How Biden administration shifted from ‘unwavering’ support of Israel to criticism over Gaza deaths

US has gradually ratcheted up pressure on Israel as it kills thousands of Palestinian civilians but has stopped short of threatening aid

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Saturday 09 December 2023 16:00 GMT
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US warns Israel over civilian deaths amid Gaza offensive

On the day of the 7 October Hamas attack, which killed an estimated 1,200 Israelis, President Joe Biden proudly proclaimed his “unwavering” support for Israel’s security and its “right to defend itself and its people.”

Each day since, outrage – in Congress, on protest-clogged streets around the world, within the US government itself – continues to grow against an Israeli response that has annihilated large parts of Gaza and killed over 17,000 people, a large majority of them women and children.

Two months later, that unwavering support is beginning to waiver, though only barely.

This week, the Biden administration has offered its most specific criticisms yet of Israeli tactics, though has still balked at demanding big-picture strategy changes or formal constraints on military tactics that would meaningfully alter the course of the war over the long term.

“As we stand here almost a week into this campaign into the south [of Gaza]… it remains imperative that Israel put a premium on civilian protection,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a press conference in Washington on Thursday. “And there does remain a gap between... the intent to protect civilians and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground.”

Secretary Antony Blinken

The criticisms mark a major change from the administration’s initial tone at the outset of the war.

Throughout the weeks immediately following Hama’s brutal attack on Israel, the White House appeared intent on showing as little daylight between them and Israel as possible.

However, as the weeks wore on, reports began appearing, always from unnamed officials, that the Biden administration was pushing the Israelis on whether an all-out ground invasion, likely to kill numerous civilians, was the best way forward.

Following an October trip to Tel Aviv, one Biden official told The Associated Press the president had asked Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “tough questions” about the direction the war seemed headed, and had a “long talk” about “alternatives” to a full-on siege.

The administration wasn’t afraid to mention the idea of protecting civilians, exactly.

“Netanyahu and I discussed again yesterday the critical need for Israel to operate by the laws of war,” Mr Biden said in one October address, while Secretary Blinken told the UN Security Council “every civilian life is equally valuable” that same month.

But the White House seemed loathe to directly comment on whether Israel, as its critics alleged, was violating international norms by killing numerous civilians in strikes on schools, border crossings, hospitals, and refugee camps.

The footage out of Gaza, whose population of of 2.3m million is now mostly homeless, however, became hard to ignore.

“How do you look at one atrocity and say, ‘This is wrong,’ but you watch as bodies pile up as neighborhoods are leveled?” Democrat congresswoman Ilhan Omar said in October.

King Abdullah II of Jordan, meanwhile, a close US ally, said later that month that the continued siege of Gaza and the mass displacement and suffering it caused was “a war crime” and “a red line” for nations in the Middle East.

“Anywhere else, attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water, electricity and basic necessities would be condemned,” he said at a summit in Egypt. “Accountability would be enforced, immediately, unequivocally. ... But not in Gaza.”

Firefights battle flames in a building hit by an Israeli strike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on December 9, 2023.

In on high-profile defection that month, a senior State Department officials resigned, arguing Mr Biden’s “blind support for one side” had fueled an Israeli campaign that was “shortsighted, destructive, unjust and contradictory to the very values we publicly espouse.”

Still, such criticisms were largely met with responses ranging from resignation to indigation from the White House.

In late October, when UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres accused Israel of carrying out the “collective punishment” of Palestinians, a war crime, and said Israel policies like its “suffocating occcupation” of Palestinian territories were partly to blame for the Hamas attacks, the White House pushed back.

“Hamas is to blame. Hamas is to blame,” John Kirby of the National Security Council told reporters.

Mr Biden even questioned the notion of Palestinian death tolls themselves. Even though large swathes of the media and international community accept them as accurate, the president said in late October he had “no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.”

In mid-November, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters he was “not in a position to be judge and jury” on whether Israel was following the laws of war and slammed Hamas for “making life extremely difficult for Israel by taking civilians as human shields and by putting their rocket infrastructure and terrorist infrastructure among civilians.”

By then, Israel’s own leaders – as well as its essentially forced evacuation of countless civilians from northern Gaza – were making it more difficult for the conflict to be seen as purely defensive.

Benjamin Netanyahu called the conflict a “struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.”

Avi Dichter, a member of Israel’s security cabinet, said the IDF was “rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” an incendiary reference to the Nakba, the Palestinian name for the violent, and in large part permanent and ongoing, expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians from their homes during the internal conflict that took place during the 1948 founding of the modern state of Israel.

There were still a few instances where the US still seemed to be exerting influence over Israel, though. Its calls for “humanitarian pauses” eventually played out in a week-long ceasefire that allowed hostages on both sides, as well as US citizens, to go free.

As the end of the month neared, the White House was showing its first signs of considering a new approach.

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, to discuss the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

Long a taboo in Washington, Mr Biden told a reporter it was a “worthwhile thought” that the US could condition its make-or-break military aid to Israel, though officials later said this would not be taking place any time soon.

As the conflict entered its third month, Democrats in Congress began openly discussing attaching conditions to future packages of Israeli aid.

"It is quite astonishing how much of a sea change there has been on this issue," congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told Insider.

And the State Department took a rare stance against Israel, denying visas to extremist West Bank settlers involved in attacks on Palestinians.

"The United States has consistently opposed actions that undermine stability in the West Bank, including attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and Palestinian attacks against Israelis," Mr Blinken said earlier this week. "As President Biden has repeatedly said, those attacks are unacceptable. Last week in Israel, I made clear that the United States is ready to take action using our own authorities."

Palestinian citizens carry out search and rescue operations in the destruction caused by Israeli air strikes on December 07, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza

Still, the US and Israel are largely moving together on substantive issues like the overall direction of the war.

The White House, for instance, is not pushing the IDF to hit any timeline for its Gaza operation.

“We have not given a firm deadline to Israel, not really our role. This is their conflict,” deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington this week. “That said, we do have influence, even if we don’t have ultimate control over what happens on the ground in Gaza.”

On Friday, meanwhile, the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, a measure advocates argue is necessary to prevent continued mass suffering.

Robert Wood, deputy US ambassador to the UN, told the council that such a ceasefire “would only plant the seeds for the next war.”

“Even as we have supported the right of another member state to defend its people against heinous atrocities and acts of terrorism, the US at the highest levels has undertaken intensive diplomacy to save lives, and lay a foundation for durable peace,” he said.

The debate remains, as it has from the beginning, whether that durable peace will be achieved by the US supporting Israel to the hilt or pushing its ally to change course.

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