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Jim Walsh: "A metaphor can be a dangerous thing. It can even kill." Pictured: Smoke from an Israeli strike rises over Gaza City, Thursday, July 24, 2014. Israeli tanks and warplanes bombarded the Gaza Strip on Thursday, as Hamas militants stuck to their demand for the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade in the face of U.S. efforts to reach a cease-fire. (Hatem Moussa/AP)

**A note from the editor: This is one of two opinion pieces about the Mideast conflict on Cognoscenti today. The other is here.**

A metaphor can be a dangerous thing. Research from the field of psychology suggests that metaphors can shape our thinking, highlighting certain aspects of a problem, while de-emphasizing or even hiding others.

An especially pernicious metaphor of increasing prominence in the Israeli strategic vocabulary is “mowing the grass.” I first encountered it some years ago in a private meeting of American and Israeli security analysts considering the problem of Iran’s nuclear program.

Civilian casualties [in Gaza] are mounting, and Israeli analysts are talking about ‘mowing the grass’ to explain their strategy.

Most of the Israelis in the room advocated military strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites. An American colleague pointed out that a military strike would set back Iran’s program no more than two to four years, and that one can’t bomb the knowledge of how to build a centrifuge out of the heads of Iranian engineers.

To this, a former Israeli official replied, “…we’ll just bomb them again and keep bombing them every four years, like mowing the grass.” The Americans in the room were aghast. A war in the Middle East between regional powers every four years?

It was a shocking suggestion, partly because no modern country has ever adopted a strategy of active, continuous warfare, and partly because it was offered in such an off-hand manner. In the years since that meeting, I have frequently heard Israeli analysts advocate a “mowing the grass” approach to Iran.

Today, that metaphor is being been applied anew in a disturbing context: Gaza. Israel has invaded Gaza to quell Hamas’s rocket attacks, and, now, to destroy its tunnel networks. Civilian casualties are mounting, and Israeli analysts are talking about “mowing the grass” to explain their strategy.

Last week, Efaim Inbar and Eitan Shamir published a short paper for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) entitled, “Mowing the Grass in Gaza.” Inbar, who is director of BESA and a professor at Bar-Ilan University, is a longtime, mainstream figure in Israeli strategic studies.

In their paper, Inbar and Shamir argue that, “…calls from the Israeli Left for reaching a ‘political solution’ are totally unrealistic.” They further note that, “Those who forlornly ask ‘when is this going to end?’ and use the cliché ‘cycle of violence’ have psychological difficulties digesting the facts that there is no solution in sight.” Their conclusion: “Against an implacable, well-entrenched, non-state enemy like the Hamas, Israel simply needs to ‘mow the grass’ once in a while in order to degrade enemy capabilities. A war of attrition against Hamas is probably Israel’s fate for the long term.”

The notion that repeated attacks on Gaza are nothing more than “mowing the grass” raises serious moral and strategic questions. Cutting down civilians, like the children playing on that Gaza beach, is not like cutting blades of grass. To compare the two is dehumanizing. And to embrace a policy that entails the killing of hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians with each application violates the conscience, if not the basic rule of law. Use of force should always be a last resort, not a premeditated policy of first choice.

Cutting down civilians, like the children playing on that Gaza beach, is not like cutting blades of grass. To compare the two is dehumanizing.

It is also bad strategy. If one sets aside the civilians and focuses only on Hamas and related groups, it quickly becomes apparent that the grass metaphor is profoundly misleading. Grass does not learn from each mowing; it does not develop new capabilities. By contrast, over the course of a decade, it has become clear that militants in Gaza are acquiring better rockets – and, now, drones — and reaching deeper into Israeli territory. Their new targets include Tel Aviv Airport and the Dimona nuclear reactor.

Israel’s missile defenses have defeated these attacks, but despite the virtual absence of Israeli casualties from the rocket launches, the Netanhyahu government felt compelled to mount a large-scale invasion with the onerous objective of demilitarizing Hamas.

Put another way, to be “effective,” Hamas’s rockets don’t have to hurt anyone. It is enough that they reach deep into Israel. Does anyone actually believe that the next time this happens, Hamas’s rockets will be less sophisticated? We live in a time when electronics and even drones grow cheaper, more capable and easier to acquire. In short, “mowing the grass” is an unsustainable policy in the modern world.

It’s also wrongheaded. Inbar and Eitan argue that a political solution is “unrealistic,” thus the need for endless, repeated military attacks. But a political solution is the only realistic path to peace and stability for Israel and the region  TWEET . Hamas and others cannot continue their rocket launches, kidnappings and terror attacks. But Israel cannot continue the occupation, draconian blockades and ever expanding settlements – including those that undermined Secretary Kerry’s most recent diplomatic efforts.

Of course, there is plenty of blame to go around, not just for Israel and the Palestinians, but for Egypt and others in the region. However, a refusal to address the core issues will prevent the one path that has any hope of protecting Israel’s security in the long term: a negotiated settlement.

In the meantime, Israeli analysts – and indeed all military strategists — should banish the phrase “mowing the grass.”

A metaphor can be a dangerous thing. It can even kill.


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Tags: Middle East, Security

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Boris Revsin

    Meh. Why blame Israeli’s for the end of the peace talks, when it was clearly Abbas who killed them by applying to 15 UN groups knowing what it would do. Do your homework.

    • JS

      Yeah, applying for statehood, how evil of him.

  • Jerry Burke

    A war in the Middle East every four years? How about a perennial war in the Middle East! Iraq since 2003! Google “Gaza bombing 2 . . . ” auto-prompt will add ‘2008’, ‘2009’, ‘2010’, ‘2011’, ‘2012, ‘2013’, and ‘2014’.

