Word Wars in the Mideast

In the Holy Land, where words have historically had real power, a current battle over definitions may end up having real consequences.

Words, after all, are symbols, or representations, of deeper realities. And in the debate in the Middle East over two words - terrorism and racism - whoever can win international consensus over their meaning can alter the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.

Two stories in today's Monitor explain how these two words have suddenly become more politically charged than usual (see pages 1 and 8).

A revival of political violence by Palestinians since September has led a new Israeli government, led by hard-line Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to brand the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA), including Chairman Yasser Arafat, as terrorists.

And Israeli counterattacks on Palestinian civilians for the killing of their own civilians has led the PA to brand such acts as "state terror."

Beyond this cycle of attack and retribution (including assassinations), lies the problem of defining who are civilians, who are combatants, and who are accomplices in political violence. Is a 12-year-old Palestinian boy throwing stones a terrorist? Is a new Jewish settler on the West Bank, well-armed and with military protection, a militant usurper of Palestinian land and thus a just target for attack?

The simplest purpose of terrorism is to strike fear among civilians. On that score, actions on both sides fit the definition.

But both sides fear not only for their survival, but for their livelihood, religious ways, and identity as a people. The best way to counter terrorism is for the international community to deal with those fears, and not be fooled by word games.

The other debate, over racism, may be more short-lived. The United States threatens to boycott a United Nations conference on racism in September if the agenda includes a proposal to equate Zionism with racism. Israel's Jews are of many races, and it only bars immigrants for not being of the faith.

But Arab nations are nonetheless trying again to broaden the word's meaning. The US is right to take this stand.

Word wars may be a useful substitute for real war, but they shouldn't become weapons to justify war.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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