Language and the description of Israeli Policy

by Terry Rempel

Precision of language is essential in our advocacy efforts if we are to avoid being mis-quoted or baited into appearing to champion something different than truth and justice. However, as the following excellent example demonstrates, that should not frighten us away from using harsh and even controversial terms where they appropriately apply.

February 20, 1997

Recent CPT reports about the expulsion of the Jahalin Bedouin and demolition of Palestinian homes have raised questions and concerns not only about these issues but also about the language used to describe these issues.

Language seems to take on added meaning in areas of conflict. How one refers to Jerusalem, for example, as occupied, unified, or disputed reveals much about one's orientation towards the city. The same is true of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The description of government policy is potentially more problematic. As a rule, the reports we write should be both accurate and respectful. They must also speak clearly to the violence and injustice of the conflict. As peacemakers we need to be sensitive to the language we use; it is one of our primary allies as we try to impart and create understanding both outside and within the given conflict.

Locally, the term "ethnic cleansing" has become increasingly used in reference to the policies and practices of the Israeli government in East Jerusalem and the other occupied territories. If one charts on a map of the West Bank the demolitions of Palestinian homes, the expulsion of communities (in the case of the Jahalin Bedouin), confiscation of land and construction of bypass roads it is evident that these practices are part of a systematic policy to create zones with little or no Palestinian population so that the area may be used solely for Jewish development.

The situation in the West Bank is not unlike that in Jerusalem. Israeli planners and historians acknowledge the fact that the expansion of the municipal borders of East Jerusalem in 1967 was designed to include as much undeveloped land as possible with the minimum number of Palestinians. Today, restrictions on Palestinian housing in the city (Palestinians are only permitted to build on 13.5% of East Jerusalem land, most of which is already highly developed) and the more recent campaign of confiscating residency permits from Palestinian Jerusalemites and refusing entry into Jerusalem to Palestinians from outside the city is part of an intentional policy to shift the demographic balance in the city by placing restrictions on the growth of the Palestinian community.

Perhaps the most difficult task in communicating the impact of these practices is that they are done within a carefully assembled legal system. Houses are demolished because the government has refused to issue building permits. Land is confiscated because it is labeled as "state land" or is required for "public purposes". Residency permits are revoked because an individual does not have the necessary papers to prove that Jerusalem is his/her "center of life" even though he or she may have been born in the city. All these practices may fall within the law but it is a law which clearly discriminates against Palestinians and it is a law which has been imposed upon a people in the context of occupation.

Admittedly, the use of the term "ethnic cleansing" brings to mind other methods of ethnic cleansing which are not parallel to the situation in Israel/Palestine. East Jerusalem and the other occupied territories are not Bosnia (although there is an increasing balkanization of the West Bank into Israeli and Palestinian enclaves). The removal of Palestinians from certain areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem so that those areas are available for Jewish development is being carried out, not by killing a civilian population, but rather through specific practices like house demolitions and land confiscation.

In this sense, ethnic cleansing, seems to be a helpful term to describe Israeli policy and the dangerous situation that it creates. Methods of ethnic cleansing may differ, but the intent is the same, to remove one people from a territory so that territory may be used exclusively for the benefit of a second people. It is unfortunate that this kind of policy continues to be pursued in the context of the peace process.