The Israel Report
The Great 'Intifada' DeceptionBy Gerald M. Steinberg
(March 16) - People analyze events through labels, and wars become part of history via the names they are given. For Israelis, the 1947-1948 war is known as the War of Independence, and for the Arabs, as the nakba (catastrophe). When journalists, academics and diplomats refer to the nakba and the 1973 "October War," this is a reliable sign that they are taking the Arab perspective, while references to the Yom Kippur War indicate a more sympathetic view towards Israel.
So where does this leave us in the midst of the current round of this conflict? The violence that exploded at the end of September, before Rosh Hashana, is widely known as the "al-Aksa intifada." Along with their sound bites, Palestinian propagandists had an exotic-sounding label that caught on instantly.
Following the Palestinian lead, the rest of the world, including many Israelis, use this label in referring to ambushes, sniper attacks, and car bombs. Leading Hebrew-language newspapers have sections devoted to "the intifada," and newscasters, political leaders and talk-show hosts use this term routinely.
There is nothing objective about this label, and there are plenty of better options.
Reflecting the degree to which the Palestinian Authority prepared this conflict, through encouraging incitement and the revolving-door policy for terrorists, "Arafat's War" is appropriate. Had Arafat accepted Ehud Barak's overly generous offers, it might have become the Palestinian war of independence.
In contrast, the use of the "al-Aksa intifada" label is deliberately misleading. The word "intifada" creates the false impression of a popular uprising based on mass demonstrations, and diverts attention from terrorist bombs and snipers hiding behind children. The current violence is very different from the broad Palestinian uprising that broke out (without the aid of Arafat) at the end of 1988, but the propagandists seek to gain dividends by this association.
Arafat's war was prepared from above, with the masses only joining sporadically and often reluctantly. By using the term "intifada" in the press and in public statements, the Palestinian leadership scored an important victory and established a sympathetic frame of reference that covers up the dirty details.
Similarly, in linking the violence to the al-Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount, the Palestinians have a convenient way to continue the ongoing campaign to rewrite the history of Jerusalem, and erase 3,000 years of Jewish history. The efforts to create an exclusively Islamic Temple Mount are coupled with the Islamic Authority's earth-moving and construction program. Like the Taliban's demolition of ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan, tractors have resumed the physical destruction of the Jewish foundations of Jerusalem, and promotion of the "al-Aksa intifada" is the political expression of this process.
While pushing the "intifada" label outside, in Arabic language broadcasts, the official Palestinian media often refers to the violence as a "jihad" (Islamic holy war). Arafat's speech to the Islamic summit in Qatar, shortly after the attacks began, and broadcast on the Voice of Palestine, used this term a number of times. Indeed, the match that finally ignited these planned attacks (after a few false starts) came during the sermon at al-Aksa on Friday, September 29, in which Palestinians and Moslems were urged to "declare jihad against [the Jews] to remove their state completely."
Later, Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, the mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine, who was appointed by Arafat, declared that "Every Palestinian is, in fact, in a state of jihad," and parents who "willingly sacrifice their offspring" are "participating in the great reward of the jihad to liberate al-Aksa."
If the Israeli and international media, diplomats, and scholars described the Palestinian terror as a jihad, rather than an intifada, the sympathetic image of popular uprising against oppression would suddenly be replaced by the framework of a holy war. Alternatively, "Arafat's War" conveys the tone quite accurately, although the degree to which the aging Palestinian leader has lost control and to which the violence is directed at him and his corrupt cronies is lost.
However, as long as the world accepts the spin that turns this round of the Arab-Israeli war into a popular uprising, the Palestinians will continue to reap benefits. As little more than a protest movement against occupation, the Palestinians can continue to portray themselves as the victims of brutal Israeli military force.
In this false "intifada" framework, the Israeli decision to isolate Palestinian cities and villages is seen as brutal repression and collective punishment, rather than a vitally necessary measure to keep terrorists away from Israeli cities.
The bottom line is that to avoid losing the political gain, Israel must take control of the labels and perceptions. The term "intifada" should be dropped by political leaders and in the official radio and television broadcasts.
Halting the use of language that allows terrorism to hide behind images of a popular uprising, and of Islamic efforts to erase the central importance of the Temple Mount in the Jewish religion and history, are important steps in overcoming the myths of the Oslo process.
(The writer is director, Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation, Bar-Ilan University.)
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