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Definitions matter

Dec 04,2023 - Last updated at Dec 04,2023

Almost two months into this monstrous conflict in Gaza, the war is being fought not only on a battlefield but also over the very terms used to describe it. Pope Francis discovered this last week after calling what was unfolding in Gaza as “going beyond war, this is terrorism”, and that “terrorism should not be used to justify terror”. According to some Palestinians who met with Pope Francis before his public comments, he spoke about the absence of water, fuel, and medicine in Gaza, referring to what was taking place as “genocide”.

Major Jewish organisations roundly condemned the Pope’s words, some accusing him of a “blood libel” against the Jewish people. They demanded retraction or clarification, with some questioning the value of years of Christian-Jewish dialogue. Criticism of Israel’s behaviour in Gaza has nothing to do with the dialogue between two religious traditions, but we are not dealing with reason. This is about power and its exercise to define the conflict.

For decades now, major Jewish organisations have sought to define criticism of Israel as antisemitism. With the conflict in Gaza, that effort is in full swing.

Before turning to more recent additions, let us look at a few past examples:

• “Undivided Jerusalem is the ‘eternal capital of Israel.’” Fair enough in a theological sense but adding “undivided” into the mix complicates the matter. In 1968 Israel annexed 28 Palestinian villages to the north, east and south of Jerusalem unilaterally defining it as “Greater Jerusalem” and demanding its recognition as Israel’s undivided capital.

• Israelis insist that the Nakba never occurred: Palestinians were not expelled, but willingly complied with Arab leaders’ demand to leave before Arab armies attacked Israel, a complete fabrication. Israelis call it a simple “population transfer”, with Jews leaving Arab countries to settle in Israel and Arabs leaving Palestine to settle in Arab states.

• “Israel has a right to exist.” It does exist, and Palestinian leadership (Hamas, excepted) have recognised it. What Palestinians question is not Israel’s existence, but the demand that they recognise Israel as it defines itself: “A state in which only the Jewish people have the right to self-determination.”

• “Apartheid”, “ethnic cleansing”, and even “occupation” may not be used.

In international law, “apartheid” refers to a system of governance in which the controlling power has two sets of laws and practices that privilege one group over another. Israel’s rule over Palestinians in this manner has been well-documented by leading internationally respected human rights organisations and Israeli human rights groups. “Ethnic cleansing” involves the forceable displacement of one subordinate group to serve the purposes of the dominant group, precisely what Israel did in 1948 and after, seizing the land and properties of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, demolishing their villages and turning the land over to new Jewish settlers. That practice was continued after 1967 resulting in over 750,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. “Occupation” should be the least controversial term, but it’s not. Israel insists either that the territories occupied in the 1967 are their biblical inheritance or that the areas in question are “disputed territories”.

The conflict in Gaza has added more terms that supporters of Israel have insisted be accepted:

• It’s unacceptable to refer to what Israel is doing in Gaza as “genocide” or “terrorism” though these terms best describe: the indiscriminate bombing of heavily populated areas that so far has taken the lives of over 15,000 and reduced to rubble over one-half of northern Gaza’s structures; the mass dislocation of 1.5 million people after northern Gaza’s population was ordered to leave their homes (and are now forbidden to return); and denying the population water, fuel, power and medicine for prolonged periods.

Not only can these words not be used, but also those who insist they are accurate descriptors of what’s happening are accused of antisemitism.

As Pope Francis made clear, it is necessary and correct to demonstrate compassion and concern for the safety and security of Israelis and Palestinians, and to condemn both Hamas’ targeting of civilians and Israel’s carpet-bombing of Gaza. For Israelis and Palestinians to find a future in which both live and prosper, we must break through the stranglehold of imposed definitions and demand peace with justice.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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