Israel's War of the Words

Almost everyone agrees about Israel's military superiority over its adversaries.  After all, it has won all the conventional wars, as well as the non-conventional ones -- Hamas's fantastic victory declarations in 2009, amidst the ruins of Gaza City, notwithstanding.  But there is another war, an ongoing war, in which Israel suffers nothing but defeat after defeat.  And in the long term this war might be even more important than the military wars, the economic wars, and the political wars. 

That is the War of the Words.  

The war over the very words which people use to talk, and therefore think, about the conflict.

There are too many examples.  Even the very name, "State of Israel," is one: the founders of the new nation chose that name for legitimate reasons, to be sure, but failed to foresee that, over time, it has come to seem, to all too many people, that today's "Palestinians" must be by definition the indigenous people of that region long known previously as "Palestine."  Had the founders simply named their new Jewish state "Palestine" (say) then the Jews would today be the "Palestinians" while the Arabs would be -- what -- the "Arabs"?  And then it would be clear -- verbally, and perhaps psychologically -- that the true Palestinians were indeed living in their ancestral homeland after all. 

Similar points can be made about such charged terms as "the West Bank" (v. "Judea" and "Samaria"), "refugees," "settlers," the security "wall" (or "fence"), and so on.  But since Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has finally begun to recognize the significance of the War of the Words -- as reflected in Deputy Minister Danny Ayalon's recent release of a video on the legal status of the West Bank[1] -- here, let's take a quick look at the phrase "occupied territories."

Although major Arab governments (such as Hamas), as well as significant proportions of Arab civilian populations, consider all of Israel to be "occupied territory," that view fortunately remains outside the mainstream of Western discourse.  What is quite mainstream, however, is that at least the West Bank is, and until 2005 the Gaza Strip was, legitimately labeled as "occupied territory." 

But why?

"Occupation" typically refers to a condition whereby a foreign power takes control of an area that was previously possessed by another sovereign state.  But of course that does not apply here.  The overall region was part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years up to World War I.  Subsequently those areas corresponding to Israel and Jordan constituted Britain's "Mandatory Palestine"; in 1922 Britain carved off all of the land east of the Jordan River to establish Jordan and, in 1937, via the Peel Commission, offered the Arabs west of the Jordan an independent state on 85% of the remaining Mandatory land.  But the Arabs rejected that offer, with violent revolts -- as they also rejected the United Nations' partition plan a decade later, to which they responded by sending in seven Arab armies to destroy the nascent Jewish state.  In a word, there has never been a sovereign Arab or Palestinian state in this region.  So there is nothing for any foreign power to "occupy." 

Of course when the dust of 1948-9 (temporarily) settled, Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip, as would remain the case until 1967.  It was widely recognized that these were forceful, totalitarian, and punitive administrations, in defiance of international law and United Nations resolutions 181 and 194 -- yet there were no Arab or Palestinian protests about this, no violent "resistance," no calls for the overthrow of the "occupations."  Why not?  Because in these decades there were no distinct Palestinian people and there was no Palestinian "homeland" to be occupied.  There were just Arab governments controlling Arab populations. 

All that changed in 1967.   

Yet again the Arabs attempted to destroy Israel, by means of troops from more than a half-dozen Arab armies.  In a stunning upset, Israel not only won but tripled the amount of territory it controlled, reunifying Jerusalem and capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.  It promptly signaled its willingness to negotiate, offering to return captured lands in exchange for peace.  The Arabs replied with the infamous three Nos of Khartoum: No peace, No recognition, and No negotiations.  Over time, of course, the Arab position weakened, and Israel subsequently returned the Sinai to Egypt, various territories to Jordan, and all of the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.  To date more than 90% of the territory Israel captured in the 1967 war has been returned in exchange for "peace." 

These points show Israel's willingness to make major concessions for peace with its neighbors.  They also show something else.  Had Israel been the aggressor in 1967 then its control of the West Bank and Gaza would indeed have been against international law.  But as the victim of aggression its position is quite different, for according to the Charters of the League of Nations and subsequently of the United Nations -- which govern such situations -- the legal status of territories captured in self-defense can only be determined by peace treaties between the warring parties.  When the Arabs uttered their three Nos, therefore, Israel would have been perfectly justified, legally, in annexing those territories.  

So not only has there never been a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but to date the Palestinians have rejected every proposed treaty which would create such a state. 

In the absence of such a treaty, again, there quite literally is nothing to "occupy." 

What, then, is the status of the West Bank? 

Both parties can and do make various legitimate claims to that land, on the basis of various considerations.  Until relevant treaties are established, however, the only internationally recognized conditions under which "possession" is officially established will not have been satisfied.  The more accurate expression for the West Bank, then, would be "disputed territory." 

But nobody seems to speak this way.  Instead they speak in a way reflecting the Arab narrative, despite the complete lack of justification for doing so. 

But this point, again, is part of a larger pattern: Israel has consistently lost the War of the Words.  These may just be "verbal" battles, true; but while such battles may not seem as important, in the short term, as military, economic, and political battles, in the long term, they may well be.  For how you verbally frame the issues at the beginning can have major ramifications for how you are ultimately able to resolve them at the end.  In particular, the framing is crucially important for those people who are either outside the conflict, or new to it and just learning about it, for it can subtly instill in them initial biases which are subsequently very difficult to dislodge.  The words we use shape minds, affect conceptions, and govern interpretations -- and until enough people's minds, conceptions, and interpretations are in the right place then it may never be recognized that with the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, the Jews are too.



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