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A place vs. people without a place

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


"Language is people: the human comedy and tragedy." -- Robert Claiborne.

* * *

Is anyone anywhere in the world paying attention to how we refer to the two sides in the ongoing Middle East conflict (war)? Where are lexicographers and linguists who pride themselves in telling us who we are by the words we use?

In the Holy Land, we refer to one side as "Israel." We call the other "the Palestinians."

Do you see a problem?

I do. I call it a lack of parallelism.

Any fool can see that the terms Israel and Palestinians are not parallel, which goes to the heart of the crisis in the region. The first term is singular, and the other is plural. One dictionary states that when things are parallel, they are "identical or similar in essential respects."

As you read this column, keep the above definition of parallelism in mind.

Language scholar Richard L. Graves writes that parallelism is a "major means through which we perceive and structure reality."

Indeed, reality.

So, this entity we call Israel is a government; a 53-year-old nation; a unified people who live in a place that we can map; a place that has real borders. We can measure it in every way. We can count its population, its number of Ashkenazi, Ethiopians, Russians, Yememites, American expatriates. We can count its public, private and parochial schools. We can count the students in its universities. If the government would let us, we can count its nuclear warheads. We can measure the country's miles of roadway. We can determine how many American tourists visit Jerusalem annually. Reliable statistics tell us that the country is a computer powerhouse.

Israel, the nation, has an army -- the fifth strongest in the world, in fact. Its air force pilots can outmaneuver their American counterparts in tight terrain. You can read the report for yourself.

In a May 29 article in the New York Times, Knesset minister Tzahi Hanegbi said of Israel's feelings about the current violence: "The government's patience is running out."

Indeed, Hanegbi said "government," a concrete thing. When a government's patience runs out, it can send in heavily armed troops, tanks, warplanes. It can wipe out entire cities. It can set up effective roadblocks. It can decide who does and does not work. It can decide who sees a doctor and who does not. It can determine a population's destiny, deciding who lives or who dies.

Now, to the other side, that of the Palestinians.

Is there a Palestine? A state of the West Bank? How about the nation of Gaza? Does anyone anywhere seriously speak of the Palestinian Authority -- that loosely thatched figment of the imagination led by Yasser Arafat that Israel and international outsiders created -- as "the government?"

Arafat has little, if any, control over what Palestinians do in the Gaza Strip. He has no control over what they do in the West Bank and in other Arab nations where they are dispersed. He certainly cannot control Hamas suicide bombers.

Remember, parallelism is a "major means through which we perceive and structure reality."

In short, Arafat -- unlike Ariel Sharon -- does not govern a nation. He does not have a nation. He is one among millions of individual Palestinians. He is simply a strong man whom Israel suffers. Sharon can "take out" Arafat anytime he wants. Arafat cannot take out Sharon anytime he wants.

We have a standing army fighting a civilian population. That is reality.

Arafat governs nothing.

He is the caretaker of a concept only. He oversees an ever-shrinking budget. Even his tiny airport had to have Israel's approval. He is the titular head of a series of crowded, filthy refugee camps and dusty towns scattered over thousands of miles of blueprinted desert land. What he governs is a situation -- not a nation.

He and Sharon are not equals in any sense of the word.

Here is more reality: If peace is ever to exist in the Holy Land, no new settlements can be built. Some of the old ones, especially those surrounded by tens of thousands of angry Palestinians, must be destroyed. A state of Palestine must be established -- a sovereign homeland for the Palestinian people, who lost everything in 1967 and now mostly live in refugee camps throughout the Middle East.

Like Jews were before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Palestinians are a diaspora, a people dispersed from their homeland.

Please, no bleating about who was in the region first, Jews or Arabs. What matters now is the present. What about an earnest effort to find peace? A desire to create a condition of real parallelism? What about doing everything possible to stop the carnage?

Israel and Palestine.

The Palestinians are a dispossessed people. Only a fool would argue otherwise. Their existence -- like that of any diaspora -- is one of perpetual degradation. Even with the opening of a special passage from Gaza to the West Bank, if Gazans want to leave the area, they must obtain a permit from Israel. Unless the trip is work-related, most residents never obtain permits.

In this region, nothing is equal. Nothing is parallel. One side is on top. The other is on the bottom.

Israelis and their supporters in the United States need to know that Palestinians, a diaspora, will not settle for anything less than full dignity as a people. They want a country. Peace will not come until a new Palestine has been established, a Palestine that is parallel to Israel. Palestinians and Israelis do not have to live together. But they can live in peace side by side if the Palestinians have their own place. A New Palestine could become one of Israel's major trade partners.

This is the reality on the ground: Israel -- a powerful Western-styled state in its economy and its military -- controls the destiny of the region. The burden of transforming life in this enduring hot spot rests with Israel.

The Palestinian diaspora has no such authority. A diaspora is powerless.

Israel.

Palestinians.

Each is a noun. One is singular, a whole. The other is plural, a scattering -- the definition of a people without a permanent address.

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