Words Are Weapons : Israeli-Arab Split: War of Terminology

Times Staff Writer

Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.

--Proverbs, 18:21

When Lebanese gunmen ambushed an Israeli patrol and made off with two soldiers north of the international border last month, the Israeli press referred to the incident as a "kidnaping," though the soldiers were armed, in uniform, and confronted native resistance on foreign soil.

The local Arab press said the Israelis were "captured" or "taken prisoner."

Shortly before that, Al Fajr, the English-language edition of the Palestinian newspaper in East Jerusalem, headlined a story about a clash between Israeli security forces and a band of West Bank gunmen: "Israel Kills Commandos."

The West Bank gunmen were terrorists by almost any definition, responsible for killing five Israeli civilians and for rifle attacks on civilian buses in which 18 people had been wounded, Arabs as well as Jews.

Sensitive to Language

Both incidents were skirmishes in the Arab-Israeli war of words, a war so intense that experienced foreign diplomats say it may be unique in the annals of international conflict. In part, the exchange is so highly charged because of cultural factors that make Arabs and Jews unusually sensitive to language.

When the early Zionists adopted Hebrew as the official language of Israel, they resurrected what was for most practical purposes a 2,000-year-old dead language, but one rich in history and tradition. Arabic, too, is considered one of the world's richest and most poetic languages.

By religious tradition, Jews and Arabs both believe that the word of God has been passed specifically to them. And Islam and Judaism both have large bodies of law and tradition dissecting the meanings of revealed truth--the Talmud for Jews and the Hadith for Muslims.

Saying Is Being

Also, according to Yigal Yanai, director of Hebrew University's Academy of the Hebrew Language, "with the Arabs and many Jews, too, if they say something, they attribute to it the power of already being." It is a philosophy, he said, that "as a man pronounceth, so shall it be."

The Middle East sensitivity to language is also a product of an intense politicization of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has turned words into weapons, the verbal equivalents of bullets. Control of the terminology is like control of the arsenal, and as participants in the Mideast conflict see it, one may be as important to victory as the other.

"It's an elementary political tactic to redefine your adversary's objectives in your own terms," said a Western diplomat who has worked in the region for many years. "And it has been lifted to a fine art here in the Middle East."

Terminology is also central to the doctrine of Leninism. But although in the Soviet Bloc ideologically charged words are widely seen as part of a political vocabulary so remote from everyday life as to be almost a foreign language, the Middle East equivalents are staples of conversation.

In this part of the world, words are often manipulated as part of an effort to "demonize" the opposition.

For example, state-owned Israel radio has a rule, according to an employee, that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine are never to be referred to by name. They are mentioned only by their initials, PLO and PFLP, because the word liberation implies a legitimate Palestinian claim to lands Israel considers its own.

Similarly, an Arab editor acknowledged that his newspaper does not refer to Palestinians as "terrorists." That word was reserved for members of the so-called Jewish underground who were convicted last year of carrying out a series of attacks against Palestinians.

A variation on "demonizing" the opposition is protecting one's own image. Thus, the Arab editor said, the Palestinian press refers to the "1967 War" rather than the "Six-Day War," as the Israelis prefer to call it. "We don't like to emphasize how badly we lost," he explained.

Last July, Israel radio's English-language service managed to give an ideological twist to a brief news report: "Police are investigating two bombings and a grenade attack in the Tel Aviv area. The two bombings are suspected to be the work of terrorists, while the grenade attack on the Hassan Bek Mosque in Jaffa is believed to have been carried out by Jews."

A tool the Israelis use to control the terminology of the Middle East conflict is censorship. In one case, the censor demanded that a foreign correspondent delete the word ambush from a report he filed from southern Lebanon quoting an Israeli army officer describing a clash in which his men, lying in wait, surprised a group of armed Lebanese trying to cross his lines.

"You can say engaged , fought with but not ambushed ," the censor said.

Censorship falls heaviest on the Palestinian press in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arab editors say they are forbidden to use the term freedom fighters in reference to Palestinians, whether they are waging war on the Israeli army or on civilians. They are usually referred to simply as "armed men."

Struggle Over 'Martyrs'

The censor usually deletes the word martyrs from reports about Arab victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, the word was prohibited in death notices published by the families of men killed in the Israeli air force raid on PLO headquarters in Tunis last fall.

