Occupying Verses


By Philologos

Published June 13, 2003, issue of June 13, 2003.
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The latest Hebrew word to become a media hit is kibush. Writing, for example, in the June 2 New York Times about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s widely reported May 26 speech to the Knesset’s Likud faction, the Times’ Israel correspondent James Bennet wrote:

A careful man, [Sharon] used the word ‘occupation’ [in regard to Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip] — in Hebrew, “kibush” at least four times. Sharon was attacked as undermining his own government’s effort to label the territories as “disputed.” The next day, he said that what he had meant was that the Palestinians were occupied, but that the territory was not – a formula that appeared to satisfy no one.

Actually, as some commentators have pointed out, Sharon’s explanation, however unsatisfying, was fully in accord with international law. Although the Fourth Geneva Convention’s definition of military occupation as possession of territory won in war over which the possessor is not sovereign would appear to fit the case of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza; the rub is that these territories do not legally belong to anyone else either. (This is because Egypt, which controlled the Gaza Strip until it was taken militarily by Israel in 1967, never claimed sovereignty there, while Jordan’s claim to the West Bank, after it officially annexed the West Bank in 1951, was never recognized by much of the world and was renounced by the Jordanian government itself in 1988.) Thus, paradoxical though it may seem, one can legitimately contend that while Israel does “militarily occupy” these territories’ inhabitants, who are not and do not have the rights of Israeli citizens, it is not a military occupier of the land they inhabit.

But it was not Sharon’s invoking the concepts of the Geneva Convention that so riled the Likud members of Knesset. It was rather the word kibush, which, though commonly used to mean “military occupation” in Hebrew, has the primary meaning of “conquest,” and thus sounds considerably harsher than “occupation.” “Conquest” indeed — ih.tilal in Arabic — is what the Palestinians and the Arab countries have called Israel’s presence in the territories all along, a usage in which they have been joined by the Israeli left. For Sharon to use the word thus came as an understandable shock to his nationalist supporters.

And yet, if Sharon wanted, prior to his summit with President Bush and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to speak of ending the Israeli occupation, he was facing a linguistic dilemma, since there is no other term for “military occupation” in Hebrew except kibush. Hebrew has various specific words for “to occupy” in other senses, and you can, using different vocabulary, Hebraically occupy a parking space, an apartment, someone’s thoughts, or your own self quite unambiguously; yet when it comes to occupying a country, the verb likhbosh and its noun kibush are all there is. If you want to call a country an occupier, you also have to call it a conqueror; if you do not want to call it a conqueror, you can’t call it an occupier either. On the horns of this dilemma Sharon found himself, last week, impaled.

* * *

Another word that has been used much in the peace process news lately is the Arabic hudna, meaning “truce.” A hudna with Israel is, reportedly, what Hamas, the fundamentalist Muslim organization responsible for much of the terror of the intifada, has offered as its contribution to the Bush administration “road map.”

Hudna is both the ordinary Arabic word for a truce or cease-fire and a term with Islamic religious implications, and in declaring its willingness to accept a hudna, Hamas is clearly playing on both meanings — hoping that the world will understand hudna in its ordinary sense while trusting its own followers to think of it Islamically.

Although the word hudna does not actually appear in the Koran, it was the term used by early koranic commentators for an event described in the Koran’s 48th sura, known to Muslims as Al-Fath., “The Victory.” (Wherefrom, incidentally, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah took its name.) There, the Koran relates how, in 628 C.E., Mohammed marched from Medina with 1500 believers of his native city of Mecca, from which a numerically superior anti-Muslim army came out against him; rather than fight, however, the two sides, meeting at a place called Hudaibiyah, declared a hudna in which each made concessions. Although some of Mohammed’s closest followers, such as his general Umar Ibn al-Khatib, were opposed to this truce, which they thought dishonorable, they had no choice but to accept the prophet’s decision. Two years later, it was vindicated in their eyes when Mohammed annulled the truce, marched again on Mecca with a far larger force and took the city.

The message is clear: Although Hamas may agree to a truce with Israel for tactical reasons, such a hudna like that accepted by Mohammed at Hudaibiyah is only temporary. When the right time comes, the war against the infidel will be renewed and fought until final victory. Hudnas, unlike diamonds, are not forever.

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