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In the Middle East, Even Words Go to War

By Greg Myre
The New York Times

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QALQILIYA, West Bank -- The Israelis have built a barrier that encircles this town as it runs along the northern West Bank for more than 80 miles. But what does one call it?

Israel labels it a "security fence" built to keep Palestinian bombers out. The barrier does not imply a future border, Israel insists. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has even invoked Robert Frost's reassuring notion that "good fences make good neighbors."

The Palestinians call it an "apartheid separation wall," conferring a sense of odious intent, and of permanence. "Wall" also evokes the famous barrier that sliced Berlin in half for decades -- and more.

"The wall has turned this town into a ghetto," said Maarouf Zahran, the mayor of Qalqiliya, linking it verbally to the restrictions and periodic persecutions once faced by European Jews.

President Bush has played it both ways. He criticized the "wall snaking through the West Bank" when playing host to the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, at the White House on July 25. Speaking from the same spot four days later with Mr. Sharon, President Bush again used the preferred term of his guest, saying "the fence is a sensitive issue."

This linguistic skirmish is part of a war of words that Israelis and Palestinians have waged ferociously for decades. At almost every point of contention in the Mideast conflict there is a new mini-vocabulary -- and people on each side who vigorously protest to diplomats, journalists and anyone else who fails to adopt their preferred terminology.

"Language is absolutely part of the conflict, not only between us and the Palestinians, but inside Israeli society," said Ruvik Rosenthal, who writes a language column for the Israeli newspaper Maariv and is the author of "The Language Arena," which deals in part with this issue.

The dueling argots have been greatly enriched during three years of fighting, as both sides show a gift for sanitizing the ways in which each kills the other.

Israel's military has tracked and killed dozens of Palestinians responsible for violence since the fighting began in September 2000. Initially, the army called such attacks "pre-emptive strikes." Military wordsmiths then coined the none-too-catchy phrase "pinpoint preventive operations." That never caught on, and yielded to "focused prevention." In recent months, Israeli officials have simply called the raids "eliminations."

The Palestinians, meanwhile, have stuck with one word -- "assassinations."

While Israeli language often seeks to soften the harsh reality of military action, Palestinian factions are flowery in describing violence against civilians. Hamas, the Palestinian group responsible for the largest number of suicide bombings, typically claims responsibility by announcing "a heroic martyrdom operation against the Zionist entity." Hamas avoids mentioning "Israel," which it does not recognize, and does not use the term "suicide bombing."

Israeli officials also tend to reject the phrase "suicide bomber" -- in their case because it emphasizes the assailant, not the victims. Government spokesmen have used "homicide bomber," and some Israelis have even suggested "genocide bomber."

In overwhelming numbers, Palestinians euphemize terror attacks, calling them "resistance operations." More extreme Palestinian elements argue that Israel has no civilians because both men and women face compulsory military service. In reality, service is far from universal, and Palestinian attackers have frequently sought out the softest civilian targets, including children.

The most contentious term is "terrorist." Israel has a very broad definition, applying it to anyone with even an indirect connection to violence. Many Israelis reject "militant" as a euphemism.

Palestinians rarely use the word "terrorism," which is why it was deemed significant when Mr. Abbas did so on several occasions, including a June 4 summit meeting in Jordan with President Bush and Mr. Sharon. The Palestinian prime minister issued a "renunciation of terrorism against the Israelis."

The Palestinians call the West Bank and the Gaza Strip -- land they want for a future state -- "the occupied territories," a term that has wide international acceptance and appears in United Nations resolutions. But Israel calls them "disputed territories," saying both sides have claims to the land that must be resolved in negotiations. In May, when Mr. Sharon uttered the word "occupation" for the first time in public, he touched off fierce criticism from his own right-wing supporters. Mr. Sharon has not repeated it since.

"The Israelis have tried to persuade the world all these years that the territories are not occupied," said Dr. Ali B. Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, in an explanation that neatly captures the tactical dimensions of the issue. "The international community recognizes them as occupied. This means that the Palestinians have a right to resist occupation."

While many language disputes are a matter of interpretation, the disagreement over the Israeli barrier would seem to be a question of simple observation: is it a fence, or is it a wall?

On Thursday Israel announced the completion of the first leg of the barrier, which stretches for about 85 miles along the West Bank boundary, while jutting into the West Bank in several spots.

About 80 miles of it is wire fence, but the other five miles consists of concrete walls, according to the Defense Ministry.

Qalqiliya has both. A 25-foot-high concrete wall runs for about a mile along the western side of town to prevent shooting onto a nearby Israeli highway. The other three sides of Qalqiliya have an eight-foot fence, and the town's only entrance and exit point is now a single gate to the east, controlled by Israeli security forces. The fence includes electronic sensors to detect attempted breaches. Running parallel to it are trenches with coiled razor wire, and a road for military patrols. Guard towers are spaced along the route.

"The word 'fence' unites Israelis who just want security," Mr. Rosenthal said. "If you call it a wall, it just sounds ugly."

"The Israelis are taking land from the Palestinians and redrawing the border," said Dr. Jarbawi. "This is what the world needs to know about the wall."

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