JERUSALEM — The Hebrew word shoah, or holocaust, is not used casually in Israeli society. Occasionally, it is employed to denote a massive disaster.
This weekend, though, Arab politicians and international pro-Palestinian activists, seizing on a comment by an Israeli minister, are calling the bloody Israeli incursion in the Gaza Strip a holocaust.
In what may prove to be a significant miscalculation, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai on Friday used the term in warning of more military action in Gaza.
By allowing constant rocket barrages from Gaza on nearby Israeli cities, the Palestinians, Vilnai said, were "bringing upon themselves a greater shoah because we will use all our strength in every way we deem appropriate, whether in airstrikes or on the ground."
As the three-day death toll in Gaza climbed toward triple digits, senior Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal accused Israel of "implementing a real holocaust against the Palestinian people for the past 60 years. What is happening today in Gaza is a new holocaust."
The nongovernmental Palestinian Information Center issued a statement calling Vilnai's words "the first indirect admission by an Israeli official that what Israel is conducting against the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is a holocaust, albeit a slow-motion one."
Given the Arab reaction and the rising Palestinian death toll, Vilnai's use of the word is proving controversial within Israel as well.
As one Israeli commentator put it on a weblog: "This is a disastrous case of the foot-in-mouth disease, all too common among the contemporary breed of Israeli politicians. Terrible timing, too."
Vilnai's aides released a statement saying the former career army officer had only meant to imply a disaster. Others defended him as a victim of sloppy out-of-context translation.
Tom Gross, a media affairs columnist for the conservative National Review Online, said there was a major difference between "a shoah" and "THE shoah."
"It is like confusing a 'white house' with 'The White House,' " Gross wrote.
At the very least, Vilnai's comment has opened a new front in the Middle East rhetorical war, with critics of Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories apparently seeing it as license to use the word at will.
Critics have compared the Israeli government to the Nazis and termed the barrier being built through the West Bank an "apartheid wall." But they generally avoided invoking the word "holocaust" in describing the plight of the Palestinians.
But Saturday, even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a bitter rival of the Islamic movement Hamas, called the Israeli incursion into Hamas-run Gaza "more than a holocaust."
In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef issued a statement condemning the Gaza operation and adding, "I will quote the Israeli Defense minister as describing it as a holocaust."
Mashaal, the senior Hamas leader, used the term multiple times while speaking to reporters from Damascus, Syria, where he lives in exile. He accused Israel of exploiting the memory of the Holocaust to "blackmail the world" and justify its actions in the Palestinian territories.
"Israel wants to exaggerate the Holocaust when it comes to numbers and make from it a tragedy such that no other can have their own tragedy," he said. "The Palestinian people are the victims, and Israel is the hangman and killer."