A Palestinian boy looks out across Gaza City on 6 August 2014. Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty
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Conflict in Gaza is all part of Israel’s indirect system of control over Palestinians

2014’s Operation Protective Edge was just the latest in a long list of operations used by the IDF to “cut the grass” in the region.

Eleven years ago I was discharged from my military service as a combatant with the Nahal Brigade of the Israel Defence Force (IDF). After my release I founded the organisation Breaking the Silence together with several friends. Since then, I have spoken with hundreds of soldiers who described their military service in the territories. I never came across such lenient rules of engagement as those described by dozens of soldiers and officers who took part in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. Their testimonies describe how the IDF conducted itself and can explain to a large extent why there were such fatal results. 

But the testimonies from Protective Edge do not tell the whole story. They do not recount that last summer’s operation was only the latest in a series of operations conducted by the IDF in recent years in Gaza. (Warm Winter in 2008, Cast Lead at the start of 2009, Pillar of Defense in 2012, and Protective Edge in 2014). They also neglect to explain why it is apparent that it is only a matter of time until the next operation.

This succession of operations in Gaza is an expression of a strategy nicknamed by senior IDF officers as “cutting the grass”. Those who advocate for this strategy describe it as a necessary response to the terror threats facing Israel. These officers present the strategy as a defensive tool designed to undermine terror groups’ ability to threaten Israel’s security. They claim that because the threats facing Israel are constant and can never be completely averted, Israel must periodically and cyclically “cut” terror organisations’ capabilities and disrupt their readiness for combat. An operation every two or three years is an expression of cold and calculated logic, not whimsy.

But the last operation, like those that preceded it, not only damaged Hamas’s infrastructure and that of other armed groups. The principal casualties from the “grass cutting” policy were Palestinian civilians, whose population is being torn apart under the throes of war. Think about what happens to a society when hundreds of its children are killed within the span of two months, along with 18,000 of its homes. It is impossible not to discern whether what the IDF is “cutting” every couple of years is terror capabilities, or the ability for an entire society to develop and subsist.

In effect, the “grass cutting” policy is but another component of Israel’s system of control over the Palestinian population, both in Gaza and the West Bank. In order to preserve its control, Israel continuously operates to ensure Palestinians remain weak and vulnerable. As a soldier, I took part in countless operations aimed at “lowering the heads” of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. Many other soldiers have and continue to do the same.  Patrols at all hours of the day and night throughout the streets of Palestinian cities, raids in arbitrarily chosen civilian homes, checkpoints in the heart of densely populated Palestinian areas – all these activities are designed to show the Palestinian population that Israeli soldiers are always present in every place, and to create a sense of persecution. Other operations, like curfews on a village or the arrest of all the men in it for an undefined period of time, allow for the entrenchment of fear in the population, and with it the strengthening of control over them.

The difference between the soldiers’ missions in the West Bank and Gaza stems from the difference in the nature of control Israel has on these two territories. The West Bank has been under full, direct and daily military control and partial civilian control for the last 48 years. In the Gaza Strip, Israel has not implemented direct military control since 2005. However, to this day, it continues to retain control over the most basic aspects of daily life in Gaza. We control Gaza’s air and sea space, as well as its population registry and the passage of trade and people. The periodic conflicts in Gaza are another tool in Israel’s indirect system of control over the population, and is another means of dismembering Palestinian society.

We should remind ourselves that when we cut down Palestinians’ freedom to choose how to live their lives and their right to live securely with a roof over their heads, we are also cutting ourselves down. We are cutting down our values and our humanity, as well as our security and hope to live without anticipating the next round of war.

If we do not act to stop Israel’s perennial “grass cutting,” within the West Bank and Gaza, then we can only expect more death and destruction on both sides. Only a determined political struggle to end Israeli control can prevent the next war and bring peace and security to the people of the region. Only freedom for Palestinians can guarantee freedom and security for Israelis.

Yehuda Shaul is a co-founder and member of Breaking the Silence, an organisation of almost 1,000 Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era