Reversing America’s Ruinous Support for Israel’s Assault on Gaza

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Since the brutal attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7, I have been filled with a familiar sense of dread as the Israeli government has squandered the sympathy and support of so many around the globe. Tragically, this is where comparisons with 9/11 hold the most explanatory power. What took America about two-and-a-half years from the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Israel accomplished in weeks. In the wake of the attack, President Joe Biden flew to Israel, where he delivered a strident message of support to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders, while cautioning them to avoid the mistakes that the United States made after the 9/11 attacks. But that advice fell on deaf ears amidst the rage, shame, and political maneuvering in the wake of Hamas’ bloody rampage. Despite America’s considerable leverage, Biden has not yet been willing to do what it takes to restrain Israel. The result has been a horror show for Palestinians in Gaza, as well as for the hostages held in Gaza and their families.

Israel’s military operation in Gaza is both strategically and morally unrecoverable. The legacy of this maximalist assault will haunt Israel for years. Its costs have cascaded around the world and acutely affect Israel’s closest partner, the United States. U.S. policy ought to reflect these realities, first by threatening to withhold further material and political support to Israel unless it announces an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to flow, complies with the laws of war should combat resume, and commits to a positive political program on Palestinian governance of Gaza. 

 

 

An Unrecoverable Disaster

For military action to succeed, it must serve an achievable policy aim. Netanyahu’s declared aim was not just the defeat of Hamas, but its elimination. This aim has been described by experts and close observers of the region as basically impossible, an assessment with which I agree. This is due to the group’s embeddedness in Palestinian society and the proven ability of Islamist militant groups to adapt, survive, and endure conflict and repression. More than two months after announcing that aim, Netanyahu defined elimination downward in a Christmas op-ed. He also detailed two other “prerequisites for peace,” demanding that the Gaza Strip be de-militarized and “Palestinian society” be “deradicalized” — the latter of which is at best slippery and at worst a recipe for endless strife. 

That Israel’s policy is so maximalist and therefore likely unachievable is bad enough, but it also offers nothing about how Gaza will be governed and by whom whenever hostilities cease. To what point, then, has Israeli military strategy aimed? The Israeli military has been engaged in a clearance operation at a large scale, bisecting the Gaza Strip while pushing its population southward into “safe” areas, searching for hostages, and seizing underground infrastructure. While tactically effective, these efforts cannot deliver on Netanyahu’s maximalism. It is certainly true that Hamas and associated militant groups have suffered grievous casualties, but its number of cadres was never the group’s main source of political power. In fact, this war may even leave Hamas more powerful. Nor has Israel been successful in getting back most of the hostages seized by Hamas on Oct. 7. In fact, the character of Israeli military operations has only put their lives at greater risk (earlier this month, for example, three shirtless Israeli hostages waving a white flag were shot and killed by Israeli forces). This does not speak to a coherent military strategy. It speaks to the absence of one. What we are seeing is nothing more than a large-scale punitive operation — or, in other words, an exercise in collective punishment. 

In a 1864 letter to representatives of the city of Atlanta, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman famously observed: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” War is indeed always inherently defined by violence, death, and destruction. But modern professional militaries are capable of more measured, more careful, yet still effective operations against urban enclaves. This was most famously demonstrated by the U.S. military and its Iraqi and coalition partners during the retaking of Mosul from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which was defeated soundly. Such modern approaches do not drain out war’s cruel essence (nothing can) but they can make a difference in the scale and severity of suffering experienced by non-combatants. 

That is not the path that Israel chose. A Washington Post investigation dove into the grisly reality:

Israel has carried out its war in Gaza at a pace and level of devastation that likely exceeds any recent conflict, destroying more buildings, in far less time, than were destroyed during the Syrian regime’s battle for Aleppo from 2013 to 2016 and the U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, in 2017.

This has come at a predictable human cost. An estimated 20,000 Gazans have died since the conflict began. Among the dead are roughly 5,000 children. And tens of thousands more have been wounded while over 80 percent of Gazans have been displaced. 

The unprecedented scale of the damage to buildings and the high non-combatant death toll would seem to verify the reporting of an Israeli publication, +972 Magazine. At the end of November, the magazine published an investigation by Yuval Abraham into the Israeli military’s targeting practices in Gaza. Abraham found that restrictions on targeting had been relaxed to permit strikes on a wider range of structures, even when Israeli forces knew in advance that non-combatant casualties would be high. One passage is worth quoting at length:

[T]he Israeli army has files on the vast majority of potential targets in Gaza — including homes — which stipulate the number of civilians who are likely to be killed in an attack on a particular target. This number is calculated and known in advance to the army’s intelligence units, who also know shortly before carrying out an attack roughly how many civilians are certain to be killed.

In one case discussed by the sources, the Israeli military command knowingly approved the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in an attempt to assassinate a single top Hamas military commander. “The numbers increased from dozens of civilian deaths [permitted] as collateral damage as part of an attack on a senior official in previous operations, to hundreds of civilian deaths as collateral damage,” said one source.

Israel has not only considered and accepted this high rate of non-combatant deaths privately. It has also defended it publicly. A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces described their killing of two Palestinian civilians for each single militant as “tremendously positive.” The real ratio may not be 2:1. One analysis argues it is as high as 9:1. Whatever the actual figure is, Israeli tactics and operational design guarantee high non-combatant casualties. The Israeli Defense Forces know this, as does Israel’s government. This is being done knowingly, conspicuously, and unapologetically. 

As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, Netanyahu has been needling his Western partners to pressure Egypt to accept Gazans into the Sinai. This is concerning for many reasons, not least because some of Netanyahu’s right-wing partners have been agitating for Gaza to depopulated of Palestinians. This idea — nothing less than ethnic cleansing — was even explored in an internal Israeli government paper. 

