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Middle East semantics

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Liliane Landor | 12:13 UK time, Wednesday, 2 August 2006

This war has all been about semantics and the failure to read the small print.

World Service logoAs I write, our reporter in Brussels is filing on the EU foreign ministers meeting that's just ended - the gist of her report is that the ministers agreed not to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. Instead, they're calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

The difference between ceasefire and cessation of hostilities? A cynic would say none. Just a way around various political sensitivities.

But it’s not just the Europeans that have a taste for linguistic fineries. The Israelis and Lebanese can also play at that game. Here's two quick examples.

Example 1 - early Monday morning Israel announces it's agreed to a suspension of air activity for 48 hours to investigate the Qana incident - we duly register. It’s the lead of our news bulletins and breakfast programmes.

A few hours later, Dan Damon on World Update interviews a Lebanese minister who insists aerial bombardment was still going on, and claims the Israeli airforce had just attacked a Lebanese military post near Tyre. Clearly the story's moving fast but we need to confirm and get this right. If the minister's claims are correct, we can’t possibly keep leading on "a cessation of aerial hostilities".

The programme's editor decides to turn to Jim Muir in the South of Lebanon who confirms artillery was hitting, but most likely it's naval he says. Jim adds he could hear planes flying but did not think they were dropping bombs. The editor decides to get it from the horse's mouth - the always-accommodating IDF spokesperson. No joy there. It's finally Richard Miron, in Metulla on the Israeli/Lebanese border who sheds some light over the elusive aerial "pause"...

He explains that Israeli jets had been operating in the area and quoted the Israeli army saying, "it reserves the right to strike Hezbollah targets where it believe its forces and civilians are under imminent threat". Hot of the press, he then confirmed the Air Force was indeed assisting ground operation. Ceasefire meant in this instance that the Israeli airforce was not carrying on with its timetabled operation - simply responding.

Riddle solved. We changed our headline.

Example 2 - from the other side of the border. It is well known there is no love lost between Hezbollah and the Lebanese PM Fuad Siniora. Mr Siniora is anti-Syrian, a good friend of Condoleeza Rice, and certainly not a fan of Syed Hassan Nasrallah.

Yet in an emotional speech after the Israeli strike on Qana, the prime minister praised Hezbollah, calling them resistance fighters, protectors of Lebanon and the Lebanese - you could say he "re-named" Hezbollah.

Mere semantics or a more profound shift in internal Lebanese alignments? Time will tell.

Liliane Landor is editor of World Service news and current affairs


So what Israel actually stopped doing on Monday was the deliberate targetting of innocent women and children. How very civilized of them.

On remarking on the wording of Europe's call, several acquaintances scoffed. It's a source of great frustration to me that many don't appreciate the sheer power of words. Guns don't kill people--words kill people.

Trying to piece together the puzzle of words on this one: Israel say they won't commit to a ceasefire until an international force is in place and France (frontrunners for fronting the force) won't commit troops until hostilies cease. Is, then, a "cessation of hostilies leading to a ceasefire" the way out of this conflict that's being paved?

  • 3.
  • At 01:16 PM on 02 Aug 2006,
  • Tim Jackson wrote:

Re: Comment 1

I think it would be unfair to say Israel was deliberatly targeting Women and Children.

Israel does however seem to lack the moral conscience not target sites where civillian casualties would be highly likley. So in that sence they share a common ground with Hezbollah.

But I suppose when you fire enough high explosives into Lebanon to rival a nuclear bomb you are going to expect some casualties.

And speaking of playing with words, did anyone hear the shocking reply by an Israeli spokeswoman on Today today? Speaking out the captures made of supposed Hezbollah militants, in reply to the question "Who are these individuals?" she said "These are not individuals--these are terrorists." Frightening.

  • 5.
  • At 02:20 PM on 02 Aug 2006,
  • Dood wrote:

The BBC needs to run a story headlined: "POLITICIANS CYNICAL AS INNOCENTS DIE".

  • 7.
  • At 03:22 PM on 02 Aug 2006,
  • anon wrote:

That's funny, as Mr Siniora was recently quoted as calling for the disarmanent of Hezbollah and saying that the Syrians were in Lebanon.

