The Guardian, Editorial – Wars kill people, including teachers in their classrooms, nurses in their hospitals, and farmers in their fields. But when children die in the hail of steel soldiers direct at one another there is a special kind of obscenity. Children have no agency, not even the slightest shred of the responsibility or complicity that adults to one degree or another may possess.
They know nothing of propaganda, they did not cheer in angry rallies, they did not send off their menfolk to fight with a blessing, they did not sit at meetings where the pros and cons of making war were gravely discussed by middle- aged men. No, they just die. Or lose their little legs, their arms, their eyes. The scenes at Jabaliya elementary school had seasoned United Nations officials, who have seen and endured much, in tears. The rapid transference of images to the world soon made this tragedy everybody’s property and everybody’s burden. Then, of course, a familiar game begins. Mournful spokesmen explain that the other side is to blame, because it has hidden its fighters, mortars and rockets in populated areas. They take great care, but mistakes can happen. They do not explain why that other side might be reluctant to put its fighters into, say, the local soccer stadium so that they could be mown down without risk to civilians. Hamas, meanwhile, attributes all civilian deaths to the malign intent of the Israeli enemy.
This is what the British general Rupert Smith calls “the reality in which the people in the streets and houses and fields – all the people, anywhere – are the battlefield”. The Israelis did not go into Gaza to kill children. But, as Jon Snow implied in his passionate video this week, they went in knowing that they would kill children because it is impossible in that crowded, chaotic territory to pursue their foes without massive collateral damage. The only way not to kill children would be not to go in at all. And that raises the most critical issue, which is why they went in. The immediate justification was that Hamas rockets and raiding parties entering through tunnels were a threat to Israeli civilians. One may quarrel with that, because this threat has been, so far, relatively limited. It might get worse in the future, but is a country justified in the use of force because of something that may happen rather than something that has happened? That threat might never fully materialise because of Israeli technical superiority or because political developments rendered it irrelevant.
The more fundamental reason why Israel went in is not related to what Hamas or Israel has done, but to what Israel has left undone. The distinguished Israeli writer David Grossman, addressing himself to Israeli leaders, asks: “How could you have wasted the years since the last conflict without initiating dialogue, without even making the slightest gesture toward dialogue with Hamas, without attempting to change our explosive reality? Why, for these past few years, has Israel avoided judicious negotiations with the moderate and more conversable sectors of the Palestinian people … Why have you ignored, for 12 years, the Arab League initiative that could have enlisted moderate Arab states with the power to impose, perhaps, a compromise on Hamas?” If you want peace, prepare for war, says the Roman proverb. But here it is the opposite: if you want to avoid war, prepare for peace. The Netanyahu government is paying the price for having sedulously avoided real negotiations with the Palestinians through a long series of subterfuges and distractions culminating in the recent barren passage that, over many months, wore down even the ever- patient and optimistic John Kerry.
The outside world must help devise a ceasefire which stops the killing and puts in place arrangements on access, a degree of demilitarisation and the return of the Palestinian Authority. But that will not last long if Israel simply sinks back into the limbo land most of its politicians have come to prefer, a land where peace can be constantly postponed, and Israelis, although occasionally surprised by bouts of nastiness, can go off to the supermarket as if they were in Denmark. David Grossman thinks he can discern beneath a superficial show of support for the Gaza operation a shift in Israeli opinion. If so, that would be reinforced if both the United States and the European Union made it clear that there must never be another Gaza operation. Not one more shell in a Gaza schoolyard, ever.
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