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An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth has brought Israel and Gaza to the edge of destruction: it seems inevitable; but it’s just not practical politics

Reconciliation actually works – that’s what the allies discovered in Germany: but can it be done without unconditional surrender?

By on Friday, 23 November 2012

Hamas militants at a press conference in Gaza City announcing the ceasefire (Photo: PA)

Hamas militants at a press conference in Gaza City announcing the ceasefire (Photo: PA)

On Wednesday the Holy Father, not unpredictably, called on the leaders of Israel and Hamas to make “courageous decisions” to end the Gaza conflict, and warned that it risked spilling over into the rest of the Middle East; and he, of course, gave his support to efforts, then still ongoing, to achieve a ceasefire. Now, we have one; it remains to be seen how long it will last.

What he said then had, of course, to be said. “I appeal to the authorities on both sides,” he declared, “to take courageous decisions in favour of peace and bring an end to a conflict with negative repercussions on the entire Middle East, which is already tormented by too many conflicts and so in need of peace and reconciliation.”

“I feel the need,” he continued, “to say once again that hate and violence are not solutions to problems”.

The Pope was, of course, right; hate and violence are not ultimately any kind of solution. I fear, however (and hope that I am wrong) that his call will in the long run be in vain; and it may not be entirely a useless exercise to ask why that may be so. In brief, it is because neither side in this conflict believes that what he says is true. What they have come to believe is that hate and violence are not only inevitable, they are even morally right. Our Lord may have called on us to “turn the other cheek”: but neither Jews nor Muslims accept that his words were anything but a sentimental evasion of reality: and nor, to be fair, do many Christians in the midst of conflict. We do, however, believe ultimately in the idea of reconciliation; and the treatment of Germany by the allies after World War II, for instance, showed a real advance over their much more primitive and vengeful treatment of the Germans after the Great War: turning the other cheek in the late 40s, though admittedly after unconditional surrender, was not only the morally right thing to do, but proved to be also the wise thing to do: reconciliation turned out to be practical politics.

Jews and Muslims in Palestine, however, are still firmly in the grip of the lex talionis, as they instinctively understand it under the current conditions of their everyday lives: “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” [Deuteronomy 19; 21, Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)]. The subject of this is actually the seriousness of bearing false witness: but this very tough verse is instinctively understood out of context and literally: kill our leaders with drones, we will rain deadly rockets on you; rain rockets on us, and we will bombard you with tons of deadly missiles from the sea and from the air. Actually, it’s an escalating process: not an eye for an eye, but 10 eyes, 20, 30: as many as can be managed. And if our rockets aren’t killing enough of you we will blow up one of your buses: and then, it will be, blow up our buses and our airforce will take immediate and devastating revenge on you.

In fact, the lex talionis in both Jewish and Islamic mainstream religious tradition (rather than in the vendetta mentality of contemporary Arab and Jewish popular culture) is more measured, much more compatible with Christian ideas of reconciliation. It was, in its origins, in fact precisely an attempt to limit vengefulness, to get it under control. Under Babylonian and Hebrew Law, the “eye for an eye” law was intended to restrict compensation to the value of the loss; thus, it might be better read “only one eye for one eye”. The “lex talionis” was humanised by the Rabbis who interpreted “an eye for an eye” to mean reasonable pecuniary compensation. And according to the Koran, which interestingly cites Jewish law as authoritative, and which also humanises it (5.45), “In the Torah we prescribed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, an equal wound for a wound: if anyone forgoes this out of charity, it will serve as atonement for his bad deeds.” However, under Sharia law as actually followed today, the “eye for an eye” rule is applied quite literally and without mitigation: perhaps this is part of the problem in Gaza, who knows?

