Mondoweiss / May 12, 2023
Biden officials have been unequivocal in their support for Israel’s assault on Gaza, barely paying lip service to a ceasefire. More concerning is their refusal to acknowledge Israel initiated and provoked this escalation.
It should come as no surprise that the United States has fully backed Israel in its latest assault on Gaza. In the hours before Israel began raining down more bombs on the besieged territory, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen over the phone. While the readout of their call did not mention what were, at the time, escalating tensions with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), it is certain that the matter was discussed, and that Israel’s intention to bring still more devastation to Gaza did not catch the United States by surprise.
Yet, as always, the U.S. response, or lack thereof, is important and needs to be examined. Under President Joe Biden’s administration, the U.S.’ silent support of virtually all Israeli actions against the Palestinians has remained as absolute as it was during the administration of Donald Trump, despite growing unease with Israel’s behavior among the majority of Americans. In Israel, the assault on Gaza and the concomitant rocket fire coming into southern Israel have served to provide a temporary scab over the fracture in Israeli society caused by the current government’s efforts to destroy the democracy enjoyed by Jewish citizens of Israel. In the United States, it has allowed people to more easily ignore this growing authoritarianism mere days ahead of the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence and the Palestinians’ Nakba.
Establishing the timeline of events
The argument that “Israel has the right to defend itself” has quickly made the rounds, and with it, the narrative that the rockets launched from Gaza were random, unprovoked, and expressions of an irrational Palestinian desire to kill Jews. The reality, of course, is very different, and its burial is a key strategic component that must be countered.
On March 2, PIJ spokesperson and activist Khader Adnan died in an Israeli prison after an 87-day hunger strike. Despite his outspoken advocacy for resistance and activism in PIJ, Israel never charged Adnan with any act of violence. He died after Israel refused to transfer him to the hospital despite warnings that his condition was life-threatening. Many viewed Adnan’s death as killing by deliberate inaction, and rockets were launched from Gaza while protesters confronted Israeli security forces in the West Bank. A ceasefire and the “quiet” of day-to-day occupation and Israeli dominance briefly resumed.
Israel provoked the entire episode by killing Khader Adnan through willful neglect. Then, when a brief escalation was stopped, Israel decided, due to Ben-Gvir’s pressure or not, to attack PIJ in a blatantly illegal extrajudicial killing when their families would be at their most defenseless.
But some in Israel were very dissatisfied that the Israeli response was not harsher. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the radical Kahanist minister of internal security, boycotted government activity and even raised the specter of quitting the government if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not move to do more damage to Gaza. Netanyahu denied this was the reason for breaking the fragile ceasefire that was reached after May 2, but in any case, Israel launched its latest operation and, in the first wave, killed not only three PIJ leaders but ten others, including the entire family of one of those targeted. In all, at this writing, 29 Palestinians and one Israeli have been killed. It would also seem likely that more bloodshed is to come.
In this case, it is clearer than usual that this was in no way Israel “defending itself.” Israel provoked the entire episode by killing Khader Adnan through willful neglect. Then, when a brief escalation was stopped, Israel made the decision, whether due to Ben-Gvir’s pressure or not, to attack not only PIJ in a blatantly illegal extrajudicial killing, but to do so by bombing their residences at 2:00 AM, when their spouses and children would be sleeping and at their most defenseless.
The US light is bright green
Despite reports that the Biden administration was urging Israel to find a way to resume the ceasefire, Israel continued its airstrikes against Gaza on Thursday. PIJ rockets continued to fly from Gaza in response, and while the overwhelming majority of these either fell harmlessly or were intercepted, one did strike a residential building in a Tel Aviv suburb, causing a fatality, which will mean ongoing escalation. Netanyahu stated that the attacks on Gaza would continue “as long as necessary,” a clear indication that any pressure from Washington was not serious.
Indeed, senior Biden officials, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides were all unified and unequivocal in their full support of Israel, barely paying lip service to hope for a ceasefire. More concerning, if expected, is their clear refusal to acknowledge that Israel sparked this latest escalation and has continued to pour fuel over the fire.
State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel was confronted Thursday by Palestinian journalist Said Arikat on this question. Notably, right before Arikat spoke, Matthew Lee of the Associated Press expressed his exasperation with Patel, prefacing his own questions about Israel by declaring that he didn’t expect Patel to respond with any substance.
Arikat asked if the State Department had any comment on the fact that “Israelis broke a ceasefire and killed children in the middle of the night while they were sleeping.” Patel’s response was every bit as dissembling and empty as Lee had anticipated.
“We continue to call on both sides to take steps that will not incite tensions and further incite violence,” Patel said. “We have continued to call on both sides, on our Israeli partners and the Palestinian Authority, to continue to take prudent steps to ensure that the loss of civilian life is prevented and that steps are taken to ensure that violence is reduced and these kind of events don’t happen…That is exactly why we continue to pursue our efforts [for] a two-state solution and continue to pursue our efforts for equal measures of prosperity, security, and freedom.”
A thin veneer of interest
Patel’s comments clearly indicate the lack of value the Biden administration places on Palestinian life. At this point, the mantra of the two-state solution is a strong indicator of a total absence of any desire to protect the rights or the lives of Palestinians, given that only the most delusional or willfully dishonest can even pretend to put it forth as a viable solution anymore. But the additional Biden talking point of “equal measures of prosperity, security, and freedom” is an even stronger indication of having nothing to offer.
But even beyond those indicators, Patel gave away the game when discussing who the Biden administration claimed to work with. Their “Israeli partners” have made it quite clear they don’t take Biden at all seriously and, with good reason, expect him to dutifully support them with money and diplomatic help regardless of their actions.
But on the Palestinian side, Patel claims they’re working with the Palestinian Authority to address issues with Islamic Jihad and Gaza. That is a blatant lie. The PA has no influence over events in Gaza and no influence on the PIJ. Hamas might have some, but even they, due to their reluctance to support the PIJ militarily in their recent confrontations with Israel, including this one, would be limited in their ability to convince PIJ of anything it was really opposed to, short of threatening an even wider split among Palestinian factions, which they have no reason to do.
The bankruptcy of the American position, and the impotence of the Biden administration, are reflected as much in the current state of play as they were at the beginning.
The bankruptcy of the American position, and the impotence of the Biden administration, are reflected as much in the current state of play as they were at the beginning. When Blinken met with Israeli FM Cohen, the readout of their call stated that “The Secretary noted the importance of recent meetings in Aqaba and Sharm El Sheikh aimed at de-escalating tensions and urged that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority take additional steps to stabilize the situation in the West Bank and promote a durable calm.” That was just days after Khader Adnan’s death and mere hours before Israel broke the ceasefire and launched its assault on Gaza.
The irony is that the agreements at Aqaba and Sharm El Sheikh — both of which Israel publicly and clearly abrogated almost immediately after they were announced — committed neither Israel nor the United States to any significant steps to ease Palestinian suffering, but did commit the PA to restore security cooperation with Israel and to take steps in Palestinian cities like Nablus and Jenin to crack down on new and popular militant groups. In other words, they were both agreements to escalate confrontation, human rights abuses, and violence.
It’s long been a cliché to talk about how the United States makes this already vexing crisis worse through its dishonest behavior and defiance of all ethical, legal, and even pragmatic considerations in its support of Israel. But 75 years after the Nakba and Israel’s creation, the Biden administration seems determined to top all its predecessors in trampling the rights and hopes of the Palestinian people.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics