In Jerusalem, words can be just as deadly as bullets

The way we use language betrays our true sympathies
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The Independent Online

Jerusalem is a city of illusions. Here Ariel Sharon promises his people "security" and gives them war. On the main road to Male Adumim – inside Israel's illegal "municipal boundaries" – Israelis drive at more than 100 miles an hour.

In the Old City, Israeli troops and Palestinian civilians curse each other before the few astonished western tourists. Loving Jesus doesn't help to make sense of the Arab-Israeli conflict. "Move on, move on," an Israeli police loudspeaker bawled in Arabic as the Palestinian traffic snarled into a great oven-like jam at midday yesterday. More curses. If east Jerusalem really is part of the "unified and eternal capital of Israel", why are there so few Israelis to be seen?

Gideon Samet got it about right in Wednesday's edition of Haaretz. "Jerusalem looks like a Bosnia about to be born," he wrote. "Main thoroughfares inside the Green Line ... have become mortally perilous... The capital's suburbs are as exposed as Ramat Rachel was during the [1948 ] War of Independence.

"The Temple Mount didn't go up in flames only because the police kept their fingers off their triggers this time around."

Mr Samet was pushing it a bit. Life is more dangerous for Palestinians than Israelis, and the Temple Mount to which he referred lies beneath the Haram al-Sharif mosque complex which the Israeli police invaded a week ago, after Palestinians threw stones at Jews at the Wailing Wall.

Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Security/war. Israel's newspapers are filled with stories about "terrorists". Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists. Like a punctuation mark, terrorist equals Arab. "I suggest that we repeat to ourselves every day and throughout the day," Ariel Sharon advised Israelis last week "that there will be no negotiations with the Palestinians until there is a total cessation of terrorism, violence and incitement."

But this does not mean Israel's death squads have to stop murdering with their usual impunity, or that Israeli settlers must stop shooting Palestinian civilians. Only that Palestinian suicide bombers must stop killing innocent Israelis.

Yesterday, the Palestinians – slow as usual to spot the lethal double standards of the English language – complained that US Vice-President Dick Cheney had supported Israel's policy of murdering its guerrilla opponents. The State Department insisted Washington still condemned such killings, while the White House spokesman claimed that Mr Cheney had been "quoted out of context". Which was what the Arabs call zbeile – rubbish.

When Mr Cheney was asked on a US television show what he thought of this illegal murder campaign, he replied: "If you are an organisation that is planning some sort of suicide bomb attack, there is some justification in Israel trying to protect themselves." Which is about as close as you can get to a Vice-President giving his imprimatur to extra-judicial execution. But the Americans – who call the West Bank "disputed" rather than "occupied" – are Israel's allies.

Until now, the BBC was not. But yesterday, its World Service television presenters were obeying a scandalous new edict from their London editors that they must in future refer to the Israeli assassinations as "targeted killings" – the anodyne phrase Israel wishes journalists to use. The phrase is in any case a lie: last week's "targeted killings" cost the lives of a Palestinian journalist and two children as well as Hamas men.

The Palestinians are used to such double standards. After all, Yasser Arafat also plays with words, talking about his "peace of the brave" while promising the "liberation of Jerusalem", promising a ceasefire which does not exist and which will, most assuredly, be broken again.

"Your newspapers lay the groundwork for our suffering," a Palestinian lawyer told me yesterday. "Look at the Wall Street Journal this week." Sure enough, Thursday's editorial praised Mr Sharon's "subtlety" because "suddenly, enemy [sic] terrorists are being brought down [sic] en route to their mischief... This is war waged in twilight ... subtle, but no less deadly".

There was no reference in the Wall Street Journal to the two children "brought down" en route to their parents' home. And very definitely no mention of those unhappy words, Sabra and Chatila.

Why should there be, when newspapers here – Israeli and Arab – happily print the words with which their more abusive leaders continue to bestialise each other. No sooner do we have one of Israel's leading rabbis, according to the Hebrew press, calling Palestinians "insects" than Palestinian papers quote a Hamas leader as calling Israelis "the sons of pigs and monkeys". How easily words of hatred can metamorphose into acts of hatred.

Jerusalem drifts on under its illusions. I was trying to sneak right at the red lights when one of those loudspeakers shouted at me. I waffled something about the legality of turning right at the red lights in the US and was politely admonished by the cop. I'm beginning to get the message here. "Targeted killings" are OK, tolerated by Mr Cheney, the very Israeli euphemism now blessed by the BBC. But whatever you do, don't shoot the red lights.