But not, it seems for everyone there, nor indeed for some of those living just a few miles away in Israel. I stumbled on the following tweet out of Gaza: “Gaza does not want an eye for an eye. if we want that, we will have to destroy israel 17 times”. I also came across the following from just across the border:

“A real leader is the person who will take real responsibility and demand civilian courage from himself to talk to Hamas in order to recreate life here. But our leaders are hiding behind tons of bombs cast from the sky by an advanced airforce, armoured and artillery forces, warships and infantry brigades, which are all comprised of civilians who are losing the ability to understand the meaning of civilness and of a vital life… You owe us the preliminary and most basic thing – talking to Hamas – if you wish to gain our trust. You have tried out all the weapons in the world. The only thing you haven’t really tried out is the simple, required dialogue. Now is your chance if you still wish to remain relevant in our eyes.”

Well, the Israelis have now talked to Hamas (though only through intermediaries) for long enough to achieve a temporary ceasefire. So they have discovered that it can be done. But can they, are they prepared to, keep it up? The answer to that, I very much fear, is to be found not in Jerusalem but in Tehran. But we shall see.

  • Jeannine

    It’s taken me many years but I’m only starting to understand Palestian “conflict.” It has nothig to do with peace but with money.The Palestine Authority has no control over Gaza, even though it’s part of their territory. Terrorists belonging to the “usual suspects” live there.

    That said, bombing from Palestine, whether from Hamas or the PA is orchestrated to receive maximum press coverage. They throw a bomb in an empty field; Israel reciprocates. Once in a while the bombs hit people centers. And the United States appeases by throwing more money at Palestine to be good. Seems to me Egypt wants to get in on this looney money deal too. It orchestrated a “peace” deal before Hillary Clinton’s arrival over there.

    It would be interesting to see the reactions of these countries & terrorist groups when the money train finally crashes. I would then think intense praying would be needed.

  • Mark

    The manner of creation of modern Israel reflects British Imperial arrogance mixed with Protestant Old Testament fundamentalism. For 1900 years there was no Israel there until after WWII. Were the Arabs that had controlled the region for all that time expected to just accept the establishment of a new nation there just because of the Old Testament and because Britain said so? I’m not against the establishment myself but I’m pointing out that its a mixture of arrogance and naivety to not understand why the whole Arab world would be against this incursion on their territory. If peace is to prevail, there must be a win-win for all sides involved. Something of value must be offered to the Arabs in exchange for their acceptance of Israel.

  • mrsoriordan

    Hamas is the enemy in Gaza!! End of story. – Rene

  • NewMeena

    The orthodox Jews in Israel believe that God gave the land to them.

    There are orthodox Muslims in Arab states who believe the land was gifted to them.

    It’s all in the Holy Books.

    There are religious fundamentalists on both sides who HOPE this will lead to Armageddon. 

  • Sweetjae

    Historical facts say that the jewish people existed thousands of years before the muslims and known archeological evidence also points that the jewish people were the earlier inhabitants.

  • Sweetjae

    You have NO historical knowledge whatsoever. The jewish people have been in that region for thousand of years, the evidence is not just from the Old Testament or Britain but based from historical and scientific FACTS!

