21/08/08 "ICH" - - - During a recent stay with a Palestinian family in the West Bank, I found myself in their basement, watching the news with two of my host"s sons. The week"s events had been particularly violent, with fierce clashes between the Israel defence forces (IDF) and villagers in the town of Nilin, where we were now sitting, as well as reports of a home-made rocket being fired by settlers in the direction of a Palestinian community nearby.
The mood in the house was tense, with both brothers nervous about the possible repercussions for their village after the morning"s hostilities, and they kept a keen eye on the screen as they watched footage of the bloody confrontation being broadcast. For my benefit, the older brother tuned to the English version of al-Aqsa TV, a channel launched by Hamas in 2006 as part of its campaign to counter what it saw as Israeli propaganda in the western media.
"Zionist colonisers launched a missile [at a Palestinian town]", announced the stony-faced presenter as he reported on the settlers" rocket attack. Moving on, he informed viewers of plans for "the Zionist colony of Har Homa to expand", before relaying news that "Zionist occupying forces wounded seven in Nilin". Suitably gory images of injured Palestinians were beamed out in accompaniment, and we watched in silence as the unending litany of injustices was recounted in the newsreader"s sombre tones.
The news was interrupted by a commercial break, consisting of a lengthy sequence in which images of Palestine were displayed, with a voiceover delivering an impassioned appeal for viewers to join the resistance. "Palestine calls to you. Support me. Liberate me. I am your mother, and you are my sons", read the narrator, before cutting to a final, heartfelt declaration: "Palestine: the love word; the heart of the world."
As the news began rolling once more, all I could concentrate on was the language employed, rather than the stories that were being reported. The abandoning of western media parlance – "Israel", "IDF", "settlers", and so on – in favour of an entirely different lexicon was a rude awakening for me, having been fed on a vastly different diet over the years. However, the terms used weren"t in the slightest bit unusual to my host"s sons, and were indicative of how wide the gulf is between ordinary citizens on either side of the divide.
Supporters of Israel often recoil against what they see as a disproportionate amount of airtime given to the region in western media, as well as the alleged imbalance of the coverage, which is said to heavily favour the Palestinian cause. However, it would be wholly understandable if a viewer of al-Aqsa TV who tuned into any western station from the BBC to Sky News and beyond felt a mirror-image outrage simply because of the terms used to describe the conflict.
Merely mentioning settlers as though they were some kind of benign, pioneering entity, rather than out-and-out colonists, would doubtless set hackles rising throughout the Palestinian community. Referring to the Israeli army as a "defence" force, despite its predominantly occupying nature and activities, would be another thorn in the side of any Palestinian hoping for a modicum of understanding in the western media.
The language of war is yet another battleground upon which the two sides come to blows, as I have found time and again, ever since I began writing for Cif. Certain words are guaranteed to cause a violent explosion, derailing discussion threads and obscuring the message I have tried to get across in my articles. Calling a spade a spade becomes highly problematic in the minefield of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Describing the situation in the West Bank as a form of apartheid causes offence to some, despite all the clear evidence justifying the term. The same people object to the wanton destruction meted out in villages by the IDF being likened to pogroms – the word having been somehow arrogated by certain Jewish people for their exclusive use, and only then in relation to the Jews" own historical suffering.
Any comparison between the expansionist, racially-motivated policies of the Israeli government and similar experiments of ethnic supremacy throughout history are deluged beneath a swamp of derisory, indignant responses, as though pointing out the glaringly obvious is the antithesis of honest and reasonable debate. The self-righteous anger is no less vehement, nor any less keenly expressed, on the other side among those who balk at the Jewish state being referred to as Israel, or the Israeli army as the IDF.
While I understand how emotionally invested people (myself included) become when focusing on the conflict, we should not allow a situation where plainly-spoken facts are dismissed simply because the reader or viewer feels uncomfortable with the truth. Much as I flinched initially when sitting in the Palestinian family"s lounge hearing my country described in such incendiary language on the news, I could understand why they used those terms in their reports.
Settlers are colonisers, just as the IDF is a force engaged in occupation, and any attempt to try to paint the scenario otherwise is both disingenuous and deceitful. Anyone who feels that the western media is incorrigibly biased in favour of the Palestinians would do well to consider the entire spectrum of opinion on what constitutes fair reporting and honest language, before making such sweeping judgments. Because from where the Palestinians are sitting, under the yoke of occupation, the picture looks very different from the one Zionism"s supporters would have the world believe.