U.S. Policy Toward Gaza Continues a Long History of Fraudulent Humanitarianism

As aid to Gaza trickles to a slow, the US could be doing more to prevent mass death and suffering. But that would require standing up to Israel.

As the assault on Gaza approaches its eighth month, over 35,000 people have been killed, more than 13,000 of them children. Humanitarian experts fear that over 1 million of Gaza’s residents now face an imminent famine, with at least two dozen children already confirmed dead from acute malnutrition. When famine is imposed on a population, it is invariably children that suffer most. There is no greater distillation of the injustices of the world than the emaciated face of a starving child, an image of brutal dehumanization, something that’s wholly preventable. 

Even before October 7, Israeli occupation and blockade meant that Gazans were reliant on aid for subsistence. This came in the form of about 500 trucks per day. Despite the conflict causing a dramatic increase in need, Israel has throttled the flow of land aid, with mere “trickles” reaching northern Gaza and reports that no aid at all is currently reaching Rafah. While Israel has made much fanfare of announcing its intention to let more aid in, humanitarian organizations maintain that what’s getting through is still entirely inadequate to prevent mass starvation.

This impending famine is, in fact, preventable, but not via the Biden administration’s “humanitarian” aid. The Biden administration’s airdropping of food and promise to construct a floating aid port on the Gazan coast are not sincere attempts at humanitarian response. The airdrops have been inadequate and deadly, and the elaborate floating pier from which to deliver aid amounts to too little, too late. These efforts serve as a distraction from the U.S. complicity in the ongoing genocide in Gaza.

In fact, the U.S. has a history of co-opting “humanitarian” rhetoric to justify military actions or to provide cover for its abdication of responsibility toward civilians. The U.S. has a legitimate role to play in preventing this famine—but it can’t do so through “humanitarian” efforts. It must do so through taking a political stance against Israel.

The modern conception of humanitarianism grew out of disgust with the senseless loss of life on the battlefields of mid-19th century Europe. The concept evolved to broadly encompass actions aimed at the perseveration of human life and dignity during catastrophic events such as natural disasters, famine, and armed conflict. What sets humanitarian action apart from other forms of international aid and development is its adherence to a specific set of core principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. All reputable humanitarian organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), at least aspire toward these principles when engaged in humanitarian work. 

The principle of neutrality refers to the concept that humanitarian actors should not take sides in a conflict or engage in any related political disputes. This is meant to keep humanitarian actors out of the ideological fray and ensure access to aid recipients on all sides of a conflict. Impartiality dictates that aid be provided proportionally and based solely on need. This must be done regardless of religious or political affiliation and without bias. True humanitarianism aims not only to alleviate the immediate suffering of those in need but is also a recognition of a political failure. It aims to radically reaffirm the humanity of those afflicted by crises while those in power are determined to see it destroyed.

For example, consider the work of a true humanitarian organization such as Médecins Sans Frontières. They have been responding to the war in Ukraine by providing direct medical care and supplying local hospitals throughout the country. True to their principles of neutrality and impartiality, MSF also works in Russia and Belarus to provide aid to those affected on the opposite side of the conflict. 

State actors in general, and the U.S. in particular, have never been committed to the principles of humanitarianism. This is because it’s nearly impossible for state actors to do so: states always have a political motive. Take the example of Cuba. Since deploying physicians to Algeria in 1963, Cuba has earned a reputation for providing sorely needed medical care throughout the developing world. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the relatively poor island nation sent hundreds of medical workers to over a dozen countries to help their efforts in combating the pandemic. However, Cuba’s motives are not fully altruistic. In exchange for their work in Venezuela, for example, the government received access to substantially subsidized oil, and the country generates billions of dollars in revenue by sending its doctors abroad. There is no doubt that Cuba’s doctors have provided vital support to populations in need, but this is not humanitarianism. 

The U.S. government cannot truly engage in humanitarian work because it couldn’t possibly claim neutrality or impartiality. Yet the United States has a long track record of questionable “humanitarianism,” which is far worse than Biden’s ineffectual aid proposal in Gaza. The past few decades have seen the ultimate perversion of the “humanitarianism” concept to justify the use of lethal force all over the world. 

In 1999, led by U.S. President Bill Clinton, NATO forces engaged in a “humanitarian” bombing campaign in Kosovo in order to “avert a humanitarian catastrophe.” While it’s impossible to say what type of “catastrophe” might have been avoided, we do know that at least 500 civilians died in the bombing. The intervention serves as an unfortunate case study in how well-intentioned efforts “strayed from [true] humanitarian intervention” and how the U.S. turned to military actions to achieve “humanitarian” ends. Almost every large U.S. military action since has been justified on “humanitarian” grounds. 

Even the 2003 invasion of Iraq, arguably the U.S.’s worst crime since Vietnam, was justified by proponents (at least in part) on humanitarian grounds. “Our mission has been to bring humanitarian aid and restore basic services and put this country, Iraq, on the road to self- government,” President George W. Bush proclaimed. The “mission” resulted in the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and sparked a bloody civil war that simmers to this day. 

