Posted Saturday, September 8, 2001

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Last week The Independent's Robert Fisk accused the BBC of buckling to Israeli pressure to drop the use of "assassination" when referring to Israel's policy of knocking off alleged terrorists.

London, September 5, 2001

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The Middle East's war of words

by Sam Kiley

It all seems a bit silly, at first -- two foreign-reporting grandees locking horns over just one word.

Last week The Independent's Robert Fisk accused the BBC of buckling to Israeli pressure to drop the use of "assassination" when referring to Israel's policy of knocking off alleged "terrorists". Not true, blustered John Simpson, auntie's [i.e., the BBC's] world affairs editor in The Sunday Telegraph.

The corporation, he insisted, had simply reaffirmed its house rules that only prominent political figures could be assassinated -- though he didn't offer an alternative term for the killing of ordinary folk. He bitterly resented Fisk's allegation that the Beeb had been got at.

It is certainly true that the pro-Israel lobby has forced the BBC and CNN in particular to agonise over the use of loaded terms. In war, words are a weapon, we all know that. And few belligerents have been so good at hijacking language to its own cause than Israel. The Jewish State has deliberately set out to bend English to serve its own ends. It is entirely natural that it should.

Taking its prompt from its Big Brother, the USA, which coined Orwellian terms such as "collateral damage" for dead civilians, and "degrading the enemy" for slaughtering the oppo', Israel has come up with a few choice terms for oldfashioned military tactics.

The Fisk-Simpson debate, however, has reached new levels of pomposity, as each of them flourished their professional standards like peacock plumes. Not since the bitter name-calling squabble over Israel and the Palestinians between the Telegraph's proprietor Conrad Black and Lord Gilmour in the pages of Black's Spectator, have readers had to endure such an apparently meaningless argument.

But I have a little experience of this sort of thing and, yes, words matter. In an 11-year stint for The Thunderer [The Times], I'd lived out a childhood ambition to be its Africa correspondent, served my time in the Balkans and the Middle East, been shot, jailed, and had my ribs cracked. I'd faced (mock) execution twice and had more of a whizz-bang time than any young man could want. Then last month I threw it all in, because of the words I was asked to use, or not to use.

More than two score Palestinians have been bumped off over the past year on suspicion that they have, or might be, planning to kill Israelis. These operations have been described by the European Union and Britain as "assassinations" and "extra judicial killings". Human rights groups call them murders by death squads.

The Israelis call them "targeted killings". Palestinian towns and villages have been subjected to various forms of what we call siege. According to the Israelis, a "breathing closure" allows some movement in and out; a "suffocating closure" speaks for itself. Children shot dead by Israeli snipers and ordinary soldiers at riots are killed in "crossfire".

Both sides manipulate the use and meaning of language, of course. As we have seen at the United Nations racism conference in Durban, Israel's enemies have tried to rob the words "genocide", "racism" and "apartheid" of their real meanings by insisting that Israel is guilty of all three.

Fortunately the USA has walked out of the conference in protest at these grotesque libels of the Jewish State. Still, for the Palestinians, every dead Palestinian is a "martyr" on the West Bank and in Gaza -- whether they chose to die or were killed by accident. And reporters often forget to mention that the Palestinians are not just fighting to end the occupation of their land: most want to destroy Israel and drive all the Jews into the sea.

Both sides seek to censor their crimes and celebrate their causes. Under intense pressure from thousands of (mostly pro-Israeli) e-mail writers, PR pros and politicians, many of these ghastly non-terms have crept into the lexicon of Middle Eastern news coverage.

SharonBut in the war of words, no newspaper has been so happy to hand the keys of the armoury over to one side than The Times, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International. Murdoch is a close friend of Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister (right).

Knowing these details, and that Murdoch has invested heavily in Israel, The Times' foreign editor and other middle managers flew into hysterical terror every time a pro-Israel lobbying group wrote in with a quibble or complaint, and then usually took their side against their own correspondent -- deleting words and phrases from the lexicon to rob its reporters of the ability to make sense of what was going on.

So, I was told, I should not refer to "assassinations" of Israel's opponents, nor to "extrajudicial killings or executions". The professional Israeli hits in which at least four entirely innocent civilians have been killed were, if I had to write about them at all, just "killings", or best of all -- "targeted killings". The fact that the Jewish colonies on the West Bank in Gaza were illegal under international law because they violated the Geneva Convention was not disputed by my editors -- but any reference to this fact was "gratuitous". The leader writers, meanwhile, were happy to repeat the canard that Palestinian gunmen were using children as human shields.

One story which referred to Sharon's "hard-line government" and to a Palestinian village which was "hemmed in on three sides" by settlements was ripped out of the paper altogether after the first edition. These terms were deemed unacceptable, even though Sharon would have sued had I called him a softie; even though the settlements have all been built as military camps, and that the thesis of the piece, on the eve of the Arab League summit in Jordan, was that support for Yasser Arafat and participation in the "Al Aqsa Intifada" (another phrase The Times hated, since they thought it romanticised the uprising) was dwindling.

No pro-Israel lobbyist ever dreamed of having such power over a great national newspaper. They didn't need to. Murdoch's executives were so scared of irritating him that, when I pulled off a little scoop by tracking, interviewing and photographing the unit in the Israeli army which killed Mohammed al-Durrah, the 12-year-old boy whose death was captured on film and became the iconic image of the conflict, I was asked to file the piece "without mentioning the dead kid".

After that conversation, I was left wordless, so I quit.


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