Israeli ‘Rule,’ Not ‘Occupation’: In a Sign of the Times, Hebrew Wikipedia Renames a Key Article

The occupation may be a fact of life for Palestinians, but on Hebrew Wikipedia, too, the creeping annexation is making headway

Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
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A scene from the occupation in Gaza during the first intifada, 1990.
A scene from the occupation in Gaza during the first intifada, 1990.Credit: Alex Levac
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank may be a fact of life for Palestinians, but it may no longer be a fact on Hebrew Wikipedia. The community of volunteer editors has voted to rename the article on the occupation, dropping the word in favor of Israel’s “rule” or “control” over the contested territory.

Though “occupation” still appears in the article, the change reflects what can be called a version of Israel’s creeping annexation of the territory online in Hebrew, where the West Bank has long been called by its biblical name and the term “occupation” is increasingly perceived as inaccurate due to its temporary and politicized nature.

The Hebrew Wikipedia community, like Wikipedia in all other languages, maintains autonomy from the famous English-language online encyclopedia. Though overseen by the Wikimedia Foundation, each project is independent. Content varies dramatically from language to language, and each Wikipedia tends to reflect its base of volunteer editors and the media sources available to them.

Therefore, the articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are very different in English, Hebrew and Arabic. For example, while almost all Wikipedias use the term the “West Bank,” Hebrew Wikipedia has for years opted for “Judea and Samaria.”

Moreover, while all content on all Wikipedias must be neutral and based on respected sources, the editorial practices of each language community is different, enforcing certain views of what is considered neutral at the expense of other outlooks.

For example, while the English community doesn’t hold formal votes but strives to reach a consensus among different factions of editors, in Hebrew decisions are voted on and editors receive a number of different options to rank in preferential order – many times.

In a vote this week, the community had to decide between a number of options for the title of an article on the occupation. The title “Israel’s occupation of Judea and Samaria” reflected the lack of harmony in both the local community and Israeli society as it mixed the word “occupation” with the biblical name for the territory.

Ten different names were debated, four of which still included “occupation,” while others offered different options for Israel’s “control” or “rule” over the Palestinian territory. Interestingly, only two of those using “occupation” included “West Bank,” while another used “Palestinian territory.”

“‘Control’ is better than ‘occupation,’ it’s more neutral,” the editor backing the winning option said during the debate. “The former is better while ‘occupation’ seems to describe a cruel active action.”

Another editor countered: “Israel may not be a ‘conqueror’ of the Land of Israel, but Palestinians are living under a military occupation. The question of whether this is an oppressive occupation or an enlightened one we’ll leave to the readers, but the word ‘occupation’ is more accurate than ‘Israeli control.’”

Others argued for using “the West Bank” and not the biblical terminology in the article’s headline, but because “West Bank” had been dropped from the main article years earlier, this line of argumentation failed to win support.

Radical religious-Zionist Rabbi Moshe Levinger, left, and bodyguards in Hebron, 1993. Credit: Alex Levac

Hebrew or Israeli Wikipedia?

Hebrew Wikipedia is edited largely by Jewish-Israeli editors; only a handful of editors whose native language is Arabic have been known to take part. My own reporting has suggested that more than being a Hebrew Wikipedia, the local version has become the Israeli Wikipedia, reflecting the political biases and divides in Israeli society. Though the local community is very Jewish-Israeli in its bias and tone, it is as divided as Jewish-Israeli society is on politics.

It’s telling that while Hebrew-language debates on the conflict tend to divide the community along left and right-wing lines, the debate and vote this time actually remained on topic and focused on clarifying terminology. Thus it possibly reflects shifts in the Jewish-Israeli consensus on both the word “occupation” and the status of the West Bank.

“You’re making a mistake in Hebrew. The word ‘occupation’ in Hebrew doesn’t just connote a specific instance in time but an ongoing situation … and some of us know that occupation is indeed an ongoing action,” one editor said.

“It seems that the word ‘control’ or ‘authority’ is misleading regarding this content because it creates the false sense that the same control or authority that exists within Israel’s borders also exists in the territory in question,” he added. Others suggested that use of such terminology required explaining how Israel’s rule over Arab communities in Israel proper differs from the situation in the West Bank.

They added that the community’s decision in the past to use “Judea and Samaria” should not constitute a binding editorial decision. Interestingly, though the community is divided based on Israeli political fault lines, the decision to use the biblical term is over a decade old.

In fact, very little change has taken place on this topic on Hebrew Wikipedia. In English, much as in Hebrew, the conflict is among the most contentious topics in the encyclopedia. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually one of the three most regulated arenas on English Wikipedia, with especially strict restrictions imposed on its editing to prevent political brawls. The other contentious topics are articles on India and Pakistan, and on antisemitism in Poland, highlighting just how fraught the topic is.

In Hebrew, the Israel-related topic is just as contentious, and a kind of stalemate set in during Wikipedia’s early days. However, changes to Israel’s occupation have eroded this consensus, and though the “Judea and Samaria” article contains information on the occupation, a specific article on military rule over the Palestinians was opened only a few months ago, launching a debate in Hebrew on the need for this specialized entry. After it was decided that the article could remain, the debate shifted to the title.

A checkpoint at the entrance to the Palestinian town of Sa'ir, near Hebron, 2016.Credit: Alex Levac

'A balance to be struck'

The editor tasked with enforcing the decision told Haaretz that though he disagreed with some aspects of it, he thought the community process yielded a factually accurate result.

“The vote didn’t happen according to political lines. There’s a problem with the word ‘occupation.’ It has two meanings: The first is an action happening now and the second is the ongoing situation that in Hebrew can also be called an occupation,” he said.

“There is something mistaken about using the first sense of the word because no one is actively entering and occupying now,” he said, adding that in the military sense Israel had already taken over the West Bank and there was no ongoing military campaign to seize control of the territory.

“The other issue is that the word ‘occupation’ now also has political connotations. The left tends to call [Israel’s presence in the West Bank an] ‘occupation’ while the right calls it a ‘liberation.’ Obviously neither are accurate and there’s a balance to be struck.”

The fact that the vote didn’t take place along political lines, and the fact that it focused on the different meanings of the term, indicates a possible shift in Hebrew regarding the significance of occupation from the first meaning to the second. In other words, the consensus around the factual basis of the occupation is shifting in Hebrew, less due to politics and more because Israel’s control of the territory is less and less perceived as temporary.

At the end of last year I reported on a similar yet inverted process taking place on English Wikipedia. There, after years of consensus that Israel is not an apartheid state, the apartheid comparison made a comeback and was allowed to appear in an article because of statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump administration officials on Israel’s long-term plans for the West Bank and desire to annex the territory if peace talks failed.

In English, Israel’s creeping annexation has undermined its claim against the apartheid analogy. In Hebrew, the same process takes on a different tone and indicates that for Israelis too the occupation is an immutable fact, so they may as well call it by its name.

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