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The Observer, Israel and the language of war

April 19, 2014 at 11:36 am

A leader writer in the Observer newspaper (Israel can accelerate peace be exercising restraint, 21 February) really must be taken to task over the language that was used in the column. In seeking to analyse the Israel-Palestine situation the writer slipped into the sort of terminology that serves to highlight the difficulties of discussing this issue in a non-partisan fashion. Being particular about the terminology used is not mere semantics, for it can and does reveal an underlying mindset. Nowhere is the old saying “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” more accurately applied than in discussions about the conflict in the Holy Land.

The Observer claims that “Israel and the Palestinians are in a state of perpetual war”, so it is surely unreasonable and inaccurate for the writer to refer subsequently in the same article to Palestinian “terrorists”. Wars have combatants on opposing sides but the post-9/11 American-led narrative – with the “war on terror” – has blurred the distinction to the extent that it is now acceptable – indeed, de rigueur – to refer to anyone struggling against Western hegemony as a terrorist. It is surprising that a newspaper like the Observer has fallen for this deception. It is equally surprising that the conflict between the Israeli occupiers and the occupied Palestinians is actually described as a “perpetual war”, implying that this is a conventional confrontation between two sides each having some degree of equivalence in terms of military capabilities; it isn’t and they don’t. Israel is a nuclear state with an army equipped with the most up-to-date technology imaginable. The Palestinians are a largely civilian population; even a future Palestinian state will, if Israel has its way (which it no doubt will), be forbidden from having its own army beyond lightly-armed “security” forces whose task is and will remain, according to the Oslo accords, to uphold the security of Israel first and foremost.

Resistance against military occupation is, of course, entirely legitimate, and yet the Observer refers to such resistance as “terrorism”, following the Sharon doctrine in its entirety. For it was Ariel Sharon who in an act of opportunism said in the wake of 9/11: “Now the American people know what we [in Israel] have been going through.” Say something loud enough and long enough and people will begin to believe it, and most sections of the media play their role to perfection.

“The surest way to accelerate a peace is for Israel to break free of the self-defeating cycle of using extreme force as the preferred form of self-defence,” claims the Observer. Here is the crux of the matter: Israel occupies a land and when the people therein resist the occupation, Israel is using “self-defence”. Thus is justification applied to the apartheid Wall cutting across and through Palestinian land; the check-points, the curfews, the passes, the blockade, the house demolitions, the dispossession, the assassinations: all are part of Israel’s “self-defence”. The original sin of occupation is overlooked or forgotten, it has become “facts on the ground”, one of those obscene phrases which, like “collateral damage”, make a mockery of international law and basic justice.

Even if Israel was to “break free of the self-defeating cycle of using extreme force” as the Observer claims, why would that place any “obligations on Israel’s neighbours to normalise relations”? Why would any self-respecting state want to normalise relations with an “occupying power in disputed territory”? The state of Israel does indeed have “the levers to effect changes on the ground that would instantly move a resolution to the conflict closer”. It could end that occupation and remove the grounds for resistance, placing “obligations on Israel’s neighbours to normalise relations” with a degree of moral and legal superiority that is missing entirely at present. Anything less and nothing of any significance will happen.

The final sentence of the Observer’s leader column reveals that the writer has adopted – I shall be generous and say subconsciously   a mindset that sees the Palestinians and their rights as the problem, not the Israeli occupation. “The international community must act to give [Israel] the confidence to compromise.” With what stretch of the imagination and logic does the ending of an illegal military occupation and colonisation of the occupied land constitute a “compromise”? The international community should be insisting – backed up with sanctions and boycotts if necessary – that Israel fulfils its obligations under international laws and conventions; such obligations cannot and should not be placed on the negotiation table as items for discussion and “compromise”.

Language is of vital importance when discussing such sensitive issues, so it is important to be accurate. Israel has a well-funded hasbara (propaganda) campaign and, no matter how well-intentioned, by dint of the terminology it uses that particular leader column falls into the hasbara category. There is no excuse for this in a newspaper with the Observer’s credentials.