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The Mideast wars over words

When Israelis and Palestinians hold talks, as in Gaza this Friday, euphemism and subtext are usually the rule.

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Israelis and Palestinians are discussing a cease-fire, but even as they use the same word, they don't mean the same thing.

To Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a cease-fire means an end to all attacks against Israelis while his army continues using helicopter gunships to kill militants.

To the hard-line group Hamas, a cease-fire means an Israeli pledge to end helicopter strikes while they continue attacks against Israelis in the Palestinian territories. The difference in understanding is typical. It may foil ongoing attempts by Egyptian mediators to secure Hamas's agreement to a cease-fire and hopes that Secretary of State Colin Powell will visit Israel later this week.

As Americans saw in Iraq, language is an early victim of war. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, words are disputed, freighted with hidden meanings, and used as a crucial weapon in both sides' arsenals. "[This is] a battle over language sometimes more than over anything else," says Diana Buttu, legal advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

While language has tremendous power to heal and reconcile, it is largely used here to shore up deeply held, competing beliefs.

The core Israeli-Palestinian struggle is not about real estate, but identity: who was here first, who belongs, whose story to believe. And so words, which shape the way we see and react to things, matter.

The sensitivity to language explains the furor before and at the Aqaba summit on June 4, where Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas were assailed for their word choices.

In urging his government to accept the US-backed peace plan presented at the summit, Sharon told his government that holding Palestinians under "occupation" was bad for Israel. Israel believes it has a legal and historical right to the Palestinian territories and doesn't consider them occupied. Sharon's use of the word created a firestorm and he retracted.

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