song is still heard blaring from speakers at protests all over the world and has been used to soundtrack hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos.
But even a song this unapologetically Palestinian has not been off-limits to Israeli musicians. Singer Elkana Marziano, a former winner of The Voice Israel who has recorded songs in support of the Israeli war effort, sang a version of Dammi Falastini with its lyrics replaced. Over the original beat, Marziano sings: “My blood is Jewish".
Israelis shared videos on TikTok using his lazy rework, miming along to the lyrics and waving Israeli flags to the camera. “First our land, now our music,” Palestinian gamer Absorber Hamzah said of Marziano’s anthem rip.
Meanwhile, in Europe and North America, Palestinian songs and slogans are banned and labelled antisemitic, with the phrase “From the River To the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free” now under police scrutiny.
"The expedient misrepresentation of a slogan that advocates for equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine is a clear case of how Palestinian voices in the West are silenced, and how the legislature has conflated antizionism with antisemitism"
In the UK, former Home Secretary Suella Braverman described the phrase as a Hamas-sponsored rallying cry for the elimination of Israel. In the United States, the chant has contributed toward the resignation of Ivy League presidents, and in Germany, the slogan has been made illegal, forcing protesters in Berlin to remix the chant to “From Risa [a local chicken franchise popular with Palestinians] to the Spree [the body of water around Berlin], Palestine will be free.”
The expedient misrepresentation of a slogan that advocates for equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine is a clear case of how Palestinian voices in the West are silenced, and how the legislature has conflated antizionism with antisemitism.
Yet such semantic outrage doesn’t seem to apply to their Israeli allies. Like Dammi Falastini, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free” has also been co-opted by Israeli soldiers, with their extended version easier to decipher, if out of key.
Armed with a guitar and hip-shaking, balaclava-clad backup dancers, the soldier sings: “We won’t stop even if the world asks for a chance/We won’t stay silent, be ready/If any of you are still alive, save these words/From the River to the Sea, Israel will be free.”
Covering eyes and ears
In the aftermath of the Nova music festival attack, media outlets rushed to distinguish the peace-loving Israeli from the barbaric Palestinian, the logic being clear: festival-goers represent the hedonistic individualism at the heart of the liberal project, so by attacking the festival, Hamas had attacked the Western way of life.
Fewer questions were asked about the type of society that promotes a party feet away from “the world’s largest concentration camp” and virtually no one connected the sustained occupation of the Palestinian territories with Israel’s culture of violent supremacy.
Days after Israeli troops entered Gaza, a video emerged on social media titled “Gaza concert season begins: Israeli soldiers bomb Gaza and kill civilians in DJ style”. The montage shows troops in military gear dancing as a soldier mixes a techno track on top of an Israeli tank. At the drop of the beat, the video shows a residential complex in Gaza being bombed.
Like each of the examples listed, the video received little attention from Western media. Instead, we were told Israel’s military actions are proportionate and justified, and Israel’s claim as “the only democracy in the Middle East” is sacrosanct.
But the facts on the ground prove otherwise. Israel's indiscriminate bombing of civilians, schools, and hospitals has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza, and Netanyahu has built an authoritarian cabinet filled with self-proclaimed “fascists”.
It's no coincidence that far-right rhetoric leads to far-right music. Both have the same aim: to dehumanise Palestinians and deny their very existence.
Ibrahim Husseini contributed to this article
Shahla Omar is a journalist and news editor at The New Arab. Her musings on music can be found on her Instagram account, @found__the__note
Follow her on X: @shahlasomar
Benjamin Ashraf is The New Arab's Deputy Features Editor. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies.
Follow him on X: @ashrafzeneca