< Word Watch: Barrier


Friday, February 10, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. Brooke is reporting this week from Israel and the West Bank. I'm Bob Garfield. With the world's focus in recent days on the violent reaction to a Danish political cartoon, it's more obvious than ever how complex and treacherous is the practice of journalism about the Middle East. We're devoting our entire show to the subject, as we attempt to peel away at least a few layers of a story often portrayed in simplistic terms. But no matter how many layers deep you go, the core remains the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, where nothing is simple, not even a common noun.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Often on this program we examine words that take on new meanings or resonance in response to certain events. It's a feature we call "Word Watch," and in and around the West Bank, Israel is currently constructing - let's call it a barrier that goes by many names, depending on who's doing the naming.

ETHAN BRONNER: In fact, the problem is that in some places it's a fence and in some places it's a wall, in some places it's electronic sensors, in some places it's guard posts.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Bronner reported on the Arab-Israeli conflict for many years. Now he's deputy foreign editor for the New York Times. Before I left for Israel, he told me that many places and events bear significantly different labels on each side of the divide.

ETHAN BRONNER: For example, what the Jews and Israel call the Six-Day War, the Arabs and Palestinians call the 1967 Middle East War. What the Jews and Israelis call the Yom Kippur War, the Arabs call the October War of 1973. When we talk about what the Jews call the Temple Mount, we say something like what Israelis and Jews call the Temple Mount and what the Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif, the Holy Sanctuary.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In July of 2003, New York Times reporter James Bennett wrote a memo from Israel to his editors, noting that the barrier was becoming, quote, "the latest linguistic dividing line in the conflict." He said he'd received several ferocious e-mails after a Times headline referred to it as a "border fence," which he wrote, "It definitely is not. There is no border, though Palestinians argue that the fence is intended to define one." He said it would also be a mistake to call it a security fence, because that would be taking a side, by accepting Israel's definition of what it's holy for. Palestinians, he noted, call it a "land grab" because it follows a route that goes past the line that defined Israel before 1967. Palestinians prefer the word "wall" because it invokes Berlin and prison. Bennett suggested "barrier" as the most neutral term, and that's pretty much what the Times decided. Ethan Bronner.

ETHAN BRONNER: Sometimes we begin it by calling it a separation barrier, because we feel that that is a legitimate phrase, that is, to separate Israelis from Palestinians.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: He says the phrase implies no comment on the barrier's real or suggested purposes, but notes that for many readers, neutrality holds no appeal.

ETHAN BRONNER: The word "barrier" doesn't so much anger people, but the failure to call it something else does seem to bother people, particularly from the left, the failure to call it a "wall." I can tell you that I was giving a talk once to a group of conservative Jewish listeners in the United States, and I laid this whole thing out, explaining, "well, the Israelis like to call it a fence, the Palestinians like to call it a wall and we've selected the word 'barrier' because it's a neutral term that doesn't pass judgment." And then I was talking to a lady afterwards, and I used the word "barrier," and she starts punching me sort of with her finger into my chest and saying, "Fence! You're talking to a fence person now! Call it a fence."

DAVID SARANGA: When the fence became an important subject in the media, we noticed that everyone refers to it as a wall, when only five percent of it is a concrete wall and the rest is actually a fence.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Saranga currently works in the Israeli Consulate in New York, but prior to that, in Israel, he coordinated the public relations effort for the barrier. He says it's very important to find the right words.

DAVID SARANGA: So we started to use the term "the anti-terrorist fence" or "the security fence" in order to make the world understand what is the reason Israel is building a fence. It's not about separation. It's about preventing the terror to enter Israel.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a practical matter, what does a fence look like in this context?

DAVID SARANGA: A fence is - look like something which is reversible. I mean, if you build a wall, so it's irreversible, but if you build a fence, this means that it's something you can move; it's something you can change its route.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Saranga suggests suicide bombings have decreased because of the barrier, which, according to the Israeli Consulate in New York, eventually will be roughly 312 miles long. But though it is mostly not a wall, he says a wall is what most of us see.

DAVID SARANGA: If you search for images of the fence in Google or in the news agencies websites, you will only see wall pictures, no fence. And the question is why. The answer is very simple, because it makes a more dramatic picture of the fence.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you will admit that those pictures are pretty dramatic, 'cause that is one heck of a wall.