Samantha Power, who serves as the current chief administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has made a career out of arguing for the use of military force as a form of “humanitarian” intervention. As a senior official in the Obama administration, she worked closely with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to urge Obama to pursue a bombing campaign aimed at deposing Libya’s longtime dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Obama acquiesced, bombing ensued, and Gaddafi met a gruesome fate. When asked about the dictator’s brutal murder, which included reports of Gaddafi being sodomized with a bayonet, Secretary Clinton cackled, “We came, we saw, he died.” The Secretary’s amusement aside, the predictable outcome of the United States’ “humanitarian intervention” has been utter chaos, destruction, and misery for Libya and its people. The instability precipitated by American bombing has transformed the country into a hotbed for exploitation and “slave-like work conditions” for migrants from other nations who had previously been drawn to the country as a work destination. Instead, migrants seek to flee, trying their luck at the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, which has resulted in thousands of deaths

It was in 2013, following the Libyan debacle, when images surfaced of a ghastly chemical weapon attack that killed over 1,000 civilians in Syria—a country in the thralls of a brutal civil war. The “humanitarian” interventionalists in the Obama administration urged the president to live up to his “red line” on chemical weapons and strike the Assad regime in retaliation, for the sake of humanity. Obama ultimately declined. Could it be that in a flash of self-reflection he recognized that bombing a sovereign state for their use of chemical weapons might play a bit hypocritical when ordered by a president who had killed dozens, including children, in a strike using cluster munitions—the use of which is staunchly condemned by human rights groups? Not likely. More plausible is that the mess created by his previous “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, which he considered the “worst mistake” of his presidency, left Obama with serious reservations about pursuing a similar strategy in Syria.

The misappropriation of humanitarian rhetoric is also used domestically to justify Washington’s reversion to a tough on immigration stance. Even liberal think tanks like the Center for American Progress praised Biden’s recently proposed immigration legislation as a “sincere, bipartisan attempt” to address the “humanitarian and administrative border crisis.” The bill included billions of dollars to increase Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention capacity, would place greater restrictions on asylum eligibility, and would enact a daily quota for crossings that would trigger periodic border “shutdowns” where some asylum seekers would be “quickly deported” without a chance to make their claim. I’ve worked at the U.S.-Mexico border as a physician and advocate for asylum seekers. As cruel as the U.S. and Mexico’s policies may be, the conditions at the border do not quite constitute a “humanitarian crisis.” But leaving that point aside, it is hard to imagine how the provisions in this legislation could possibly be seen as “humanitarian” or even humane.  

Even when the U.S. proposes interventions that are in line with acceptable humanitarian action, it is hard to take them seriously. After all, this is the same government that orchestrated a phony vaccination campaign in a poor Pakistani community as a cover for an elaborate scheme to collect DNA samples from Osama bin Laden’s family. Malign uses of humanitarianism such as this undermine aid workers’ credibility and put them in immediate danger. In fact, the incident has been directly linked to attacks on legitimate vaccination personnel, a decrease in vaccination acceptance that has led to a rise in polio cases in the region. As The Lancet noted in 2014, the CIA decided to abandon “vaccination programmes as a cover for espionage.” Public health programs, the journal editors wrote, “should be politically neutral.”

Let’s take a closer look at the Biden administration’s airdrops and floating pier project. Simply put, these efforts do not constitute humanitarianism. While this aid may assuage the guilt of the liberal base, it ultimately obfuscates the political failure of the administration: the most powerful state in the world is giving another state carte blanche to massacre tens of thousands of civilians by way of its explicit approval and material support.

Compared with the billions of dollars the U.S. has provided to the Israeli state since the start of the crisis, the pitifully inadequate airdrops in March—which included about enough food for one meal for a little over one percent of the population—is case in point that the U.S. is not providing impartial aid. Furthermore, the predictable disarray created by this method of aid delivery has proved lethal, with some packages landing off the coast, enticing desperate Gazans to try their luck at a dangerous swim out to retrieve them and resulting in at least 12 deaths. 

While Biden’s proposed floating pier has the potential to deliver aid at a larger scale, it is predicted to take weeks to construct. Even once the pier is built, the process for moving large volumes of aid this way is sure to be inefficient and overly cumbersome. Once aid is procured, it will have to be inspected in Cyprus under the supervision of Israeli officials. After making the 15-plus-hour sea voyage from Cyprus to the Gazan coast, the packages will then have to be unloaded to a floating dock near the proposed pier. Aid will then be shuttled from the dock to the proposed pier and onto trucks to be distributed throughout Gaza—while, presumably, dodging the continued Israeli bombing campaign. This is not a substitute for the much more efficient and direct method of crossing land borders with trucks that can directly reach those in need.

While there is controversy amongst humanitarians about the nuances of neutrality, the U.S. government’s full throttled support of the Israeli war effort is in a category of its own. Calling for a ceasefire, or criticizing belligerents for their disregard of civilian casualties, for example, might push the limits of what some humanitarians see as appropriate. Others find this type of “speaking out” to be an essential component of the humanitarian mission. But Palestinians in Gaza are being killed by American-made bombs dropped by American-made jets. In the last 80 years, more U.S. military aid has gone to Israel than any other country on earth. While reasonable people can disagree on the appropriate interpretation of neutrality, providing weapons to one side as it inflicts massive civilian casualties on the other is beyond the pale.

While the U.S. couldn’t possibly fill the role of humanitarian actor, President Biden need not burden himself with the nuances of humanitarian response. There is no shortage of well-funded humanitarian non-governmental and United Nations organizations ready to deliver lifesaving aid. The problem lies with Israel restricting their movement. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Biden will wake up tomorrow with a conscience and do the right thing in demanding a permanent ceasefire. Short of that, though, all the administration needs to do is to give Israel an ultimatum—allow adequate amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza or the U.S. will cease all military aid to Israel. The real humanitarians can take it from there. 

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