Sticks and stones can break our bones; words, according to the playground rhyme, cannot hurt us. In Gaza, where children at school are killed by bombs, sticks and stones are the least of anyone’s problems. But in the wider diplomatic and public discourse about the current crisis, words – and the fear of misusing them – take on explosive power.
Pronouncements by politicians are always open to scrutiny and frequently to disapproval. More than most subjects, however, statements about the conflict in the Middle East are raked over by supporters of both sides for any sign of an agenda. Focus on the terrorism of Hamas, and be accused of dancing to the tune of Mark Regev, the smooth-talking Israeli spokesman. Question Israel’s right to fire missiles into populous areas, and be condemned as an apologist for Palestinian extremists or even as an anti-Semite.
Journalists are not immune from facing such accusations, either, but at least the media have the advantage of not having to contest elections. For politicians, there is an obvious imperative not to espouse an unpopular view, or even a controversial one. This is most apparent in the Prime Minister’s oft-repeated line about both Hamas and the Israelis needing to observe a ceasefire. Statesmanlike it is not. He might just as well say it is a war of two halves. Ed Miliband’s comments at the weekend that Israel’s actions in Gaza are “wrong and unjustifiable” were welcome to a point. But the fact that they were regarded as relatively severe in their condemnation also underlines why political bigwigs remain so anxious about how their words are likely to be interpreted. Howls from Downing Street that the remarks amounted to an outrageous attempt to win political points were indicative of the way in which politicians are forever paralysed by the dread of being on the wrong side of the argument.
In this context, when every linguistic slip can be the prelude to abusive hectoring on a grand scale – with the extremes encouraged by the freedom provided by the internet – the intervention of the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has been crucial and commendable. For a man of his stature to raise so openly the question of proportionality, as he did a week ago, was courageous. To refer to Sunday’s attack on a UN shelter in a Gaza school as a “moral outrage and a criminal act”, while apparently pointing the finger of blame at Israel, was remarkable. But the description was surely unarguable and his words appear to have emboldened the language of the US administration.
The world may be as one in wishing that violence in the Gaza Strip could be brought to an end. Yet there remains a disastrous lack of unity when it comes to establishing what a peace might look like. More pressure should be applied to ensure that any settlement grants dignity to Gaza’s traumatised citizens. As we reflect on the catastrophic war that engulfed the globe a hundred years ago, the current pre-eminence of warmongers over peacemakers is particularly hard to take.
Politicians will never escape criticism for their views. But they will gain credit if they take a leaf out of Ban Ki-moon’s book and recognise a moral outrage when they see one.