DAVID SARANGA: No, no doubts. But on the other hand, if you want to bring the accurate information, so people should understand that it's only five percent of the whole picture.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The wall, the place where it is a wall, it's about 70 feet high. Why so high and so solid in certain places?

DAVID SARANGA: Because there are certain places where the purpose of the wall is to prevent the Palestinians to shoot on vehicles on the Israeli side. In some places, the Israeli cities are so close to the Palestinian cities or villages, so in order to prevent those shootings, we had to build the wall. [BACKGROUND VOICES, HUBBUB]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Palestinian village of Bil'in is located roughly three miles outside the so-called "Green Line" of 1967. Nearby, also outside the line, is the Israeli settlement of Modiin Elite. The barrier is set to run between them, cutting off a big chunk of Bil'in. [CHANTING IN BACKGROUND] Every Friday for the past year, Palestinian and Israeli activists gather at the house of a Palestinian member of the Committee Against the Wall and the Settlements before trudging up to the site for a non-violent protest. February 3RD was a particularly lousy Friday. [SOUNDS OF THUNDER, RAIN AND HAIL] Rain, then hail. [MANY PEOPLE SPEAKING IN BAKGROUND]

RATEB ABU RAHMA: My name is Rateb Abu Rahma, member of the Popular Committee Against the Wall and the Settlement. I am 40 years old. I am a teacher in a university.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's his house now sheltering a couple dozen young Israelis with mud-caked shoes, waiting for their Palestinian counterparts to finish their mid-morning prayers at a nearby mosque. [SOUND OF PRAYERS IN BACKGROUND]

RATEB ABU RAHMA: The wall here in our village has stolen more than 60 percent of our land. This wall is stolen land, not for security wall. Bil'in's peaceful. And in our village, before more than 30 years ago, there isn't any persons do anything against Israel.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Given Bil'in's peaceful history, he objects to the word "security." Fellow committee member Mohammed Khatib objects to the word "fence."

MOHAMMED KHATIB: Fence you can see the other side, but here you cannot see the other side. It's a wall, not a fence. Here we are together. Israelis and the Palestinian are fighting to see each other. We want to see each other.

JONATHAN POLLACK: I think the implications of this barrier and the political significance behind it can only be conveyed by the term "wall."

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathon Pollack is an Israeli member of a group called Anarchists Against the Wall.

JONATHON POLLACK: This is not a picket fence between one neighbor's garden and the other neighbor. We're talking about a barrier that completely disrupts ordinary life of ordinary people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: For Israeli activist Etai Valdi [ph], the word "barrier" also falls short.

ETAI VALDI [ph]: There I think it's a bit misleading, because we have some notion it can be removed easily. And this fence cannot be moved, unless there is taken a very strong action by the state. It cannot be moved by the people on the ground.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Most of the demonstrators here say they would be able to accept the wall if it ran along the Green Line, but it cuts into villages like Bil'in to accommodate Israeli settlements. [PROTESTS IN BACKGROUND/ARABIC] As the protesters head up to the site, clambering in the mud over rocks - [WHISTLES SOUNDING, SHOUTING] - a dozen armed Israeli soldiers of roughly the same age or younger come running down from the rise, over sadly half-built houses of the expanding settlement of Modiin Elite. [VOICES IN BACKGROUND] I look in vain for the barrier, but there isn't one. It's just a void, a muddy path, now lined with soldiers on one side and protestors on the other. [SHOUTING VOICES, WHISTLES, CHANTING] There's some jeering, some pushing, some chanting in Hebrew and English and Arabic, and then - it's over. A week ago at the Israeli Consulate, I asked David Saranga if there was any way to win the war of words.

DAVID SARANGA: I think it is impossible to win that war. What is possible is to sit, to negotiate, to hear the other's opinion, to hear what the Palestinians are using, which words they're using. We want the Palestinians to hear what we have to say. So the only solution to win that war of words is to sit and to talk.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a lot of talk in Bil'in from students, academics, villagers and anarchists. But for the Israeli media and the Israeli public, the argument over words is largely settled. Whether they call it a wall, a fence or a barrier, they believe it is a security measure and it will save lives. For many Palestinians, it's a question of land and law, and they've taken their challenges to court. For them, as for the Israelis, the words in this war of words are really beside the point. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]