Occupation double-speak

Michael Sfard

We are now marking the 45th anniversary of the largest national project in our young country’s history: the suppression of millions of peoples’ longing for independence and freedom.

This project is bigger than the National Water Carrier, more expensive than the Lavi fighter jet, which never did take off, and more foolish than the idea of draining Lake Hula, which wound up exacting a tremendous ecological cost. We are all invested in it up to our necks — financially, politically and, most important, morally.

We have applied various techniques of oppression to gain maximum control over the disenfranchised subjects living under the occupation and to stifle the strange desire for liberty gripping them, that prevents them from relinquishing their land to us. We have established a monstrous bureaucratic entity that purports to manage almost every aspect of the lives of millions of people living under our occupation.

Toward this end, the Hebrew language has also been mobilized by decree of national emergency. It has been tasked with providing a soothing, anesthetizing name for the entire project of suffocation, for the blanket system of theft we have imposed on those we occupy.

Hebrew has risen to the challenge, showing the creativity and flexibility of a language that has been called to duty. Thus extrajudicial executions have become “targeted assassinations”. Torture has been dubbed “moderate physical pressure”. Expulsion to Gaza has been renamed “assigning a place of residence”. The theft of privately owned land has become “declaring the land state-owned”. Collective punishment is “leveraging civilians”; and collective punishment by blockade is a “siege,” “closure” or “separation.”

This is how we have translated the abominable things we have done over the past 45 years, and are still doing, into an indecent assault on one of Zionism’s most beautiful and successful projects: the revival of the Hebrew language.

This is the language we have chosen to describe our malignant presence in the occupied territories. A language that is deceptive and misleading, that diverts moral questions to the realm of bureaucratic technicalities. It deliberately conceals the human essence of things.

In the language we have adopted, we are the doers, the active ones. The Palestinians are silent players who are activated, the objects of our actions who lack initiative.

In our language of occupation, there are no human beings, no individuals. At most, there is some form of daily life whose meaning and character are not entirely defined. The most humane term that the occupation apparatus has come up with for its subjects is “fabric of life”. The State Prosecutor’s Office will tell the High Court of Justice: “To enable the fabric of Palestinian life to exist under the shadow of the separation barrier, the army will pave a fabric-of-life road.” Just like the ant farms that we played with when we were children.

Occupation Hebrew is made of plastic. It masks the violence at its foundation just as a boneless chicken cutlet, cleaned and coated in bread crumbs, reveals nothing about the slaughter that brought it to our plate.

And what sort of language do we use to communicate with those whom we occupy? Unlike the Hebrew we use among ourselves to discuss the occupation, the government’s 3.5 million Palestinian subjects are addressed using blunt force. The Civil Administration’s commanders convey their messages using bulldozers, fences, roadblocks and rifle barrels.

Just this week, I represented the owners of charcoal companies that have operated in the northern West Bank since the 19th century. Right under their noses, the Civil Administration decided to destroy their business due to concerns about pollution.

It turned out that Civil Administration officials had long thought about the problem, yet never thought to include the people who stood to lose their livelihood in the discussion. The notification they received came in the form of demolition orders and an injunction against acquiring lumber from Israel.

The occupation addresses its subjects not in words, but in deed. It is not a language designed for dialogue, but for an extended speech in which the speaker acts and the listener is acted upon. This is the lingua franca common among Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

The organization Breaking the Silence has been distributing a book, “Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000–2010.” The hundreds of accounts it contains are a partial lexicon for those who are interested in the secrets, idioms and proverbs of the language of occupation. The book even serves as a kind of dictionary, translating concepts from the pure Hebrew of the occupation (“sterile routes,” for example) into practical language (“If you see an Arab on the road, this is standard procedure making an arrest.”)

For 45 years, we have been speaking out of both sides of our mouth. We say one thing to the people living under occupation while telling ourselves a different story. Cases like those of the West Bank settlements of Migron and Beit El’s Ulpana neighborhood, both built on privately owned Palestinian land, shed light on the evil and oppression of the occupation. They challenge our schizophrenia and translate it into hysteria. For us to recover, we must eliminate the pathogen: the aggressive and immoral control over others’ destiny.

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