“We believe in the fundamental dignity of every human life,” Joe Biden declared on Wednesday, while in Israel meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu. That belief, Biden said, is what “sets us apart from the terrorists.”
The US president was in an impossible situation. Even the most skilled of orators would’ve been at pains to avoid offending delicate sensibilities on both sides of a highly-charged situation in the Mideast. Biden isn’t a skilled orator.
Gaza was still reeling from Tuesday’s horrific blast at a hospital where hundreds were killed and scores injured in an ill-timed catastrophe that prompted the cancelation of a summit in Jordan, where Biden was set to meet Mahmoud Abbas. The hospital explosion made an already tenuous security situation all the more precarious, and virtually guaranteed that Biden’s in-person show of support for Netanyahu would inflame regional tensions even further.
Biden’s overarching goal was to reaffirm America’s commitment to Israel’s security while simultaneously presenting himself as a kind of biased, but somehow still impartial, mediator. The inherent contradiction was accentuated by the poor optics around the hospital bloodbath, and also by “heavy shelling” on Khan Younis, a city in southern Gaza, where Gazans who obeyed Israel’s evacuation order in the north were sheltering.
In a searing image from the city, two young girls, perhaps 14 years old between them, sat on the end of hospital gurney, ashen and dusty. One face was contorted in anguish, the other stared vacantly forward at another child’s body on the stretcher. You don’t know, from the picture, whether the child she’s staring at is dead or alive. All you can see are two small feet.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that Biden is genuinely aghast at the situation. But he’s a creature of the US Senate and knows Washington better than perhaps any living US politician. He knows that failing to back Israel following the deadliest single day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust is a political death sentence. He has no choice but to do precisely what he did on Wednesday: Sit across from a man he knows is in the process of committing what many unbiased observers believe are war crimes and feign something like camaraderie.
I want to be absolutely clear: Everyone in the world, including myself, sympathizes with Israel in at least one respect. The idea of marauding, murderous militants perpetrating unspeakable atrocities against 1,400 people minding their own business, is positively abhorrent. If it happened to you, and you had the wherewithal to exact vengeance, you’d probably seek reparations. And the only currency you’d likely accept would be blood. For any readers who might’ve been confused about whether I sympathize with Israel’s predicament, I hope that clears it up.
That said, the issue is that there are 2.3 million people, a disproportionate number of whom are children, almost all of whom are civilians, trapped on a 25-mile-long stretch of land. On one side is a modern, angry, hostile army. On the other side is the sea. The only way out is a border crossing, and it’s blocked. They are a marginalized people who, arguably, have been subjected to what I’ll indelicately call “genocide lite” for a very long time. They have no state, no hope and their right to self-determination has been repeatedly denied to them. They fear being driven off what remains of their land and never being allowed to return. And they also fear that their neighbor is bent on erasing them from the history books.
That’s the situation in Gaza. For many in the West, it might come as a surprise, and a rather macabre surprise at that. But, to quote (and implicitly chide) one bank analyst who made it clear this week that his emotions can take precedence over what’s otherwise an unbiased approach to geopolitical commentary, history “is both painfully simple and painfully hard.” You don’t have to take my word for it. You can go read all about the history of this particular flashpoint for yourself. Spend an afternoon with Google, and you might come away with a more nuanced understanding of the situation.
Without mincing words, it’s highly questionable whether every Israeli “believes in the fundamental dignity of every human life,” as Biden put it, at least if “every human life” includes Gazan civilians. Plainly, Hamas and Islamic Jihad don’t believe “in the fundamental dignity of every human life.” That much is clear, and it’s been clear for quite a long time. The idea, perpetuated recently by Netanyahu, that prior to October 7, Palestinian rights advocates were under the impression that Hamas’s military wing was comprised mostly of people you’d invite over for dinner parties, is manifestly absurd.
