THE past is still present on the internet. Someone this week tweeted out a column of mine in The Independent, from 2014, in which I wrote about the last Israeli military action in Gaza, which killed almost 2000 Palestinians and displaced one quarter of the population. At the time, Israeli military strategists described the action — the fourth war in Gaza in a decade — as “mowing the lawn”.
Mowing the lawn is an approach designed to keep a problem under control. For Israel, this strategy failed catastrophically on 7 October, when Islamist terrorists launched the deadliest single attack in Israel’s 75-year history. It was the greatest loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust. Targeted at civilians, young and old, it was an event of singular brutality: a 91-year-old woman was killed and dragged around her kibbutz behind a motorbike; the body of a man of 80 was found “diced” up by a garden spade.
Back in 2014, in that column, I noted that there are six classic criteria for a just war. These include: your cause must be just; you must act with good intentions; you must have legal authority; you must have tried other ways of resolving the problem first. Most problematically for Israel, the means that you use must be in proportion to the end that you seek to achieve.
Despite the sheer scale of the attack in which around 1200 civilians were murdered, that problem remains for Israel. Bodies recovered in Gaza during this week’s hostage-swap truce brought the number of Palestinian dead to more than 15,000, many of them children and babies. More than 60 per cent of homes have been reduced to rubble, and there has been widespread damage to roads, power networks, water tanks, pipes, and sewers. As a result, more people could now die from disease than from bombings, the World Health Organization has warned.
Some might object that just-war theory, most systematically set out by Thomas Aquinas, is fundamentally a Christian notion. But notions of “an eye for an eye” will leave too many on both sides unable to see — and the Thomist just-war criteria have a practical as well as an ethical logic.
The problem with mowing the lawn is that, before too long, the grass grows back again. There is clearly now a new visceral determination on the part of many Israelis to extirpate Hamas, so as to put an end to the heightened sense of insecurity which has seized the previously confident Jewish homeland.
Yet the disproportionate destruction rained down on Gaza will surely create a new violent generation among Palestinians resolved to fight fire with fire. Already, the green flag of Hamas is being unfurled in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where, recently, some 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers. And far more Palestinians have been detained or rounded up than have been released in hostage swaps.
Without a safety valve, Gaza is bound to explode yet again. Once all the killing is done, Israel will have to work out how to rebuild Gaza — and what to do with two million Palestinians. That will be a far trickier task than carpet-bombing the entire area. But, without it, the past will remain present — not merely on the internet, but in the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike.