Wednesday 20 June 2001

Hostility comes across, down

20 June 2001

By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY

JERUSALEM — When Palestinians turn to the crossword pages of their daily newspapers, they may be looking for a few minutes' respite from the grinding Middle East conflict and a chance to flex their literary muscles. But a new analysis of the word games in the Palestinian press reveals that even during their hard-earned leisure time, readers are being fed a diet of anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic rhetoric.

One clue in the mass-circulation Al-Quds newspaper on Dec. 20 asked for a three-letter word to describe "the Jewish trait (spelled backward)." The answer: gdr, an Arabic word meaning "treachery" or "someone who stabs you in the back." The official Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida asked on Feb. 18, 1999, for a word to describe the "Jewish center for eternalizing the holocaust and the lies." The answer: Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

The crossword puzzles are just one reflection of the deep-seated antagonism toward Jews and the existence of the state of Israel — hostility that has remained untempered in the years since the signing in 1993 of the first peace agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.

"The Palestinian media serves as a window into the internal Palestinian world," says Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, the group that produced the report. "These problematic messages are not published in the Palestinian Authority newspapers during times of particular tension. Rather, these have appeared over the past number of years as a routine part of Palestinian culture and amusement, reflecting normative Palestinian thinking."

Since September, when Palestinian-Israeli fighting escalated into a new regional conflict, Israelis have accused the Palestinian media of actively inciting anti-Israel feeling by depicting heroic images of Arab terrorists and Palestinian children with guns. In the past six months, at least 458 people have died, 375 of them Palestinians.

Limor Livnat, Israeli education minister, says the failure to accept the existence of Israel is embedded in the Palestinian education system, including 14 textbooks published by the Palestinian Authority in September 2000 with financial backing from the European Union.

"These schoolbooks do not teach coexistence and compromise with Israel, but faithfulness and commitment to the struggle for the 'liberation of Palestine,' " Livnat says. "Peace with Israel is not presented as a goal or discussed as an option. Israel's name does not appear on any regional map, and its land is included in the 'state of Palestine.' "

Historical events also have sometimes been revised in the crossword puzzles, apparently to reflect Palestinian views. A mentally unstable Australian Christian tourist who in 1969 set fire to the Al-Aqsa mosque, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, was described as a "settler" (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Feb. 6, 2000). Most of the people referred to as "settlers" in Palestinian areas are Jews. And the murder of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra refugee camp in Beirut by Lebanese Christian Falangists in 1982 was described as a "massacre carried out by the Zionists" (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Jan. 9, 1999). Palestinians blame Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was defense minister at the time of the massacre, for allowing the Falangist attack.

Perhaps the most insidious references from the Israeli standpoint are those that mention towns, deserts, mountains and rivers. When Al-Hayat Al-Jadida asked for a five-letter word describing a "Palestinian desert (spelled backward)" on May 26, 2000, the answer was the Negev, in southern Israel.

Critics say the refusal to identify geographical locations as part of Israel reinforces the idea that the Jewish state is not a legitimate entity, despite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's assurance to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993 that "the PLO recognizes the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security."

For their part, the mainstream Israeli media appear to have accepted the idea of an independent Palestinian state, although the label "Palestine" still is largely taboo in the media because it is seen as implying the destruction of Israel. Although racist statements about Palestinians occur in the Israeli media, they are rare and are condemned.

Hafez Barghouti, editor of Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, says the reference to the Holocaust as "lies" was a simple typing error. "The word should have been butula — heroism. But the typist changed one letter by mistake and it came out as batala — lies or denial," Barghouti says. That incident aside, he says he cannot see what the fuss is about.

"They steal our land, they kick us out, they kill us, and now they come to settle accounts with us over words," Barghouti says. "It's very strange that they find time to go over crossword puzzles. ... Instead of searching through crosswords, they should examine the graves of the Palestinians who have died since September to find out how they were killed."