Throughout the current hostilities in Israel and Gaza — which has gone from a horrendous attack that killed hundreds of innocent Israelis on October 7 to what is now a mass slaughter of many more innocent Palestinians — US politicians have regularly pointed to the Americans killed by Hamas to tacitly justify the blank check given to Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government.
The rising number of dead Americans has, quite appropriately, been a staple of coverage of this latest violence, with the stories, lives, and dreams of the victims given prominent space in news reports. From the start, reporters pressed the Joe Biden’s administration about whether any of those killed were US citizens. Five days in, Secretary of State Antony Blinken cited the “immeasurable loss” of the murdered Americans as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Netanyahu, pledging to give the Israeli prime minister more ammunition to prosecute his war. President Joe Biden brought up the Americans held captive by Hamas in his recent primetime address, telling the country that, “as president, there is no higher priority for me than the safety of Americans held hostage.” After a week of Netanyahu’s war, which had already seen some two thousand Palestinians killed, Senator Ted Cruz called it “right for America,” since the (at that point) twenty-seven US dead meant it was “one of the worst terrorist attacks on America,” too.
There’s little wonder US officials are incensed. If there’s one thing that should outrage a government, it’s the killing of that nation’s citizens by another government. And yet, the attention currently being paid to the fate of US citizens killed or threatened by Hamas feels like a major sea change. Because the fact is that US citizens have regularly been, to use a foul euphemism, “collateral damage” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often at the hands of the Israeli military, and much of the press, as well as Washington officials, have never seemed to care all that much.
No Investigations, No Accountability
You don’t have to go far back to see for yourself. Try just last May, when Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder at the hands of Israeli soldiers drew what could most generously be described as a listless response from the Biden administration.
Despite multiple investigations concluding that Abu Akleh — who was wearing a clearly marked press vest and standing hundreds of meters away from any militants — was deliberately killed by Israeli military, the administration largely aided the Israeli government’s cover-up, declaring the killing a “result of tragic circumstances” instead of an intentional act, rejecting the idea of seeking accountability through the International Criminal Court, and abandoning its initial demand that the perpetrators be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law” (when it was still unclear who had been responsible). Instead, Washington simply called on Israel to review its policies for mitigating harm to civilians, avoiding and brushing off the slain journalist’s family.
That kind of prevaricating response has become par for the course for the US government. In 2003, after twenty-three-year-old US activist Rachel Corrie was killed, crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer as she stood between it and the Palestinian house it was barreling toward to raze, her family spent more than a decade being ignored or, in the case of current secretary of state Antony Blinken, strung along by the dozens of US officials they met with to try to get Washington to do something about her death. The Israeli government never conducted the “thorough, credible, and transparent” investigation into the killing that it promised, and the US government never put any real pressure on it to do so. One congressman told them that “nobody will ever do anything” about it.
Since then, at least half a dozen other US citizens have been slain by Israeli forces. In each case, the US government hasn’t so much as lifted a finger to pursue accountability, and at times even actively thwarted it. You might be able to look past this in the case of, say, the US citizen and his father killed two years ago in an Israeli air strike on Gaza while they were working as engineers for Hamas building rockets.
But what about someone like Furkan Doğan, an eighteen-year-old US citizen and Turkish resident executed with a point-blank shot when Israeli soldiers stormed the 2010 Gaza flotilla? US officials brushed aside the boy’s father’s efforts to secure a US investigation of his murder, which Barack Obama’s administration couldn’t bring itself to verbally condemn, and ultimately sought legal immunity for Israel’s defense minister in the case.
What about sixteen-year-old, Florida-born Mahmoud Shaalan, shot unarmed and with his hands up while crossing a checkpoint in 2016, and left to bleed out on the road as Israeli soldiers blocked the path of an ambulance, going so far as to fire tear gas and stun grenades to prevent the vehicle from reaching him? There again, officials in Washington barely reacted, while the US government quietly refused to investigate the incident and gently stonewalled the victim’s family and human rights group seeking justice.
Or what about the many other US citizens who have been seriously injured by Israeli forces? That includes New Mexican activist Brian Avery, whose face was shattered by an Israeli bullet a month after Corrie was crushed to death, and Oakland peace activist Tristan Anderson, left permanently disabled with brain damage by a US-made tear gas canister shot by Israel Border Police in 2009.
The United States’ snubbing-the-victim approach goes back a long way. In 1967, the Israeli military attacked the USS Liberty, a surveillance vessel operating off the Sinai coast, killing 34 US sailors and wounding 171 others. Though the incident remains murky, partly because the US government has been determined to keep it that way, some evidence has dribbled out in the decades since suggesting it may have been an intentional attack. Though US-Israeli relations were certainly strained, the death toll — higher than the number of US citizens killed by Hamas on October 7, according to the US State Department — didn’t spur US support for leveling Israeli cities, as Washington is right now facilitating in Gaza. In fact, the countries have only drawn closer in the decades since.
It’s been clear for a long time that US officials, at best, simply ignore the deaths of Americans they find geopolitically inconvenient and, at worst, put a premium on the lives of some US citizens over others. While the Obama administration couldn’t so much as feign outrage over Doğan’s killing, it wasted no time launching its own investigation into the murder of an Israeli American teen by Palestinians four years later, precisely because he had US citizenship.
The fatal stabbing of US veteran Taylor Force by a Palestinian man became a cause célèbre in the US Congress, which eventually passed a law cutting US aid to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Force, by the way, was slain less than two weeks after Israeli soldiers killed Shaalan. Six months later, the Obama administration rewarded Israel with the “single largest pledge of bilateral military assistance in US history.”
Which Americans Count?
At the same time that Biden administration officials were pointing to the US citizens killed by Hamas as tacit justification for backing Israel’s indiscriminate military offensive against Gaza — and arranging charter flights to get Americans out of Israel as soon as possible — hundreds of US citizens, including families with small children, were trapped in the very territory Israel was laying siege to and bombing with unprecedented ferocity, many reporting they were getting no help from nearby US embassies. They remain there as you read this, dodging bombs, as White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby glibly informs reporters that “innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward.”
The killing of a country’s citizens by another government is a serious outrage and one worthy of, at minimum, condemnation, if not steeper costs like diplomatic sanction. US voters and those they elected to represent them are right to be furious about Hamas’s hideous murder of those thirty-one US citizens, alongside the many, many other innocent civilians they killed that day.
But if the murder of US citizens is an outrage, it’s an outrage whenever it happens, and by whomever’s hand — it’s not something we can pick and choose to be wrathful over, depending on whether or not the victims have the “right” ethnic background and if the government responsible is an ostensibly friendly one. Yet this is exactly the selective formula the Biden administration, members of Congress, and the entire US political establishment more broadly have taken to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What may be most perverse is that this double standard is now being used to justify and fuel not just the killing of many more innocent civilians like those killed by Hamas, but likely many more Americans who are guilty of nothing more than having a national background that those in power have decided makes them unworthy of the protections of citizenship.