Oh and Ian, before making untrue remarks, please consider what motive would Israel have for supposedly targeting civilians? The IDF know that there would be nothing to gain by this and everything to lose. Israel has a hard enough time getting world sympathy anyway without giving people legitimate reasons to hate them instead of the current misinformed anti-Semitism (I call it anti-Semitism because Israel is the only country that gets consistently criticised and has its actions blown out of all proportion).

An earlier version of this entry mistakenly identified Mr Siniora as an anti-Syrian Christian. It is, of course, the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, who is a Christian. Mr Siniora is Muslim.

  • 9.
  • At 07:13 PM on 02 Aug 2006,
  • anon wrote:

"These are not individuals--these are terrorists." Frightening."

The truth is always frightening to those who don't want to hear it.

Isn't that right BBC. I've yet to see you point out Chirac's hypocrisy in attacking Israel for its "disproportionate" reaction when he said he would use nukes in the event of an attack on France.

I'm sure the Jerusalem post is a bastion of unbiased reporting. But to rely on it on this matter is as foolish as believing the views of Anti-Semite weekly.

  • 11.
  • At 11:23 PM on 02 Aug 2006,
  • Christopher Hobe Morrison wrote:

It's hard to be up to the minute with fast-moving stories and remain accurate at the same time, so I guess what you have to do is report the story with the questions you have about it if it is important enough, then report on what you found out was wrong and why later if you have to. These are all necessary if you want listeners/viewers to know what is going on.

I heard a mention on Radio 4's 6 O'Clock News that Cuban television announcers had appeared wearing black. This is important in view of rumours that Fidel Castro was dead. Yet the story has not been updated on your site since yesterday's mention of the note he had sent from the hospital. Surely if there are stories such as this it woukd be better to report on them and then maybe report later if you find out they are unsubstantiated. Otherwise rumours will multiply.

But then, you might have time/space considerations?


  • 12.
  • At 12:20 AM on 03 Aug 2006,
  • bernie wrote:

Israel has the right to exist, it is an acient country, which cannot be said for the mythical nation of palestine. Palestine is a name given to an area, similar to arabia, by the romans in 135 bc.
As to the Israelis bombing lebanon, it would not be happening if hizbollah had not kidnapped two israeli solders and civilians would not be getting killed or injured if the gutless arabs did not purposely move to areas of high civilian population. It is about time the media stopped reporting a one sided, anti jew, pro arab news. Hizbollah started it, put the pressure square on to them, as that is where it lyes.
Israel has a right to exist, but the arabs will not stop untill Israel ceases to exist.
Christians every where should be praying for Israel.

  • 13.
  • At 10:49 AM on 03 Aug 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

"The difference between ceasefire and cessation of hostilities? A cynic would say none."

Well I would consider myself a cynic, but I would consider a ceasefire to involve all parties. You can't have a ceasefire with only one side involved as how would they defend theirselves?

I would consider a cessation of hostilities to mean that a group stops taking hostile actions, but would continue to react defensively, that would involve providing air cover to help their troops as the Israeli's seem to be doing.

Or maybe that is just too logical for a BBC editor?

  • 14.
  • At 12:13 PM on 03 Aug 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

"This war has been all about semantics and the failure to read the small print."

I didn't have to get beyond this first sentence to know that Lilane Lander has never been closer to a real battle than the local library shelf where books on international law can be found. She wouldn't know what war is all about if a bomb fell in her backyard. Perhaps a field assignment to the front lines in a war zone would educate her so that she could write something which actually realates to real wars like killing, hatred, revenge, destruction, and fear. The only wars ever fought over semantics were wars of words usually by windbags of the Parliamentary, diplomatic, and journalistic stripe.

As I said in my own blog, Israel has the right to exist. Strangely enough, so do the Lebanese people. There is a middile ground, you just have to lift the racial-hatred blinkers off to see it.

  • 16.
  • At 10:14 PM on 04 Aug 2006,
  • Christopher wrote:

"Hot of the press" ?

  • 17.
  • At 02:41 AM on 05 Aug 2006,
  • shade wrote:

Just think. Israel bombing Lebanon and killing all those civilians and soldiers because of TWO Israeli soldiers were to become prisoners is just outrageous and it's an excuse for blatant genocide. It's not about who started all this or being pro-Arab and anti-Jew. It's called being rational.

