Divided by Definition

Perhaps the most critical and least acknowledged impediment to the negotiation of a conflict is the manipulation of language. No peace process can come to fruition when representatives from conflicting parties are embroiled in debates on semantics, yet individuals in both government and media inevitably employ strategic language at various stages in the process. Even assuming a common language in diplomatic talks and documents, the development of a mutually accepted terminology is as challenging as it is critical; it is essential both to the communication of a conflict and to the forging of compromise.

Conflicts that capture national or international attention are widely reported on, analyzed, and discussed. Political and military struggles are often the subject of newspaper headlines and television broadcasts, and various approaches to their resolution are promoted by politicians and diplomats of all stripes. But when does the debate over conflict resolution translate from lip service into the visible resolution of a conflict?

Communication can represent the start of reconciliation. Yet, in order for talks to reach a tangible, mutually beneficial outcome, the language each side uses needs to be precise, accurate, and, above all, founded on mutual understanding.

However, in certain conflicts, language reveals disagreement and can itself be an impediment to peaceful negotiation. There can be little mutual understanding, for instance, when both sides in a conflict cannot even agree on the basic terms they use. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continuously puzzles diplomats and journalists for this very reason. Ethan Bronner, a New York Times reporter who covered the conflict, wrote in early 2009, “[T]he two sides speak in two distinct tongues. … [T]he very words they use mean opposite things to each other.” To Bronner, this disagreement makes the task of communication daunting. “[T]he war of language can confound a reporter’s attempts to narrate — or a new president’s attempts to mediate — this conflict in a way both sides can accept as fair,” he said. Clearly, when two parties cannot agree on the words to describe their differences, they are not yet capable of formally resolving those differences. It is necessary for conflict resolution, then, that the two sides, as well as international media and organizations, begin identifying issues in a more accurate and less politically charged manner. Perhaps, in the quest to address these problems, half of the battle is in defining the problems themselves.

Presently, however, communication is a point of substantial division in this struggle. The same words have entirely different definitions and connotations to Israelis and Palestinians. To the former, a Zionist is a noble hero – to the latter, a racist oppressor. Disparity regarding the connotation of the term “suicide bomber” is a clear manifestation of each side’s fundamental failure to broaden its perspective. The Israelis regard Palestinian suicide bombers as terrorists, citing instances in which these individuals detonated their explosives in public places with the intent to kill Israeli civilians. Many Palestinians, on the other hand, believe that these bombers are responding appropriately to the losses the Palestinians have incurred in contests with Israel. In fact, according to a 2011 Pew Report, 68 percent of Palestinian Muslims feel that suicide bombing is sometimes justified.

Such disagreement can easily be understood: A common maxim reminds us that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. But the divisiveness of language extends beyond both sides’ perceptions of common terms and is especially dangerous when it shapes their definitions of certain key issues. For example, the Palestinians refer to the West Bank (including East Jerusalem),  the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights as the “occupied territories.” The Israeli government, conversely, insists that they are “disputed territories.” Both labels have clearly different connotations and reflect different agendas, and each name draws on distinct legal standards and perspectives.

To call the territories “occupied” is to imply that Israel is a belligerent, invading military force. By international legal standards, officially defining Israel’s control of the territories as an “occupation” also requires that Israel take on a certain level of responsibility toward the Palestinians residing in those territories. This includes maintaining order and safety, as well as protecting Palestinians’ welfare. In contrast, proponents of the term “disputed territories” argue that Israel acted in self-defense in the Six Day War in 1967, in which it lawfully gained these territories. Furthermore, they argue that there was no previously recognized sovereignty in the territories, which is a legal requisite for international recognition of an occupation.

The use of one term versus another is not a matter of slight preference, but of sharply divergent views that render reconciliation difficult. In important diplomatic talks, terminology issues have proven a serious roadblock. A notable example is the Union for the Mediterranean’s Conference on Water Strategy, which was held in Barcelona in April 2010. This gathering of 43 member countries ended in failure entirely because of semantics. Israel rejected any water agreement containing the term “occupied territories.” Israel’s National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau did agree to the compromise term “territories under occupation,” but the Arab League deemed this term unacceptable. In another important case, Dr. Mohammad Shtayeh, a senior member of the Palestinian delegation at the Amman peace talks earlier this year, said that the delegates were unable to address the topic of consensual land swaps because Israel’s chief negotiator, Isaac Molho, insisted on calling the land “disputed territories” rather than “occupied.”

