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Middle East Issues





Dictionary of Bias


In navigating the complex lexicon of Middle East terminology, journalists may easily run into verbal land mines. The following guide is designed to assist those seeking to avoid partisan language which frequently crops up in Western news reports.

ACTIVISTS, PALESTINIAN: This term is often used to describe Palestinians engaging in violent acts such as shooting, rock-throwing or launching mortars. It is also applied to Palestinians who are members of groups listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department, such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Like “protestor” or “demonstrator,” “activist” suggests someone who participates in marches, waving signs and shouting slogans.
Examples of misuse: ... [Fighting] reached a crescendo Friday with air raids against Palestinian targets by Israeli fighter jets in response to a suicide bomb attack that killed five Israeli civilians and the assailant, a Palestinian activist (Wall Street Journal, 5/21/01).
In the West Bank town of Hebron, a 23-year-old activist in Arafat’s Fatah movement hurled an explosive device and fired shots at Israeli troops (AP, 1/13/01).
Recommended language: Terrorists, rioters, militants, gunmen

AL-AQSA INTIFADA: This terminology echoes the Palestinian contention that violence beginning in September 2000 was a spontaneous response to Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount and that the Muslim shrine was threatened, neither of which was true. Even some Palestinian officials acknowledge that the violence was neither spontaneous nor a response to Sharon’s trip to the Temple Mount.
Examples of misuse: The Palestinian revolt, which is known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, after the mosque that sits atop the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem, has gone through three phases so far (New Yorker, 7/9/01).
Throughout the Arabian peninsula, the US is being widely blamed for the breakdown last month of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, and the upsurge of the Al Aqsa intifada, the Palestinian uprising, in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza (Financial Times, 11/21/00).
Recommended language: Violent Palestinian uprising, Palestinian war

ARAB EAST JERUSALEM: This term is demographically and historically misleading. Demographically, the eastern part of the city is about evenly divided between Arabs and Jews. The entire Old City of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount (where the Jewish First and Second Temples once stood) and the Western Wall, is within eastern Jerusalem. Statistical data from many sources, only some of them Jewish, confirm that there were many Jewish residents, institutions and holy sites throughout Jerusalem, including the eastern portion, until 1948 when Jordan gained control of that part of the city. Jordan killed or expelled all the Jewish residents there, and, in an effort to erase evidence of centuries of Jewish presence, destroyed all 58 synagogues. Also in eastern Jerusalem are Hebrew University (built in 1925), the Jewish National and University Library (built in 1930), and Hadassah Hospital (built in 1938).
Examples of misuse: At the same time, in Arab East Jerusalem, there was fury when Israeli forces moved into this refugee camp to destroy Palestinian homes under construction (CBC TV, 7/10/01).
Mazen Julani, a 33-year-old pharmacist from traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, was shot in the head by a man in a passing car as he sat at a cafe last week (Des Moines Register 6/6/01).

ARCH-HAWK, HARD-LINER: While these terms are frequently applied to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, they rarely appear in connection with Palestinian leaders such as Yasir Arafat, who is responsible for the death of scores of Israelis and Americans over the last several decades; Marwan Barghouti, who runs the violent rioting and attacks in the West Bank; and Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a leader of the Hamas movement. Objective news reports convey information about individuals by reporting their actions and statements, rather than by attaching pejorative labels. Readers can then shape their own informed opinion as to whether the subject is an “arch-hawk” or “hard-liner.”
Examples of misuse: Opinion polls mauled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak Friday as violence flared four days before a vote that could sweep arch-hawk Ariel Sharon to power (Reuters, 2/2/01).
Sharon, a hard-liner who gained the premiership this year after a lifetime of fighting Arabs, repeatedly has said that continued Palestinian attacks would bring substantial Israeli retaliation (Baltimore Sun, 6/27/01).

CYCLE OF VIOLENCE: This blurry euphemism exonerates the perpetrators of violence by not naming them and by equating them with the victims. Blame is cast on an anonymous, non-human force. It should be noted that this language is often reserved for cases in which Israelis are victims of Palestinian violence. In contrast, when Israelis are responsible for the deaths of Palestinians, the language tends to be more direct, such as “Israelis kill Palestinian.”
Examples of misuse: In the meantime, another ambulance has arrived, another martyr has been taken to the morgue. The cycle of violence is about to begin again (ABC News, 12/19/00).
His provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was the catalyst for the current cycle of violence (Washington Post, 12/10/01).