  • 18.
  • At 06:49 AM on 05 Aug 2006,
  • henry van berg wrote:

Why is everyone playing with semantics
Israel is a sovereign country who has put up with terrorists throughout its history.

Why is the BBC so eager to apportion blame to Israel for killing "INNOCENT" civilians but the civilians in Israel who are killed and hurt are obviously by this logic NOT Innocent, because the Israel army hides within the populus and uses them as shields just like the gutless Hezbollah and the other HEROIC arabs.

Wake up BBC give some fair coverage and don't pander to your arab mates.

I hope Mr Blair investigates your "unbiased " reporting.

  • 19.
  • At 12:00 PM on 05 Aug 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

There is only one side targeting innocent civilians and that is Hezbollah. The proof is several thousand rockets which have fallen indiscriminately on Israeli cities kililng civilians. Except for the original kidnapping incident, the only time Hezbollah engages Israeli soldiers is when Hezbollah are found and attacked first. Where are their uniforms? Why aren't THEY being discussed as the perpetrators of war crimes and violators of the Geneva conventions? Had Israel actually targeted civilians, there wouldn't be about 900 dead Lebanese, by now there would be about 900,000, and that's NOT a matter of semantics.

Mark said, "There is only one side targeting innocent civilians and that is Hezbollah. The proof is several thousand rockets which have fallen indiscriminately on Israeli cities kililng civilians."

Mark, do you believe that from several thousand feet up that Israeli F-16 jets can distinguish the difference between Hezbollah fighters and Lebanese civilians when dropping 500lb bombs on towns, cities and villages? Clearly they cannot, so to say they aren't 'targeting Lebanese civilians' is actually missing the point. Israeli jets are dropping bombs and are obviously quite prepared to accept that they will kill women and children.. If they weren't prepared to accept these deaths then they wouldn't be doing this.

"Where are their [Hizbollah's] uniforms?" You asked. Again, would this make any difference from thousands of feet up in an F-16 jet? Dropping bombs on built up civillian areas will kill innocent people.

Hezbollah are equally no better in their random use of missiles which have killed Iraeli civilians. The difference between the two however can be seen in the numbers of dead civilians. Morally they are no better than each other, but the level of destruction and killing is quite obviously far more one sided. Yet for some reason you seem to back Israel's level of violence in reply to the capture of two of their soldiers.

Maybe the UK Government should have bombed and sent troops into parts of Southern Ireland in response to IRA actions on the UK mainland?

  • 21.
  • At 02:35 AM on 06 Aug 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

Let's talk about BBC's semantics. What would it take for someone to be called a "terrorist" by BBC? Well it certainly doesn't include someone who sets off a bomb in a crowded restaurant, shopping mall, or bus in Israel. What about people who set four off in the underground in London? What if it had killed one or more of BBC's employees? Would it matter which employees? What if they leveled Bush house with most of its employees inside they way the World Trade Center was leveled? What if they leveled London? Well, BBC might then concede those who perpetrated it were terrorists but they'd have nobody left alive to report it. They always manage to get an easy pass out of that one.

I've seen Mark elsewhere on the web parroting the same faulty logic when he says, "There is only one side targeting innocent civilians and that is Hezbollah. The proof is several thousand rockets which have fallen indiscriminately on Israeli cities kililng civilians". Whether Israel targets or doesn't target civilians is irrelevant because F-16 jets dropping 500lb bombs from thousands of feet up cannot differentiate Hezbollah fighters from Lebanese citizens, even if they were wearing uniforms. It's simply not good enough to claim that you aren't targetting citizens when you drop poweful bombs on residential areas. Besides which Israel have already shot at Red Cross ambulances and citizens leaving bombed towns and cities.

That isn't to say that Hezbollah are to be let off the hook for their own firing of missiles, as it is equally morally reprehensible. Yet any sane person although feeling sorrow for all being killed would surely feel a lot of sorrow for the 900+ dead Lebanese civilains.

