Wordplay: Un-occupy Now

Reflections on the semantic and legal aspects of long-term possession and of control over another people's territory.

By this point in the week, we have become mired deep in the judicial saga of one-time Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But once upon a time, back on Monday, we were savoring the flavor of recommendations by the committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, concerning the past, present and future of Israel's occupation of the Palestinians.

The three-member panel, created by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January, was tasked with examining the legal aspects of land ownership in the West Bank. In its report it rejected, in essence, the claim that Israel's presence there is that of an occupying force, and asserted that the Jewish settlements and outposts are legal.

These are weighty matters for jurists, politicians and other interested parties to wrangle over. Not that I'm disinterested: After all, the fallout of controversy over this issue is bound to hit me - and you - one way or the other. However, as I feel I have very little, if any, influence over this complicated issue, practically the only thing left to do is listen to the words used to describe it, and marvel. Call it occupational therapy. Or occupuncture.

When I heard that the Levy committee maintains now, 45 years after the Six-Day War, that Israel's presence in the West Bank does not constitute "occupation" per se - my initial reaction was like Arthur Dent's. When this character from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" found himself unexpectedly in a spaceship, after being reassured that he is "safe," he said: "Ah, this is obviously some strange usage of the word safe that I wasn't previously aware of."

According to the OED, "occupation" is defined as "the action, state, or period of occupying or being occupied by military force." In English use of that word dates from the 16th century, deriving from the Latin occupare - "take over, seize, possess, occupy." But that is just the beginning of the etymological story. According to the Etymology Online Dictionary, "occupy" was a common euphemism several hundred years ago for "have sexual intercourse with" which caused it to fall out of polite usage.

Indeed, in the 16th century it was already clear, not only to scholars of law and linguistics, but also to a certain mistress Doll Tearsheat (Shakespeare's "Henry IV," part 2 ) that the verb "to occupy" was "an excellent good worde before it was il sorted." And "il sorted" it apparently is to this very day.

One of the many points the Levy committee made is that "the generally accepted concept of 'occupation' relates to short periods in which territory is captured from a sovereign state until the dispute between the two sides is resolved. But Judea and Samaria have been under Israeli control for decades, and it is impossible to foresee a time when Israel will relinquish these territories, if ever."

This explanation introduces the very important element of time into matters legal and lexical, on two levels: Not only is the meaning of a particular word to be understood according to the precise time (or state of mind and mind of the state, if you don't mind ) it is used in. There are apparently also words which have "temporary" meanings.

In the Israeli-Palestinian case, the panel seems to be saying that the current situation does not constitute an occupation, among other reasons, because it is still ongoing - a work in progress, as it were, with no end in the foreseeable future. The committee does not say what, in its opinion, is a minimum or maximum time limit for control over a territory that is not legally part of a sovereign state, or for rule over its inhabitants by military force, before it can be termed "an occupation."

In other words, if ever there were an Israeli occupation of the West Bank, at least four decades (and counting ) ago it apparently expired, as proved by the fact that we are still in possession of the territories in question.

This brings to mind the old legal adage that "possession is 9/10ths of the law." That oft-quoted principle can be interpreted as meaning that as long as "you are there," in a given territory (whether or not it is considered to be occupied ) - you have more than a fair chance to be acknowledged, eventually, as its legal owner or ruler.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (originally published in 1880, now in its 18th edition ) says the origin of the above phrase has nothing to do with percentage (i.e., it does not mean that a mere presence in disputed territories makes a good case, albeit not iron-clad, for proof of ownership ). According to this source the original phrase is "possession is nine points of the law" - meaning that it gives the party in possession many advantages, short of actual right. The "nine points" are cited as: (1 ) a good deal of money; (2 ) a good deal of patience; (3 ) a good cause; (4 ) a good lawyer; (5 ) a good counsel; (6 ) good witnesses; (7 ) a good jury; (8 ) a good judge; (9 ) good luck. Of those nine, in terms of what's been happening in the West Bank for the last 45 years to be "a good case" or cause - i.e., not to be termed "occupation" - one can safely count on points Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and possibly 9, with the caveat that the adjective "good" is even more ambiguous than the word "occupation."

So, is it an occupation or not? At first I was sorely tempted to use Netanyahu's own preferred way of testing matters in doubt: If it walks like an occupation, talks like an occupation and quacks like an occupation, it most probably is one. But as I have not a faintest idea how an occupation quacks, I cannot brush aside the recommendations of Levy's committee as easily as that.

Then I had a brainwave: "Let there be light," I muttered to myself. Or, rather, I thought, let the occupation be like light. This idea stems from quantum physics, a field more complicated, if that's possible, than Israeli-Palestinian politics. As my expertise in physics is at least as shaky as my knowledge of occupational politics, I'll just say here that it has been said that in some experiments, light behaves both as particles and as waves. Some physicists have solved this duality by accepting that it might be both; it's in the eye of the beholder. That's the beauty of it.

Which brings us back to square one, as succinctly summed up by a dialogue from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." In this "production," Alice is speaking for me and probably a sizable portion of the rest of the world, and the one and only Humpty Dumpty presents the case for Justice Levy and presumably the prime minister.

'"When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

"'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

"'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'"

Which is as good as any point at which to end this discussion.