In these talks, the two parties quarreled over terms not for the sake of clarity; at the end of the day – occupied or disputed – the status of the territories is still the same. Rather, these squabbles over semantics reveal broader political agendas. By using the term “disputed,” the Israelis wish to draw attention to the circumstances under which they came to control the territories and emphasize their belief that they did not act as an aggressive invading force. The Palestinians imply the opposite by calling the territories “occupied.” These opposing perspectives on the conflict are understandable, yet both hold onto their respective terminology with such tenacity that it hinders negotiation.

Controversy over language has not been confined to these specific regional forums and debates. A prime case in point is the UN Security Council’s Resolution 242, which was passed following Israel’s acquisition of territories during the Six Day War in order to foster peaceful negotiations regarding these lands. There are versions of this resolution in French and English, two of the UN’s official working languages. Nevertheless, as is often the case with translations, the two renditions are not perfectly equivalent.

A prominent clause in the English version of the resolution stipulates that Israel must withdraw from “occupied territories.” But here the use of “occupied” is not the issue. Rather, critical readers point out that while the English version indicates an indefinite set of “occupied territories,” the French version – due to differences in pronoun usage between the two languages – refers to the same clause as “the occupied territories.” At first a seemingly inconsequential difference, the addition of the definite article “the” can alter the meaning significantly. In English the UN resolution demands that Israel withdraw from territories, but just how many territories remains unclear. The French version, on the other hand, suggests that Israel should withdraw from all of the territories. Thus, a lack of the article “the” in the English document has allowed room for pro-Israel parties to argue that Israel only needs to withdraw from some of these areas. This case demonstrates the extent to which merely defining issues to be resolved – across barriers laid by both semantics and translation – can be a major issue in itself.

The presence of such inconsistent language is not only a hindrance in diplomatic contexts; it also creates a challenge for journalists who strive for impartiality and fairness in their coverage of the conflict. Unintentionally or deliberately, a reporter’s use of particularly loaded terms could suggest sympathy for one side. In light of this difficulty, the BBC published a list of key terms in 2010 to serve as a guide to facts and terminology for its journalists. According to this list, the BBC prefers the term “occupied territories,” and cites international law to assert that Israel is the occupying force in these lands. However, it does allow for the use of “disputed territories” when referring to or explaining the territories’ status. The BBC provides a host of other definitions that create a measure of standardization in its reporting.

It should be noted that, while this allows for some consistency in reporting events related to a conflict, it by no means precludes bias. The BBC, like many other media organizations, has been accused of favoring one side over the other. Indeed, a journalist’s opinion may find its way into a news article through his or her choice of details and words. Standardized terminology may thus only partially reduce the individual journalist’s tendency toward biased coverage.

Moreover, in certain cases, explicit definitions can themselves be instruments of bias. The Israeli government argues that the defining of Palestinian refugees is such a case. The Palestinians affirm that, decades after the 1948 war, they are still a displaced people. But this is a controversial contention. While many Palestinians today are indeed descendants of individuals who were directly displaced in the conflict and who sought refuge elsewhere – that is to say, the children of refugees – relatively few were directly displaced themselves. Whereas other refugee groups are served by the UN Refugee Agency, which does not confer refugee status based on ancestry, the United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) operates under what some critics call an exceptional definition. According to UNWRA, a Palestinian refugee is “any person whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period June 1946 to May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” This definition is consistent with the usual definition, but the UNWRA goes on to officially include “persons who fulfill [this] definition and descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition” (emphasis added). Given this unusually broad definition, criticism has been leveled at the UN for providing Palestinians with preferential treatment.

Beyond abstract issues of territory and refugee status, terms under dispute also relate to more concrete and less overtly sensitive manifestations of conflict. For example, the boundary structure between Israel and the Palestinian territories in the West Bank has a host of different names with divergent connotations—ranging from the innocuous “security fence” to the politically-charged “apartheid wall.”

