'Don't call it Israel-Palestine': How language enables colonisation

'Don't call it Israel-Palestine': How language enables colonisation
To make sense of Israel's war on Gaza, we must look back over a century at how language and punctuation shaped narratives on Palestine, writes Florence Hazrat.
7 min read
26 Mar, 2024
While punctuation may seem insignificant in the context of Israel's deadly assault on Gaza, it may hold the potential for Palestinian liberation, writes Florence Hazrat. [Getty]

Amid gruesome graphic images streaming out of Gaza for months, it seems something as rarefied and minute as a hyphen doesn’t matter.

Who cares about punctuation when more than 32,000 Palestinians men, women, and children are being slaughtered by Israeli bombs, tanks, and snipers every day, not to mention lack of food, water, medicine, electricity, and the list goes on.

Do we not have bigger things to worry about than language?

We do, in fact, need to worry about words. This genocide comes at the tail-end of decades of a dehumanisation campaign that starts with words (witness Israeli politicians calling Palestinians “human animals”), and all the trappings around them - such as punctuation. Punctuation is a subtle meaning-maker and eye-guide, helping us navigate the thickets of text.

Tragically, dots and dashes played a key role in the illegal occupation of Palestine, but they can also contribute to its liberation. Language matters, and detail does. Here’s why.

"Dots and dashes played a key role in the illegal occupation of Palestine, but they can also contribute to its liberation"

Punctuation, like any human thing, had to be invented at some point by someone, discerning the need to divide text into manageable parts, flagging up grammatical relationships, as well as sensible places for pausing and breathing.

Just because the necessity for commas and colons seems obvious now doesn’t mean that it has always been so: the history of punctuation in ancient languages and in the West has been a sinuous one of millennia.

Its counterpart in non-Western languages like Arabic is decidedly younger.

For over a thousand years, Arabic got along with two kinds of punctuation: the Quranic recitation notes, as well as a vast array of idiosyncratic symbols separating and decorating text such as a stylized flower, eye, or teardrop.

This ornamentation merely held paragraphs apart but gave no more nuanced indications as to syntactical relationships within a sentence. Such light-touch punctuation meant Arabic remained a reserve for the highly-educated, so well-trained that they didn’t need any further crutches in the form of question marks or commas.

Owing to their full array of punctuation aids for inexperienced readers, European languages seemed more accessible without excessive schooling. By the end of the nineteenth century, the overbearing presence of French in its North-African colonies and the French-influenced levant had Arab literati concerned about foreign discourse choking off writing in Arabic.

They proposed a language reform, at the forefront of which was punctuation.

In 1893, Lebanese writer Zeynab Fawwaz suggested importing those “signs that add a hidden meaning incommunicable by words” in an article for the Egyptian newspaper al-Fata.

Punctuation was a key to unlock the treasured mysteries of the text. Urdu perfectly captures this magical power in its term for punctuation, ramoz-e okaf, “code of signs”.

After some experimentation with completely novel marks, writers like Ahmad Zaki simply imported the French repertoire wholesale, turning the face of the comma and question mark around in keeping with the direction of Arabic script from right to left like so: ؟.


Tragically, however, at the same time as Zaynab Fawwaz and colleagues sought ways to reform text in Arabic through punctuation with the express goal of stilling the wave of writing in European languages, that very same punctuation became a tool for colonial oppression nearby: in Palestine.

Settler-colonialism in Palestine started much earlier than the holocaust: throughout the nineteenth century, Jewish Europeans fled persecution at home, pledging allegiance to the British-led project of a Jewish nation state in the Middle East.

While Palestinian Jews spoke Arabic like their neighbours, the foreign settlers arrived with their multitude of languages, unable to communicate with one another. Creating one shared unifying speech was at the heart of the Zionist endeavour, yet Hebrew was not a spoken language but reserved for worship, literature, and law.

Rather than biblical Hebrew, Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe spoke Yiddish, a mixture of German, Slavic languages, and Hebrew.

"Most media outlets will push the two sides into uncomfortable textual proximity by writing about the 'Israeli-Palestinian' conflict. But the hyphen suggests an equality that is uncalled for"

But Yiddish was not elevated enough for early Zionists. There needed to be a Hebrew revival turning a language that had lain dormant for thousands of years into a modern spoken and written version that contained words like “newspaper” or “car”.

Linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who had experienced violent anti-semitic attacks in Russia, made it his life’s work to provide the budding Zionist state with its national language.

He settled in Palestine in 1881, raising his son entirely in yet-broken Hebrew as the first native speaker after thousands of years. Ben-Yehuda invented words, encouraging Jewish newspapers and schools around the world to promote his Frankenstein-language.

Just like Zaynab Fawwaz, Ben-Yehuda understood that Hebrew readers would need dots and dashes to navigate its written complexities. And, just like his Arab counterparts, he imported punctuation wholesale from European languages.

The curious – and crucial – difference, though, is how those marks prove both the artificial nature of Hebrew and its foreign origins: Arabic and Hebrew are from the same semitic language family. They’re written from right to left, and both lack vowel systems.

Arabic native-speakers truly adapted punctuation by turning the question mark and comma around. Early Zionists, however, stuck to their native Polish and German, allowing the marks to face the “wrong” way until today: ?מה שלומך (“How are you?”). Quotation marks also stuck around in their German fashion until the 1970s, the opening pair at the bottom of the line, the closing pair at the top.

Their faces turned towards Europe, Hebrew punctuation marks come as relics of settler colonialism.

Even after more than a century of aiding and abetting occupation, punctuation still has a troublesome role to play in how we talk about Palestine.

Most media outlets will push the two sides into uncomfortable textual proximity by writing about the "Israeli-Palestinian" conflict. But the hyphen suggests an equality that is uncalled for.

Hyphens provide bridges, connecting words in order to create an intimate bond owing to some inherent or desired attraction. Such word-sharing becomes offensive in the context of Israel’s decades long brutal occupation and settler colonialism, when goliath seeks to exterminate the David.

The hyphen falsifies grossly imbalanced power relationships, subtly getting our eyes used to the implication that the two sides are equal, that one is referring to the same neutral entity, just under a different name.

Encounter this spelling often enough, experience it seeping into your subconscious, and you will start to believe it.

"There is no innocent punctuation. Punctuation is what we make it"

Instead of the equalising hyphen, an increasing number of institutions like the Red Cross or Human Rights Watch and Zionism-critical magazines like Jewish Currents have adopted the forward slash as preferred punctuation with which to hold apart the coloniser and the colonised: “Israel/Palestine” replaces the hyphenated version in order to highlight the separate nature of the two while alluding to the same geographical location.

The forward slash establishes an effective visual barrier, not only clearly distinguishing between settler and native, but also reclaiming Israel’s racially segregating West Bank wall. At least on the page.

There is no innocent punctuation. Punctuation is what we make it. It either drives or destroys colonisation.

The devil, in this case, is indeed in the detail. Let’s attend to the small print. Let’s forward-slash.

Dr Florence Hazrat is a researcher of language and literature. She published a biography of the exclamation mark, and writes a newsletter on the role of punctuation in daily life.

Follow her on X (Twitter): @FlorenceHazrat

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@newarab.com

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.