“There does remain a gap,” Antony Blinken said this week, between Israel’s assurances to the US regarding its “intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground.”
That’s a euphemistic way of saying Israel simply lied to Blinken when he was in the Mideast late last month. Just prior to the collapse of a tenuous ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Blinken, by his own account, told Israeli officials that the military needed to have “a clear plan in place that puts a premium on protecting civilians before any operations go forward in southern Gaza.”
It was obvious by then that the IDF intended to invade the southern half of the tiny enclave, where hundreds of thousands of Gazans evacuated in an effort to comply with Israel’s demands as it readied an offensive in the north.
As it stepped up airstrikes and moved on Khan Younis (the south’s largest city where Israel expects to find Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar), the IDF encouraged civilians to consult a map which divided Gaza into scores of tiny “zones.” For many, the map was inaccessible and it anyway doesn’t matter: There’s little evidence to support the IDF’s perfunctory pretensions to sparing civilians. By contrast, every account suggests there isn’t an inch of territory in Gaza that could be considered “safe” even on a loose definition of the word that takes into account the realities of close-quarters war.
There’s a difference between not deliberately targeting civilians and taking steps (any steps) to avoid killing them. The IDF doesn’t seem to recognize that distinction. Blinken said Israel is at least “evacuating neighborhoods instead of entire cities” now, but that’s only meaningful if you don’t subsequently bomb or attack the areas you implicitly suggested might be safe.
The population of Khan Younis increased to an estimated 1.2 million as evacuees from the north arrived, which means the city was “home” to around half of the strip’s population when the IDF began its assault after the ceasefire fell apart. Prior to the conflict, the city had around 400,000 residents. A few days ago, Israel ordered an evacuation of areas where some 170,000 people were staying. Some Gazans sheltering in the city were told to go to Rafah, on the Egyptian border, but the IDF is bombing it too, including strikes on Saturday, according to local reports.
In the past 24 hours alone, more than 130 Palestinians were killed in Deir al-Balah and Khan Younis, local officials said. The overall death toll in Gaza, as tallied by the Hamas-run health ministry, is fast approaching 18,000. At least 2,000 of those deaths occurred after Blinken told Benjamin Netanyahu to do a better job protecting innocents. A majority of casualties in Gaza, including those since the collapse of the ceasefire, are women and children, a contention Israel doesn’t necessarily dispute.
On Friday, the US vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. 13 of 15 Council members voted in favor of the resolution. The UK abstained. The UAE-sponsored measure came on the heels of António Guterres’s decision to invoke Article 99, an extraordinary step available to the secretary general when global stability is at risk.
In his Article 99 address, Guterres warned of a “total collapse” in Gaza with “devastating” security consequences. “There is clearly, in my view, a serious risk of aggravating existing threats to the maintenance of international peace and security,” Guterres said, noting that 130 UN personnel are dead in Gaza, the largest loss of staff life in the body’s history. Consider the following statistics cited by Guterres:
- [The Israeli bombardment] has reportedly hit 339 education facilities, 26 hospitals, 56 healthcare facilities, 88 mosques and three churches
- Over 60% of Gaza’s housing has reportedly been destroyed or damaged — some 300,000 houses and apartments
- Some 85% of the population have been forced from their homes
- At least 88 UNRWA shelters have been hit, killing over 270 people and injuring over 900
Do note: This is taking place in an area the size of Philadelphia. I can’t emphasize that enough.
Famine, Guterres went on, citing the World Food Programme, is a serious risk in Gaza. Almost nobody is eating enough in northern Gaza. “Half the people of the north and more than one third of displaced people in the south are simply starving,” Guterres said.
On Friday, the world was treated to images of dozens of Palestinian men stripped to their underwear and kneeling, bound, in the streets surrounded by Israeli soldiers and military vehicles. Israel offered this explanation: “We’re talking about military-age men who were discovered in areas that civilians were supposed to have evacuated weeks ago. Those individuals will be questioned and we will work out who indeed was a Hamas terrorist and who is not.”
I suppose this goes without saying, but just in case: That doesn’t work. Just because you order an evacuation doesn’t give you carte blanche to go into the relevant area later, round up all military-age men, strip them nearly naked, bind them and put them on their knees for the cameras before taking them to undisclosed locations for “questioning.” Plainly, the IDF is trying to emasculate the male population.
