Word of the Day / Mekhabel: How Horse With Attitude Morphed Into Terrorist

As the State of Israel took shape, embarrassing confusion arose between the word for bomber, and the one who defuses the bomb.

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Israeli politics is roiling about the release of Palestinian terrorists as part of peace talks. Perhaps it’s about time we discuss the Hebrew word for terrorist - me-khab-EL (plural me-kha-BLIM).

The word comes from the root kh.b.l, which means to damage. But before we discuss the word mekhabel itself, we must discuss a related word - khab-LAN, which made its first recorded appearance in the Middle Ages.

Then, khablan was used to describe someone prone to causing damage - not saboteurs, mind you: the word carried a more general sense – something like a deliberate klutz with malice aforethought.

For example, it is not uncommon to find articles in newspapers of the early 20th century about dogs or horses described as khablanim.

During the British Mandate, those trained to use high explosives in the Palmach, an elite Jewish paramilitary organization, called themselves khablanim, and they did mean they were saboteurs. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, they were integrated into the Israeli military and police. Though their main work changed - they spent much more time disarming bombs than placing them - the name stuck: they remained khablanim. And at the same time the word began being applied to Arabs saboteurs and terrorists.

Thus, from 1948 to 1972, the word khablan carried a double meaning: both a sapper (one who dismantles bombs) and a terrorist bomber, whether Arab or Jewish.

To add to the confusion, after the Six-Day War in 1967, a new word was born in the Israeli army - mekhabel – which was synonymous with khablan, but only in the sense of terrorist.

First to use this word in print was the leftist newspaper Al HaMishmar, in April 1968. The other newspapers including Haaretz joined suit in October of the same year, if only because they were quoting Moshe Dayan, then minister of defense, who used it.

During this period the two words khablan and mekhabel were used interchangeably, often in the same article.

This prompted one reader of the daily newspaper Davar, Esther Pilbinski, to write to the editors and complain. The double use of the word khablan, she argued, made it impossible to figure out what the newspapers were reporting: “I suggest the word ‘mekhabel’ be used for a person who tries to bring about or brings about terrorist actions, while those whose task is to disable mines and thwart bombings be called ‘khablan’.”

In fact, at the time Ms. Pilbinski wrote her letter in March 1969, the process had already began. Writers and editors were using the word khablan less and less when describing terrorists, opting instead to use mekhabel. This process was completed by 1972, when no one used khablan when meaning a terrorist anymore. From that time on, that word was confined to describing sappers.

A mekhabel in profile.Credit: Dreamstime