Let’s begin with a few elementary facts: Gaza is very small, only 25 miles long and 5 miles wide. A strong runner could get from one end to the other in a few hours. Two million people live there, making it very densely populated. About half of the people who live there are children. The majority of people in Gaza are very poor. It does not take much imagination to understand the effects of dropping large numbers of heavy explosives on such a place.
Israel has struck Gaza with heavy weaponry over 10,000 times in the last few weeks. Over 9,000 Palestinians have been killed, 40 percent of whom are children. That’s right: more children have been killed in Gaza than the total number of Americans who died in the 9/11 attacks. Dozens of journalists and U.N. relief workers have also been killed. These people have died gruesomely and painfully. Many of those who have managed to stay alive so far have been maimed or paralyzed. Even the ones who have escaped without physical injuries will have lifelong trauma, having witnessed things nobody should ever have to see. (What do you think it does to a child to watch another child be killed by an airstrike?)
As the number of injured increases, hospitals’ capacity to give them medical care decreases. Without clean water, people are getting infections, and having to have limbs amputated. The people of Gaza were malnourished before the recent intensification of the siege. (Gaza has been under an intense blockade since 2007.)
Here in the United States, our government has made noises that suggest it cares about the fate of the people in Gaza. It does not. The Biden administration is concerned about possibly becoming enmeshed in a disastrous Middle Eastern war. But the Biden administration could call for an end to the violence. Instead it funds and supports the violence. The United States was one of only a few countries to oppose a U.N. resolution calling for a ceasefire. Biden has sowed doubt about Palestinian death counts and declined to press Israel to rein in its indiscriminate bombing campaign. (It says there are “no red lines” for its support of Israel, meaning it is going to continue to arm Israel no matter what Israel does.)
As Americans, we have a responsibility to try to change our government’s actions. We cannot look away from the suffering of the people of Gaza, because we are in part responsible for it. Our government has thwarted peace in Palestine for many decades by supporting Israel’s continuing project of dispossessing Palestinians. Our government continues to aid Israel even as virtually the entire international community recoils in horror at the effects of Israel’s bombing campaign. Our job, right now, is to push for a complete cessation of hostilities and an internationally-brokered settlement to the conflict.
I. Gaza: The Background
The people of Gaza are mostly refugees, members of families that were expelled from their homes by Israel in 1948.1 About a quarter of the population lives in refugee camps, which have now been around so long that they are effectively little cities of their own. While the number of living Gazans who were personally expelled during the original Nakba (“catastrophe”) has obviously diminished over time, the people there still consider themselves refugees expelled from their homeland. Hence the “Great March of Return” in 2018, a protest action in which Gazans tried to cross back into what is now Israel (but was once Palestine) to exercise what they consider their “right of return.” (Israel did not let them cross, and instead Israeli snipers opened fire on them, killing hundreds.)
Understanding the population of Gaza as a mostly refugee population is crucial to grasping the present conflict. Gaza had been a humanitarian disaster long before this year. Nearly half the population was unemployed, most of the piped water was unfit for human consumption, and well over half of the population is dependent on food assistance. Gaza has been called the “largest concentration camp in the world” (Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling) and an “open-air prison” (former Conservative U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron). Thanks in part to the blockade, Gaza has long suffered from dire poverty, and it is worth remembering that Israel is a country with 15 times higher per-capita GDP than Palestinians have:
Israel has launched periodic deadly incursions into Gaza, such as 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead (approx. 1,400 Palestinians killed, along with 13 Israelis) and 2014’s Operation Protective Edge (approx. 2,100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis killed). These invasions have been justified as responses to rocket attacks from Gaza, but Israel’s use of extreme violence has been widely condemned by human rights organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, which said of the 2014 operation that Israel had failed to meet its legal obligations to protect civilians from indiscriminate attacks. “If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza,” the Secretary-General of the United Nations said during a bout of Israeli airstrikes in 2021 that killed hundreds of Palestinians. (Norman Finkelstein’s book Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom (University of California Press) is a useful introduction to the basic facts of these operations.)
Hamas assumed control in Gaza in 2007, after winning an unexpected victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election and driving out its opponents. Radio Free Europe explained that Hamas’ victory was a direct result of Palestinians’ frustration at years of occupation: “the anger over conditions in the Palestinian territories has been building for many years toward a culmination in today’s Hamas victory.” Moin Rabbani of the International Crisis Group explained that the Palestinian vote for Hamas’ militancy stemmed from a conclusion that negotiations with Israel for a Palestinian state were effectively dead:
“Most Palestinians had come to the conclusion that Israel was not going to deal with any Palestinian leadership…In the recent past, Israel first rejected negotiations with [late Palestinian President] Yasser Arafat then it rejected negotiations with [current Palestinian President] Abu Mazen and I think most Palestinians will have come to the conclusion that there were not going to be substantive political negotiations with the next Palestinian government, whether Hamas was in or outside it.”
