JERUSALEM — When Israeli soldiers track and kill a Palestinian militant, the army calls it "focused prevention." When Palestinian suicide bombers strike, their backers cheer "heroic martyrdom operations."
In the linguistic combat of the Mideast, Israelis and Palestinians are remarkably creative in sanitizing descriptions of the ways they kill each other.
The verbal arms race predates the September 2000 eruption of the current Palestinian uprising, but the lingo has been greatly increased over the last 23 months.
"These terms catch on very quickly with the public," said Lior Yavne of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. "It's important that we don't allow this language to hide what is really happening."
Even the conflict's name is a fuzzy term. Palestinians call their violent uprising against Israeli control the intifada, which means "shaking off" in Arabic. Still, the term is so ingrained, even Israelis use it.
Both sides have so honed their skills that they can detail lethal events entirely in euphemisms.
Relying mostly on combat helicopters, Israeli forces began killing Palestinian militants suspected of attacking Israel and initially labeled the assaults "preemptive strikes." Palestinians called them "assassinations."
The army then rolled out the phrase "pinpoint preventive operations." Despite its alliterative allure, that never took hold, and it was ditched in favor of an even more benign term: "focused prevention"--as in, "the Palestinian terrorist was eliminated during a focused prevention operation."
On the other side, "a heroic martyrdom operation against the Zionist entity" is the way the militant Islamic movement Hamas typically claims responsibility for a suicide bombing. Hamas has carried out more suicide bombings than any other faction, although it never employs that term. It also avoids using the word "Israel," which it refuses to recognize.
A number of Israeli officials also reject the term suicide bombers, saying it focuses on the assailant, not the victims. They favor "homicide bombers."
Some Palestinians call suicide bombers "F-11s," a nickname that plays off the Palestinians' view that they don't have high-tech firepower like Israel's F-16 warplanes. "We have F-11s," they say, wiggling their index and middle fingers simultaneously to approximate the legs of a suicide bomber walking toward a target.
Much of the Mideast conflict is about winning international support, with each side attempting to demonize the other and present itself as a victim acting in self-defense. The sides frequently complain to journalists, diplomats and anyone else who fails to adopt their phrases.
Perhaps the most bitterly disputed word is "terrorist," which the Israelis employ liberally, expanding it on occasion to cover low-level activists with no clear involvement in violence. The army has on several occasions announced the killing of a "terrorist," only to retract that later and acknowledge that it was an unarmed civilian killed unintentionally.
In contrast, Palestinians normally avoid the word altogether--except when referring to Israeli military attacks on suspected militants. They call those "Israeli state terrorism."
Under intense U.S. pressure, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat made rare use of the word in a Feb. 3 op-ed piece in the New York Times. "I condemn the attacks carried out by terrorist groups against Israeli civilians," Arafat wrote.
Palestinian leaders, including Arafat, give full-throated support to the Palestinian uprising. But in most cases, they are intentionally vague in comments to journalists and in official statements when talking about violence by Palestinians. They use phrases such as "legitimate resistance" or "military operations."
Explicitly endorsing attacks would anger Israel and leaders in many other countries. Denouncing attacks would risk alienating the majority of Palestinians who support them.
Another euphemism got in the news recently, after Israeli soldiers surrounded a wanted Palestinian militant at a house in the West Bank village of Tubas and dragooned a 19-year-old Palestinian next door into helping them.
Nidal Daraghmeh was forced to put on a bulletproof vest, knock on the door and bring out everyone inside. As he approached the house, he was shot in the head and killed--although it's not clear who fired the fatal shot.
Palestinians and human-rights groups denounced the army's use of "human shields." The army said it was employing its long-standing "neighbor procedure."
"The idea is that a person is going in to warn people inside and explain the situation," said an army spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal. "It's done for the safety of everyone."
Israel is now attempting to expel a trio of Palestinians from the West Bank to the isolation of the Gaza Strip, for allegedly assisting siblings who attacked Israel. The army has a term for this: an "order limiting the place of residency."
The verbal feud reaches the top levels on both sides.
Arafat returned from exile eight years ago, yet there's no agreement on his title as head of the Palestinian National Authority. Palestinians call him "President Arafat." Israelis refer to "Chairman Arafat," saying there's not yet a Palestinian state to be president of.
It's doublespeak that is even in the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords of nearly a decade ago. Israel's government agreed then that Arafat's title would be rais, an Arabic word meaning leader--allowing the Palestinians to translate it as president and the Israelis as chairman.