Joe Biden, in a weekend op-ed for The Washington Post, laid out The White House’s vision for the future of Gaza.
“There must be no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, no reoccupation, no siege or blockade and no reduction in territory,” he wrote. “The international community must commit resources to support the people of Gaza in the immediate aftermath of this crisis, including interim security measures, and establish a reconstruction mechanism to sustainably meet Gaza’s long-term needs.”
Needless to say, Biden’s op-ed also offered strenuous support for Israel’s right to self-defense and, less emphatically, the IDF’s military campaign in Gaza. “We stand firmly with the Israeli people as they defend themselves against the murderous nihilism of Hamas,” he declared.
The op-ed was a painful exercise in cognitive dissonance. To say Biden’s no stranger to this conflict would be an understatement, and not a small one either. He knows what’s at stake in the region better than most in Washington. Domestically, he understands all too well that offering anything less than full-throated support for Israel after a terrorist attack is politically untenable. And whatever else you want to say about him, Biden understands loss and human suffering. He lost a son to brain cancer and a wife and one-year-old daughter to a car accident.
Suffice to say Biden’s pulled in all directions by the unfolding cataclysm in the Mideast. The egregious, up-close and personal nature of Hamas’s rampage last month is an affront to humanity’s pretensions to decency, pretensions Biden’s very keen to preserve in order to paint Vladimir Putin as a barbarous war criminal. At the same time, the scope of the IDF’s bombing campaign in Gaza and the disproportionate share of children counted among the mounting civilian casualties is nothing short of heinous, and could plausibly be compared to Russian strikes which killed scores of civilians in Ukraine. Biden’s torn between the imperative of asserting Israel’s right to exist and the fact that US military assistance in support of preserving Israeli statehood is currently being leveraged in the service of an aerial bombardment that’s killed as many as 5,000 children in the space of five weeks. Biden has empathy both for Israelis who lost loved ones and Palestinians likewise grieving.
Biden’s battle with cognitive dissonance was on full display in two form letters sent to pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel Americans. NBC published the letters on November 17. “Though the two letters do not contradict each other, it is not common for the White House correspondence office to craft versions of a letter on the same topic that diverge so dramatically in their emphasis,” NBC wrote, in an article published alongside the letters. “Yet they reflect the political tightrope Biden is trying to walk as elements of his coalition fray over the war.”
The WaPo op-ed appeared to be an effort on Biden’s part to reconcile those two letters, but it invariably read like the litany of contradictions that it was. There’s no way to reconcile those contradictions, particularly not if you’re Biden staring down an election year. About the best you can do is send aid trucks into Gaza, send “thoughts and prayers” to Gazans and begrudgingly acquiesce to the daily slaughter of civilians in the name of avenging the 1,200 Israelis murdered in cold blood last month. Or at least that’s the best you can do if you’re not willing to go out on a very shaky limb and demand a ceasefire.
I still think it’s imperative that Americans are presented regularly with an opportunity to engage with the unvarnished truth, uncomfortable though it most assuredly is in this context (and a lot of other contexts besides). We can start with being a little honest about the Israeli political project. I discussed that here last week.
Beyond acknowledging what Israel actually is (a nondemocratic, ethnonationalist security state), it’s important to acknowledge that Hamas is a political resistance movement. There is a political agenda. You could plausibly describe that agenda as genocidal or homicidal, and Hamas has pursued textbook terrorist tactics in pursuit of that agenda, but to completely decontextualize the situation serves no purpose other than to absolve every interested party (including the US) other than Hamas of any and all responsibility for the pre-October 7 state of affairs. It was, for example, the Israeli government which allowed Hamas to avail itself of Qatari cash as part of an extraordinarily risky gambit to keep the Palestinian resistance split and thereby too weak to pursue statehood under the PLA. Hamas was viewed (explicitly) by some members of the Israeli government as an asset.
Further, the talking point that says Gazans voted for Hamas is technically true, but the list of mitigating factors when it comes to blaming Gazans for that “choice” is too long to enumerate. For one thing, there weren’t a lot of great options. It’s safe to say most of the votes cast for Hamas were actually votes against Fatah, which is to say votes against an untenable status quo defined by rampant corruption and little tangible progress addressing the issues that matter to Palestinians.
“There was a peaceful process as people went to the polls, and that’s positive,” George W. Bush said, in 2006, following Hamas’s victory. “What’s also positive is that it’s a wake-up call to the leadership. Obviously people were not happy with the status quo. The people are demanding honest government. The people want services.”
Even if you want to argue that Gazans should’ve known better (Hamas’s agenda and tactics weren’t exactly a secret), there are countless examples of electorates voting for leaders who’ve demonstrated their inclination to pursue ruinous foreign policy agendas — leaders like Bush.
Gazans haven’t had a chance to vote Hamas out since 2006. The typical pushback says too many Gazans openly supported Hamas years after the election and, relatedly, that anyone who didn’t should’ve endeavored to violently overthrow the group. That’s all a bit disingenuous: They’re heavily-armed militants. Maybe they’ll countenance protests, but probably not violent rebellion.
In addition — and this point is as critical as it is obvious — the election was 17 years ago. Half of Gazans are under 18. So, no, “most” current Gazans didn’t vote for Hamas. Children are paying (with their lives) for something that happened in many cases before they were born.
