Carefully chosen language is vital when discussing the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Even the simplest of terms often betrays a political stance. The following guide explains the differences in the nuanced terminology used by Palestinians and Israelis to describe the conflict. It is critical that as we speak about the conflict, we don’t accidentally use language that disguises the injustices at the heart of the conflict. At the same time, we also need to understand the language of those who disagree with us, so that we can better engage them in productive dialogue on the issues.
In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Great Britain promised to set aside Palestine as a national homeland for the Jewish people on the condition that this decision would no way negate rights of the indigenous population. During the 1930s, communal violence erupted between the Jewish immigrants and the local Arabs as immigration from Europe increased. The British attempted to solve the crisis by imposing quotas on Jewish immigration. The Jews of Palestine felt betrayed and began armed resistance movements against the British for their independence.
The War of Independence
For these Jewish resistance groups, the United Nations’ decision in 1947 to partition British Palestine into two states – one Arab and one Jewish – was a cause for celebration. The Jewish community would gain 55 percent of historic Palestine. The Arab community rejected the compromise and declared war, believing the entirety of Palestine was rightfully theirs. In Israel, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War is known as the War of Independence. The 1948 War displaced at least 750,000 Palestinian refugees into neighboring Arab countries. In the decades to come hundreds of thousands of Jews would immigrate to Israel from neighboring Arab states. Many Israelis view the Palestinian refugee problem as a regrettable consequence of the Arabs’ decision to go to war. To them, Israel’s victory is one of the most momentous events in Jewish history–the first time that they truly had a home safe from persecution where they were free to be Jewish. From their perspective, the tragedy of the Palestinians was the result of Arab leaders’ unwillingness to compromise and the fault of neighboring Arab countries for not assimilating the Palestinian refugees into their societies.
While a small indigenous community of Jews persisted in Palestine over the centuries and assimilated the language and culture of their Muslim and Christian neighbors, non-Jewish communities in Palestine also have a history at least 2000 years old. As Jews from Europe immigrated and bought Palestinian farmland, they displaced the local Arab tenant farmers. Rising unemployment accompanied by increased immigration created tensions between the Jewish immigrants and Palestine’s indigenous community, which became an all out war in 1936. Palestinians note that at the time the international community, including the United States, classified the Jewish resistance groups that fought the British in the 1940s as terrorist organizations.
When the British turned the problem over to the UN, they resolved to partition Palestine. The 1947 Partition Plan would have taken over half of their land and given it the Jewish community that at the time comprised only 33 percent of the population. No Arab leader considered the partition to be a fair compromise. They viewed the partition as an act of European imperialism that necessitated war. During the 1948 war, Palestinians maintain that Jewish forces followed a deliberate strategy of clearing the land of its native population. Palestinians refer to the 1948 War as the Nakba–the Catastrophe. The Nakba is the defining historical event for Palestinians.
The Six Day War
The 1967 Arab-Israeli War is known in Israel as the Six Day War. Many Israelis believe that the war began as a preemptive move against Egyptian and Arab aggression. Israel’s quick deployment soon crushed the superior numbers of the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In the process, Israel gained control over the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights. A victory of this scale was seen by many Jews and Christians as a biblical miracle in the 20th century. The capture of Jerusalem brought about a resurgence in messianic thinking and major revival in Jewish religiosity. It was the first time since the Jewish-Roman War in AD 70, that the Jewish people held political control over Jerusalem and had unrestricted access to pray at the Western Wall below the Temple Mount. Since 1967 secularism has been on the wane in Israel as more and more devout Jews have begun to call Israel home.
For the Palestinians, 1967 War is the Naksa–the Setback. In their view, the war began when Israel initiated hostilities against Egypt. Once again, the Israelis had a technological advantage over the combined Arab militaries and were able to achieve a quick, stunning victory. Egypt lost the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, Jordan lost the West Bank, and Syria lost the Golan Heights. When Israel took control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, another wave of Palestinian refugees fled into neighboring Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. For those Palestinians who did not flee their homes,1967 marks the end of living under Jordanian and Egypt rule and the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. The Arab defeat was just as significant as the 1948 war.
After defeating Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israeli forces occupied the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights. Soon afterward, groups of Israelis began settling in these lands and building permanent communities. According to international law, an occupying country cannot resettle its population into occupied territory, making these settlements illegal. Israel denies that the territories are occupied, citing treaties with Egypt and Jordan that renounced their claims on the lands. As a result, Israel treats settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as regular communities that are a part of the State of Israel. However, the vast majority of the international community outside of Israel maintains that since these lands were designated by the United Nations to become an independent Palestinian state, they still remain occupied territory.
The territory lying between the 1948 Cease Fire Line (Green Line) and the Jordan River has a population of about three million in 2015, including 600,000 Israeli settlers. Palestinians call this territory the “West Bank,” in reference to the land’s position west of the Jordan River. Many Israelis call it “Judea and Samaria,” after the biblical names for these areas 3000 years ago. East Jerusalem and the West Bank are home to many historic sites associated with the Hebrew Patriarchs and ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The Palestinians, who claim descent from the non-Jewish population present in Judea since Roman times and the later Arab immigrants, have called the area home for at least 2000 years.
Located within the Old City of Jerusalem and sacred to Jews and Muslims alike, this holy site is contested between Israelis and Palestinians. For Jews, who refer to the site as the Temple Mount, there is no holier place. The ancient Temple of Solomon is said to have stood here 3000 years ago, and subsequently a second temple begun under Nehemiah and enlarged by Herod the Great in the 1st century BC once stood on this site. Today the Western Wall at the base of the mount is the last remnant of Herod’s temple and the focus of Jewish worship. For Muslims, who refer to the site as the Noble Sanctuary (or Haram ash-Sharif), this was the place where the angel Gabriel took the Prophet Muhammad during his Night Journey in which he ascended to heaven. Today, al-Aqsa Mosque stands on the southern end of the mount while the iconic gold-covered Dome of the Rock crowns the northern end.
In 2003, Israel began constructing a barrier between Israeli-populated areas in the West Bank and predominantly Palestinian areas. In urban areas, the barrier consists of a 26 foot-high concrete wall punctuated by guard towers. Across the countryside, it consists of a high-tech fence system equipped with motion sensors. The barrier does not follow the pre-1967 borders of Israel, but is instead built around the perimeter of the major West Bank settlement blocs. By some estimates 85 percent is built on formerly Palestinian land. Many Israelis call it “The Security Fence,” arguing that its construction put an end to the wave of suicide bombings that were a major security concern during the Second Intifada. Some Palestinians call it the “Apartheid Wall,” noting that it keeps Palestinians effectively confined and isolated from Israelis as well as separating many villages from their traditional farmland. Palestinians also note the difficulties it creates for workers employed in Israel who have to pass through checkpoints every morning and evening, a process which can take hours.