It was clear from the moment the news came in that we were about to witness a bloodbath.
For years, the Israeli government has made a habit of responding to provocations from Hamas — and even nonviolent protests by ordinary Palestinians pushing back against Israel’s occupation — with brutal force against innocent civilians. Since 2008’s Operation Cast Lead, the death toll of Palestinians and Israelis (before the latest casualties) is 6,407 to 308, respectively, according to UN statistics. That’s a staggering 21:1, a reflection not just of the vast gulf in military resources and support between the two, but the Israeli military’s indiscriminate bombardment of residential areas in Gaza, one of the world’s most densely populated areas.
There was no doubt we would see something still worse in the wake of Hamas’s latest attack, which was unprecedented in its severity. This weekend saw the group that governs Gaza breach the border and assault more than twenty locations in southern Israel, murdering more than two hundred concertgoers at a nearby festival, killing civilians in scores of towns, and taking as many as 150 hostages, including children. The Israeli death toll sits at at least 1,200, with 2,400 wounded, a horrific loss of life.
What has followed has made that tragedy worse: the ongoing, indiscriminate slaughter of innocent Palestinians by Israeli forces. The Israeli military has killed more than nine hundred people in the Gaza Strip so far, including at least 140 children, and wounded five thousand, two-thirds of whom are children and the elderly, as Israeli jets rain bombs down on anything within sight: houses, apartment buildings, mosques, health facilities. Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning for Gazans to leave the territory is a cruel joke, given that at the best of times, Palestinian movement is tightly controlled and restricted by Israel and given Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant’s swift declaration that “nothing is allowed in or out” of Gaza.
This is collective punishment of a population for the actions of their government, an unambiguous crime under international law, and made even harsher by the Netanyahu government’s decision to heighten the already sixteen-year-long Israeli blockade of Gaza: “no fuel, electricity, or food supplies,” according to Gallant. To justify this unjustifiable policy, Gallant used shockingly — but at this point typically — racist language, that “we fight animals in human form and proceed accordingly.”
Even worse is to come, with multiple reports indicating an Israeli ground invasion is next. “We are going to change the Middle East,” Netanyahu chillingly remarked, no doubt relishing his new role as a war leader after a political crisis dented his public standing. An Israeli security official has said that once the Israeli military is through, no buildings will be left standing in Gaza, which “will eventually turn into a city of tents.” This is unambiguously the language of war crimes, and to characterize it as simply the Israeli state “defending itself” or concerning itself narrowly with apprehending Hamas leaders is implausible and insulting.
It should go without saying that if the crimes of Hamas against Israeli civilians are unacceptable and indefensible, then so is Israeli’s bombardment of Palestinian civilians — state terrorism no different, for instance, from Russia’s destruction of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and residential areas, and behavior that, at least in theory, a state that holds itself up as a beacon of democracy (as Israeli officials often do) shouldn’t be stooping to.
What Hamas did over the weekend was appalling. There is no justification for killing civilians en masse, including on the basis that they live under a government responsible for crimes and atrocities. But it is misguided to paint the massacre in Israel as simply the bloodthirsty actions of a group irrationally bent on another people’s destruction.
On Sunday, Haaretz, Israel’s paper of record, placed “clear responsibility” for Hamas’s violence on Prime Minister Netanyahu for appointing extremists to top positions, trampling on Palestinian rights, and having “completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession.”
The far-right Netanyahu government is stocked with various racists and religious extremists alongside the authoritarian, unscrupulous prime minister himself. Besides attempting a domestic power grab, Netanyahu’s ministers have more or less openly said Palestinian territory belongs to Israel, and his government has acted as such: it has transferred administration of the occupied territories from military to civilian leadership, signaling plans to annex them, and expanded illegal settlements.
This is all on top of the daily, unconscionable suffering that Israel imposes on the Palestinian people: the control of their movement, airspace, waters, and fishing rights, which has led Gaza to be called the world’s largest open-air prison; a more-than-decade-long blockade designed to give Gazans the minimum nutrition possible without veering into outright starvation; random, sadistic killings and cripplings of protesters, civilians, journalists, and even children by Israeli troops; and the disgraceful, three-year–long violence by Israeli security forces against Palestinian worshippers at one of the holiest sites in Islam, including at one point attacking a funeral procession near the grounds of the East Jerusalem mosque.
