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The Language of Violence

7 March 2002

Three Palestinian teen-agers are killed by Israeli tank fire while walking home from a soccer game in Gaza. The bodies are returned to their parents labeled "Terrorist No. 1," "Terrorist No. 2" and "Terrorist No. 3."

At a subsequent investigation, the Israeli tank commander said he saw "suspicious movements" and fired before determining what they really were. The three teen-agers then became what Israeli military spokesmen call "superfluous deaths."

Both sides engage in a curious doublespeak to justify the excesses of a conflict that grows bloodier by the day.

In the Israeli lexicon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not "occupied," they are "disputed." This permits the confiscation of Arab land for the building of Jewish settlements, which would be forbidden if the territories were "occupied" because the Fourth Geneva Convention makes it a war crime to transfer civilian populations onto territory captured in war.

Only Israel has a "security problem." The word "security" is never applied to Palestinians, who may feel decidedly insecure when they're being shelled by Israeli tanks or bombed by F-16 jets.

That's because Palestinians "terrorize" while Israeli troops only "retaliate." Although this retaliation sometimes involves the use of massive firepower against civilian population centers, it is justified as self-defense in a "war on terrorism."

Palestinians, for their part, never use the word "terrorism" in describing attacks that kill innocent Israeli civilians. Suicide bombers are "martyrs" to be admired. Their blowing up of discotheques and pizza parlors are "operations" and the victims of those attacks are the "Zionist enemy."

While many Palestinians make a distinction between Israelis killed in Israel proper and those killed in the occupied territories, they make no distinction between settlers and soldiers. Both the latter are fair game.

Because they are "terrorists," any arms the Palestinians try to acquire are for terroristic purposes and therefore unacceptable. Hence, much was made of the Karine A, a ship carrying 50 tons of arms and explosives intercepted by Israeli commandos.

But there's little condemnation of Israel's use of F-16s, Apache helicopter gunships, laser-guided missiles and other American arms. As a nation state, Israel has every right to arm itself against potential attack from hostile neighbors such as Iran or Iraq. But Palestinians question the legality of using these arms against what Israel calls an "internal threat."

The Israeli version of the failed peace process, supported by President Clinton, is that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the most generous concessions any Israeli leader had ever offered the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000. An unreasonable Yasser Arafat rejected that offer and turned to terrorism in order to achieve his goals.

From the Palestinian perspective, the offer was not so generous because it was predicated on Israel's security concerns rather than Palestinian national aspirations. The Palestinians maintain that they themselves made the most generous concession by recognizing Israel's right to exist in 78 percent of historical Palestine. So why should they have to haggle for the remaining 22 percent -- i.e. the West Bank and Gaza?

In their view, Barak offered only 75 percent of the West Bank, not 95 percent as was widely reported, because East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and two large settlement blocs would have remained under Israeli control. The Palestinian "state," meanwhile, was broken up into three separate West Bank cantons and a distant Gaza Strip, all encircled by Israeli troops, without a common border with Jordan or Egypt and totally dependent on Israel for power, water and jobs.

Although Palestinian demands for East Jerusalem as their capital and a right of return for Palestinian refugees were major sticking points, every Palestinian official I spoke to said they would have been negotiable if Barak had offered a Palestinian state that was both contiguous and viable.

But no Palestinian leader could accept what they call "bantustans" without a revolt by militants in his own ranks, of which there are plenty.

The intifada began two months after the failed Camp David summit. Israel claims the uprising was preplanned. The Palestinians say it was a spontaneous eruption of rage over a controversial visit by Ariel Sharon, then opposition leader, to the Temple Mount, a Jewish holy site that lies beneath the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in what Arabs call the Noble Sanctuary, Islam's third-holiest shrine.

Whichever is correct, both sides now regard themselves as victims of a "siege." Israel says it is besieged by terrorists, the Palestinians say they are besieged by the Israeli army. However, the notion that the world's fourth-strongest military power is somehow "under siege" by the people it is occupying seems patently absurd.

Without question, Israel suffers periodic and devastating terrorist attacks. Israeli settlements certainly are besieged, but life in Israel proper is far less affected by the war than the Palestinian territories

Stone-throwing Palestinian children are shot by well-armed Israeli soldiers. Palestinian militants are systematically assassinated in "targeted killings" that have also claimed the lives of 13 bystanders. Palestinian houses, orchards and olive groves are demolished by Israeli bulldozers. And Palestinian cities are surrounded by military checkpoints that prevent workers from reaching their jobs, children from going to school and sometimes even the sick or pregnant from reaching a hospital.

Besides a detailed casualty count of combatants and civilians killed by weapons of war, the Israeli peace group B'Tselem maintains a dreary catalog of childbirths and deaths caused by delays at checkpoints:

"Ala Hamdam Ahmad, age 10, died when her appendix burst after IDF soldiers prevented her father from taking her to hospital in Nablus."

"Al-Obeisi, infant girl from Beit Dajan, died at birth after the IDF prohibited her mother from leaving the village to go to the hospital."

"Abd' a-Rahman Mahmoud Abu-Jama, age 79, suffered chest pains while delayed for an hour at the Tulkarm checkpoint and died en route to hospital."

"Naim Attallah Ahmad Huas, age 27, a kidney patient, died after IDF soldiers prevented her from keeping a dialysis appointment."

The list goes on and on.

This year alone, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza has filed more than 500 complaints of property damage or wrongful death with Israel's ministry of defense. The response to all was a two-line form letter saying: "The State of Israel is not responsible because there is a state of war."

