Friday, March 25, 2011


Words Matter

The Top 7 Terms that Distort Israel/Palestine

By Yousef

Especially since words create representations of what we hold to be “real.” For writing on Palestine this is particularly important.

Unless we are present in and around events in Palestine our only connection to them is through representation of those events in writing in newspapers, newscast, blogs or magazines. The following is a list of some of the often-occurring words or phrases in mainstream English-language media which distort our understanding of the situation in Palestine. We’ve become so accustomed to hearing these words, we often fail to question their meaning, validity and appropriateness. In a world of “wall-to-wall text,” these words/phrases are most responsible for a distorted representation of the situation in Palestine.

1. The “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”

Recent Example: “If there was a moment when the world did not want to be reminded of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in such violent terms, then it is now.” -BBC
Why it’s problematic: How often do we see this? Is there conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? Sure. But to describe the situation between them as the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” creates an impression of symmetry where one does not exist. This is not like the Russo-Japanese war or the Spanish-American war. But because many English language readers are conditioned to understand this structure as indicative of two states at war, hearing “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” creates the impression that both sides are states and somehow equal in capacity and power. Of course this is not the case. The relationship between Israel and Palestine is occupation. One, Israel, occupies the other, Palestine. It’s not the other way around. One, Israel, is an advanced state with a significant army and nuclear weapons. The other is a group of stateless people and refugees, with improvised weapons and small arms, at best.
Suggested substitute term: The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

2. “Settlements”/”Settlers”

Recent Example: “Last year he attempted to kick-start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and picked a fight with Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, over Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.” – The Economist
Why it’s problematic: For Palestinians, few things are more unsettling than Israeli settlements, but you wouldn’t really know it from this term. It’s so peaceful and passive. The West Bank is not the American Wild West as depicted in some John Wayne movie. The native inhabitants of the land were already settled in the territory long before the occupation (more like the actual Native Americans). When a foreign country occupies someone’s land and begins transferring its civilian population into that land, we call it colonialism and we call the population centers they establish colonies. Israeli settlements, or colonies as they should be called, are an extension of a system of violence called occupation. Their presence usurps the native population’s land, dominates its natural resources, and the security infrastructure around them debilitates the native population’s movement. Calling them settlements obscures the violent reality they support and are mutually supported by, and it fits into an Israeli narrative that seeks to persuade Americans that the expansion of these “settlements” is the natural growth of peaceful neighborhoods like in any American city.
Suggested substitute term: Colonies/Colonists.

3. “East Jerusalem”

Recent Example: “President Obama and top aides have repeatedly called for a full freeze on new construction in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital.” – The National Journal
Why it’s Problematic: I’ve discussed this in detail here and a proper grasp of the geography is necessary to understand why this term is so problematic. In short, Israel unilaterally and illegally expanded the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem into occupied territory after 1967. So what the Israelis call “East Jerusalem,” the rest of the world calls occupied territory — except most of the English language media, which is not supposed to take sides. However, by adopting the term “East Jerusalem” to talk about occupied parts of the West Bank, our supposedly unbiased media is uncritically repeating the Israeli narrative about one of the most intensely sensitive issues between Israel and the Palestinians. This term creates the impression that East Jerusalem, like North Chicago or Boston’s Southie, is just another part of a city and no different than other parts except for its geographic location. But the difference between the parts of Jerusalem on either side of the green line is their legal status under international law and that is a big deal. By using this term, the space is created for Israeli officials to talk about settlement expansion in that area as a “zoning issue,” like building in any American city, when building there is in fact no different under international law than anywhere else in occupied territory. It’s all illegal.
Suggested Substitute: Occupied Jerusalem

4. “Tit-for-tat violence”