  • 23.
  • At 04:31 PM on 07 Aug 2006,
  • Eamon Dyas wrote:

The BBC itself cannot escape the charge of mis-use of language. On last night's 10'oc news we had the newsreader stating that 15 people had been killed in Israel and never mentioned the fact that 12 of these were reservist soldiers. It was mentioned in an on the spot report but the newsreader continued to ignore the military element among the casualties. I heard about it from Reuters (a far more reliable source than the BBC) hours before I heard it on the BBC and it was not until late in the day that your website even mentioned the reservist soldiers killed.

  • 24.
  • At 11:43 AM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Keith Donovan wrote:

I have just watched Binyamin Netanyahu on BBC World trying to compare the rockets that Hezbollah are sending into Israel to the rockets that the Nazis’ sent into London. He said that Britain retaliated by bombing Germany “until it bounced’. May I remind him firstly, that it was the majority of the free world that was at war with the Nazis’ and secondly, if the Nazis’ had won that war then there would be no Jewish state and no Jews left alive to bomb. The man’s a cretin!

  • 25.
  • At 11:47 AM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • David Gray wrote:

They say "The Truth Shall Set You Free" the first truth in the present conflict in the middle east is the state of Israel is claimed and built on stolen land, no matter whos side you are on this fact can never change the second truth is if you treat your nieghbor with violence and contempt from day one your relationship will never be a peacful one. David Gray Australia

  • 26.
  • At 12:17 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Philip wrote:

Given that this is an article about detail, would it not be sensible to avoid the common error :

'Here's two examples...' and say,

'Here are two examples..'.

If the BBC cannot get this right, what hope is there ?

  • 27.
  • At 03:50 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Mark E wrote:

Andrew, you do know that there are more then one Mark on the web?

In fact I am a different Mark to the one who posted the comments above.

  • 28.
  • At 03:55 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Mark E wrote:

Talking of semantics, I think Shade should look at the actual definition for the word "Genocide"

Israel's attitude is not genocide, and anyone who thinks it is has no idea of what the word means.

If Israel was trying to commit genocide then there would be a lot more dead then the 900+ currently quoted (although considering the way that these numbers have been inflated recently I think it will actually be a lot less).

Genocide is when a group seeks to totally wipe out another racial or cultural group.

  • 29.
  • At 04:05 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Mark E wrote:

Andrew please learn the difference between the stated aims and actions of the IRA and Hezabollah.

I will start you off, the IRA wished Britain to leave Northern Ireland, Hezabollah want the total destruction of Israel.

Many of the IRA members actually operated from within Northern Ireland (part of the UK). If Hezabollah were working from within an Israeli city I doubt the IDF would be targeting them in quite the same way.

The Irish government far from turning a blind eye to the IRA and allowing them to establish a substantual foothold in Eire actually worked alongside the UK government against them.

I am sure that if you wanted you could find even more -n there are quite a few.

  • 30.
  • At 04:09 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Mark E wrote:

Eamon, I am not sure how reservist soldiers work in Israel, but I would expect them to be equivalent to the TA.

In other words, for most of the year they ARE civilians. I would expect that people who had finished National Service or had recently left the army would also be considered to be Reservists.

Even regular soldiers should be considered civilians when they are off duty. If the 7/7 bomb had killed an off duty soldier would they be considered a military or civilian loss?

  • 31.
  • At 05:11 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • fonoq35 wrote:


I am definitely not an Israeli apologist, simply a very surprised observer in the way this conflict is being reported.

This did not begin when two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped, but when Hezbollah decided to start (using a favourite word around here)indiscriminately firing rockets into northern Israel. I think you'll find that the reason there have been relatively few Israeli casualties in this part of the conflict is because Israel has ALREADY had to evacuate most of northern Israel.

The responsibility for these Lebanese casualties lies very clearly at the feet of Hezbollah and their deliberate and continuing use of civilian shields.

The loss of Lebanese life is horrifying and should evoke sorrow in all of us, but to blame Israel alone, or even (another favourite) disproportionately, is grossly unfair. And that is in no way to diminish the suffering of all those involved, they are truly the victims of terrorism. Hezbollah's terrorism.

Its time you woke up to the fact that Israel is not attacking but fighting back - its in Hezbollah's hands as to when this conflict finishes.

