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.

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.

The verbal battles between Israelis and Palestinians may be particularly intense, but their skirmishes over vocabulary are not new or unique. In 1917, when US Senator Hiram Johnson observed that "The first casualty when war comes is truth," he could have added the words 'and language.'

In his book "Faces of the Enemy," Sam Keen writes that "in the beginning we create the enemy.... Propaganda precedes technology."

Once physical conflict begins, militaries draw on a rich vein of euphemism. Military language provides the crucial function of legitimizing violent acts of soldiers that would be crimes in a civilian context. It also shields the public from the brutal business of war, helping people accept what they normally wouldn't stomach.

"Collateral damage" has become a familiar substitute for the killing of men, women and children who aren't soldiers. During the war on Iraq, Americans learned new phrases courtesy of some media outlets' use of military terms.

Television reporters for CNN told American audiences about Iraqi bunkers being "softened up" when they meant the soldiers inside were being ripped apart by bombs. Instead of using plain language to explain that US soldiers were slowly killing the Iraqi soldiers who resisted them, CNN borrowed Pentagon jargon to tell viewers that the opposing divisions were being "degraded" or "attrited."

An article about CNN's wartime vocabulary by Canadian columnist Russell Smith likens it to the language writer George Orwell had in mind when he coined the word "Newspeak."

The Israeli and Palestinian dialects of Newspeak are mostly political, but they have their military terms as well. Israelis speak of "focused intervention" to describe killing a man by firing missiles at his car on a narrow, thickly crowded street.

When Palestinian militant groups praise "successful operations" in "target rich" areas, often they really mean a nail-studded bomb exploding in an area full of people who subsequently die.

Yet words can have a powerful effect in countering violence and fostering understanding, say scholars.

"Right now the world operates in the language of militarization, which assumes that when a society is under threat, the resolution can be overcome ... by strengthening a military response," writes Dr. Nancy Snow, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, in an email interview. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly placed Dr. Nancy Snow at the University of California.]

"A language of peace emphasizes connection over separateness, a one-world consciousness - that what affects one affects me - and disengages from dichotomous language construction: me/other, us/them," she writes.

Conflicting euphemisms

The exact meaning of a word can be hard to pin down in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because it often means different things to the two sides. More commonly, the two sides use different language to describe the same thing.

Below, some examples:

Israelis say: Israel Defense Forces

Palestinians say: Israeli Occupation Forces

Israelis say: terrorist

Palestinians say: shaheed, or martyr. In the case of suicide bombings, the word glosses over the Muslim prohibition on suicide.

Israelis say: targeted killings

Palestinians say: assassination

Israelis say: they're against unilateral action in the territories that changes their status. What they mean is they are against a Palestinian declaration of statehood. Palestinians say: They're against unilateral action in the territories that changes their status. What they mean is they are against the Israeli settlement expansion.

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