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Politics of Language: Israel/Palestine Discourse

By Richard Falk

The politics of language raises delicate issues in the setting of assessing the Israel/Palestine conflict as the year 2010 draws to an end. A neutral and objective terminology associated with the abusive Israelis occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza seems consistent with the spirit of accommodation and eventual reconciliation, but it also clouds the mind, and obscures the daily ordeal of the Palestinians who are enduring multiple privations with no end in sight after more than 43 years of occupation, and some 62 years of dispossession. If it were possible to attach any hope to the possibility that a just outcome to inter-governmental negotiations could be forthcoming, then it might be best to avoid inflaming emotions by escalating the rhetoric of exposition. If, in contrast, the negotiations are far more likely to lead no where or entrap the Palestinian negotiating side, then it seems preferable to call attention to what seems to have taken place under the misleading rubric of temporary belligerent occupation, a presence that seeks and acquires no longevity.

In my opinion, there is an important issue of language that arises from the cumulative effects of Israeli severe and multiple violations of international humanitarian law, and related international human rights law and international criminal law. It becomes increasingly misleading to treat these violations as distinct behavioral instances disconnected from broader consequences that are either designed by intention, representing the motive for the violations, or the natural outcome of accumulating circumstances (so-called ‘facts on the ground.’). These concerns about language are accentuated because Israel is the stronger party in all diplomatic settings, and generally enjoys the unconditional support of the United States, because unlawful Israeli behavior that starts out as ‘facts’ is gradually and deliberately over time transformed into ‘conditions’ that are treated as essentially irreversible, which is true of several aspects of the occupation, including at a minimum ‘the settlement blocs’ and ‘the separation wall.’ To perceive the effects and implications of these unlawful patterns, and their attempted de facto ‘legalization’ requires stronger expository language to understand better the assault of Palestinian rights and prospects for meaningful self-determination. It is against this background that I believe the time has come to call ‘a spade a spade’ and use such terms as ‘annexation,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘apartheid,’ ‘colonialist,’ ‘settler colonialism,’ and ‘criminality.’ Although admittedly emotive, and requiring a finding by a court of law to be legally conclusive, such robust language, in my view, more accurately describes the unsavory realities of the occupation at the present time than does the more neutral seeming language beloved by diplomats and welcomed by defenders of the established status quo. Of course, the limit language test in the relationship between Israel and Palestine is the infamous G-word, which I am not ready to apply as a moral, political, or legal term of art, but if the more ambiguous ‘genocidal’ is invoked to identify the tendencies implicit in this kind of prolonged and invasive occupation, I would not disagree.

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