Israel responded to the election of Hamas with the infamous blockade of Gaza, which it strictly enforced. (When a flotilla of aid supplies tried to reach the city in 2009, Israel boarded the boats and killed 10 people.) Justified on the grounds of security, the blockade also significantly worsened the living conditions in Gaza. Israel withdrew settlers from Gaza in 2006, and claimed that it no longer “occupied” the strip. But because the IDF was, as its own officials admitted, “controlling everything that goes into or out of Gaza,” the area was still considered occupied under international law by a broad range of organizations.2
In evaluating the parties’ conduct in the war, we must continually bear in mind that Israel is ultimately the party in the wrong in the underlying conflict. Israel is illegally occupying Palestine under international law. They have been condemned consistently by the United Nations for their ongoing maintenance of a blockade against Gaza and an occupation in the West Bank. Everything that happens is happening in the context of these underlying facts.
For information on what daily life was like in occupied Palestine, before Oct. 7, see our recent interview with Nathan Thrall. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent discussion of his observations in the Occupied Territories is also informative. Coates says that while he once thought the conflict was “complex,” a visit showed him that it was actually fairly straightforward.
II. Oct. 7 and Israel’s Response
No humane person could condone the attack launched by Hamas on October 7. To explain the causes of the attack is not to justify the killing of innocent people. The slaughter of young people at a music festival, of old people in their homes on a kibbutz, even of children, is impossible to justify. The facts of the killings are stomach-churning. The taking of hostages is also banned under international law, and if we are to make appeals to the law during the present crisis, we must be willing to apply them to all parties.
To say that both sides have committed crimes, however, is not to say that the underlying conflict has no “aggressor” or that there is equal responsibility for the current war. Israel had been warned for a long time, by many observers including Israelis, that continuing to seize Palestinian territory and impoverish Gazans was likely to spark backlash and imperil Israel’s security. This is why leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz, immediately after the Oct. 7th attack, said the disaster was “the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu.” All the way back in 2005, Israeli political scientist Meron Benvenisti warned that the building of a separation fence in the West Bank, and “the human disaster it will bring about, are liable to turn hundreds of thousands of people into a sullen community, hostile and nurturing a desire for revenge.” Plenty of others issued similar warnings.
We might look on Hamas’ attack much the way we look on historical incidents like the horrific massacre of Europeans by Haitians after the Haitian revolution: explicable, not justifiable. C.L.R. James, for example, in The Black Jacobins, does not endorse that atrocity. What he does do is explain that it was carried out as an act of revenge for a prior injustice. Some of the young men in Hamas who committed their terrible crimes probably felt the same kind of blind desire for revenge that Israel does now, after witnessing the carnage of previous Israeli air strikes on the small strip of land they had been confined to their whole lives. (Indeed, in a 2010 “red team” exercise, U.S. intelligence officers proposed that “Israel’s strategy of keeping Gaza under siege” leaves “the area on the verge of a perpetual humanitarian collapse” that “may be radicalizing more people, especially the young, increasing the number of potential recruits” for Hamas.) “Revenge has no place in politics,” James said. Indeed, revenge just fuels a cycle of violence that never ends, and just as the Haitian massacre brought terrible results for the newly-freed Haitians, Hamas’ mass killings created a predictably brutal and callous Israeli response. A free, independent Palestine cannot be one ruled over by Hamas, which embraces vicious antisemitism and is thirsty for bloody vengeance rather than a democratic peace.3
I still believe that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Israel’s reaction to the Oct. 7 attacks, however, is worse than “an eye for an eye.” Effectively, it has vowed to destroy Hamas regardless of how many civilians it kills in the process. Public statements by high-ranking Israelis have made it clear that the Biden administration is wrong to claim Israel is trying to avoid civilian casualties. It has said it is focused on “damage, not accuracy,” and has stopped using its previous tactic of giving small warning strikes before destroying civilian infrastructure.4
Biden administration officials have reportedly been alarmed, when meeting with Israeli counterparts, to hear the Israelis invoke Hiroshima and Dresden and say that “mass civilian casualties were an acceptable price.” Those were historical atrocities in which the U.S. adopted a pure “the ends justify the means” approach, dropping devastating bombs on populations of innocent civilians.
Some of the rhetoric coming out of Israel has been downright genocidal. “Gaza should be erased,” said a Knesset member. One former IDF commander described the military operation:“When our soldiers are manoeuvring we are doing this with massive artillery, with 50 aeroplanes overhead destroying anything that moves.” Note that “destroying anything that moves” means not distinguishing between civilian and military targets.