What we learned on October 7 was that these militants are also extremists, and although I can’t speak for anyone else, I was under no delusions to the contrary previously. Whether a group is or isn’t ISIS seems to largely miss the point. Maybe Hamas put themselves in a different category this month than they fell into previously, but I’m not convinced the distinction between murderous terrorists and barbarous terrorists is especially useful.
There’s no doubt that the world would be a better place without Hamas, and there’s even less than no doubt that Israel would be a safer place without Hamas. No one is suggesting that Israel shouldn’t wipe out Hamas. What people have suggested, though, is that you can’t use a terrorist attack as air cover (pardon the distasteful pun) to carry out a campaign of collective punishment that some worry is tantamount to genocide.
Such is Biden’s dilemma. He’s acutely aware (or as acutely aware as Biden can be) of everything I’ve just said. Again, I encourage readers to understand that my position isn’t in any way, shape or form anti-Israel. My position, like my position on every other thing in this cursed world of ours, is informed solely by what I perceive to be the facts. I’m biased around some domestic political issues, but as any regular reader will attest, my biases are mostly confined to socioeconomic concerns around the excesses of American-style capitalism. Outside of that relatively narrow sphere, I don’t generally care.
In geopolitical matters I do tend to err on the side of the Western narrative when the alternative is Russian or Chinese propaganda. Sometimes, that makes me naive (e.g., the Nord Stream sabotage which, as it turns out, was likely the work of Ukrainian operatives), but it’s a price I’m always willing to pay, because nine times out of 10, the Kremlin narrative and, to a lesser but still meaningful extent, the Party (with a capital “P”) narrative, is pure poison, even when it’s not completely “wrong” or strictly inaccurate.
To be sure, there’s a material risk in the Israel-Hamas war of inadvertently perpetuating Iranian propaganda. Fortunately (or unfortunately, whichever the case may be), I have some experience with that, and I can tell you that Iranian propaganda isn’t as refined, clever or polished as what comes out of the Kremlin. The theocracy in Tehran is mostly hapless, its geopolitical goals are transparent and the regime is too proud of its destabilizer role to make a secret of anything.
All of that to say this: Israel can’t, or shouldn’t, be allowed to do what some (note the emphasis) in the Israeli government and military are pretty clearly open to doing in pursuit of Hamas’s destruction. The US, and the world, can’t let one of the most well-equipped, capable militaries on the planet have free rein to carry out a scorched earth campaign on 2.3 million people with no open corridors to evacuate civilians. Netanyahu is of course correct to say Hamas is hiding behind civilians and may even be preventing them from leaving. He’s also correct to call that a war crime. But that doesn’t mean Israel has carte blanche.
Notwithstanding Netanyahu’s understandable pushback on the idea that Israel might be rethinking its approach under what I imagine is the gentlest of gentle pressure from the White House, it does seem as though the IDF may be having second thoughts about a full-on ground invasion, and particularly about the idea of occupying Gaza in perpetuity. I hope that’s the case, although the assumption, for now, is that the operation will go ahead as planned once Biden is out of harm’s way.
Biden did appear to secure an agreement with Netanyahu to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza from Egypt, but it’s fair to suggest the convoys will be in extreme peril. Any indication that the aid is going to, or being commandeered by, Hamas, will make those convoys legitimate targets in the eyes of the IDF.
In a press briefing Wednesday, IDF official Daniel Hagari documented what Israel says is proof (or something very close to proof) that is was, in fact, an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad that caused the explosion at the hospital. Importantly (because there were “false flag” rumors), Hagari was clear that the group didn’t mean to hit the hospital. Rather, several rockets were fired and one fell on the parking lot outside. “According to our intelligence, Hamas checked the report, understood it was an Islamic Jihad rocket that had misfired, and decided to launch a global media campaign to hide what really happened,” Hagari said, on the way to accusing Hamas of inflating the number of casualties.
Biden backed Israel’s assertions on Wednesday, saying the explosion at the hospital was caused by “the other team,” a hopelessly unfortunate way of characterizing the situation.
The blame-casting is mostly irrelevant for more than two million innocents trapped in one of the world’s most dangerous places. Death is death.