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Power talks: how settler language is infiltrating Israel

Matan Sandler
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Published: 14 October 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Words and phrases that normalise and depoliticise settlements in the West Bank have become mainstream in public discourse.

As I was scrolling through my social media feed, I came across an article published by the online branch of Israel’s’ most popular news company, Channel Two News. The article was in the environmental section, yet it was more revealing about the Jewish-Israeli attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than many news reports dealing directly with the topic.

The article was about rare caves found near the settlement of Ofra in the West Bank, and the fight by several organisations to preserve the caves and not build apartments over them.

Why was the article so revealing? It was its choice of words.

As a child of the ‘90s, I am used to the media calling the settlements by the more biblical Hebrew word, hitnachlut. This term stems from the biblical word Nachala, which means ancestral estate, making the politics of its inhabitants and its legal status abundantly clear to the reader.

I am used to the media calling the settlements by the biblical word, 'hitnachlut', which refers to ancestral estate, making the politics of its inhabitants and its legal status abundantly clear.

However, in this article, reporter Uri Izac, a respected member of a large news organisation, repeatedly described Ofra as a yeshuv. Although both terms translate the same to English, for the Hebrew speaker the distinction is clear. Yeshuv derives from the word lashevet, which means “to sit”. It is a neutral word, merely noting the fact that this is a place of residence. It also harkens back to the original Yishuv, the name given to the Jewish presence in British-controlled Palestine, which is considered legitimate across most of the political spectrum.

I thought this usage was strange and after some investigation I saw that it was not an isolated editorial decision but part of a larger trend in Israeli media - the use of language to normalise and depoliticise Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In the past two years, each time Ofra was mentioned in the media, it was either described as a yeshuv or not described at all, noting it by name only. To younger readers who lacks the historical and political context, this normalises Ofra - an illegal settlement built on private Palestinian land - and leaves them ignorant about the reality of the occupied territories.

Another example is the term hityashvut tzeira (young settlement). It’s used by the settler movement to describe an outpost, a piece of Palestinian land invaded overnight against the orders of the local military. The term implies those outposts are simply new to the landscape, as if they appeared out of nowhere.

It is also meant to elicit an image of young parents with children looking for a place to build a home; a sympathetic image in Israel’s family-oriented society. Though its use is more prominent, for now at least, in right-wing media organisations, it goes unchallenged and with no clarification when featured in more mainstream news sources.

This usually happens when there is news regarding the settler movement’s struggle to legitimise these land seizures. It also has a more sanitised term: hasdara, a word that derives from seder (order).

With a stream of talking heads in Israeli television, columnists and directly through their own media organisations, settler voices are attempting to reshape the political discourse.

The settlers use hasdara to describe a retroactive legalisation of a settlement that was built without any authorisation from the government (an authorisation that is already dubious when international law is concerned but bears significant implications when it comes to budgets and access to infrastructure).

Whenever this fight for hasdara is reported, the reader is presented with the plight of the hityashvut tzeira and hears the arguments raised for hasdara, but is rarely provided with sufficient information regarding what needs to be done legislatively and the circumstances that led to the current situation.

Hasdara implies there is a mess that needs to be sorted, without explaining that those who made the mess are requesting someone else to do the clean-up at the expense of Palestinian landowners.

The replacement of problematic and uncomfortable terms with less loaded, more friendly terms is not new. In the 1950s, Palestinian refugees who attempted to return home were mistanenim (infiltrators), after the first intifada, the military blockade on Palestinian territories was seger (quarantine). A recent example is nitrul (neutralising), when reporting the killing of a Palestinian terrorist (or anyone even loosely suspected as being one).

The difference now lies in the source of these terms. The military or other security services devised this euphemistic language.  It was later adopted by media organisations too timid to challenge the security apparatus. This new batch comes from the political arm of the settler movement.

With an endless stream of talking heads on television, columnists in the papers and directly through their own media organisations (like Channel 7 and Makor Rishon), these settler voices are attempting to slowly reshape the Israeli political discourse and normalise their extreme fundamentalist politics. Judging by the editorial choices of Israeli media and the phrases espoused by centrist politicians, they have won. Israelis now live, psychologically, in a parallel reality where the occupation has been removed from public discourse and the line between the West Bank and Israel is completely blurred.

Image: Avi Katz

About the author

Matan Sandler

Matan Sandler lives in Tel Avi, where he is a Hebrew teacher at This is Not an Ulpan. Matan is a social activist and educator and has a PhD in Jewish history.

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