Netanyahu himself has invoked disturbing Biblical references that valorize indiscriminate slaughter, comparing Palestine to Amalek—a nation which, in the Book of Samuel, God instructs Israelites to utterly wipe out, slaying “both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep.” The Center for Constitutional Rights, in a lengthy report accusing Israel of genocide, documented many instances of rhetoric and actions that suggest the entire Gazan population must be punished for Oct. 7. For instance:
Israeli Major General Ghassan Alian, the head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (“COGAT”) explicitly stated the intention to destroy Palestinian life in Gaza: “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water [in Gaza], there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.” Reservist Major General Giora Eiland wrote in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth: “Creating a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a necessary means to achieve the goal,” declaring that “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.”….The views of Israeli officials that Palestinians are less than human and should be destroyed were promoted by the 95-year old Israeli army reservist Ezra Yachin, who was reportedly called for his reserve duty to “boost morale” ahead of any ground incursions, and while dressed in military fatigues declared in a clip widely circulated on social media that has more than 2.2 million views, speaking to other soldiers, in statements aimed at inciting others to act: “Be triumphant and finish them off and don’t leave anyone behind. Erase the memory of them. Erase them, their families, mothers and children. These animals can no longer live. . . . Every Jew with a weapon should go out and kill them. If you have an Arab neighbour, don’t wait, go to his home and shoot him. . . . We want to invade, not like before, we want to enter and destroy what’s in front of us, and destroy houses, then destroy the ones after it. With all of our forces, complete destruction, enter and destroy.”
Indeed, it’s important to understand that for many in Israel, Gaza has long been a nuisance that they wish would simply disappear. Benny Morris has lamented that Israel did not finish the job of ethnic cleansing in 1948, saying that it rendered Israel permanently unstable. “The non-completion of the transfer was a mistake,” as he put it. Morris said in 2004 that while “at this moment” he did not support “the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza, and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle,” in part because “the world would not allow it,” in certain circumstances he could foresee (and would justify) a new round of ethnic cleansing to “complete” the work of 1948:
I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions. If we find ourselves with atomic weapons around us, or if there is a general Arab attack on us and a situation of warfare on the front, with Arabs in the rear shooting at convoys on their way to the front, acts of expulsion will be entirely reasonable. They may even be essential…If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified.
The idea of ethnically cleansing Gaza and driving all the Palestinians out of Palestine is common among right-wing pro-Israel commentators. As Jewish Currents reported in April, “expulsionist sentiment is common in Israeli society and politics.” They noted that while Americans have chosen to ignore the “expulsionist” strain in Israeli politics, “Israel’s current defense minister, national security advisor, and agriculture minister—members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party—have all alluded to removing Palestinians from the country.” That was, of course, before the Oct. 7 attack. Here’s Ben Shapiro (“the cool kid’s philosopher,” as the New York Times described him), arguing in 2003 for exactly that:
The ideology of the Palestinian population is indistinguishable from that of the terrorist leadership. Half measures merely postpone our realization that the Arabs dream of Israel’s destruction. Without drastic measures, the Arab dream will come true. In the short term, the establishment of a “Palestinian state” based in Judea, Samaria and Gaza cuts Israel to the bone. … In the long term, the growth of the hostile Israeli-Arab population within pre-1967 Israel bodes ill for the future of the Jewish state. As University of Haifa professor Arnon Soffer says, “The trends and indicators all point to an economic and ecological catastrophe waiting to happen and of the death knell of the ideological dream of a Jewish state.” Here is the bottom line: If you believe that the Jewish state has a right to exist, then you must allow Israel to transfer the Palestinians and the Israeli-Arabs from Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Israel proper. It’s an ugly solution, but it is the only solution. And it is far less ugly than the prospect of bloody conflict ad infinitum. When two populations are constantly enmeshed in conflict, it is insane to suggest that somehow deep-seated ideological change will miraculously occur, allowing the two sides to live together.
(In a later writing Shapiro said “transfer” was “inhumane and impractical,” but acknowledged that it was a solution that some in Israel actively propose.)
People like Shapiro treat the Oct. 7 attack as confirmation that Palestinians are determined to destroy Israel, and that it is either kill or be killed. They see themselves as being under precisely the kind of “existential” threat that Morris said would reopen discussion of ethnic cleansing as a viable “solution.”
It should not surprise us, then, when we read that a Knesset member has called for a second Nakba “that will overshadow the Nakba of 48” or that settlers in the West Bank have been distributing pamphlets promising to “drive you [Palestinians] away by force from our holy land that God dedicated to us” if the Palestinians do not relocate to Jordan. An Israeli think tank has published a paper encouraging the government to use this “unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip.” (Once again we see Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” in action.) A leaked document from Israel’s intelligence ministry has actually outright recommended moving 2.2 million Palestinians from Gaza to the Northern Sinai and stopping them from returning.