The list could stretch on almost indefinitely. For decades, Israeli policy has flouted international law, imposed crushing and seemingly endless misery on the people of Gaza and the West Bank, and condemned Palestinians to watch as the land of what’s meant to be their future state is openly stolen with impunity.
And then there’s Washington foreign policy and the actions, most recently, of the remarkably diplomacy-averse Biden administration. Not only has Joe Biden, like previous US presidents, alternated between standing by and doing nothing about Israel’s brutality and explicitly backing it — he’s exacerbated the situation.
Biden is in the process of trying to secure a mutual security pact with Saudi Arabia aimed at normalizing relations between the Gulf state and Israel, a deal that would effectively throw Palestinians under the bus for good and builds on an earlier initiative pushed by Donald Trump. (Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security warned that by undercutting Palestinians, the push for normalization would end up “encouraging violence” against Israel.)
Remarkably, in spite of all this, a parade of US officials and media have declared in an almost coordinated fashion that the attack by Hamas was “unprovoked” — implying that this violence has simply come out of nowhere and has no relation to the actions of the Netanyahu government — and that all there is to the situation is Israel’s “right to defend itself” (even if that means massacring children and other innocents).
CNN’s Dana Bash painted the Hamas offensive as Pearl Harbor 2.0 without any wider context — perhaps understandable given the deplorable loss of life, but it’s also a clear journalistic failure to provide viewers a deeper understanding of what was happening, one that subtly primes viewers to favor US support for an indiscriminate military response over efforts to arrange a cease-fire.
Such determined refusal to better inform the public only makes it more likely that we will fail to take the steps needed to secure peace and instead stay stuck in the perpetual cycle of bloodletting.
Winning a Cease-Fire
This isn’t a time for cheerleading. War is not a spectator sport, and besides the taking of innocent lives in Israel, the main effect of Hamas’s supposed “success” has been to trigger another round of Israeli force, which has already killed hundreds of Palestinians and looks set to kill many more, one that from all indications is going to be far more vicious and unrestrained than previous iterations — which is saying something.
The focus must be on securing a cease-fire, something that, as Israel’s closest partner and primary military benefactor, the US government, is in a prime position to do. Murdering thousands of ordinary Palestinians isn’t going to bring back the lives Hamas has taken — in fact, it will likely only put more of Israeli lives at risk by further inflaming the conflict.
This is where pressure and messaging from activists in the United States and the rest of Israel’s partner states should be aimed: at pushing the US government and other states friendly with Israel to restrain Netanyahu’s far-right government and recognize that the only thing that will prevent the loss of further Israeli and Palestinian lives is actually following through on an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, ending Israel’s annexation plans, and not treating Palestinian grievances as something the White House can simply push to the side and allow to fester. As the events of the past few days show, it plainly cannot.
Without such pressure, Washington will be the opposite of a responsible actor. Rather than use its leverage to press for an end to hostilities before more people die, the US government — despite spending a year and a half of talking about the “rules-based international order,” national sovereignty, and the illegality of annexation — will back Netanyahu’s bloody retaliation to the hilt.
Already, the administration is “surging support” for Netanyahu’s war effort, including providing munitions and repositioning military ships and aircraft, and it is even, perversely, considering pairing military aid to Israel with military aid to Ukraine — morally blackmailing, in other words, hesitant left-leaning lawmakers into facilitating Netanyahu’s killing of civilians by conditioning it on another country’s defense against its neighbor’s aggression. (To his eternal shame, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the top-ranking US diplomat, quickly deleted a tweet on Saturday night calling for a cease-fire.)
The situation right now in the Middle East is incredibly bleak. There is a concerted effort to blind the US and broader Western public to the deeper causes of this weekend’s horrific violence, and to their potential solutions. What’s needed is a sober political strategy to combat this rampant disinformation and to force US politicians, the president included, to withdraw the blank check they’ve handed Netanyahu and his coterie of extremists — a strategy that eschews militant posturing for effective political communication that can actually persuade the US public and win their sympathy. The absence of such a thing will only make this situation bleaker.