The Intercept / October 9, 2023
The Biden administration’s policy of ignoring conditions in Gaza contributed to this weekend’s explosion of violence.
The recent explosion of violence in and around the Gaza Strip, triggered by a Hamas assault that killed hundreds of Israelis, including scores of civilians, has drawn the U.S. back into a region from which the Biden administration has spent years trying to pivot away from. The U.S. has reportedly begun to move naval assets into the Mediterranean to provide support for Israel’s military operation against Gaza, a full-scale invasion that will likely take weeks, if not longer, to complete.
The new outbreak of intense violence represents a total failure of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. The administration has centred its regional policy on the expansion of the “Abraham Accords,” a set of diplomatic normalization agreements between Israel and regional Arab countries. It is an effort in which President Joe Biden has sunk much resources and political capital.
The de facto premise behind the accords, initiated under former President Donald Trump and led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, was to “solve” the Israel–Palestine conflict by simply ignoring the Palestinians and treating their conditions as irrelevant. This weekend’s events show that this approach, premised on Palestinian invisibility, has now collapsed. Indeed, the expectation that Palestinians would simply resign themselves to a slow death, an assumption evidently carried forth by Biden, was never realistic.
“If you pay attention to their public statements, every government in the Middle East has been saying for years that you need to pay attention to the Palestinian issue and that it cannot be ignored,” said Yousef Munayyer, a non-resident senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington. “The Biden administration’s policy has been to simply ignore the tragic situation on the ground, perhaps more than any other administration. It’s deliberate ignorance that has had very devastating consequences.”
Days before the conflict began, speaking at a public event on September 29, national security adviser Jake Sullivan praised the administration’s Middle East policy, stating that “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.”
“The ignorance and hubris it took to make a statement like that is stunning,” said Munayyer.
There have been long warnings that conditions in the Gaza Strip were a ticking time bomb. Gaza’s residents have lived under permanent siege for over a decade and a half, without the prospect of a diplomatic process anywhere on the horizon — let alone a solution. Their desperation had been building for years prior to the present war. Palestinian demonstrators, many of whom had never left Gaza in their lives, have organized several large protest marches toward the Israel-run border fence in recent years. They were met with indiscriminate gunfire from Israeli forces that killed civilians as well as medical personnel — as well as indifference by the international community, which carried on in the aftermath of the killings with business as usual.
In the meantime, the U.S. has sat on the side-lines as diplomatic off-ramps were proposed — and floundered. In 2018, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar wrote a letter in Hebrew to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to take a “calculated risk” in agreeing to a long-term truce with Hamas. The truce would have led to an end to Hamas rocket fire against Israel, in exchange for the reestablishment of economic infrastructure on the territory. Although some aid reached Gaza, Netanyahu ultimately rejected the entreaty for a broader truce. The U.S. did not apply any notable pressure on Israel to pursue this or other possible openings.
The U.S. government under both Trump and Biden administrations has remained AWOL in the years since and left the situation in the territory to fester, while U.S. diplomats spent time in distant Dubai and Riyadh dreaming up splashy new economic and political agreements to sell as successes to domestic audiences. Under Biden, the U.S. has devoted little effort to seeking even tactical détente, let alone peace, between Israel and the Palestinians, preferring instead to continue the Trump administration’s approach of ignoring the Palestinians to seek quid pro quo diplomatic deals between Israel and foreign Arab and Muslim countries with whom Israel has no direct conflict.
Even as the massive bloodshed began around Gaza this week, with Hamas militants massacring Israeli civilians and Israel apparently indiscriminately bombing the Gaza Strip, the administration has rushed to try and salvage its approach to the region. The New York Times reported on Sunday that top Biden aides were scrambling to “reaffirm their commitment to the idea of potential normalization of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.” This shoddy simulacrum of real diplomacy — which inevitably requires resolving tough differences between enemies — has now collided with horrifying reality in Gaza and southern Israel.
Precise numbers of the dead are unclear, as the Israeli government carries out a campaign of airstrikes and prepares for a ground offensive that it says is aimed at ending Hamas’s ability to conduct military operations in the future. But conservative estimates say that hundreds of both Palestinians and Israelis are already dead. It is almost certain that the toll will rise in the weeks ahead, particularly among Palestinian civilians, as the campaign inside Gaza gains steam.
Palestinians, Israelis, and officials of neighbouring states have long tried to warn of the impending calamity that is now playing out. They warned that the rotten status quo in Gaza was close to producing a new and bloodier conflict. The Biden administration is not primarily responsible for the horror now taking place. But given the U.S.’s pivotal role in the region, it undoubtedly deserves a large share of the blame. A conflict that sat upon several major civilizational, religious, ideological, and racial fault lines deserved real diplomatic resources and attention from the U.S., rather than the pursuit of vanity projects focused on winning points in domestic politics. Once the bloodshed eventually stops, it is unclear how much may be left to salvage.
Murtaza Hussain is a reporter at The Intercept who focuses on national security and foreign policy