We don’t yet know what Israel’s full plans for Gaza are. There may not be a clear plan, and Israel may be doing to Gaza what the United States did to Afghanistan: create a lot of destruction with no clear idea of what the ultimate end result could be. I don’t think the Israeli leadership has thought very clearly about the fact that when civilian populations are bombed, the survivors get very, very angry. The next batch of Hamas recruits will be drawn from those who have just watched parents piecing together the remains of their children. Israel will make itself less secure by terrorizing Palestinians, just as the U.S. made itself less secure with its own vengeful post-9/11 violence around the world.
III. The Unfolding Calamity
As I write, desperate parents in Gaza are hoping to find their children alive under mountains of rubble. Gaza’s lack of clean water means that people are getting infections that require amputations, with doctors having to cut off children’s limbs. The people of Gaza were already malnourished thanks to the longstanding blockade. Now Oxfam says that just 2 percent of the food that would usually have entered Gaza has made it, meaning that, in their words, starvation is being used as a weapon of war. (In fact, some of the food aid that is coming in is useless, because people don’t have clean water or fuel to prepare it.) Oxfam elaborates:
A series of airstrikes have left several bakeries and supermarkets either destroyed or damaged. Those that are still functional, can’t meet the local demand for fresh bread and are at risk of shutting down due to the shortage of essentials like flour and fuel. Gaza’s only operative wheat mill is redundant due to the power outages. The Palestinian Water Authority says Gaza’s water production is now a mere 5 percent of its normal total, which is expected to reduce further, unless water and sanitation facilities are provided with electricity or fuel to resume its activity. Notably, essential food items, like flour, oil and sugar, are still stocked in warehouses that haven’t been destroyed. But as many of them are located in Gaza city, it is proving physically impossible to deliver items due to the lack of fuel, damaged roads and risks from airstrikes. The electricity blackout has also disrupted food supplies by affecting refrigeration, crop irrigation, and crop incubation devices. Over 15,000 farmers have lost their crop production and 10,000 livestock breeders have little access to fodder, with many having lost their animals. [The] siege, combined with the airstrikes, has crippled the fishing industry with hundreds of people who rely on fishing losing access to the sea.
This is just the beginning. What happens when supplies run lower still? Already, there are reports of desperate Gazans breaking into warehouses to find essential supplies.
Think about everything a 21st-century human life is dependent on. No, not just the internet. Without electricity, hospitals can’t function. Without functional plumbing and a sewage system, people have nowhere to go to the bathroom. Without garbage collection, festering waste piles up and spreads disease. We are all dependent on a giant web of functional infrastructure to survive, and when that infrastructure breaks down, civilized life collapses into total chaos and misery. That’s what’s happening in Gaza right now. Garbage is piling up, medicine is running short, and everything is only going to get worse.
That’s before we get to the direct physical injuries, deaths, and trauma from the Israeli bombings. The hospital system is on the brink of collapse (and Israel is warning hospitals to expect bombardment if they do not evacuate, an order Israel knows is impossible to carry out). A few selected snapshots may convey some small fraction of the unfolding horror:
- Children are begging for death, because being under constant terrifying bombardment feels like waiting for your turn to die.
- Houses that usually have 10 residents now have about 70, and people spend the nights huddled together in terror, while the days are spent trying to find food and water.
- Per Doctors Without Borders: “Northern Gaza is being razed to the ground, but the entire Strip is also being bombed. There is no safe place in Gaza for civilians to take shelter….People are being killed and forcibly displaced from their homes, and water and fuel are running dangerously low. Atrocities are being committed on a scale never before seen in Gaza.”
- Middle East Eye reports: “Children and adults are ‘getting sick all the time’ with diarrhoea, vomiting and fever because of lack of clean water and unsanitary conditions.”
- Haaretz: “On the Facebook page ‘Across the Wall,’ Israelis read personal stories by Gazans in Hebrew, until the last update came in: ‘The entire family of this page’s founder has been bombed to death.’”
- Budour Hassan, Amnesty International :“Another father we talked to, when we talked to him over the phone, he was removing rubble with his own hands, because bulldozers couldn’t make it to the neighborhood. And there are no — bulldozers can’t even make it because there is no fuel to power bulldozers and to remove the rubble. So he was left with trying to remove the rubble and to excavate the shreds of his daughter. And then, while we were with him on the phone, someone told him, “We found the toe of your little daughter.” And he started kissing her toe. This is the only thing that was left to him from her. We talked to people who don’t even have photographs to remember their loved ones with. They only have rubble, because their phones, their laptops were all destroyed in airstrikes.”
