In the news, we read that the Biden administration is deeply concerned about the tens of thousands of Palestinians being killed by Israeli bombardment in Gaza. We have strong evidence that Israel does not make meaningful efforts to limit civilian casualties, instead simply viewing them as acceptable collateral damage. The U.S., perhaps conscious that the rest of the world is horrified by this (and that Biden’s support among Arab Americans and young people is cratering), has shifted from giving completely uncritical public support to Israel to expressing Concerns.
We read in the press that the Biden administration is “ramping up pressure on Israel to keep Palestinians safe” (Al Jazeera). The U.S. “has told Israel that it must work to avoid ‘significant further displacement’ of Palestinian civilians in southern Gaza if it renews its ground campaign” and Israel has been “receptive” (Associated Press). The U.S. has even suggested concrete ways for Israel to limit civilian casualties, such as “using smaller bombs” (New York Times). But despite the very sincere humanitarian concerns of the U.S., which have been expressed repeatedly to Israel, the U.S. has “struggle[d]” to get Israel to change its actions (Reuters).
All of these stories leave the false impression that the U.S. is actually doing what it says it is doing. But there’s no reason to believe that’s the case. The U.S. isn’t “pressuring” Israel. It’s making a public show of disapproval. But its actions convey an entirely different message to Israel, one that Israel understands perfectly well.
Elsewhere, we can read news with far more relevance to understanding U.S. policy towards Israel. A month ago, we learned that even as the Biden administration was supposedly pressing Israel “to do more to protect civilians,” it was also “planning a $320 million transfer of precision bombs for Israel.” The Wall Street Journal reported last week that since the Oct. 7th attack, the U.S. has sent “roughly 15,000 bombs and 57,000 artillery shells” to Israel, including “2,000-pound bunker buster bombs.” The Journal, in a massive understatement, says that “Some security analysts say the weapons transfers could undercut the administration’s pressure on Israel to protect civilians.”
Yes, no kidding!Because if the U.S. says “please use small bombs,” and then hands Israel extremely large bombs, Israel will quite reasonably assume that the U.S. does not actually care whether Israel uses small bombs. In fact, the U.S. must want Israel to use 2,000 pound bombs, because presumably it gives them weapons it intends to have them actually use.
Gaza, as we have reviewed before, is a very small place: only 25 miles long and 5 miles wide, and incredibly densely populated. If you drop a 2,000 pound bomb anywhere there, you’re going to have a high likelihood of killing a lot of people. (Heck, if you dropped a 2,000 pound anything from the sky in a densely populated area, you’d run a high risk of killing a bunch of innocent people.) Last month, Israel dropped two of the giant bombs on the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, killing dozens of innocent people. A former Pentagon intelligence analyst said there’s no precedent in our time for “so many large bombs being used on such a small area,” and that it recalls the war on Vietnam or World War II.
Let’s just make sure this is spelled out as clearly and logically as possible: Israel is dropping giant bombs on Gaza. Those bombs inevitably cause huge civilian casualties. The U.S. says it wants fewer casualties. Yet the U.S. gives Israel the bombs that inevitably produce the opposite result. My conclusion from this is that the U.S. does not mean what it says. I suspect that Joe Biden, a staunch supporter of Israel throughout his career, meant what he said earlier when he declared there would be no “red lines” for Israel (that is, no atrocity Israel could commit that would be so bad that the U.S. would stop supporting Israel). I think he’s responding to public opinion, and massive public protest, with a trick he learned from his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama: the old “my hands are tied” maneuver, where you publicly insist that you really, really wish things could be different, but you just have no ability to make it so. Biden is apparently “struggling” to get Israel to listen to requests to limit civilian casualties. As soon as the war restarted after the temporary truce, Israel killed 700 Palestinians in 24 hours. I suspect Benjamin Netanyahu understands the message coming from the U.S. as: look, do what you have to do, and we’ll keep sending the weapons, but we need to publicly distance ourselves from it, because we’re technically overriding the will of the American people here. And Netanyahu replies: we understand your concerns and are fully receptive to them, then continues to do what he was already doing.
We should never take what governments say at face value, because even the worst of them insist that they are deeply humane and only want to benefit the world. Japanese emperor Hirohito claimed that his nation only carried out the Pearl Harbor attacks to “insure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.” Vladimir Putin says he was trying to “de-Nazify” Ukraine by invading it, and would never admit to carrying out war crimes. Thus it should count for exactly nothing that the Biden administration is using more rhetoric about wanting to limit civilian casualties. The relevant question is: what is the administration doing? And what it’s doing is refusing to seek any actual conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel and concealing its record of weapons transfers from public scrutiny. (In a democracy, this is outrageous, but making sure the public knows nothing about foreign policy is standard). If you were really putting “pressure” on Israel, are these the steps you would take? Of course not. So we know the pressure is fake.
We know that U.S.-made weapons are being used to kill Gazan children. If Biden wanted that to stop, he could decline to send the weapons. So it’s clearly not what he wants. If you came upon a man firing a gun into a school, and you handed him more ammunition, but said “I strongly urge you not to use this ammunition to fire more bullets at the school,” would it be accurate to say you are “struggling to pressure him to change his actions”? No, that’s absurd. You’re enabling his actions, and you know full well what you’re doing. Nobody would be fooled in that instance, and nobody should be fooled about the Biden administration’s “pressure” on Israel. Words are cheap. Deeds are what matter.
IMAGE: President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)