What will historians in the future call the nearly three years of daily violence between Palestinians and Israelis that have — for the moment — just ended? That may depend on whether or not the cease-fire that has been declared becomes permanent. If it does, a strong contender is a name that did not exist two weeks ago but is now circulating in the media in Israel — namely, “The Thousand Days’ War.”
Between its outbreak on September 28, 2000 and the onset of the cease-fire on June 30, 2003, “The Thousand Days’ War” really did, rather remarkably, last exactly 1,000 days, which makes it a name that is difficult to resist. And it is especially difficult because there has been until now, on the Israeli side, no satisfactory alternative. While the Palestinians have officially labeled their three-year campaign of terror against Israel the “Al-Aqsa Intifada,” after the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, where the violence first began, this is not a term that Israelis could accept without accepting the Palestinian version of events as well.
And yet — perhaps because Israelis, unlike Palestinians, do not have a single version of these events — they have not come up with a term of their own. Many became accustomed to speaking of “the intifada,” or “the second intifada,” to distinguish it from the violence of 1987-1993; many others used Hebrew locutions like ha-matsav, “the situation,” or even ha-balagan, “the mess.” Yet one can hardly conceive of future historians writing about the Palestinian terror of 2000-2003, and the Israeli response to it, as “The Situation” or “The Mess.” “The Thousand Days’ War” seems more serviceable.
Wars often get their names, or at least their final ones, retroactively (think of “World War I”), and most of Israel’s wars have been no exceptions. Even the Six-Day War was not called that until day seven, and the war in Lebanon was known to Israelis in its first weeks by its military code name of “Operation Sheleg” — sheleg being both the Hebrew word for “snow” and an acronym for shalom la-galil, or “Peace for the Galilee.” Other wars fought by Israel do not have a single accepted name to this day. The 1956 war in Sinai, for instance, is still referred to as both the “Sinai Campaign” and (also its military code name) “Operation Kadesh.” Indeed, even the 1948 war in which Israel was created has two names,
Milh.hemet Ha-atsma’ut, the “War of Independence,” and Milh.emet
Ha-shih.rur, the “War of Liberation,” both of which are used by Israelis interchangeably.
The Yom Kippur War, on the other hand, became known as such in Hebrew almost as soon as its first shots were fired on October 6, 1973; what else could Israelis have called a war that broke out on their holiest day? Yet the Arabs have their own name for it, calling it the “Ramadan War” after the month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan that coincided with it, and many American and European historians have compromised on the “October War” as a way of preserving their neutrality.
At least one campaign fought by Israel that has the Hebrew title of a war is generally not considered or referred to outside of Israel that way at all. This is the Milh.emet Ha-hatasha or “War of Attrition,” the fighting that took place between Israeli and Egyptian forces along the Suez Canal between 1967 and 1970. Although there were hundreds of casualties on the Israeli side, and an even larger number on the Egyptian side, the largely stationary nature of the fighting and the absence of major battles kept the international media from treating it as a full-fledged war. The result is that Israel has fought one more war against the Arabs by its own count than it has by the world’s.
The closest parallels in Zionist/Israeli history to “The Thou-
sand Days’ War” are two periods in the 1920s and 1930s that, like the past three years, were marked by Palestinian terror attacks on Jews and Jewish retaliations. The first of these lasted for several months during the summer and autumn of 1929; the second was more severe, continued from 1936 until 1939, involved fighting between Arab irregulars and British forces, and has come to be known in the history books by its Arabic designation of the “Arab Revolt” or the “Great Arab Revolt.” The Jews of Palestine, however, not wanting to dignify it by this name, referred to it, as they also did to the violence of 1929, simply as ha-me’or’aot or “the events” — which was not on the whole very different from calling the violence of 2000-2003 “the situation” or “the mess.” Naming a war is clearly more difficult when the war is not clearly defined in its nature or scope, and when those who have to give it the name do not quite know what to think of it.