- From The New York Times: “Dr. Hussam Abu Safyia, director of the pediatric ward at Kamal Adwan Hospital, where many of the casualties from the Jabaliya strikes were taken, said the majority of the people arriving were children. Many were severely burned or were missing limbs…“I’ve never in my life seen injuries this bad,” Dr. Abu Safyia said on Thursday by phone, adding, “We saw children without heads.”….“The children’s screams during surgeries can be heard from outside,” Dr. Abu Safyia said. “We are operating on people’s skulls without anesthesia.”….On Wednesday, Dr. Abu Safyia said, he was working with a colleague in the hospital’s neonatal intensive-care unit — one of two units that still had power amid a severe fuel shortage — when casualties from Jabaliya started arriving….When they rushed down to the emergency room to help, he said, his colleague was stunned to see that two of her own children were among the dead. Her 9-year-old and 7-year-old had been killed in their home, he said, along with several of her siblings and relatives. “We are working at a place where at any moment we expect our children, spouses, siblings or friends to come in in pieces,” he said. Some children could not be identified because of the severity of their injuries, he said. The hospital’s morgue was so full that people were stacking bodies on top of one another. “We wish for death,” said Dr. Abu Safyia. “It is easier than seeing the horrific scenes we’re witnessing.” He later added: “Live images are being broadcast to the whole world of people blown up into pieces, of women and children who are being murdered, for what? What did they do wrong?” Doctors and nurses were using the flashlights on their phones to operate in the dark because a severe shortage of fuel had left the hospital’s generators able to power only two departments — the neonatal intensive-care unit and the pediatric emergency room, where 12 children are on ventilators, he said. If the fuel runs out, he added, “the hospital will turn into a mass grave.” Hours earlier, Dr. Ashraf Al-Qudra, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Gazan Health Ministry, had held up the body of a dead child wrapped in a shroud at a news conference at Al-Shifa Hospital as he described the growing death toll.”
- A passage that will stay with me, about a 1-day old baby who died in the bombing: “His death certificate was issued before his birth certificate.” 400 children a day have been injured or killed in Palestine, per UNICEF. More children have died in Gaza this past month than died in all of the world’s conflict zones combined last year.
Haunting before-and-after satellite photos showing the extent of the damage in Gaza
We should also mention what is happening in the West Bank (the other part of Palestine, which Israel rarely allows Gazans to travel to). Israeli settlers, who seize Palestinian land on the theory that it rightfully belongs to Israel, have mounted a deadly campaign of terror against Palestinians. They know that Netanyahu’s government will do nothing to stop them, they are thirsty for revenge after the Oct. 7 attack, and they have long seen Palestinians as a pestilence in need of expulsion. They have attacked a funeral, seized land, and shot innocent Palestinians going about their business.
We might conclude our survey of the human toll so far with a haunting poem by Palestinian poet Khaled Juma. Notably it was written in 2014, after a previous homicidal attack by Israel that killed 526 children:
Oh rascal children of Gaza.
You who constantly disturbed me
with your screams under my window.
You who filled every morning
with rush and chaos.
You who broke my vase
and stole the lonely flower on my balcony.
and scream as you want
and break all the vases.
Steal all the flowers.
Just come back…
IV. Resisting Misleading Talking Points
I’d like to explain how a few common talking points mislead us about the present crisis. First, let’s talk about “humanitarian pauses” versus a “cease-fire.” The United Nations is calling for a cease-fire, and while a few U.S. politicians have said they support a cease-fire in Gaza, others have refused to use the term, saying they want a “humanitarian pause” instead. These two things can sound similar, and it might be tempting to conclude that it’s splitting hairs to quibble about the term. It isn’t. It’s actually critically important, as Branko Marcetic points out in an extremely useful Jacobin article.
Essentially, a cease-fire means that both parties would agree to stop hostilities entirely for the indefinite future. No more war. Then there would have to be an internationally-brokered settlement to the conflict. A “humanitarian pause” appears to be a propaganda term that the Biden administration uses to justify opposing a ceasefire while appearing to call for one. They don’t want Israel to stop bombing Gaza. They want Israel to put slightly larger breaks between bombings, to allow for hostage negotiations and the delivery of (probably meager) quantities of aid.
Biden explained further: “I think we need a pause. A pause means give time to get the prisoners out.” In fact, the White House has been clear that “the request for pauses was far different from an overall cease-fire.” White House spokesman John Kirby said this would be a “temporary pause that’s localized” in order to “get aid in and to get our people out” that would not “stop Israel from defending itself.” The word “localized” should set off your bullshit-alarm. Does this mean that Israel would just agree to not bomb certain particular bits of Gaza for a limited (perhaps short) time? In that sense, there is already a humanitarian pause in Gaza, because at any given moment there are places that are not being bombed. In fact, the period between one bomb falling and the next one being dropped is a “humanitarian pause” in this “localized” and “temporary” sense.
It’s shameful, then, that Bernie Sanders himself has refused to use the term ceasefire, despite pleas from hundreds of his former staff, and adopted the meaningless “humanitarian pause” formulation. We need to be clear that we’re not demanding a fake cessation to the bombing, where Israel spends a single day not bombing Gaza before resuming the bombing of Gaza. We want the cessation of hostilities. (The Guardian/Observer calls for a “respite” from the bombs, which is similarly meaningless.)
