It is disturbing that it seems that not a day goes by without this or that member of the Biden administration, including the President himself, saying something about how Israel must make sure that, as its war against Hamas proceeds, it does all it can to prevent civilian casualties. And further, that after the war, the Palestinians must be given a political horizon – i.e., a state of their own – with Israel’s full cooperation and support.
Although there are no explicit charges – or any factual presentations for that matter – that Israel intentionally targeted Palestinian civilians separate and apart from Hamas operatives; or that the lack of Palestinian statehood was anything but a Palestinian failure, the Biden advice to Israel cannot but carry the message that the U.S. believes that Israel has been lacking on both the casualties and statehood scores. Yet the advice is decidedly harmful and not only because of its negativity towards America’s closest ally in the world but also because it conveys that Hamas’s Oct.7 massacre has borne its intended fruit of focusing the world on the Palestinian narrative and in a perverse sense, secured Hamas’ legitimacy in the world of realpolitik. And this is unpardonable.
To be sure the implicit admonitions are routinely accompanied by a reiteration of Israel’s right to take Hamas out after Oct. 7 – although that sentiment appears to get more perfunctory with each saying. And there have also been continuing general expressions of support for Israel regarding factual disputes as well, like blaming Hamas for breaking the recent truce leading to a resumption of Israel’ military operations in Gaza.
President Biden has also sided with Israel over conflicting claims over numbers of civilian casualties and responsibility for bombing of hospitals and other ostensibly civilian Palestinian facilities. As we have previously noted, though we believe that he was merely going with the truth. Still, truth is not always the guiding principle in international politics and his support was likely significant in term of criticism of Israel.
Yet consider what some senior members of the Biden team have been saying in the last few days.
Vice President Kamala Harris said this on Saturday:
As Israel defends itself, it matters how. The United States is unequivocal: International humanitarian law must be respected. Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating. …We believe Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians…
Notably, the Vice President made no mention of the Hamas tactic of embedding itself and its offensive weapons in dense population areas as a deterrent against Israel military action. Surely Ms. Harris appreciates that to allow this ploy to succeed is to grant Hamas the power to limit Israel’s ability to exploit its military superiority – surely, an extraordinary notion to say the least. And ignoring this as context renders her criticism utterly useless when considering the significance of any casualty figures.
Further, the Vice President does not tell us precisely how civilian casualties would be avoided without a concomitant increase in harm to IDF personnel should there be less reliance on tanks and artillery in favor of hand-to-hand combat.
Revealingly, the New York Times on Saturday reported that, after being told that Gazan health officials were claiming that since the resumption of fighting the day before 193 people had been killed, Ms. Harris declined to say whether she believed that Israel was acting in accordance with American demands to minimize civilian casualties.
She said, “I don’t have the details to tell you exactly who was killed. But I will say that we have been very clear about where we stand on this, which is innocent civilian lives should not be intentionally targeted and that Israel must do more to protect innocent life.” So she is plainly more about conjecture and surmise than fact on this issue.
Similarly, the comments of White House National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby who made the rounds of Sunday’s talk shows and condescendingly said, “We believe they (Israel) have been receptive to our messages here of trying to minimize civilian casualties” and are “making an effort.” He specifically mentioned Israel’s publishing an online map to help Gazans avoid fighting, observing that “there’s not a whole lot of modern militaries that would do that…to telegraph their punches in that way.”
But Kirby does not, as the Vice President did not, factor in the complicating Hamas practice of using human shields. Nor did he provide any factual analysis or comparisons. He simply relied, as did the Vice President, on surmise and assumption.
We can understand why President Biden might want to burnish his credentials in the Muslim world in the run up to the 2024 election by appearing to rein in the Israelis. But, in the process to facilitate Hamas’ effort to capitalize at Israel’s expense on the inevitable collateral damage to Palestinian civilians is beyond the pale – especially after Oct.7th.