Recent Example: “In Gaza, militants and the Israeli Defense Forces have exchanged in tit-for-tat violence, with militant groups firing more than 60 rockets into Israel over the past week.” – The Miami Herald
Why it’s Problematic: Like other terms on this list, the main problem with this is that it takes violence out of context and creates the illusion that somehow the violence is even. If an adult punches an infant in the face and the infant strikes back we call that child abuse, not tit-for-tat violence. There is no equivalence in force between Israeli power and attacks and Palestinian violence. Israelis dominate Palestinians militarily in every category, and even when there are Palestinian reprisals for Israelis violence, they take place in the context of a 44-year system of violence called occupation. The Israeli strike which led to the most recent escalation in Gaza took place on March 16th when Israel launched an aerial strike with fighter jets and bombs, killing two Palestinians and injuring another, in response to 1 homemade rocket that the IDF stated caused “no damages or injuries.”
Suggested Substitute: Stop using this one all together

5. The “cycle of violence”

Recent Example: “Ten people have been killed in the cycle of violence, and some on both sides fear a new war could erupt unless it is contained.” – Reuters
Why it’s Problematic: There goes that cycle of violence, spiraling out of control again. This term, like its cousin “tit-for-tat violence” features many of the same flaws. It creates an illusion of parity between the sides when one doesn’t exist. But this has a different quality that is also problematic. While “tit-for-tat violence” seems to be dyadic in nature, the “cycle of violence” is circular in nature. It’s a never-ending roundabout that has no beginning or end like something Gene Wilder would’ve sang about in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original). Where it stops, no one knows. What it is, is lazy journalism, unable to grapple with the context and complexity, and afraid to offend any sensitivities. If we were to graph Israel/Palestine violence over time, it would most certainly be linear not circular. Remember, the occupation is a system of violence that has been ongoing for 44 years. Reprisal violence or “flare ups” (another inappropriate term) merely exist in the context of that system of violence. Just because the media ignores the vast majority of violence that is systematic in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory doesn’t make reprisal violence exist in a vacuum.
Suggested Substitute: Stop using this one all together

6. “Relative calm

Recent Example: “The relative calm in the south of the past several years ended on Saturday when Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, fired dozens of mortar shells at Israel, violating an informal cease-fire.” New York Times
Why it’s Problematic: I went into detail about the problems with this term here, it’s simply inaccurate. But the main question we need to ask when we read the term “relative calm” describing a period were numerous Palestinians, but no Israelis, were killed is: relative to what exactly? When using language like “relative calm” this should be in comparison to something. So what is it in comparison to? Since no context is ever given when using this term, one can only assume that the calm was relative to the norm. So if that is the case, it simply means our media has accepted the regular violence of the Israeli occupation against Palestinians to be the norm, and has completely abandoned questioning it because the only thing that seems to pique a journalist’s interest is Israeli casualties, not Palestinian ones.
Suggested Substitute: A detailed enumeration of casualties to create context.

7. Gaza “Rockets”, “Missiles” & “Mortars”

Recent Example: “Police said Gaza militants fired 10 rockets and mortars toward Israel Thursday, including two rockets that landed north of the city of Ashdod — a first since Israel Why it’s Problematic:and Gaza’s Hamas rulers reached an unofficial truce following a three-week war that ended in January 2009.” – AP
Why it’s Problematic: Set aside for a moment the fact that rockets and missiles may not be the best term to use to describe largely homemade projectiles. Does it ever seem to anyone else that we get detailed descriptions of the entire Palestinian arsenal, from our media, including number, type, range, and origin, but rarely ever hear anything of the same sort about the much larger and much more destructive Israeli arsenal? When was the last time you read about the range of missiles fired from American-made, Israeli-piloted Apache helicopters? How about the fact that Israel has fired, at minimum, 8 projectiles into Gaza for each one that comes into Israel? I have no objection to the media covering hostilities or projectiles coming from Gaza, but to be accurate and fair, there must be a candid discussion, in the same nature, of the projectiles coming from the other direction, and include their number, origin, their frequency and the number of casualties they create. Doing otherwise, as the media routinely does, creates the impression that Palestinians have this vast and powerful arsenal to an audience that is largely ignorant of the context and geography where this violence is taking place.
Suggested Substitute: A candid discussion of the Israeli arsenal used on Gaza each time Palestinian weapons are mentioned coming out of Gaza


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