It’s also important to address the question that critics of a ceasefire always ask: What happens then? Isn’t this a “victory” for Hamas? Since Hamas has vowed to continue trying to destroy Israel, aren’t we simply preventing Israel from defending itself? Opponents say a ceasefire is a “gift” to Hamas.
First: a ceasefire is not a ceasefire unless it’s mutual. Israel would have to stop bombing Gaza, but Hamas would have to agree not to attack Israel either. It’s called a ceasefire because the two sides of a war have stopped firing at each other. But it’s no argument against a ceasefire to point out that Hamas has not yet agreed to one. Israel hasn’t agreed to one either. Both Hamas and Israel are currently vowing to destroy each other. The job of the international community is to get this to stop.
Second: Hamas does not “win” if Israel stops its bombing campaign. Surely some of Israel’s 10,000 bombs have hit actual Hamas targets rather than bakeries, ambulances, refugee camps, and schools. The situation is currently that Hamas attacked Israel, and killed many Israelis, and Israel attacked Gaza, killing many Palestinians. Nobody is “winning” or “losing” here, it’s just a horror show.
The serious question is: how do we end the conflict? And there is a pretty obvious answer to that: there needs to be an internationally-brokered agreement that both sides agree to, compatible with justice and international law. In the underlying conflict, Israel is the party that is violating the rights of Palestinians, so Israel should agree to live within its internationally-recognized borders (i.e. to withdraw from the Occupied Territories) and Palestinians should have a state of their own.
If it will not be easy to get an agreement in place, it is in part because Israel’s government has long been entirely unwilling to grant Palestinians a state, and Netanyahu has thwarted any effort at Palestinian statehood. The U.S., for its part, has declined to pressure Israel to make the necessary concessions. (The full history of all the negotiations, and the various myths about how Palestinian “rejectionism” doomed the peace process, is available in Jerome Slater’s Mythologies Without End.) The goal here has to be to press for a just resolution to the conflict that ceases the ongoing Israeli violation of Palestinian rights (seizure of territory and occupation, blockade, etc.) in exchange for peace.
A Word On “Intentionality” and “Collateral Damage”
Some of those who defend Israel’s conduct seem to think Israel isn’t really killing Palestinians at all. Dr. Eli David, who runs an artificial intelligence company, has posted pictures purporting to show Palestinians faking their deaths:
(In fact, this is a Thai child in a Halloween costume.)
Ben Shapiro, similarly, has boosted the theory that injured Palestinians are “crisis actors” putting on a show for the cameras:
(This post was deleted after it, too, turned out to be bullshit.)
Apparently, Israel drops magic bombs that injure no one, forcing Palestinians to don stage make-up.
“They’re not actually dying” is a horrible piece of propaganda, but another approach is: Okay, they’re dying, but they’re not innocent. Maybe they deserve it. Republican congressman Brian Mast suggested that to talk about “innocent Palestinian civilians” was like talking about “innocent Nazi civilians” in World War II. (In fact, it’s precisely because the Allies treated all German and Japanese civilians as responsible for their governments’ crimes that we committed utterly horrifying atrocities against them that we have never adequately reckoned with.) The “no civilians in Palestine” approach is also the one taken by Alan Dershowitz: Okay, they’re dying, but they deserve it. When Israel struck a densely-populated refugee camp, Dershowitz explained that while the residents might be “technically civilians,” he “suspect[s]” that many of them are “strong Hamas supporters” and that they “allow themselves to be used as human shields”:
[M]any of the people in this refugee camp are strong, strong Hamas supporters. So you know, they may be technically civilians. But let me ask you this question: There’s a tape recording of one of the Hamas butchers calling his parents—I haven’t heard the tape recording, but I’m told that it’s accurate and true—and on the recording, he says to his father, “I killed 10 Jews with my bare hands, I killed women, I killed children with my bare hands.” And the father, the “civilian” father, the civilian says, “Oh, good, thank God, I’m so glad you killed all those people.” You know, he may be a civilian, but I ain’t shedding any tears for him if he becomes collateral damage. I suspect that of the, who knows, a dozen, maybe more people who were killed in this refugee camp, I suspect a lot of them fit into that category. Strong Hamas supporters giving aid to the enemies, hiding them, allowing them to hide amongst civilians, allowing themselves to be used as human shields. Are they civilians? Well, you know, maybe they’re not combatants. But they sure as hell aren’t the kinds of three-year-olds and four-year-olds that Hamas loves to parade in front of television cameras. Now some of the people killed may have been three or four-year-olds, and they are indeed innocent civilians, but they are the responsibility of Hamas. Israel gave them three weeks to leave this refugee camp…
At the end there, Dershowitz makes another common justifying argument, namely that because Israel has told people to evacuate, it is not responsible for casualties when it then drops bombs. But there is simply nowhere for people to go. Israel has bombed the places it has told Palestinians to evacuate to, and besides, plenty can’t evacuate. (This was captured well in an Onion headline in 2014: “Israel: Palestinians Given Ample Time To Evacuate To Nearby Bombing Sites.”) Besides, many Palestinians fear that the evacuation order is a pretext for forcibly excluding them from their homes permanently, and as we’ve seen, that’s not an unreasonable fear because Israel’s intentions remain opaque and because plenty in Israel would very much like to see that outcome, especially after Oct. 7.
