There is a peculiar virus making the rounds in the media world lately. Not unlike Code Red, or the I Love You virus, it apparently has the power to erase from your memory basic terms which should be embedded in your brain, and it has been known to particularly affect the Western journalists covering the Middle East.
Suddenly, it seems these journalists are at a loss for words. Perhaps they need a few basic English lessons to remind them to call an apple an apple. Or, more likely, they too have all willingly decided to submit to the dictatorship of Israel and throw their impartiality to the wind.
A recent example of this phenomenon is the following brief from Reuters, posted Aug. 15, alluding to the unnatural death of Imad Abu Sneineh: “Undercover Israeli soldiers shot dead a member of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction on Wednesday in what Palestinians called an assassination amid an international push for peace talks.” The fact is, the man was shot (with 10 bullets in the head, chest, stomach and legs), and now he is dead. If Palestinians call it an assassination, what does Reuters call it? What does the dictionary call it? I checked.
According to several dictionaries (to ensure that a large array of styles was covered), assassination means “to murder, especially a public figure, to kill treacherously.” Whereas to kill is a general verb meaning to cause the death of a person, to assassinate especially means to murder a prominent person for political motives. As in Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated.
If the Israelis did not kill Imad Abu Sneineh (and numerous other Palestinian figures) for political motives, they have not explained why they took it upon themselves to terminate his life. Awfully displeased that their killings are being called assassinations, they attempt to lead us to think that their motives are not political; what are they then? Financial, possibly? Or perhaps demographical? I wonder.
Too busy eliminating as many Palestinians as they can (for reasons they think are only known to themselves), the Israelis refuse to provide explanations to settle once and for all the pedantic argument about the semantics of death by shooting, or by missile. However, they have found the time to issue their own, custom-made “Israel-media” dictionary, which has manifestly been snatched up by the media. When the “Israel Defense Force” issued its new lexicon, Western journalists became more royal than the king, and started obeying the IDF as if they were soldiers in its ranks. It now looks as if the IDF’s style book has become the new bible of journalism and reporting. It would be challenging enough to accept that the supposedly free Israeli media has bowed to this imposition. But when even the likes of Reuters and the BBC have dumped their dictionaries and chosen to use the much more creative Israeli thesaurus, their reputations as objective media become highly questionable. On the BBC, for example, the assassinations of Palestinians are now reported as “targeted attacks!” One could debate at length about the fact that the majority of Israel’s attacks, killings, assassinations and all other actions resulting in death are not quite “targeted” (judging by the sheer number of Palestinian victims), but we all know that. As for the definitely targeted ones, they are defined to the world at the whim of the IDF. This is because the IDF lexicon is the modus operandi now.
Among the most common translations imposed by Israel, and used more or less precisely by the cowardly media, are the following treasures. Do not say “Palestinian uprising,” but rather “armed conflict” (in case anyone suspected that the intifada is not really a clash between two armies of equal power). Do not say “closure of Palestinian areas” when you refer to the blockade, but rather “prevention of entry into Israel.” Do not say “uprooting of olive groves and trees” but rather “engineering activity.” Do not ever ask Sharon about “liquidating militants,” but rather comment about Israel’s “implementing the right of self-defense.” Make a distinction between “stones” and the much more Israeli-friendly “rocks.” And last but not least, do not ever say “assassination,” but rather “targeted killing.” For extra brownie points, you might even want to call such killings “pinpoint preventive operations.” Naturally, whenever possible, remember that most Palestinians who died in the last 11 months were not even “killed,” but rather “died caught in crossfire,” again according to the Israeli definitions.
It doesn’t stop there. The Israeli government, through its various ministers, dictates further terminology on a very wide selection of subjects. Some of their euphemisms are downright laughable.
For example, seemingly innocent and self-explanatory acts like “pie throwing” (as in cream pies splattering into the unsuspecting faces of politicians or well-known public figures such as Bill Gates) are also gaining new meanings according to the Israeli government. Indeed, pie throwing is now officially a “terrorist act,” as defined by Israeli Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin. After having himself been the target of such a pie on his way out from Parliament, his office issued a written statement condemning the act as a terrorist one. In this context, one begins to understand that for Israelis, stones ï¿½ or even pebbles ï¿½ are practically heavy artillery when compared to cream pies.
Apart from Rivlin’s ridiculous antics, “terrorism” remains one of the terms which applies exclusively to Palestinian actions, according to Israel. The IDF’s exploits are nothing but “self-defense,” whether they are assassinations or bombings. Sometimes, they can be called “pre-emptive strikes,” but never, ever terrorism. When really pushed for a more thorough explanation about a large-scale beastly IDF action, Israelis may resort to the word “mistake,” as in Qana or the very hushed-up attack on the USS Liberty in 1967.
As for the proper way to describe Palestinians, some parties in the Israeli government recommend the words “lice” and cancer.” These definitions come courtesy of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, leader of the far-right National Union party that advocates the expulsion of Arabs from Israel.
Zeevi’s comments about Palestinians are known for their viciousness, and his recent appearance on Israeli army radio gives an example of his colorful vocabulary. Zeevi, saying that Palestinians were living illegally in Israel, remarked: “We should get rid of the ones who are not Israeli citizens the same way you get rid of lice. We have to stop this cancer from spreading within us.” Zeevi did not elaborate on whether this “cancer” also included the 1 million Arabs who make a sixth of Israel’s population.
Israel’s inventive euphemisms cover an entire range of topics, and failure to abide by their usage inevitably leads to a variety of accusations, such as the widely used (and extremely boring) “anti-Semitism.” Basically, any proposition that even vaguely alludes to Israel in less than positive terms earns the accusation of anti-Semitism.
Other favorites include “revisionism,” a term which has resurfaced with a vengeance in the past few weeks. Indeed, some essays in The New York Times (which needs no introduction with regard to its position vis-a-vis Israel) have earned their writers the title of revisionist, for they dared to suggest that the failure of the Camp David talks last summer could not be blamed entirely on Arafat. It seems that Israel is never wrong, only a victim.
And thus, the media finds itself faced with two alternatives when reporting events in the Middle East: Say the truth at the risk of offending the mighty Israeli PR machine and being called anti-Israeli, revisionist or anti-Semitic (but retaining credibility), or surrender to this most powerful of forces and dispense with the foundations of journalism. Judging by the reports in the media, it seems that most of the journalists have already chosen the latter.
* Rime Allaf wrote this commentary in Damascus for The Daily Star