In November, Israeli Police arrested a Palestinian man in response to what was believed to be an unsettling Facebook post. The post, which pictured him leaning against a bulldozer in the Beitar Illit settlement, was followed by a caption that led officers to suspicion. Police officers were worried “he was planning to use the pictured bulldozer in a vehicle attack” before realizing their mistake.
The caption, translated into Hebrew, read “attack them”, or “hurt them” in English. The original post, written in Arabic, read “good morning”. As the arrest and subsequent questioning gained public exposure, Facebook publicly apologized for the incident, admitting the error.
According to The Guardian, not one Arab speaking police officer read the caption prior to the arrest. The knowledge of Arabic among Jews in Israel is surprisingly low, with research showing that only 6 percent can recognize the letters and 1.5 percent can read and write in Arabic. Because of its many dialects spoken around the world, Arabic is an especially difficult language for professional translators, even for Facebook’s artificial intelligence.
Israeli officials released the man once the mistake was discovered, although decades of conflict have led to a current debate regarding the official language spoken in Israel. Within any territorial conflict comes the competition for cultural influence. Thus, effective communication is a necessary component. In the absence of shared language, cooperative behavior can be very difficult to develop. Those living in Israel and the Palestinian territories often centralize their focus on differences, in part fueled by the ongoing political tension.
Much like the detached branches of the Arabic language, leadership in the Palestinian territories reflects its disjointed composition. Several small groups are competing for control over a very small area of land, but also for political and nationalistic influence, and essential access to public goods like electricity and water. Their ongoing rivalry has led to decades of repeated violence, civilian casualties, and intensified living conditions in the Palestinian and surrounding territories.
Is reconciliation possible?
The Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, recently visited Gaza to discuss the possibility of peace between Hamas and Fatah, two of the most conflicted factions. Hamas has been the controlling force in Gaza for at least a decade. Now it seems Fatah may regain some influence. The visit was “an important step toward reconciliation,” one that received an enthusiastic welcome, as the prime minister was greeted with thousands of residents cheering on the streets.
Of course, measurable cooperation will be a gradual process. Fatah and Hamas have made strides towards reconciliation in the past, including the formation of a joint government in 2014. Unfortunately the partnership ended within weeks, resulting in a new war between Israel and Hamas. In the years since, it seems the idea of formal agreement has been put on the backburner. It has even been speculated that reconciliation among Palestinian leaders might threaten to replicate the situation in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is in fact a greater power than the Lebanese government.
Although many are feeling discouraged by the possibility for peace in this region, the U.S. and Egypt have made attempts to mediate. Following the last war, the U.S. has insisted on Hamas disarming and recognizing Israel’s legitimacy “if it is to be part of a unity government able to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel”, as stated in the newspaper Times of Israel. Just in the last few weeks, a senior White House official added that “Egypt helped us crack open a door to Gaza that didn’t exist a few weeks ago, and we see it as a possible opportunity.”
Could a common language effectively change things?
The months following Prime Minister Hamdalla’s visit will be a test not only of political cooperation, but also of the will of Israeli and Palestinian citizens. A unified governing body may secure an image of strength and longevity to its constituency. It may even secure a seat at the negotiation table with Israel, which has historically maintained that it cannot negotiate – let alone make peace – with Hamas; to them seen as a terrorist organization who seeks their destruction.
In the aftermath of the 2014 war, the organization Women Wage Peace was built around the goal of putting an end to the violence and finally reaching a formal peace agreement. Its founders, through the vision of a unified Middle East, led a 120-mile peace demonstration joined by thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women. They wrote, “the March of Hope [unites] women throughout the country, region, and world in the conviction that despair is not an option and that only a political agreement will bring true security to our region.”
If Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement, their communicative fluidity will be put to test. Knowledge of Hebrew may help Palestinians earn access to channels of political reform. And knowledge of Arabic may help Israelis signal a willingness to compromise. In the heat of conflict, it’s easy to behave as enemies and to harness perceived differences in effort to maintain the segregation. However, language is a tool that can enable the realization of cultural similarities and the facilitation of new possible realities.
The March of Hope symbolizes bridges that are built when opposing groups find common ground. Reportedly, Palestinian participants “got on buses, in the middle of the week, to meet Israeli women, because everyone is tired of the status quo.” The group walked through the West Bank and Jerusalem, towards the residence of Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Huda Abuarquob, one of the group’s co-founders stated that “this march is not just another protest, but a way of saying that we want peace, and together we can obtain it.”