  • 32.
  • At 01:35 AM on 10 Aug 2006,
  • stinky will wrote:



  • 33.
  • At 08:10 AM on 10 Aug 2006,
  • Jenny wrote:

Liliane Landor: This war has all been about semantics and the failure to read the small print.

Surely you could at least have the decency to qualify that as how it has been for you. For far too many it is about death, bereavement, maiming, probably lifetime debility.

For those of us miles away, following things on your services, it is about heartwrenching anguish, guilt and shame that we have a government that conspires to enable such brutality. And that we are a species that does such atrocities to each other, that can so easily disregard each other's humanity, and so cunningly evade communal censure. And all in the name of dreamed-up beliefs, instilled so completely that they are worth killing to promote.

Oh, I admire your professionalism, your detachment. But I have to say I don't understand how you have isolated yourself so completely from how the rest of us feel.

And I would just gently remind you that there is a culture of parsing words stretching back millenia at play in this "game", and so it should be no surprise all that your job involves cutting through that.

  • 34.
  • At 01:50 PM on 10 Aug 2006,
  • Poyan wrote:

It is true, this war has been about semantics and failure to read the small print. It is also about the omission of truth and outright lies that create delusions.

Delusion: Hizbullah has is responsible for the conflict between Lebanon and Israel.

Reality: Hizbullah was created due to the conflict between Lebanon and Israel.

For an example of how this war is about semantics just take a look at the usage of the word "anti-Semite" even against Jews who criticize Israel's warmongering government. Can you imagine if Muslims called anyone who criticized Al Qaida "Islamophobes"?


  • 35.
  • At 02:05 PM on 10 Aug 2006,
  • Poyan wrote:

This is a reply to post #31 from fonoq35.

Hezbullah fired its rockets into civilian areas AFTER Israel began attacking Lebanon. So this can hardly be the reason for an Israeli attack which predates it.

The soldiers were kidnapped to be used as bargaining chips to free the thirty or so Lebanese prisoners (about 25 Palestinians with Lebanese citizenship and 4 Lebanese) who still remain in Israeli prisons is spite of the regulations of the Geneva convention (after a war ends both sides must free all POWs).

Furthermore, Israel does not claim that Hizbullah are firing the rockets from civilian areas. They say things like "The rockets were fired from this city or town" or "Hizbullah was operating from here". The Israelis know that Hizbullah's rockets need to be fired from open areas to be effective. The rockets are often stored in civilian areas, but that is because Hezbollah is a militia (armed civilians).

It seems that the news programs you watch suffer from an anti-Lebanese bias since you are clearly misinformed about many key facts.


  • 36.
  • At 05:30 AM on 11 Aug 2006,
  • Anandhi Gopinath wrote:

Perhpas it IS all fine print, but from a perspective we're all missing.

Lets try and leave emotion out of the equation, and see, despite all the violence, this for what it is.

Its the biggest PR blitz ever recorded, and the Hezbollah is the star. odd i know, but consider this - as much the world has tried to retaliate against guerilla warfare, this particular guerilla gets nothing but sympathy and support - even from those originally against them - handed to them on a israeli silver platter.

what israel could have done, once the two soldiers were captured, was play martyr properly. the two soldiers (who for the record ARE STILL ALIVE in comparison to hundreds of dead lebanese) should have been sacrificed for the cause they signed up for, and the tables would have been turned. i dont mean to be discompassionate to the israeli sodiers, but with all due respect you dont sign up to the army on an immortality clause - especially not in israel.

The dramatisation of the capture of TWO SOLDIERS has led to this. I know its the principle that were arguing - but the fact is we've all lost track of that a long time ago.

  • 37.
  • At 12:11 PM on 11 Aug 2006,
  • Mark E wrote:


Perhaps you should read the BBC article about the Lebanonese prisoners being held by Israel. They are not POWs but normal criminals. One of them was a multiple murderer (including the cold blooded murder of a little girl).

Several years ago there was a prisoner exchange between Israel and Lebanon. The prisoners who were not handed back were the ones currently serving sentances for crimes.

  • 38.
  • At 11:56 AM on 21 Sep 2006,
  • Jack Maclean wrote:

Here is a fine example of how the BBC's policy of widening the national and religous background of its editorial staff (I believe Lilane was born in Lebabnon)is bringing a wider perspective to news and current affairs output.

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