The Critical Role Language Plays in Israel’s Arsenal Against the Palestinian People

Semantic shifts are often no more than signs of the natural evolution of language. In Israel, however, they often can be intentional and have political repercussions that entrench control. Indeed, as understood by Tel Aviv, language is part of the state’s arsenal of repression.

After Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip following the 1967 war, the international community naturally began referring to the Palestinian areas as the “occupied territories.” Even among Israelis, at least initially, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were understood to be “occupied.” Aside from a handful of religious settlers and their political allies who only refer to the West Bank by its Biblical name of Judea and Samaria, mainstream Israeli society understood its relationship to the areas as one of temporary military occupation.

But as Israel entrenched its military, civilian and social stranglehold over the Palestinian land, the word “occupation” slowly disappeared from Israeli discourse. Today, the occupied territories are known only as “the territories” among Israelis. While this linguistic shift might be seen by some as inconsequential, its impact is felt across the Israeli political system and beyond.

Last year, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, asked the State Department to stop using the term “occupation” in reference to Israel’s control over the West Bank. Friedman, a longtime supporter of Israel’s West Bank settlement project, was merely following cues from Israeli officials. While the State Department initially rejected Friedman’s request, it eventually agreed to review arguments for dropping the occupation label.

Israel has always been conscious of the role language plays in the conflict. Its military government, which dictates the lives of millions of West Bank Palestinians, is called the “Civil Administration.” Of course, there is nothing civil about a military administration where army judges have conviction rates above 99% and millions of people are deprived of basic rights of movement, employment and even access to high-speed internet.

The obfuscation of Israel’s military occupation even extends to Palestinian self-governance. Since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in the early 1990s, Palestinians in the occupied territories have been nominally governed by the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is called the president of the Palestinian Authority. This is a subtle language trick that gives the impression that Palestinians have some form of independent government. They don’t. Abbas even requires permission from Israeli military authorities to leave the nominal seat of Palestinian power in Ramallah. To call him president is a misnomer.

The appearance of equality allows Israel to portray the conflict in strictly security terms. Both sides strive for peace, the narrative goes, so their respective governments can govern safely next to one another. But since there is, in fact, only one government that rules all territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the issue is not one of security but of rights. The Palestinians are ruled by a military government that deprives them of rights; it is this deprivation that is at the heart of the conflict. As Israel moves to annex more land and the US continues to implicitly or explicitly recognize these land grabs, the problems only deepen.

As such, the rights-based narrative is worrying for Israeli authorities. Given the history of successful boycotts of regimes that deprived their people of rights as a matter of policy, such in Apartheid South Africa, Israel is concerned that the broad acceptance of a rights-based discourse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be difficult to manage.

That is why Israeli politicians and influential people such as Ambassador Friedman are pushing for a linguistic shift that removes any trace of the term “occupied” from the lexicon. The Western press has largely adopted this narrative in recent years. If you were to compare The New York Times’s coverage of the conflict in the 1970s to the paper’s coverage today, you would see a remarkable shift in the use of terms that underline how Israel is occupying Palestinian land. This shift is due to a well-funded and aggressive campaign by Israel and its supporters in the US to shift the narrative about the conflict.

Take, for example, the recent arrest of Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi. A 16-year-old from a West Bank village, Tamimi was filmed slapping an Israeli soldier who was standing on her family’s property during a protest against land expropriation. The soldier had no warrant or legal reason to be on the property. The video went viral and, perhaps as a result, the Israeli army quickly arrested the child in the dead of night several days later. She is currently facing charges that include incitement, in an Israeli military court.

Israeli supporters quickly went on the offensive, arguing that the soldier demonstrated incredible restraint and Tamimi was clearly breaking the law. And so it became that a child’s few slaps (hardly punches, you’ll notice from the video) became an “assault” against a heavily armed and body-armored soldier. For its part, The New York Times referred to the incident as another “flare-up” in violence between Israelis and Palestinians. But if Tamimi’s slaps were an example of violence newly heating up, what must the Intifada have looked like? Her arrest surely gives new meaning to “trumped-up charges.”

Semantics aside, the incident, in reality, was an example of how an occupying military reacts to civilian resistance. For a child to carry out such an act of defiance toward an occupying army was the most profound aspect of the entire situation. That she is now facing a military tribunal demonstrates how a military occupation operates. President Abbas can do nothing for his constituents because the Israeli military runs the land.

Israel will continue to obscure the exact nature of its military governance by any means necessary. Palestinians on the ground, in turn, will continue to show how they live with no rights. As the two-state solution is abandoned by all sides, the battle over language and rights will define the next phase in the conflict.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.