GILO, SETTLEMENT OF: While Palestinians consider Gilo a settlement, Israel considers it a neighborhood of Jerusalem. Therefore, to call it a settlement is to adopt the Arab position. The land on which Gilo is built had been a Jordanian army camp from the time of Israel’s War of Independence until 1967. Egyptian gunmen, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, had fired into Jerusalem from Gilo’s upper ridges during the 1948 war. Because its strategic heights had been used to menace the city, Israel expropriated the uninhabited area and built a neighborhood. No Arabs were displaced, and the neighborhood of Gilo is today home not only to Jews but to some Arabs, among them Yussuf Samir, who was kidnapped from Bethlehem while shopping and held for two months by Palestinian officials.
Examples of misuse: Shortly after, Palestinians launched two mortar shells at the nearby Israeli settlement of Gilo (NPR, 7/17/01).
In retaliation, Palestinian militants launched a mortar attack last night against the Jewish settlement of Gilo, which Israel considers part of Jerusalem (Baltimore Sun, 7/18/01).
Recommended language: Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood, built on land which was formerly a Jordanian army camp

GUERILLA, PALESTINIAN: A guerilla is a member of a small group of fighters who attacks an official army. Those who target civilians, such as mothers and their small children driving on their way home or to school, are not “guerillas.” See also, “Activists, Palestinian.”
Examples of Misuse: Khaled Mashaal, a leader of the Palestinian Islamic militant guerilla group, Hamas, said Arab Israelis would boycott the elections and said “preferring Barak instead of Sharon is a silly distraction” (UPI, 1/28/01).
Palestinian guerilla leaders said Israel will pay a heavy price for what they call Israeli aggression (ABC News, 4/18/01).

HARAM AL-SHARIF: This is the Arabic name for the Noble Sanctuary, which is known to much of the world as the Temple Mount. Journalists should not use the Arabic name if they do not also refer to the site as Temple Mount, which is how Jews and Christians have referred to the site for millenia. Also, if journalists provide both the Arabic name (Haram al-Sharif) and its translation (Noble Sanctuary), then they should also cite the Hebrew name (Har HaBayit) and its translation (Temple Mount). Furthermore, journalists frequently note that Haram al-Sharif is the third holiest site in Islam. Certainly, then they should not omit mention of the fact that the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism.
Examples of misuse: The most heated dispute is over control of what Arabs call Haram al-Sharif, or the Nobel Sanctuary, the third holiest site in Islam (AFP, 12/19/00).
A bull deliberately charging a china shop, he marched on September 28th on to Temple Mount, known to all Arabs as Haram al-Sharif or noble sanctuary, for a photo-opportunity to demonstrate Israel’s continuing sovereignty over Islam’s third-holiest shrine (Economist, 10/7/00).
Recommended Language: The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary

ILLEGAL ISRAELI SETTLEMENTS: This language obscures the fact that the legality of the settlements is disputed. While some international bodies deem the settlements illegal, the official American position does not term them illegal. (See Middle East Issues: Settlements) Those who maintain that the settlements are illegal rely on Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power or to that of any other country . . . are prohibited. The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territory it occupies,” which they interpret to mean that Israel is not allowed to settle Gaza and the West Bank. Those who maintain that the settlements are legal argue that the territory in dispute never belonged to another state, that Jordan’s occupation of the West Bank and that Egypt’s occupation of Gaza were illegal under international law, that the British Mandate had recognized the right of the Jewish people to “close settlement” in the whole of the Mandated territory, and that Article 80 of the U.N. Charter did not allow this right to be taken away.
Examples of misuse: Settlements are illegal under international law and have long been considered by many to be an obstacle to a final peace agreement (Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2001).
A recent poll has indicated that 44 percent of Israelis believe the illegal settlements are doing more harm to Israel’s security than good (Houston Chronicle, photo caption, 7/15/01).
Recommended Language: Palestinians consider settlements illegal, or settlements whose legality is disputed