In their 2005 paper “Coming to Terms,” Richard Rogers and Anat Ben-David use a monitoring method to track occurrences of the various terms used to describe the dividing structure in both Israeli and Palestinian media. They found that Israelis refer to it as a “security fence” in all contexts, while Palestinians refer to it as an “apartheid wall” to outside observers and as a “separation wall” or just a “wall” among themselves. This suggests that there is a disconnect between the perceptions that Palestinians share with members of their own community and those they present in diplomatic talks and to the international media. Israel may also employ a similar multi-term strategy depending on the audience.

But all of this begs the question: Do the different context-dependent words each side uses to describe the conflict express a fundamentally different understanding of it? Analysis of both Israeli and Palestinian media outlets reveals that this is, in fact, the case. Both use words among themselves that reveal a distinct misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and even demonization of the other side, an undercurrent not evident to the same extent in diplomatic discussions and the international media.

Yonatan Mendel, a former Israeli journalist, comments on and criticizes Israel’s skewed media representation of the Palestinians. Mendel notes that “when a violent incident is reported, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] confirms or the army says but the Palestinians claim.” This selective diction effectively casts doubt on Palestinians’ testimonies. Mendel also draws attention to a study done by Keshev, the Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel. This organization looked at the way Israel’s leading television and print media outlets reported Palestinian casualties in December 2005. They found 48 items reporting 22 Palestinian deaths, yet just eight of those pieces featured a Palestinian reaction following the IDF’s account of the events. The other forty items solely presented the perspective of the Israeli military. Mendel cites this example and others to demonstrate his belief that the Israeli media frequently discounts the Palestinian narrative.

The Palestinians do not always represent the Israelis with the most understanding or sympathetic of terms, either. The Palestinian Media Watch chronicles various instances in which the Palestinian media calls Israelis and Jews “evil” and “inhuman” and refers to the Israeli army as a “Zionist gang.” Furthermore, the Anti-Defamation League records examples from Arab newspapers in which anti-Semitic symbols and language appear in cartoons and articles specifically to deride the concept of cooperation.

On the whole, then, the semantic differences and unconstructive antagonism between the Israelis and the Palestinians present a multi-faceted problem. Both sides use distinct terms when, in fact, they are communicating about many of the same issues involved in the conflict. Inconsistent language creates a challenge for journalists abroad and for members of the diplomatic and international communities as they try to foster accurate, meaningful discussions about the conflict and, eventually, about peace.

The reason that these semantics are so inimical to resolution may be further considered in light of peace studies research. Anatol Rapoport, a psychologist and peace promoter, examined a similar topic in his 1986 paper “General Semantics and Prospects for Peace.” Although Rapoport was writing in the shadow of what appeared to be an imminent nuclear contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, his conclusions are still helpful in assessing modern-day conflict communication. Rapoport, after studying the prevalence of words like “defense” and “stability” (rather than war) in the political rhetoric of his time, concludes that in order to orient language toward peace, it must first be stripped of connotations that bolster the “legitimacy of war.” This is a useful framework through which to consider Israeli and Palestinian semantics. Words like “security,” “occupation,” and “apartheid” all suggest the possible legitimacy of violent confrontations.

Yet, these semantics reveal a much more pressing, endogenous obstacle to peace: Each side perceives the conflict ­– and each other – in very different terms. The Israelis have been accused of discounting some Palestinian tragedies, while the Palestinians have been charged with cultivating anti-Semitism in their media. Such employment of manipulative language ultimately reveals that, before there can be productive steps toward a resolution of the conflict, each side needs to dignify the other. This involves acknowledging their respective narratives and describing each other in a respectful way, even at home. It starts with the words they use.

With its controversial and politically charged terms, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an instructive case in the uses and abuses of language in conflict communication and resolution. In any context, words have the power to inform, educate, clarify, or mislead, but language’s powers and perils are heightened when it is used to describe conflicts – when it expresses the deep-seated causes for which individuals daily take up arms and often lose their lives. These conflicts have a real human cost, making small disputes over terminology at first appear petty and trivial. But semantic differences reflect the groups’ divergent positions, including the legal principles with which they argue their case and the means by which they strive to gain international sympathy. Allowed to go unchecked, poor semantics can poison the well of common interest between antagonistic parties from which any mutually satisfactory resolution necessarily draws. As such, the first step toward resolving conflict must be the mutual development of a balanced and appropriate language through which conflict can be defined and ultimately resolved.