  • Nat_ons

    If it were only an eye for an eye, sadly, Israel as a political body, seems ever more willing to try the obliteration of enemies .. innocent, guilty, or by-stander .. as a remedy to unjust attacks on its people.
    “So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” Joshua 10 : 40.
    Yet (in a paradox that is no paradox) consider what the fleshly world likes to suggest for the next pope .. ‘.. the unlikely Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’ (the Cardinal of Culture, one is led to suppose that it is ‘modern’, ‘progressive’, ‘like-so-now-art’ – in contradisinction to what, I wonder, perhaps kitsch, madonnas, rosary beads); yet there is our beloved Benedict XVI awesome as ever, still outdoing the work of a fifty-year-old (God bless him in this sacrifice of life to service for the saints) – Ms Kocialkowska does not paint an attractive portrait of one who must fill Benedict’s shoes, tisk, tisk!
    ‘Some may dismiss these statements as the buzzwords of a PR man, but the decision to exhibit at Venice should prove them wrong. The work on show here is far from populist, and Ravasi’s approach to it proves that he understands his task and is taking it seriously. His choice of words is significant – he wants to initiate a “dialogue”. Not didactics and disapproval, not preaching and polemics – but a reciprocal conversation based on mutual respect.’ Kamila Kocialkowska, ‘A senior Vatican official’s decidedly unconservative approach to art.’
    It may seem to have escaped the author’s notice, maybe even that of the Cardinal, yet it is the role of the church catholic to teach – that is why, after all, Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi is part of a divinely instituted Magisterium .. and one called to teach only from an infallible source (not personal opinions), Matt 28 : 18-20. Of course the didactic style need not be disapproving - one need only think of the New Birth in 15th-17th century representative art, which owes much to art-loving (and rather rich) prelates not just the art itself .. or the artists chosen to implement representations of church teaching (even while following a worldly fashion, also fleshly tastes). Beauty, while often in the eye of the beholder - like justice, is important to the church catholic, it reflects on the order, abundence, liberality of the Creator’s creation; in this as in workingout justice between warring tribes ‘a reciprocal conversation based on mutual respect’ is necessary but that alone can never suffice .. the hard grind of fruitfulness must be part of the means used not simply the ends desired (and that includes abstract figures, like Celtic designs, or colour schemes joined to make a story, like glass at Chatres, or – at the very extreme of modern artistic taste - preserved dead bodies held in glass cases, like …)

  • aearon43

    The Israeli armed forces always wear a distinctive military uniform. It is said that the “Palestenians” (not really a real nation or race) shun the accoutrements of public military rank structure and prefer to dress like civilians. It is even said that some of the more radical sects have disguised themselves as pregnant women for the purpose of military advantage.

    In my mind it is clear who the honorable side is. 

  • Ghengis

     The Kingdom of Israel was taken over by  the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD and did not return as an independent state until the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. They had an established Kingdom there from about 1000 BC to the 1st Century AD. Those are the facts you foolishly disregard because you love to waste our time with your shallow and irritating entries.

  • Sweetjae

    That was exactly my point that the Kingdom of Israel had been founded 1000 B.C. or more from the time of Abraham then just scattered by the Roman Empire in 70 A.D., in fact I totally agree with you, so what the heck are you so irritated about? Do you have a problem with reading comprehension?

  • Sweetjae

    Furthermore, I agree that the creation of Israel nation occurred in 1948, its history and I don’t deny that, rather it doesn’t necessarily mean that the creation of a nation by Britain in 1948 that there were no jewish people in that region (palestine) , moreso, the point of dispute is that modern Palestinian people claim the land as their own by virtue of being the “original” or “natives” which is in fact NOT true.

  • Sweetjae

    You are totally right, in fact it happened in History, where under a ceasefire and a meeting for their surrender, a Muslim rebel leader used the olive branch to ambush and kill the negotiator of the government which was the General of the Army, his ambassador and the entire staff.

    Muslims are allowed to lie in order to take military advantage, read or google it.

  • itamar

    Firstly, there IS no ‘Palestine’.  If there were, then what is it the ‘Palestinians’ are actually fighting for? I thought it was their own state.  If, as this writer believes, there IS  a ‘Palestine’, this writer ought to be asking himself what the fighting is actually about.  Obviously not the establishment of a “Palestinian’ state.  “Kill our leaders with drones and we will rain deadly rockets on you” – the sequence of events is evidence that the rockets were landing for a LONG time before Israel took action.    The writer also asks if the ISRAELIS (unless  I have misread it) can keep the ceasefire!  After the ‘ceasefire’ was announced, rockets were still being fired into Israel (smaller numbers, admittedly) but the Israelis did not return fire.  Lastly, this conflict is not about land.  It is about the unwillingness of the Arabs/Muslims to accept non-Muslims in their midst, particularly Jews.  Thorough investigation into the nature of Hamas would open many eyes and perhaps people would realise that you are not dealing with a rational, normal, moral group of people.  I pray that more balance comes into this.

  • teigitur

    I wonder why yesterdays posting was taken down??