Wars of words
Semantics should never be underestimated, certainly not in the context of the dispute in our region.
The political program of the Palestinian national unity government that was sworn in last week refers to Israel in its political sections and in the part that deals with the occupation. In the latter, it is stated that the new government will undertake action "to end the Israeli occupation," will see to the "release of the heroic prisoners from the Israeli occupation's prisons," will stand firm on the "Israeli policy on Jerusalem," will defend the Palestinians' right "to oppose Israeli aggression," and will continue to reduce tensions "in return for an Israeli commitment to end occupation actions." Similarly, it refers to an agreement to exchange Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
The significance of the unity government, headed by a Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, using "Israel" rather than some other term, should not be underestimated. In the distant past, most Arab and Palestinian spokespersons avoided using the word "Israel." Instead, they spoke of the "pseudo-state," the "Tel Aviv gang," etc. For many years, Hamas spokespersons employed terms like the "Zionist entity" or the "Zionist enemy." During the intifada's peak years, even representatives of other organizations - including Fatah - often used the term "Zionist entity."
Today the situation is different. Over the past few months a certain semantic change has occurred in statements by Hamas leaders. Hezbollah's television station, Al Manar, is one of the few in the Arab world that still uses terms like the "Zionist entity." In contrast, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah refers specifically to Israel quite often in his speeches.
The most rigorous language war in the history of the Arab-Israel conflict was waged by Israel's governments, after the West Bank and Gaza Strip were occupied in 1967, against the name "Palestine." Then-prime minister Golda Meir declared that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people and even displayed her identity card from the British Mandate period, where she was designated a citizen of "Palestine, E.I.," which stood for Eretz Israel. Menachem Begin would use the phrase "the organization that calls itself the Palestine Liberation Organization," to avoid mentioning the name of the people living next to Israel. For the Hebrew translation of the 1978 Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt, whose English version speaks of the "legitimate right of the Palestinians," Begin demanded that the phrase "Israeli Arabs" be used instead of "Palestinians."
Palestine in Alexandria
In this context, an incident that occurred in 1979, after the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty that March, should be mentioned. To determine how to implement the autonomy that was promised to the Palestinians in the agreement, protracted negotiations were held between the Israeli and Egyptian delegations in various places, including Alexandria. For security reasons, the Egyptian organizers arranged for the journalists who were covering the talks to stay in the city's single modern, five-star hotel, the same one where the official representatives would hold their talks and also sleep.
The first trip to Alexandria was an emotional experience for us journalists. The city has a fascinating history, a celebrated promenade and traces of the Greek, Italian and Jewish communities that once lived there. However, Alexandria had only one modern, five-star hotel, where the Egyptians wanted the Israeli delegation to stay and where they also planned to hold the talks.
Because of coalition and political complications, prime minister Begin appointed the interior minister and veteran leader of the National Religious Party, Dr. Yosef Burg, instead of his foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, as head of the Israeli delegation. Begin's media adviser, Dan Pattir, who, as one of the members of the Israeli delegation was in charge of making the preparations for the negotiations, recalls that, on arriving at the attractive hotel, which was surrounded by gardens, the delegation members realized they had a problem: The hotel was named "Palestine." They informed Burg, who categorically declared that staying there was out of the question. "Do you honestly mean that we, Israel's official representatives, should stay at a hotel named Palestine?" he asked rhetorically.
A flurry of activity ensued. The Egyptians finally found another hotel, near the promenade. It was old, rather shabby and was called the San Stefano. The moment one entered the hotel, its lack of star status could be easily ascertained: peeling plaster, an elevator that was out of order, dampness, an air conditioner that was not working, and mosquitoes.
Who, in fact, was the St. Stephen after whom that hotel was named? Visitors to East Jerusalem are familiar with the name, which is the way various European languages refer to what Israel calls the Lions' Gate - one of the gates in the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. The Greek Orthodox monastery and church near Gethsemane and the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise de Jerusalem, located on Jerusalem's Nablus Road, also bear St. Stephen's name.
St. Stephen, who was born a Jew, was the first Christian martyr. According to Christian belief, after Jesus' death, the Apostles appointed him to attend to the needs of Jerusalem's first Christian community. He preached in synagogues and enraged the Jews, who placed him on trial before the Sanhedrin. The New Testament describes the speech he delivered there: He called the Jews "stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears" (Acts 7:51), and accused them of having handed the messiah to his executioners. His words angered the Jewish crowd, who stoned him to death.
Armed with this information, I and other journalists accompanying the delegation spoke with Burg. What bothered us were the dreadful conditions in the dilapidated hotel. We wanted to move to the luxurious Palestine. Burg knew who St. Stephen was, and we asked him whether it was not disgraceful that Jews sould stay at a hotel bearing the name of a Christian who was reputed to have been killed by our ancestors. After all, because of St. Stephen and other similar blood libels, Jews were persecuted for centuries.
We told Burg that the stories surrounding St. Stephen and his contemporaries could not be compared to the problems with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians. We suggested that he consider carefully the Jewish People's fate and pride - and draw the necessary conclusion: namely, to leave the San Stefano and move to the Palestine.
Our arguments were in vain. Burg, who loved quips and verbal witticisms, quoted to us the rabbinic verse, "New problems cause us to forget earlier ones," and added: "Right now we have problems with Palestine. Case closed."
The conclusion: Semantics should never be underestimated, certainly not in the context of the dispute in our region. Because of one word, Israel's press corps was forced to suffer two weeks in Alexandria, at the shabby San Stefano, instead of enjoying a luxurious stay at the Palestine.