Another horrible meme designed to help people feel less guilty about the obliteration of Palestinian babies. After all, they were budding Hamas militants.
The final justification we have to deal with, and it’s extremely common, is about “intent.” It usually goes like this: Hamas deliberately killed civilians on October 7. But Israel isn’t trying to kill civilians. It’s trying to destroy Hamas. The civilian deaths are “collateral damage.” There is a huge moral difference between trying to kill as many people as possible and unintentionally killing a lot of people in the course of trying to do something else.
But, as Noam Chomsky once tried (and failed) to explain to Sam Harris, the idea that “good intentions” make a huge moral difference is dubious. We can agree that it’s heinous to target civilians on purpose. But how much better is it to treat them as worthless nonentities whose deaths simply don’t factor into your decision-making? Israel’s position appears to be that while it’s not trying to kill as many civilians as possible, it doesn’t care how many civilians it has to kill in order to destroy Hamas. The civilians just don’t matter. They are assigned a moral value of 0.
To see why “intentions” are of limited value, think how we would react to a defense of the Sept. 11 Al-Qaeda attacks that went: We didn’t intend to kill anyone. We just intended to destroy the Twin Towers. The fact that there were people inside was a shame, but the people were collateral damage. This would be a silly defense, because we’d say: But trying to destroy a building that you know has people inside is functionally no different from trying to kill the people!
Instead of judging people by their intended goals, we should focus more on the foreseeable consequences of their actions. Dropping large bombs in the middle of a densely populated refugee camp, for instance, can be expected to lead to horrifying losses of civilian lives. It should therefore be considered criminal and wrong, even if the purpose of dropping the bombs is to kill one particular person in the middle of that densely populated refugee camp. (Kenneth Roth explains that, because dropping these bombs was “predictably going to lead to a significant and disproportionate loss of civilian life,” it was a “war crime.”)
I think we would all see how Israel’s bombing campaign is sociopathic and wrong if we apply the logic to other situations. If the British had responded to IRA attacks by bombing neighborhoods in Ireland suspected to house terrorists, we’d think of this as psychopathic, because of all the innocent people it was likely to kill. In fact, in the current crisis, if Israel decided to bomb somewhere that housed both a Hamas commander and a large number of the hostages, reasoning that killing the hostages was justified in order to kill the commander, I think many people would object who do not object to this logic when it is used to flatten Palestinian apartment buildings.
Senator John Fetterman has declared that Israel is “not targeting civilians,” that it “never has” and “never will.” First, it’s not true that Israel “never has” targeted civilians, as we know from the killings around the 2018 Great March of Return. Second, however, we should see how little it means to say that Israel is not “targeting” civilians. Okay, but are they killing them in large numbers? Are they taking any precautions to avoid civilian casualties when they target whatever they are targeting? Do they know that their actions will inevitably kill huge numbers of innocent people? It means as much to say that Israel isn’t “targeting civilians” as to say that Timothy McVeigh was not “targeting” the daycare center in the Oklahoma City bombing. The right question is: But didn’t you know your actions would lead to this?
V. The U.S. Role
“Who is most responsible for this massacre of civilians, outside of Israel itself? We are. Our support—money, weapons, political support—enables Israel to do this. And everyone can see it. Everyone can see the rubble and the dead children and the American bombs and the American politicians refusing to call for a ceasefire. It is plain.” — Hamilton Nolan
In effect, Israeli policies are also the policies of the United States. That’s because the United States gives Israel billions of dollars every year. The United States also routinely vetoes United Nations resolutions critical of Israel. As Israel’s only remaining major close ally, the U.S. has significant power to affect what Israel does. In 2021, Biden successfully pressured Netanyahu to curtail an attack on Gaza.
This time around, Biden’s role has been much more shameful. It should have been obvious, given Israel’s reactions to much more minor attacks in the past, and the extreme right-wing politics of its present government, that Israel’s reaction to the Oct. 7 attack would be vengeful and cruel. But Biden has given Israel his full support even as Israel’s violence has shocked the world.
A few important points about U.S. conduct since October 7:
- Joe Biden has suggested publicly, and without evidence, that Palestinians are lying about the number of people who have died. The administration has pushed the idea that the Palestinian Ministry of Health is “Hamas-controlled” and therefore dishonest. A responsible administration would have pointed to the fact that the independent organization Euro-Med Monitor, which is scrupulously committed to producing accurate counts, reached similar conclusions about Palestinian deaths, and that the official health ministry has a strong track record of accuracy. In fact, the recorded death count may be too low, because a lot of people remain buried beneath rubble.
