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Flesh is grass

Paul Vallely

Perhaps the most chilling phrase which emerged from the latest war in Gaza came with the idea that the Israelis were 'mowing the lawn' - returning on a regular basis to degrade the capacity of Hamas to fire haphazard low-tech rockets in case some find a way through the sophisticated Iron Dome defence shield. The phrase was at once contemptuously pedestrian and allusively biblical.

This is the fourth war in Gaza in a decade and the worst of the three that children under the age of seven there have experienced. Israel's justification for its ferocious assault on the strip of land which David Cameron once described as 'a prison camp' is that it wanted to quell Hamas rocket fire and destroy the network of tunnels the group had built to gain access to Israeli territory. It was this trimming back of the Palestinians' military capability that was, in the words of certain Israeli military strategists, likened to cutting the grass.

All flesh is grass, Isaiah warns in the Hebrew scriptures. Israel has the right to self-defence but the strategy it has chosen has resulted in a huge cost in human flesh. Some 1,940 people died in four weeks of fighting in Gaza, most disproportionately Israel's foes. These were not just Hamas combatants; the United Nations estimated that 73 per cent of those killed in Gaza were civilians. It reported that 429 of those who died were children and 214 were women. A mere 3 per cent of those who died were Israelis, and all but three of those were soldiers.

This disproportion tipped the scales of international public opinion against Israel even among many who acknowledged Israel's right to self-defence in a region where many of the enemies who surround it question its right even to exist.

The principle that violence must be used in a way which is proportionate to the threat is one of the six criteria which define a Just War in classical religious teaching. The world saw a lack of that in the savagery of Israel's high-tech 'pinpoint' bombardment. Save the Children took out full-page newspaper ads listing the names of 373 dead children. The BBC, which timidly refused a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza in 2009, agreed to launch one. Amnesty International called for an investigation into what it said was mounting evidence that Israeli forces had deliberately attacked hospitals and health professionals in Gaza. A Foreign Office minister, Baroness Warsi, resigned over the British government's 'morally indefensible' failure to forcefully condemn what is 'probably the biggest single act of self-harm that the Israeli government has done over the last few years'. The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called for an arms embargo on Israel. Protestors closed a UK subsidiary of the Israeli arms firm Elbit.

It was a similar story in other countries as global public opinion - outraged by the flattening of schools, hospitals and power and water supplies and a steadily daily toll on the lives of innocent civilians - shifted distinctly in favour of the Palestinians. Israel was stunned by the reaction as even its sometime friends added their voices to the international indignation. In the Irish parliament, Senator David Norris, who has described himself as a Zionist, described the disproportionate number of women and children who have been killed as 'a violation of all the spiritual beauty that Judaism stands for - the respect for life and the fact that if one saves one life then one has saved the universe'.

In response to the worldwide outcry the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu - who only two weeks earlier had been talking about 'telegenically-dead Palestinians' - told the world's media: 'Israel deeply regrets every civilian casualty, every single one. We do not target them. The people of Gaza are not our enemy. Hamas is the enemy'. To many these seemed crocodile tears.

There is another key criterion which must be met if a war is to be declared just. It is that those embarking on combat must have a reasonable prospect of success. In Gaza it is far from clear as to what constitutes success. Israel declared its twin aims were to destroy Hamas's tunnels and end its rocket fire. When a ceasefire was announced in the first week of August, Israeli military leaders declared that the tunnels had been destroyed. But within minutes of the end of the three-day ceasefire rockets had begun once more to be fired from Gaza into Israel, although by militants calling themselves Islamic Jihad rather than Hamas. Could success ever be achieved this way?

During the lull in fighting, BBC journalists on both sides of the conflict had interviewed grieving mothers. In Israel a mother-of-two whose husband, an Israeli soldier, had been killed clearing one of the tunnels said it was necessary for her government to 'finish the job', even if that meant killing thousands more Palestinian civilians. In Gaza a woman whose civilian son had been killed by an Israeli bombardment said that, though in the past she had always opposed Hamas, she would now be supporting it. The grass was growing again already. And the violence of both sides only fertilises it.

Only a political solution will bring an end to the cycle. Sadly the evidence is that neither side is prepared to make the concessions necessary for a compromise on which a lasting peace could begin to be built.

'From the place where we are right,' said the poet Yehuda Amichai, 'flowers will never grow, in the spring.' But the place where we are right is not always, as he suggested, 'hard and trampled, like a yard'. It is a place where grass grows and some see the mower as the only solution.