In sum, Israel is unable to succeed even by its own metrics and is uninterested in exploring any realistic political outcome for Gaza, all while its military actions are delivering nothing useful toward a better and safer reality for Israelis or Palestinians. The only results of the operation even worth speaking of today are its immense destruction and grotesque disregard for the survival of non-combatants, to include women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. The long-term political, strategic, and moral costs of killing large numbers of civilians far outweigh the time-limited tactical benefits of continuing to wipe out Hamas terrorists.

As analysts like Audrey Kurth Cronin have explained, there was room for a more productive and less heinous campaign to defeat (not eliminate) Hamas from the outset. A successful campaign would have been aimed at the group’s main sources of political power. It would have considered Hamas’ well-known strategy of provoking a disproportionate military response and its use of human shields. But for a variety of reasons — some of them related to the rage and shame after Hamas’ hideous pogrom, and surely others to the ideology and cynicism of Netanyahu and his allies — such options were tabled. Israel accepted a fight on the political and strategic terms dictated by Hamas. Well-meaning American analysts continue to make arguments about how Israel can wage a more effective military campaign, but it is simply too late. 

It would be difficult to overstate to the extent that Israel has cocked this up. As Garrett M. Graff wrote, “After 9/11, the U.S. got almost everything wrong.” So too has Israel after Oct. 7. 

The Burden of Leadership

Many people know the line from Sherman’s letter that I quoted above. Fewer know the words that follow: “those who brought war into our Country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” Hamas — in all its raw depravity and sadism — deserves our curses and maledictions. And Netanyahu has been tested in this world-historical moment and been found unprepared, unfit, and unworthy.

What of Biden? First, it is worth crediting the Biden administration for one thing: Its diplomacy and deterrent signals have (mostly) kept the war from spilling over into the countries surrounding Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Aside from that, however, U.S. policy has been a failure. After Biden offered unqualified support to Israel in the aftermath of its darkest days, the Israeli government has rebuffed Washington’s calls to protect non-combatant life and to commit to a plausible political program for postwar Gaza. Practically unfettered American diplomatic and military support to Israel has only allowed Netanyahu to lodge his country into a dead end. The way in which the Israeli prime minister is conducting this war seems to be driven by his own political weaknesses rather than Israel’s actual needs.

The damage to American interests has already been profound, even setting aside the reputational costs of running interference for war crimes in one place while opposing them elsewhere. Vital shipping lanes and U.S. military outposts are under assault from Iranian-backed militants. The war in Gaza has also been a material and political diversion from two far more important theaters: Ukraine, where the outcome of the war remains on a knife’s edge, and the Indo-Pacific, where the United States and its treaty allies have struggled to assemble the diplomatic, economic, and military efforts required to contain the rise of the People’s Republic of China. And the threat of Islamist terrorism in the West is at its highest in many years. 

We cannot know if Biden sees the problem clearly. As president, he has often stubbornly resisted changing course even when sailing into the shoals. While Biden is becoming more public in his criticisms of Israel on civilian casualties and other matters, Netanyahu can ignore him in the absence of a credible and clearly communicated threat to cut off and withhold American support. And so that is what the president ought to do: communicate that military and intelligence support will be cut off within a short period of time absent a ceasefire; substantial, observable, and enduring changes to Israeli operations and targeting practices if hostilities resume after a ceasefire; a public declaration committing Israel to allowing all Gazans to return to their communities (or whatever is left of them), forswearing the mass relocation being suggested by the Israeli right; a promise that Israel will contribute to reconstruction costs; and a commitment to a political process to establish a new, non-Israeli, and non-Hamas political authority to govern Gaza. 

The threat (and yes, that’s what it is) I propose must be communicated and enforced on a tight timeline to be successful because Netanyahu will always run out the clock when given room to do so. To be sure, there could be negative consequences for Israel if the White House were to deliver this threat during ongoing ceasefire and hostage-release negotiations, but too many people are being killed in Gaza to justify waiting longer. To allow Israel to continue this high-intensity phase of the operation until the end of January, as Netanyahu reportedly plans, ought to be unacceptable to Biden. 

It is possible to hold the following views and translate them into a policy that is internally consistent. First, the attacks of Oct. 7 were heinous and cannot be set outside of the context in which Israel’s military campaign is unfolding. Second, while there was a great deal of international sympathy and support for Israel after Hamas’ grisly onslaught, we also witnessed an appalling level of antisemitism, including in some elite Western institutions. These hateful voices denied and devalued the suffering of Israelis and Jews. Third, the high civilian toll of the Israeli operation is also heinous and is baked into its operational concept and targeting practices. Despite the insistence of Israel’s leaders and most devoted advocates, Israel is not adhering to the laws of war: a choice, not a necessity. And finally, the United States ought not to be supporting this operation any further, at least not in anything like its current form. 

The peoples of Israel and Palestine are held hostage by poor, extreme, and self-interested leadership, leading them eagerly into death’s embrace. The result is predictable. As former U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace wrote, Netanyahu’s methods will “fuel the conflict for another 50 years.” The Israeli prime minister is unrepentant. On Christmas Eve, he said, “We are intensifying the war in the Gaza Strip.”

Washington can and should be empathetic and sympathetic with how Israel arrived at this moment, but it ought not continue to sustain one of the greatest human disasters of the 21st century. This calamity is not in America’s interests, nor does it even serve the interests of the Israeli people. And it only guarantees misery, starvation, and death for the people of the Gaza Strip. 

 

 

Ryan Evans is the founder of War on the Rocks.

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