An exception was the recent killing, apparently by Palestinian hard-liners, of the mayor of Nablus, Zafer Masri, whom the Palestinian press was permitted to call a martyr.

Proper names are a fertile battleground for the Mideast war of words, and none is more controversial than the term used to describe the territories on the West Bank of the Jordan River captured by Israel from Jordan in the war of 1967.

Yanai, the language academy director, recalled that the preferred term here immediately after the war was the conquered areas. But the political right used the liberated areas. Centrists tried to compromise with the held territories. The debate became so intense as to inspire a well-known Israeli satirist to come up with the liberheld territories.

When Menachem Begin's rightist Likud Bloc came to power in 1967, it became government policy to refer to the territories by their biblical names, Judea and Samaria, and that remains the rule at Israel radio. The military officers who govern the area are known officially as the Civil Administration. In the United States and most other countries, the area is known as the West Bank, the term used after Jordan annexed it in 1950.

'West Bank' Issue

Many Israelis consider the term prejudiced. Ehud Gol, the deputy spokesman at the Foreign Ministry, recalled in an interview that he once spoke in upstate New York at a church named for the Good Samaritan. In the question period afterward, he became annoyed by his audience's continual references to the West Bank, and he drove his point home by referring to the "Church of the Good West Banker."

Feeling is particularly strong among Jewish settlers in the territories. An American correspondent trying to interview Miriam Levinger, a settlement leader in Hebron, once made the mistake of referring in a question to the West Bank, at which point the interview was lost in a half-hour explanation of why the proper names are Judea and Samaria.

Elyakim Haetzni, a lawyer and key figure in the militant Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settlement movement, said: "The first stage in the war of language is the attack on our right to the land. If it's ours, then it's Judea and Samaria. If it's West Bank or Palestine, those are justifications for saying I stole it."

Haetzni also objects to the term settler. "Kiryat Arba can become as big as New York and I'll still be called a settler," he said, referring to the Jewish town on the West Bank where he lives.

Who Is a Palestinian?

The fact that the term Palestinian is commonly used to refer only to Arab residents also angers many Israelis. The word dates from biblical times and was resurrected by the British after World War I when they were given the mandate to rule over this region.

Former Prime Minister Begin, who immigrated during the British mandate, was fond of saying: "I'm as much a Palestinian as anybody." And the late Golda Meir used to say that "there is no such thing as a Palestinian."

The authorities once tried to force Al Fajr to change its subtitle, "Jerusalem Palestinian Weekly." But according to Daoud Kuttab, the managing editor, after the newspaper's lawyer said the Israelis had no case, "we were so angry we ran the 'Palestinian Weekly' in red that week."

The two sides frequently use different names for the same cities. The rest of the world has in effect voted Israeli by calling this city Jerusalem instead of the Arabic Al Quds. But the Arabs seem to be winning with Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, which is known to Jews by the biblical name Shekhem.

Names Make Statement

Even personal names carry political connotations. Israelis still encourage new immigrants to Hebraize their names, because this emphasizes ancient Jewish ties to the land. Meanwhile, Palestinian personalities like Sabri Banna and Khalil Wazir are better known by their noms de guerre, Abu Nidal (Father of Struggle) and Abu Jihad (Father of Holy War).

Many Palestinian toddlers have been called Sabra and Chatilla since 1982, when the Arab mayor of Nazareth called on pregnant women to name their offspring in honor of the victims of the massacre by Lebanese Christians at the two Beirut refugee camps.

The war of words, carried over to the diplomatic front, makes negotiations a nightmare.

"In the Middle East, phrases once used often take on a load of political implications," a diplomatic veteran commented.

For example, the United States has endorsed the concept of self-determination in other contexts but has refused to agree publicly on the right of self-determination for Palestinians because it is interpreted as meaning a fully sovereign, independent Palestinian state.

Even the article the has enormous importance in the Middle East context. U.N. Resolution 242, which is often cited as a possible basis for a Mideast settlement, refers to the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied" in the 1967 war. Because the resolution does not refer to the territories, it leaves open the question of whether it should be a full or partial withdrawal. Diplomats call this "constructive ambiguity," and it is a cornerstone of Mideast negotiations.

On the other hand, according to one negotiator, after all these years it seems sometimes that the participants have built up such a linguistic structure around the Mideast question that there is no room for new approaches.

"It's as though the two sides were talking to one another in a dead language," he said with a sigh.

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