Opinion The U.S. should back Israel firmly, but not unquestioningly
"While continuing to strongly support Israel after the horrific terrorist attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, President Biden and his administration need to also clearly state that the Israeli government does not have the right or U.S. backing to indiscriminately kill and displace Palestinian people. The United States should back Israel firmly, but not unquestioningly.
It is entirely appropriate that the Israeli government is retaliating against Hamas for killing more than 1,300 Israelis, including children. It is essential that Israel decimate Hamas so it cannot launch an attack like this ever again. Hamas’s actions were brutal and inhumane. I applaud Biden and his administration for strongly backing Israel after this heinous attack, which has rightly been likened to the al-Qaeda terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States.
But most Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, about half of whom are under age 18, didn’t play any role in Hamas’s attacks. They are not Hamas fighters. The Israeli counteroffensive has included cutting off access to electricity, water and sanitation for many Palestinian civilians and aggressive bombing that is destroying their homes and displacing tens of thousands. More than 2,200 Palestinians have died, many of them civilians, women and children. The Israel government’s actions seem less like a targeted campaign against Hamas and more like an attack on Gaza and anyone who lives there.
“Israel has the right to defend [itself], but it has to be done accordingly with international law, humanitarian law, and some decisions are contrary to international law,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last week. “Some of the actions — and the United Nations has already said that — [such] as cutting water, cutting electricity, cutting food to a mass of civilian people is against international law.”
Demanding that 1 million evacuate from the northern part of Gaza in 24 hours, as the Israeli government has called for, isn’t a well-thought-out policy or one that is workable, as U.N. officials have emphasized.
The United States obviously can’t dictate what the Israeli government does. But we provide Israel military support and are one of its strongest allies. And U.S. citizens should care when and how our government intervenes abroad.
The administration’s current approach is flawed. Biden and other top officials (and other world leaders) have spent the past week consistently stating, “Israel has a right to defend itself.” The State Department, in emails sent to its staffers, is discouraging the use of phrases such as “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm,” as first reported by the HuffPost. It is shocking that the U.S. government is opposed to the use of language that would even hint at restraining the Israelis. It’s hard to recall any context in which “restoring calm” is framed negatively. A tweet from the account of Secretary of State Antony Blinken that used the term “cease-fire” positively was deleted and replaced by one that included “Israel has the right to defend itself.”
Biden administration officials, in some public comments and those made privately to Israeli officials and then leaked to the news media, are also stating (but less emphatically than the right-to-defense language) that Israel needs to abide by human rights laws and minimize civilian casualties. On Friday, the president said, “We can’t lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians have nothing to do with Hamas, and Hamas’ appalling attacks, and they’re suffering as a result as well.”
But he didn’t explicitly state what obviously flows from his comment: “Therefore, the Israelis must use tactics that minimize the deaths of Palestinians.” I worry the administration is trying to have it both ways — allow Israel free rein now but be able to say, “See, we told them not to go too far” if, say, two days, weeks, months or years from now, there is a collective view that Israel went too far. Israeli leaders are acting as if they know U.S. officials are only giving lip service to the idea of restraint.
Biden and his administration need to change their approach. They should stop saying “Israel has a right to defend itself” in a vague way, without any preconditions, such as abiding by international law and minimizing the deaths of Palestinian civilians. There is not a real debate about whether Israel has the right to defend itself. It does. The question is how Israel defends itself. And if the Israelis’ answer is that defending themselves means bombing everything in Gaza with little regard for the lives of Palestinian civilians and demanding fast, mass evacuations that they know can’t actually happen, then the United States and the rest of the world should reject that answer and push for an alternative.
“The Palestinian people are not Hamas. The response to Hamas’ horrific terrorism cannot be mass death of innocent Palestinians. Israel, just like the U.S., must follow international law, even when Hamas does not. Our humanity is at stake,” U.S. Rep. Greg Casar (D-Tex.) said in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Right now, the Biden administration should clearly state that Israel needs to defend itself and dismantle Hamas — in ways that try to minimize the suffering of Palestinian people as much as possible. And in the next few weeks, the Biden administration should articulate a broader policy vision for Israel and the Palestinian territories, one rooted in what’s best for Israelis and Palestinians, not grounded in Biden’s relationships with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders or anger at Hamas. The goal is a Middle East where Hamas has no power, but everyday Palestinians do, where Israeli civilians and Palestinian ones are safe and secure.
“Israel has a right to defend itself” is not a vision or a policy. We should come up with one — immediately.