If you have the stomach for it (and not all of you will), The New York Times published an article over the weekend called “The War Turns Gaza Into a ‘Graveyard’ for Children.” There are pictures. Lots of them. And there are harrowing accounts of entire families being wiped off the face of the Earth with no explanation from the IDF. Some readers have criticized me for suggesting the IDF is engaged in genocide in Gaza. If that’s you, consider this passage from the Times piece:
During previous wars, parents in Gaza sometimes put their children to bed in different rooms of their homes. If an airstrike damaged one part of the house, the other children might live. Given the scale of the bombardment this time — which many Gazans describe as indiscriminate and without warning — some parents have put much greater distances between their children, splitting them up and sending them to relatives in different parts of the Gaza Strip to try to increase their odds of survival. Others have taken to scrawling names directly onto their children’s skin, in case they are lost, orphaned or killed and need to be identified.
According to the IDF, there have been more than 15,000 airstrikes on Gaza so far. 15,000 airstrikes in five weeks on a 25-mile-long stretch of land which counts as one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.
Although the US won’t accept the death toll figures as reported by the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza as definitive, the administration is no longer quick to dispute the numbers either. Indeed, one US official (Barbara Leaf) told lawmakers in the House that the true number of civilians killed in Gaza could be “even higher” than the number Hamas has reported.
Finally, it’s become apparent to me over the last two or so weeks that a lot of younger observers inclined to weigh in on the conflict don’t actually understand what the phrase “never again” means in this context. “Never again” doesn’t mean that the Jewish people (or any other people) will never again face the threat (credible or otherwise) of annihilation. It’d be impossible to make such a pronouncement. Unfortunately, we live in a world where people regularly plot on the demise of others. You can’t stop the plotting and, tragically, you can’t always preempt people from trying to live out their ill intentions either.
“Never again” means that the Jewish people will never again go quietly. That’s why October 7 was uniquely traumatic: Many of those murdered were, through no fault of their own, largely helpless to defend themselves. That’d be disquieting enough for any people, but for the Jewish people it’s absolutely intolerable — a non-starter of existential proportions that calls not just for righteous, proportionate justice, but for the unequivocal reestablishment of the Israeli state’s military deterrent, the credibility of which was in tatters last month. Reclaiming that credibility is synonymous with affirming “never again.” The sheer gravity of that imperative in the Jewish consciousness presents an existential risk to Gazans in the current circumstances. That’s the tragic irony of this situation. Affirming one people’s determination to never again be helpless in the face of oblivion means putting another people in a very similar situation.
The task for Israel’s allies around the world is to internalize all of that — and indeed to respect it in light of the Jewish people’s historical suffering — while simultaneously conveying to the Israeli government that there is, in fact, a cost that’s too high, or at least as it relates strictly to Gaza. Hamas can’t, by itself, wipe out the Israeli state. With an estimated 90 nuclear warheads, there’s a strong argument that no nation can wipe out the Israeli state. Hamas (and Hezbollah) can, though, make life in Israel more precarious, and one risk that needs to be taken seriously is that associated with Jewish people leaving Israel to protect themselves and their families. Relatedly, if Israel becomes too dangerous, Jewish people around the world might hesitate before moving to Israel. That’s a kind of passive existential threat, not to the Jewish people necessarily, but to the state of Israel and, again, it has to be taken seriously.
But as things stand currently, there’s a risk that absent a sufficiently strident message from the Biden administration, Israel’s actions in Gaza will go too far and will one day be remembered as wildly disproportionate even to what I’ll call the “total damage” from October 7 — so, taking account not just of the Israelis murdered last month, but also of the potential for the events of October 7 to raise the kinds of security questions which could lead some Jewish people to flee and dissuade others from making Israel their home, thereby undermining Israeli statehood.
That risk — that the US is on the verge of being complicit in a disproportionate military campaign against a helpless civilian population where the effect is to eradicate a significant share of an entire generation — is amplified by Islamophobia in America and the fact that a lot of Americans are completely desensitized to, and thereby apathetic towards, foreign conflicts. Indelicately: The IDF could kill everyone in Gaza and it wouldn’t be a decisive factor in next year’s US elections. That can’t be an excuse for complacency.
Biden, in his WaPo Op-Ed, wrote that “Palestinian children are crying for lost parents. Parents are writing their child’s name on their hand or leg so they can be identified if the worst happens. Palestinian nurses and doctors are trying desperately to save every precious life they possibly can, with little to no resources. Every innocent Palestinian life lost is a tragedy that rips apart families and communities.”
The US can put a stop to that overnight if it chooses. Instead, Biden reiterated that “as long as Hamas clings to its ideology of destruction, a ceasefire is not peace.” That’s undoubtedly true, as was Biden’s contention that a ceasefire would give Hamas a chance to regroup and that any outcome which leaves Hamas alive in any sense other than the way in which ideas and movements can’t be killed, would leave Israel at risk.
At some point, though, all of that has to take a backseat to stopping the civilian death toll from rising inexorably, particularly given the preponderance of children among the dead. If this goes on unabated for another month or two, it’s entirely possible that 10,000 children, around 1% of all children in Gaza, will be dead. That’s equivalent, in percentage terms, to 750,000 American children. The US can’t be a party to that.