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The Semantics of the Israeli Occupation

Leeds PSC on tour | 23.10.2006 20:56 | Anti-racism | Palestine | Repression | Social Struggles

Colony vs Settlement
Terminal vs Checkpoint

noun (pl. colonies) 1 a country or area under the control of another country and occupied by settlers from that country. 2 a group of people of one nationality or race living in a foreign place. 3 a place where a group of people with the same occupation or interest live together: a nudist colony. 4 a community of animals or plants of one kind living close together.

noun 1 the action or process of settling. 2 an official agreement intended to settle a dispute or conflict. 3 a place where people establish a community. 4 Law an arrangement whereby property passes to a person or succession of people as dictated by the settler.

Settlement vs colony.
Semantics is a hugely powerful tool in the Israel/Palestine conflict. The supporters of Israel have for a long time now, I believe,understood this power, and used it accordingly. For example, the word “settlement” vs the word “colony”. When you pull those words apart and look not only at the literal meaning in that context, but also at the the implied meanings and the extra information that those words convey it's easy to see why Zionists would shy away from using words such as colony. Words such as colony and colonialist now, on top of their literal meaning carry negative connotations. They make us think of abuses of indigenous rights in India and Pakistan, of slavery and apartheid South Africa. The extra information carried by the word settlement however has a more positive slant, it implies an agreement, or an act carried out by mediation between two sides. So, maybe, just maybe this clever use of language has helped the illegal Israeli “settler” movement in Palestine avoid the criticism and vilification it actually deserves.
I'm sure most of you reading this are more than aware of this already, and are wondering why I've bothered to write a report about it. What has spurred me to write this is another subtle change of language paired with a less than subtle rebuilding of the checkpoints between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Ramallah.
For those of you lucky enough to have never passed through an Israeli checkpoint, here's a brief description taken from my own experiences. They exist everywhere throughout the Occupied West Bank. They separate major cities from each other, and small towns and villages from the cities that they rely on for education, health care, supplies etc. They consist of a number of turnstiles that people have to pass through, slowly, one by one, at the control of the Israeli soldiers that man the checkpoint. When you have managed to make your way through the assault-course of turnstiles and soldiers making you empty your bags to search them, you come to a wall of concrete blocks and sandbags, behind which stand a row of Israeli soldiers, heavily armed, guns always pointing into the checkpoint, guns always pointing directly into the crowds of people trying to negotiate their way through.
So where am I going with this? Whenever I come back to Palestine, part of the Israeli occupation-infrastructure has been changed, usually embedding it further into the day to day life of those unlucky enough to be living under occupation. Last time i was here the apartheid wall had grown alarmingly, and Qalandia Checkpoint was surrounded by a vast building site. This time, Qalandia checkpoint, as I knew it has disappeared and the building sit e has been transformed in the “Atarot Terminal”.
At first glance the terminal may be seen as an improvement. There is now a route through for cars and buses, there's no sandbags, no soldiers manually going through your bags and most of the waiting areas are undercover. So what it is about this year's development that has unsettled me enough to write about it?
Put simply, this years development has been to create an illusion: this isn't a military installation in an occupied land, this is a clean, civilised, orderly border-crossing. It has an Israeli name: “Atarot” and looks and sounds like it is part those most familiar of international border crossings: an airport.
However, it is none of these things, it is a military checkpoint, situated well inside Palestinian territory. The heavily armed soldiers are still there, only now they are housed in offices, screened from the Palestinians passing through by glass and concrete. What few opportunities there had been for human encounters between Israelis and Palestinians in these places has now gone.
Passing through the new checkpoint is a fairly bewildering experience. The turnstiles still exist, but now there are x-ray machines for scanning bags rather than human searches, any “guidance” from the Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint are now spoken through a loud-speaker system, a system so loud in the enclosed spaces that it gives the impression of been screamed at, even when the orders are in fact merely spoken. Obviously, on the common occurance the the orders are shouted rather than spoken, the effect is almost overwhelming. The checkpoint at Qalandia is now also surrounded by car parks, fences and the infamous wall itself, making it much easier for the authorities to funnel people into the checkpoint, and to prevent any breeches of the checkpoint by impatient crowds.
The last two Fridays in Ramadan were tense times at both Qalandia (Atarot) and Bethlehem (New Gilo) “terminals”. As crowds of people tried to get through to Jerusalem to pray at Al Aqsa mosque, the army arbitrarely decided to not let any men under the age of 45 through. Any arguments brought threats of arrest, use of tear gas and stun grenades. Whilst I was at Qalandia recording this behaviour, a large group of men gave up, and as the midday call to prayer had passed, offered their prayers in the newly laid car park. A car park, instead of the third most holy site in Islam. In every respect, this is still a checkpoint. It may look neater, more respectable, but it is still a military installation in an occupied land.
And herein lies the cause of my disquiet. To the uninitiated by-stander these are familiar structures: terminals, we all have to pass through terminals and have our papers checked at border crossings, right? Right, but these are not official border crossings, they are checkpoints entirely within Palestinian territory, they are still controlled by the military, they are still the sites of violence, oppression and humiliation on a daily basis. As Israel and its supporters have used semantics to such great effect in the past, this rebranding of checkpoints as terminals concerns me. If the international community begins to accept the term “terminal” with all of its familiarity, instead of the term “checkpoint” that comes with all of its negative baggage, how long before the idea of military occupation of Palestinian land begins to be eroded?
This may sound unnecessarily dramatic, but it has already happened. For many years now, we have accepted, largely without question, the terms “settlement” and “settler” when what would be a much more accurate description would be “colony” and “colonist”. It's hard to know what difference in public perception this has made, but when I talk about what i have witnessed in the Occupied West Bank, the existence of the Israeli colonies and the behaviour of the Israeli colonists is what surprises people most; there seems to be little understanding that these “settlements” are in Palestinian territory. Such is the power of semantics that people hear about “settlements” without putting two and two together and coming up with “illegal Israeli colonies on illegally occupied Palestinian land, illegal under Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention1”. So, again, what worries me so much is how long will it be before we hear the term “terminal” and identify that as a perfectly acceptable border crossing between Israel and Palestine, rather than a military installation on occupied Palestinian land. Even a person less cynical than I might think that this was Israeli manoeuvring prior to its unilateral setting of borders, creating three ghetto like Palestinian areas, cut off from one another by walls, checkpoints and roads for Israeli citizens only. So now more that ever, I personally am going to over-emphasise. I am going to talk about “illegal Israeli colonies” and “Israeli military checkpoints in occupied territories” so there can be no mistaking what i am talking about. I would urge you all to do the same!

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  1. Stop whining — Voice of reason