    • Beatrix17

      The Mideast has been having wars for years. The article was about Israel’s soldier’s comments and Israel was responding to Hamas’ attacks. Israel has other enemies, but she hasn’t had wars with them in years. Her problem is jihadist attacks from Palestinian terror groups.

      • Jerry Burke

        If you were on the receiving end of Operation Cast Lead; Operation Pillars of Defense or Operation Protective Edge or any of the unnamed bombing campaigns you would say you were at war.

        • Beatrix17

          They’re terrible wars. The suffering is unbelievable. The propaganda is similar to Hitler’s. But these are wars where Hamas attacks and Israel has to defend herself. The author makes the Mowing the Grass remark sound as though these wars are Israeli policy that she initiates and accepts instead of a horrible ordeal where she has to continually defend herself.

          • Jerry Burke

            Most of the residents of Gaza are refugees of massacres and ethnic cleansing from as far away as Jaffa (you know where that is?). You also know the real name of Sderot was Nald? These refugees were never compensated for their losses. Their new homeland was then occupied for decades and a severe economic blockage has also been place for decades. I don’t blame them for striking back.

          • Beatrix17

            Palestine was the name the Romans gave to Israel. In 1947, the UN divided Palestine into two nations. The
            Jewish Palestinians named their portion Israel. In 1948, the Arab Palestinians went to war losing to Egypt and Jordan. In a 1967 preemptive strike, Israel won the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt. In 1988, when Jordan relinquished all claims, Israel started
            building on the land, offering it to the Palestinians in the 1990s.

            Israel also offered Israeli land to cover the 5% of the West Bank she had built on. Neither Arafat nor Abbas has accepted the West Bank completely. (Abbas controls part of it). That’s what the peace talks are about.

            Israel removed all settlers from Gaza in 2005, handing complete control of the land to the Palestinians. Hamas won control of Gaza in a civil war with Abbas in 2007. Israel has no control of Gaza, but both she and Egypt try to keep weapons out because Hamas insists on war instead of negotiation.

          • JS

            So, take the land with access to water, and offer worthless Israeli land? Sounds fair to some, but not to me.

          • Beatrix17

            It’s Israel! It’s the same land, same lack of oil, same problems with water. Israel has been working on the problems. The Arab Palestinians lived for 20 years under Jordan and Egypt. With the West Bank and Gaza, the Arabs are getting back the land they lost in the war they started in 1948.

            Jews have lived in Israel for 3500 years. Israel, called Palestine since 135 AD, has been under Roman (Pagan) control, Arab control, (Arab marauders arrived in 637AD after Jews had lived in Israel for over 2,000 years. Christians gained control during the Crusades, then the Ottoman Empire (Muslims) took control. When Turkey and Germany lost WW1, the English Empire (Christian) took over. It’s still Israel, and Jews have lived with
            practically every religion and nationality on the Planet. And Jews have never objected to dividing Israel and sharing it with the Arabs.

            Muslims believe in WAQF—any country that’s ever been under Muslim control always belongs to the Muslims, but neither Jews nor Muslims always had control. Because of WAQF, the Muslims can’t admit that Palestine was a territory that belonged to two people—Jews and Arabs and that Jews are entitled to their share of Palestine, which they again call Israel. Actually, Jewsprovide Arabs with water, but Arabs, like Jews, are supposed to build
            their own infastructure to deliver it. They haven’t because Abbas says the Arabs won’t pay their water bills. Arabs get money from the UN, US, and Europe.

          • JS

            “Arab Marauders” – and what do you call the Jews who first settled the land there, after murdering all the men, women, and children first? Peaceniks?

            As for money, it’s easy to spend on infrastructure when you are given $5,000,000,000 a year for your defense. If only the Arabs were so lucky.

            As for the land in the West Bank, the parts Israel was going to keep had access to water, which they would then control. I would find that unacceptable.

          • TJtruthandjustice

            Blaming Hamas for the deaths of Palestinian kids killed by Israel while they sought refuge in hospitals and schools is something right out of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s “1984.” Even if you believe these absurd claims, don’t try to use them as a PR stunt. No one could possibly buy this argument except the most hopelessly brainwashed supporters of Netanyahu, and you already have their blind faith, no questions asked.

  • Beatrix17

    Israel fights every 4 years because that’s how often Hamas attacks. And if she ever loses, Hamas has made it clear their goal is Israel’s annihilation. America fights to win, too, but we’re strong enough to remain free even when we lose.
    Israel won’t have that option. Hamas builds sophisticated tunnels to infiltrate Israel and to hide her weapons and her leaders, but provides no shelter to her people though Hamas starts the wars and knows they’ll be needed. Hamas would rather her people be killed so she can use their deaths as propaganda against Israel. It’s good that Israelis are realistic.

  • D. G.

    Active continuous warfare?
    Have you not ever read any of the Quran?
    Active continuous warfare is part of their religious doctrine !!!

  • Rod Downing

    Is “mowing the grass” the right metaphor? The grass, once mowed, basically stays the same – not stronger. If the rockets being fired this time are more powerful, might it be closer to “the antibiotic war against super bugs” – each round gets tougher to tamp down?

    The choice of metaphor might make a difference to the calculus of Israel, though actually it is the other way around – one’s perception of reality will inform the best metaphor to use, propaganda aside.

    And to be clear, whichever metaphor, it is very dangerous in that it starts down the road of dehumanizing people. And any such concept / script can blind one, either side, to openings that could inch things along.

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