In the Middle East, black means white
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 5 July 2003)

JERUSALEM - Palestinians never liked calling their front-line terrorists "suicide bombers," because the Koran frowns on suicide. No problem. They just substituted the word "martyr," which quickly became theologically appropriate. Some pesky imams remained unhappy, but they soon fell silent, and in no time "martyrdom" became desirable and admirable. Proud parents spoke of "My son the martyr," and funerals for 20-year-olds turned into celebrations.

This is the way language functions in the Middle East. It's a Lewis Carroll universe, where (as Humpty Dumpty put it) words mean what people choose they should mean, no more and no less. That may be partly true everywhere, but in the Middle East it's a way of life. Refugees are not refugees, camps are not camps, settlements are not settlements -- and (the most recent perversion) a state is not a state.

Everywhere else, refugees are searching for new places to live; we judge a country's virtue by how generously it accepts them. Neither of those principles apply to Palestinian refugees. They're neither searching for homes nor expecting generosity. If Canada announces on Monday that it will immediately accept 5,000 of them, we'll be denounced for gross interference. For these people, refugee is a career choice. We are not to deprive them of it.

They fled or were evicted from what is now Israel, in the 1948 war -- a war started by the Arabs to prevent the UN partition of Palestine (roughly the same two-state solution now favoured by Europe and America). The refugees still expect to return to sweet Jaffa, fragrant Haifa, or some other exquisite town in their family's past. Meanwhile, a vast department of the UN bureaucracy reinforces their commitment to stay right where they are until they get what they want. They have spent 55 years promising to return one day, meanwhile teaching their children geography from textbooks and maps that ignore the existence of Israel.

The original refugees are dying off but their descendants maintain the faith. A community that began as few hundred thousand now numbers more than 3-million. They live, of course, in "refugee camps," which are not camps at all but towns and cities. Many aren't pleasant, and the worst are in Gaza, but they have little of the "camp" about them. Usually they consist of concrete buildings, with schools, stores, mosques, clinics and everything else you expect in a community.

Then there are the Israeli settlements that aren't settlements. In a North American mind, "settlement" suggests something temporary, maybe a log construction in the wilderness. Last week I visited Ariel, a Jewish "settlement" deep in what Palestinians consider their territory. Ariel has 18,000 residents and looks as permanent as a 10-year-old district in North York. Everything has a finished, solid appearance, especially Ariel's special pride, the College of Judea and Samaria (that's what many Israelis call the region that everyone else describes as the West Bank). The college has 5,000 students, most of them commuters, and this year achieves university status. It may be possible one day to close down cities like Ariel, as many negotiators imagine and most of the world advises. No one should expect, however, that it will be accomplished without titanic political difficulty.

Current negotiations call for a Palestinian state, but it won't be what the rest of the world considers a state. We normally use that term to describe an independent country that can, if it chooses, raise an army and an air force, control its air space, and join military alliances. It's impossible to imagine Israel agreeing to a state like that arising on its doorstep; I've carried that question to several corners of Israel and found no one who expects anything like an independent nation to develop. The new Palestine, when and if it emerges from the womb of diplomacy, will be a semi-autonomous demilitarized region, with a little more power than Alberta. It will be, in diplomatic parlance, a "parastatal" entity, its activities closely supervised, no doubt under some organization led by the United States.

In a Canadian mind it evokes "sovereignty-association," our historic masterpiece of bafflegab. Canada could easily send the Palestinians a squad of constitutional scholars (we have regiments of them) who would be only too willing to explain this rich concept. So far as I'm aware, this form of aid has not yet been requested.

It's hard to know how well the Palestinian masses -- now usually called "the street" -- understand the subtlety involved in defining their new form of government. My guess is that they don't understand it at all. Nevertheless, everyone has silently agreed to use the incorrect term "state," in hope of enhancing Palestinian dignity. No one has figured out how to break the news to them that their parastatal homeland probably won't even be allowed an airport. That, like many other difficult questions, will be left to a later stage in the negotiating process.

Those who study the Middle East must learn to accept that language, far from being a means of consistent illumination, works at best like a flickering candle that never lights up more than one small corner of reality.

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