- The U.S. opposed an international investigation into the causes of a horrific explosion at a Gaza hospital, which the U.S. and Israel have blamed on a misfired Palestinian rocket. It is unclear what possible reason there could be to oppose an investigation. The U.S. claimed Israel had released a “great deal of evidence” proving its innocence, but some of that evidence turned out to be entirely misleading.
- The State Department blocked staff from using phrases like an “end to violence/bloodshed,” “de-escalation,” and “restoring calm.” Some State Department officials have been disturbed by the Biden administration’s unconditional support for Israel. One official who resigned said he was unwilling to provide arms to kill civilians and that the administration was pursuing a path that will only make the situation worse.
- The U.S. was among the only nations on Earth to reject a U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire. We joined with such other major world powers as the Marshall Islands, Fiji, and Micronesia.
- Biden’s press secretary described calls for a ceasefire as “repugnant” and “disgraceful.”
- The Biden administration has pressured the Qatari government to get Al Jazeera to back off critical coverage of Israel
- Biden is preparing to send Israel $14 billion, possibly (if the Republicans have their way) by cutting the federal government’s budget for going after tax cheats, meaning starving our own government of revenue in order to help Israel commit further crimes.
The U.S. has, meanwhile, publicly pronounced itself Extremely Concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. U.S. officials say they have asked Israeli officials “tough questions” and are, according to CNN, “emphasizing the importance of protecting civilian lives.” They have supposedly pushed for more (still totally inadequate) quantities of aid to be admitted (some of which is useless, because there is no clean water or fuel to cook the food with).
But they have also made it clear that they’re not going to criticize Israel’s conduct, or try to stop it, or agree to the international consensus that there needs to be an immediate cease-fire. Nearly everything they’ve done for Palestinians has been rhetorical, what Jonathan Chait praises as Biden’s “willingness to affirm the humanity and dignity of Muslims and Arabs.” While it may be generous of Biden to affirm that Muslims are human beings, it does not do anything for those lying awake in terror in Gaza as bombs drop all around them. Essentially, the U.S. role amounts to what the Israeli journalist Amira Hass has called “sadism masked as compassion.”
VI. Our Obligations
For Americans, our obligations in the present situation should be clear: We have to use whatever power we have to try to get our country to push Israel toward a cessation of hostilities and a just settlement to the conflict. On foreign policy, presidents often act indistinguishably from dictators, ignoring the will of the population. This conflict is no different, and more Americans (especially Democrats) think Biden should not send additional weapons to Israel than think he should. But popular pressure can make a difference, as it did in the Vietnam era. Joe Biden happens to be more vulnerable than usual at the moment, because (1) he is up for reelection next year, so losing even more of his base will tank his prospects and (2) Arab Americans make up a sizable portion of the electorate in the crucial swing state of Michigan. Already we see the Biden administration trying to temper its early pro-Israel rhetoric a bit, likely in response to public opinion. The pressure appears to be starting to work. It needs to be escalated.
It can be risky to speak out on this issue. I know this firsthand, having lost my job as a columnist for a single tweet critical of U.S. military aid to Israel. There have been many documented instances of people being punished for pro-Palestine speech. But the social consequences meted out to Americans are nonexistent compared to the horrors inflicted on Palestine.
It’s important for politicians who claim to be progressive, such as John Fetterman and Bernie Sanders, to be pressed on their refusal to call for a ceasefire. This is not a radical demand. It is the consensus of the rest of the world that the conflict needs to end and there needs to be a negotiated peace settlement.
Those who are going to protest marches are doing a public service. They are doing their part to try to stop an unfolding horror that could spiral into an even wider conflict. We in the U.S. all need to do what we can to get our government to join the rest of the world in pushing for peace, rather than fueling the war.
Israeli historian Benny Morris has affirmed that there was a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing under a “comprehensive and explicit expulsion order,” which was accompanied by numerous massacres of Arabs to encourage the population to flee. Morris himself is a Zionist who defends the policy as necessary: “Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here…Expulsion is not a war crime…You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands…There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing…Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians.” ↩
Those maintaining that Gaza was still occupied under international law include “the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), European Union (EU), African Union, International Criminal Court (ICC) (both Pre-Trial Chamber I and the Office of the Prosecutor), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch—as well as international legal experts.” ↩
The late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said said that for secular leftists like himself to make common cause with a theocratic group like Hamas just because they engaged in “resistance” would be a “devil’s pact” that substituted “convenience for principle.” Today’s left must be similarly clear-eyed and avoid excusing acts that are inconsistent with our humanistic values. ↩
The absurd notion of “warning missiles,” euphemistically called a “knock on the roof,” was criticized as an inadequate way to protect civilians, but the tactic’s elimination shows the abandonment of any restraint. ↩