The Mideast wars over words
When Israelis and Palestinians hold talks, as in Gaza this Friday, euphemism and subtext are usually the rule.
Israelis and Palestinians are discussing a cease-fire, but even as they use the same word, they don't mean the same thing.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
To Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a cease-fire means an end to all attacks against Israelis while his army continues using helicopter gunships to kill militants.
To the hard-line group Hamas, a cease-fire means an Israeli pledge to end helicopter strikes while they continue attacks against Israelis in the Palestinian territories. The difference in understanding is typical. It may foil ongoing attempts by Egyptian mediators to secure Hamas's agreement to a cease-fire and hopes that Secretary of State Colin Powell will visit Israel later this week.
As Americans saw in Iraq, language is an early victim of war. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, words are disputed, freighted with hidden meanings, and used as a crucial weapon in both sides' arsenals. "[This is] a battle over language sometimes more than over anything else," says Diana Buttu, legal advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
While language has tremendous power to heal and reconcile, it is largely used here to shore up deeply held, competing beliefs.
The core Israeli-Palestinian struggle is not about real estate, but identity: who was here first, who belongs, whose story to believe. And so words, which shape the way we see and react to things, matter.
The sensitivity to language explains the furor before and at the Aqaba summit on June 4, where Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas were assailed for their word choices.
In urging his government to accept the US-backed peace plan presented at the summit, Sharon told his government that holding Palestinians under "occupation" was bad for Israel. Israel believes it has a legal and historical right to the Palestinian territories and doesn't consider them occupied. Sharon's use of the word created a firestorm and he retracted.
At the summit, Mr. Abbas prompted much the same reaction from his people when he referred to "terrorism," enraging militant and moderate Palestinians who felt he discredited a rightful struggle.
"All the words people use here are codes," says Hebrew University philosopher Avishai Margalit. He cites former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's drive to use the Biblical names "Judea and Samaria" for the Palestinian's West Bank.
"This is a semantic battle. The idea is to create an attitude to those territories so that it will be inconceivable to give them back. So the battle is for the consciousness of Israelis as well as for the land."
Words matter most when it comes to the terms used to describe this conflict. Palestinians like the word "intifada," or uprising, which fits their David-and-Goliath narrative of a people resisting an occupying power. Israelis, who have fine-tuned their word for the conflict several times, now call it "an armed conflict against terrorism." Language often entails legal obligations. Avoiding the word 'war' frees Israel from international laws that govern war.
Col. Daniel Reisner, head of the Israeli Army's international law department, also points out that using the phrase 'armed conflict' signals that Israel is not fighting another state. By using the word "terrorism," Col. Reisner says, "we're making the point that we're not fighting the Palestinian Authority ... the enemy is the terrorists. If you take any single element of the story, you'll find two different words," he adds.