OCCUPIED TERRITORIES: This is confusing phraseology which journalists sometimes apply to all or part of the West Bank and Gaza. But, because Israel has withdrawn from a significant portion of these lands, nearly 100 percent of Palestinians living there are governed by their own Palestinian Authority, not Israel. Thus, it is misleading to refer to these areas as occupied. Nor is the term apt to describe parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israeli control. Because Jordan and Egypt illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively, and because neither territory was ever part of any sovereign country, they are arguably unallocated parts of the British Mandate, which Israel currently administers.
Examples of misuse: The authors say Barak helped set the stage for failure by refusing to carry out some earlier agreements with the Palestinians, including a commitment to turn over West Bank land, expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and then pushing Arafat to reach an all-or-nothing peace deal (Washington Post, 7/18/01).
And it’s led the Palestinians to charge that Israel simply isn’t interested in a cease-fire because it would then have to make the political concessions in the next phase of things, namely which would be freezing settlement construction in the occupied territories (NPR, 7/15/01).
Recommended Language: Disputed territories. If more specific explanation is needed, “Israeli-administered” or “controlled” or “Palestinian-controlled” depending on whether the piece of land in question is governed by Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

PALESTINIAN OR ARAB LAND/TERRITORIES: These terms are often misused, erroneously applied to all of the West Bank and Gaza. Appropriate use of this phrase is to indicate those parts of the West Bank and Gaza which are currently ruled by the Palestinian Authority. In contrast, it should not be used to describe portions of the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli control, as these lands are disputed. To prejudge their rightful ownership is partisan and violates a news reporter’s obligation to be impartial. See also “Occupied Territories.”
Examples of misuse: Senior officials denied any intent to retake Palestinian land, but an aide to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat described the situation as on “the edge of explosion” (Christian Science Monitor, 7/19/01).
The sticking point was not, in fact, whether human beings have a “right” to adequate housing, but how to phrase language that would criticize Israeli settlement-building on Palestinian land (Washington Times, 6/11/01).

PRE-1967 BORDERS OR 1967 BORDERS: This fallacious terminology is often used to refer to the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank. The Green Line served as an armistice demarcation line between Israel and Jordan, which illegally occupied the West Bank from 1948 to 1967. The armistice line was established April 3, 1949 by Article III of the Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement and was never the “border” between Israel and the West Bank. The word “border” implies, of course, a dimension of legality and permanence that doesn’t apply in this circumstance.
Examples of misuse: In much of Israel and Palestine, Wednesday’s meeting between Bush and Sharon, scheduled to broadcast during prime time here, is seen as a huge, possibly career-saving victory for Sharon and a debilitating blow to liberals on both sides of the Green Line, the border that separated Israel and Palestine before the 1967 war (Salon.com, 4/17/04).
Bush stated unequivocally Wednesday his belief that facts on the ground meaning that Israel should not be expected to retreat to its pre-1967 borders (Los Angeles Times, 4/15/04).
Recommended language: Green Line, 1967 lines, 1967 boundaries, 1949 Armistice Line

SETTLER WOMAN/BABY/BUS/HOME/BODY: The term “settler” as an adjective to modify a child, woman or school bus that has come under Palestinian attack dehumanizes the victim. In light of the dehumanization of the residents of the settlements by some Arab groups and others, to label an innocent victim as, for example, a “settler baby” tends to legitimize the attack. Some media have reported, for example, that a “settler bus” has come under attack, not mentioning that the bus–actually a school bus–was carrying nine- and 10-year-olds.
Examples of misuse: The family of a settler woman killed in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank refused to welcome a government representative to her funeral Wednesday because of the policy (Chicago Tribune, 5/31/01).
Jewish settlers have been trying to attack Palestinian homes and property there, and have done so in the last few days after the killing of a 10-month old Jewish settler baby in the town (CNN, 3/29/01).
Recommended language: Israeli, Jew, Israeli civilian, school bus

UPRISING AGAINST ISRAELI OCCUPATION: Nearly 100 percent of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza live under their own government–the Palestinian Authority–and thus cannot be said to be living under “occupation.” This phrase miscasts entirely the nature of the recent violence. Obscured in such language, for one, is the Palestinian rejection of the Israeli offer of substantial land at Camp David. In addition, the PA has played a key role in fueling violence through its virulent incitement against Jews and Israel.
Examples of misuse: Palestinians say 40 militants have been killed by Israelis in the “hits,” as one senior Israeli military official has called them, since the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza began on Sept. 28 (Boston Globe, 7/18/01).
The suicide attack was the latest in a nearly 10-month-old Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza (USA Today, 7/17/01).
Recommended language: Violent uprising


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