Israeli army spokesmen maintain that checkpoints and other security measures are necessary to prevent terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens.

They concede that jittery soldiers sometimes have no way of knowing if a car speeding toward them contains a suicide bomber or a frantic husband taking his pregnant wife to the hospital, which is how accidental shootings occur. And they express regret for the deaths of sick or elderly people held up at the checkpoints.

Personally, I found the behavior of soldiers at the checkpoints to be totally arbitrary. Some read magazines and allowed our car to speed through without so much as looking up. Others stopped every vehicle, creating huge traffic jams up to a mile long. Some soldiers were polite and friendly to the Palestinians. Others cursed, kicked or pushed them around.

More than 250 Israeli officers have become so sickened at being an occupation army that they signed a petition refusing to serve in the territories. They don't mind defending their country, they say, but they do mind "occupying, deporting, destroying, blockading, killing and starving an entire people."

The refuseniks have a website listing some of their reasons.

One rebelled against having to participate in nighttime raids on the homes of suspected "terrorists" when he learned that they were simply petty criminals whom the Shin Bet security service wanted to blackmail into becoming collaborators. Another tells a poignant story of how a fellow soldier felt so guilty about shooting a pregnant Palestinian woman he eventually killed himself.

The soldiers' action has revitalized a peace movement that was thrown into disarray by Palestinian suicide bombings. Israelis protesting the occupation did not want to be seen as siding with terrorists, especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

But anti-occupation does not mean pro-terrorist. The peace groups are beginning to speak out again and their rallies, which once attracted only a few hundred leftists, now draw huge crowds from all over the political spectrum. Two successive Saturdays in downtown Tel Aviv saw turnouts of more than 15,000.

Spokesmen for Gush Shalom, Peace Now, the Committee Against Home Demolitions and myriad other peace groups are gratified to see that Israeli newspapers are beginning to take a more critical look at the occupation and Sharon's handling of the intifada.

Editorials, not only in left-wing newspapers but also the right, point out that the prime minister who promised them security has made them more insecure than any other leader in Israel's history. And many blame the occupation.

Lev Grinberg, a sociology professor at Ben Gurion University, calls the growing anti-occupation movement "the voice of conscience." In the daily Ma'ariv he wrote:

"You cannot tell the voice of conscience that 'we' want peace but 'they' don't because the daily abuse of the Palestinians and the provocative exterminations are clear for all to see. You cannot distract the voice of conscience by claiming that 'Barak offered everything' because that does not justify the war crimes committed by the Israeli occupation forces. And you cannot recruit soldiers with the militaristic argument that 'we must win this war' because the occupation is not a war forced on us and woe to us if we ever do win and thus succeed in continuing the occupation."

The peace camp is still a relatively small segment of Israeli society. But a much larger segment is calling for unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories, not necessarily because the occupation is wrong but because it would give Israel more easily defensible borders.

The Council for Peace and Security, a group of 1,000 reserve generals, colonels and security officers from Shin Bet and Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the FBI and CIA, recently launched a public campaign for unilateral withdrawal. It calls for the immediate dismantling of some settlements and recognition of a Palestinian state, without a cease-fire or even Palestinian agreement, arguing that this would "force the Palestinian leadership to change its behavior."

But unilateral withdrawal is anathema to Sharon, who says he will never "reward terrorism" and demands a week of complete calm before negotiations can begin. Israel's prime minister appears focused on a military solution and has announced his intention to seize yet more Palestinian land to create "security buffers" against terrorism.

Palestinian Cabinet member Nabil Shaath counters that such buffer zones would be another step toward apartheid.

"If separation is intended to stop suicide missions it has failed," said Shaath. "If it's intended to stop trade and communication between the two peoples, it has succeeded to the misery of both."

A Saudi peace plan floated by Crown Prince Abdullah holds out some hope of a breakthrough but risks being eclipsed by a sharp upsurge in violence.

The escalation began with Israeli forces invading two West Bank refugee camps in a hunt for "militants" that left 39 dead, including several children and elderly civilians. A Palestinians suicide bomber then blew up nine Israelis in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem and a sniper killed seven Israeli soldiers and three civilians at a West Bank checkpoint.

On Monday, Sharon announced that his Security Cabinet had approved a plan to "apply constant military pressure on the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian terror organizations." The announcement was followed by air raids on Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and more invasions of Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Israeli peace group Gush Shalom noted that every time someone suggests giving up land for peace, Sharon stages "a major bloody provocation which precipitates an equally bloody retribution from the Palestinian side, which brings about a new cycle of revenge upon revenge until the peace initiative is drowned in blood and forgotten."

The Saudi plan offers Israel peace with the entire Arab world in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. President Bush and other Western leaders have welcomed it, but Israeli government officials have expressed reservations and Sharon himself has always opposed a total pullout. Already one right-wing party in his coalition has threatened to quit his government if Sharon changes his mind.

As a general and a politician, Sharon has spent much of his life championing Jewish settlements as a means of furthering the borders of Greater Israel. However, his popularity is sinking and public opinion polls suggest that many of his constituents would settle for a Lesser Israel if it brought them peace with the Arabs.

Sharon has publicly announced his intention to crush all Palestinian resistance before he will even talk peace. But a growing segment of the Israeli public believes that if victory means continued occupation, it will also mean continued terrorism.

Holger Jensen
Published in Rocky Mountain News, USA © Rocky Mountain News

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