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Language matters

Mar 17,2014 - Last updated at Mar 17,2014

While reviewing polling data on Israeli and Palestinian attitudes towards the current US-led peace effort, what comes through quite clearly is not just the obvious disconnect between the views of the two groups, but the extent to which this disconnect is driven by the Israeli-centric language used in framing many of the issues covered in these polls. 

The same is true of US policy discussions about the prospects for Middle East peace.

For example, when American commentators and analysts present the issues to be addressed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they often use terms and accept assumptions that, simply because they have been used so often, have come to be seen as part of the natural order of things.

I am speaking of terms like “settlement blocks”, “land swaps”, “incitement”, references to “Jerusalem neighbourhoods”, and “the Jewish state”.

While Israelis and Americans simply see this language as descriptive of “givens”, Palestinians see these as loaded and biased terms that serve to mask injustice.

And then when Palestinians reject these terms and assumptions, it is unfairly interpreted as evidence of their lack of commitment to peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as much recently when he noted that Palestinians “said this week that they will never recognise a Jewish state and will never give up the right of return... I will not bring an agreement that would not cancel the right of return and the Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state. These are basic justified conditions as far as the state of Israel is concerned.” 

Netanyahu concluded that because the Palestinians would not accept his terms, they are “showing no sign that they intend to reach a practical and just agreement”.

In other words, in Netanyahu’s mind “if you want peace you will accept my terms and assumptions and reject your own. If you insist on adhering to your own narrative and reality, then you aren’t serious about peace”.

In this same vein, look at another generally accepted element of any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, namely, that Israeli “settlement blocks” in the West Bank are now “accepted realities” that Israel will retain under any peace agreement, and in exchange for keeping these blocks, Israel will provide “land swaps” to the new Palestinian state.

This notion of a “trade-off” is no longer even debated. It has become a “given” with all that remains to be decided being how many “blocks” Israel will insist on retaining and how much (and which) land will they offer in the swap.

This notion of a trade may sound logical and fair to Israelis and Americans, but to many Palestinians, especially those whose lands have been confiscated to make way for a settlement, the idea of “land swap” is nothing more than a term designed to legitimatise what is illegitimate.

Take the example of the Israeli settlement of Har Homa. It was built 15 years ago on land Israel confiscated from Bethlehemites against the strenuous objections of then-president Bill Clinton. As a result of this Israeli colony and a string of other similar settlements that Israel has built on Bethlehem’s land, that little city cannot grow and is cut off from Jerusalem.

By now, 17,000 Israelis live in Har Homa and Palestinians are asked to see the settlement as an “accepted reality”.

In return for this injustice, Palestinians are to be offered some land in a “land swap” somewhere else. But the land that will be given to them does nothing for Bethlehem or the families who lost their land, nor does it resolve the injustice done to an entire community that was severed from Jerusalem.

To them, it is not fair. It amounts to rewarding land theft and to violation of international law.

Multiply this story by the hundreds of villages and towns who have had land confiscated for settlements, roads or the “barrier/wall”, and the magnitude of the sense of injustice becomes clear.

For Palestinians, the bottom line here is that Israel decides what is a “given”. It decides what it keeps and what it swaps. All the Palestinians can do is say “no”, in which case they are portrayed as “hostile to peace”.

Then, there is to oft-used term “neighbourhoods” to describe the settlements in what the Israelis call “Greater Jerusalem”.

Using “neighbourhood” instead of “colony illegally built on occupied and confiscated land” may convey a cozy “down-home” image to Americans, but to Palestinians the monstrous concrete settlements that snake up and down the hills around Jerusalem and surround and strangle a dozen tiny ancient Arab villages represent an ugly story of dispossession and denial of rights.

Finally, Netanyahu’s charge that Palestinians are engaged in incitement is another example of Israeli control of the terms of discussion.

There are, to be sure, outrageous statements that have been made by Palestinian political and religious leaders, but incitement is not just a Palestinian issue.

Partners in Netanyahu’s own government have called Palestinians “strangers” and called for their expulsion from their lands; major Israeli religious leaders called Palestinians “snakes” and “cockroaches” and argued that because they are not Jews and have no souls, the biblical injunction “Thou shalt not kill” does not apply to them.

There’s also the tolerated shrine to the Jewish terrorist who massacred two dozen Arab worshippers in a Hebron mosque; the settlers who, with impunity, strike out against Palestinian farms, shops, and homes; and more.

The reality is that while it is almost never acknowledged as such, “incitement” is a two-way street and should not be reduced, as it has, to a club to be wielded by Israel and the US Congress over the heads of the Palestinian Authority.

Now, I do not know what magic tricks President Barack Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry have up their sleeves.

We are getting close to the deadline when Kerry will put a framework document on the table to guide Israelis and Palestinians through the next phase of the peace process.

I think that we can be reasonably certain that in framing the proposal, attention will be paid to avoiding language that will be insensitive to Israelis.

We should also insist that in shaping US proposal, care will be shown not to frame its language in ways that will immediately be rejected by Palestinians as unjust and insensitive to their needs.

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