Last year while living in Al-Quds/Jerusalem I wrote a post about the way the names we use for places here are always politically charged. I still agree with that post, but it focussed on issues in Jerusalem, especially linguistic differences between average Israelis on the one hand and internationals concerned with international law on the other. In Jerusalem, even asserting the existence of the green line is transgressive, it is radical to call the Moroccan Quarter what it was, and you feel like you are standing against the entire world if you question Israel’s commitment to peace on the basis of its unwillingness to give up the Old City.
Living in Ramallah, however, another linguistic difference grates on me. The problem is with the name “Palestine”. When Palestinians say Palestine they don’t mean the Westbank, either by its international legal definition or what Israel means by it (i.e. large sections cut out by the wall, including East Jerusalem). But internationals constantly say “Palestine” to mean the area between Israel and Jordan under partial Palestinian authority control. Which, by extension, means they use the term “Israel” to mean the land inside, usually including East Jerusalem. Travellers who have been travelling around “Israel”, and perhaps Jordan and Egypt, come to “Palestine” to make sure they see as much as they can in the area. For them, “Palestine” stands beside “Israel”, a proto-state, an occupied state, but a kind of country nonetheless.
For a long time people sympathetic, or at least wishing to recognize the Palestinians, have used the term “Israel/Palestine” or “Palestine/Israel” to describe this area of the Levant since the declaration of the State of Israel (without any specified borders) in 1948. For a long time the use of the two terms was used to show that the space was contested – that there are those who call it Israel, and those who call it Palestine. With the declaration of the State of Palestine and emergence of the Peace Process, however, “Israel/Palestine” has come to mean something like 2 states, or one state and a proto-state which is occupied next door.
Now, if you support the peace process, if you support the “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then I have no issue with you using the word “Palestine” to mean the West Bank, or the West Bank and Gaza. If you support the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, I have no problem with you calling East Jerusalem “Israel”. What I have a problem with, however, is the pretense that this language is neutral, that these are just “the names for things”. Palestine is not the name for the Westbank. Palestine is the name for Palestine, this is what Palestinians mean when they say Palestine. For Palestinians, especially for Palestinian refugees, the occupation of their land is 64 years old, not 45, and when Palestinians talk about the other side of the Apartheid wall, they don’t say “Israel”, they say “the other side of the wall”, or maybe “inside the occupied land”.
So say what you want, but be honest with yourself about the political implications of your language. When you name “Israel” the regions of Palestine from which Palestinians were expelled in ’48, you legitimize the continued expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. And you do the same when you use “Palestine” to name the Westbank. If you want to do that, fine, do what you like. Also, feel free to point out that if I or a Palestinian uses “Palestine” to name all the land, we delegitimize the Zionist claim to Jewish sovereignty over all or part of the land of Palestine. That’s fine, that’s what I was trying to do.
So, if you want a name for the land here that doesn’t take a position on the dispossession of the refugees, or the question of Jewish sovereignty over the part or all of the land, there is an easy solution: go back to what people said before, and say “Israel/Palestine” or “Palestine/Israel”.