The picture above was posted to the social media account of the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation. The people pictured (and they are people, mind you) were being checked for “explosives,” the Israeli military said, in remarks to CNN. The location of that image, as well as associated video footage, was verified by The New York Times.
The idea that any of this is making Israel safer is nothing short of delusional. On the contrary, the IDF is creating a veritable wasteland of ill-will on its borders. A failed statelet where no amity or goodwill of any kind can ever exist. Gaza will become a hotbed for entrepreneurial extremism, and not just from Hamas.
“Extensive killing of civilians contributes nothing to Israel’s security [and] contains the foundations for further undermining it,” a Haaretz analysis published Saturday warned. “The Gazans who emerge from the ruins of their homes and the loss of their families will seek revenge that no security arrangements will be able to withstand.”
The idea that the Palestinian Authority will be able to step into the void in Gaza and restore some semblance of order is so far-fetched that it’s difficult to understand how anyone can seriously entertain the idea. Let’s be clear: Israel’s stated goal (the complete destruction of Hamas) isn’t achievable. You can forget about it. Even if you assume every adult male killed since October 8 in Gaza is a militant, that still leaves anywhere between 75% and 90% of the group’s estimated fighters alive. And that’s just the military wing. It’s impossible to destroy the ideology. If Hamas doesn’t have some representation in a post-war governing coalition in Gaza, it’ll be a perpetual armed insurgency against a PA government the locals will assess to be a puppet of a reconstruction plan crafted without their input.
Of course, that assumes governing will be possible at all, which I personally doubt. As Guterres emphasized, there might not be anything left to govern in Gaza. The Israeli military is chancing a scenario in which Gaza becomes a post-apocalyptic badlands where two million people aimlessly wander a barren coastal expanse. That’s wildly untenable in a region where local power brokers regularly birth militia in conflict zones and collect them like G.I. Joes.
The Biden administration is dangerously pot-committed at this juncture. The US had no choice but to veto the Security Council resolution, but the optics are very poor. In Washington on Friday, Blinken met with diplomats from Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s foreign minister, was there too. Fidan pointed to America’s broken democracy. “The American political system is now helpless on issues related to Israel,” he said. “Therefore, Israel acts recklessly on this issue.” (When Blinken visited Fidan in Turkey early last month, Joe Biden’s top diplomat was greeted with protesters shouting “Get out of Turkey, you murderer!”)
Meanwhile, Israel wants half a billion dollars in new tank rounds from the US, a request the Pentagon may have to assess through an emergency end-around to avoid a contentious debate among US lawmakers, some of whom are becoming quite nervous with Blinken’s “gaps.” An Israeli tank crew killed a Reuters journalist in Lebanon in October. Some footage from Gaza suggests civilian cars have been targeted by Israeli armored vehicles. Israeli also wants 24,000 assault rifles from the US, ostensibly for Itamar Ben-Gvir’s National Police. If you know anything about Ben-Gvir, you know that’s a potentially risky wish to grant.
Ultimately, the US needs to find a way to delineate between supporting Israel’s right to self defense and implicitly underwriting what Jordan’s Ayman Safadi warned Friday is a “massacre” in Gaza. The Haaretz analysis mentioned above suggested the civilian share of deaths in Gaza may count as unprecedented in the modern history of global conflicts. “The study confirms an investigation 10 days ago by two other Israeli news sites, +972 Magazine and Local Call, which found Israel was deliberately targeting residential blocks to cause mass civilian casualties in the hope people would turn on their Hamas rulers,” The Guardian noted.
I said last month the US can’t be a party to the conduct of the IDF anymore given the escalating death toll among children. “It’s entirely possible, I wrote, on November 19, that “10,000 children, around 1% of all children in Gaza,” will be dead within “a month or two.” At the time, the estimated child death toll was around 5,000. Less than a month later, it’s somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000, depending on which estimate you consult.
“The President emphasized the critical need to protect civilians and to separate the civilian population from Hamas including through corridors that allow people to move safely from defined areas of hostilities,” a cautiously-worded readout of a December 7 call between Biden and Netanyahu said.
“Almost one out of every 150 Palestinian children in Gaza have been killed in just two months,” Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian-American critical care specialist in Chicago, told The New York Times this week. “That is the equivalent of half a million American children.”