A Cease-Fire Is the Only Way to Protect Palestinian Civilians From Israel’s Terror Campaign

Israel is deliberately targeting the civilian population of Gaza in a horrifying campaign of mass killing. The Biden administration’s claim to be concerned about civilian casualties is a cynical PR exercise intended to deflect pressure for a cease-fire.

Palestinians mourning the death of loved ones following an Israeli bombardment in Deir Al-Balah on the central Gaza Strip, on December 6, 2023. (Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The current Israeli onslaught is above all a war being waged against the civilian population of Gaza. But it is also a war on the very concept of objective reality and the language we need to describe it. It has generated two entirely separate worlds of discourse, one based on the true character of Israel’s war, the other based on what its Western allies pretend to believe is happening.

In the real world, everyone can see that the Israeli military is deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians on a horrifying scale. The only morally serious debate is about whether this campaign of mass killing meets the threshold to be defined as genocide.

In the fantasy world of the Biden administration, on the other hand, there is a sham discussion about whether Israel’s war on Gaza satisfies the criteria for “proportionality.” US politicians and diplomats still talk as if mass civilian casualties in Gaza are an unfortunate side effect of Israel’s military tactics and not the intended outcome.

People whose job it is to help civilians in Gaza have no hesitation in calling a spade a spade. This is what Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council had to say this week:

The pulverising of Gaza now ranks among the worst assaults on any civilian population in our time and age. Each day we see more dead children and new depths of suffering for innocent people enduring this hell.

The UN emergency relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, spoke of an “apocalyptic situation” in Gaza, with “the remnants of a nation being driven into a pocket in the south.” Griffiths explained that there are no safe places for people to take shelter anywhere in Gaza as the relentless bombardment continues.

He dismissed the idea that Joe Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has persuaded Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to change its tactics:

The way in which the military operation in the south has been carried out is very similar to what we saw in the north. US diplomacy was very much focused on this and Tony Blinken spoke about it publicly. It does not seem to have worked at all, and so the pace of destruction in the south is as relentless as we see in the north.

There is no middle ground between supporting this campaign of mass murder and calling for an immediate cease-fire.

Power Targets

The Israeli publications +972 and Local Call have published a joint investigation into Israel’s war on Gaza and the procedures for selecting targets, based on conversations with “current and former members of Israel’s intelligence community.” They identified a deliberate focus on so-called “power targets,” which already accounted for half of all targets in Gaza during the opening phase of the bombing.

The primary goal of such attacks is not to kill members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or other groups. They are “mainly intended to harm Palestinian civil society: to ‘create a shock’ that, among other things, will reverberate powerfully and ‘lead civilians to put pressure on Hamas,’ as one source put it.” The Israeli sources dismissed the idea that civilian deaths in Gaza were “collateral damage” of a war being waged on military targets:

“We are asked to look for high-rise buildings with half a floor that can be attributed to Hamas,” said one source who took part in previous Israeli offensives in Gaza. “Sometimes it is a militant group’s spokesperson’s office, or a point where operatives meet. I understood that the floor is an excuse that allows the army to cause a lot of destruction in Gaza. That is what they told us.

“If they would tell the whole world that the [Islamic Jihad] offices on the 10th floor are not important as a target, but that its existence is a justification to bring down the entire high-rise with the aim of pressuring civilian families who live in it in order to put pressure on terrorist organizations, this would itself be seen as terrorism. So they do not say it,” the source added.

When the Israeli army does set out to kill leading members of Hamas, it is perfectly happy to kill hundreds of civilians in the course of an attack that is ostensibly directed against one individual:

The Israeli army has files on the vast majority of potential targets in Gaza — including homes — which stipulate the number of civilians who are likely to be killed in an attack on a particular target. This number is calculated and known in advance to the army’s intelligence units, who also know shortly before carrying out an attack roughly how many civilians are certain to be killed.

In one case discussed by the sources, the Israeli military command knowingly approved the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in an attempt to assassinate a single top Hamas military commander. “The numbers increased from dozens of civilian deaths [permitted] as collateral damage as part of an attack on a senior official in previous operations, to hundreds of civilian deaths as collateral damage,” said one source.

“Nothing happens by accident,” said another source. “When a 3-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided it wasn’t a big deal for her to be killed — that it was a price worth paying in order to hit [another] target. We are not Hamas. These are not random rockets. Everything is intentional. We know exactly how much collateral damage there is in every home.”

In functional terms, the outcome will be the same if a target associated with Hamas or Islamic Jihad is the primary motivation for a strike on the one hand or “an excuse that allows the army to cause a lot of destruction in Gaza” on the other. In both scenarios, the Israeli military carries out the strike in the full knowledge that it will kill huge numbers of civilians.

But the category of “power targets” makes a mockery of the efforts to limit criticism of Israel’s war to questions of “proportionality.” If the aim of a particular strike is to “bring down the entire high-rise with the aim of pressuring civilian families who live in it in order to put pressure on terrorist organizations,” then we are talking about deliberate mass murder, plain and simple.

The source correctly recognized that this approach to warfare “would itself be seen as terrorism” in the only meaningful sense of the word. Al-Qaeda used the same rationale to justify the 9/11 attacks and the bombing of commuter trains in London and Madrid. This is what the United States has been supporting and bankrolling in the name of the “rules-based international order.”

Pressure and Counterpressure

According to a CNN report, the Biden administration wants the slaughter in Gaza to continue for several more weeks before the Israeli military “transitions, possibly by January, to a lower-intensity, hyper-localized strategy that narrowly targets specific Hamas militants and leaders.” We should note the tacit admission that Israel’s approach to the selection of targets has been anything but “narrow” or “specific” to date.

The report passes on the claim that US government officials have privately told Israel that it “must do more to limit civilian casualties” as the focus of the operation moves south. But it also quotes a “senior administration official” who described the contemptuous manner with which Benjamin Netanyahu has greeted such pleas: “They did not feel comfortable using the word ‘receptive’ to capture Israel’s response so far to the administration’s military advice.”

According to CNN’s Beltway interlocutors, the timetable for Israel’s shift to a “lower-intensity” campaign will be determined by political as well as military factors:

The US has conveyed to Israel that as global opinion has increasingly turned against its ground campaign, which has killed thousands of civilians, the amount of time Israel has to continue the operation in its current form and still maintain meaningful international support is quickly waning . . . . Current US assessments also show that Israel simply cannot maintain its level of high-intensity operations indefinitely, especially the mobilized reservists, a source familiar with the intelligence said.

If Netanyahu and his ministers have not been “receptive” to polite requests from Washington, it is because they calculate that Biden and Blinken have no intention of applying real pressure in the event of noncompliance. Without such pressure, the administration’s “advice” is a cynical public relations exercise that is devoid of any substance.

As the Financial Times reported, the Israeli prime minister recently told a group of local government officials how vulnerable he was to a shift in US policy:

We need three things from the US: munitions, munitions, and munitions. There are huge demonstrations in Western capitals. We need to apply counterpressure . . . . There have been disagreements with the best of our friends.

This need for “counterpressure” explains why there has been an aggressive push since Israel resumed its bombardment of Gaza to shift the focus away from the horrors being inflicted upon the Palestinian people. The governments of Netanyahu and Biden have a shared interest in blocking our view of Gaza, and much of the American media is happy to assist them in these efforts.

At time of writing, the estimated number of Palestinians killed or missing in the occupied territories since this war began is twenty-four thousand people — twenty times as many Israelis as were killed on October 7. It is hardly surprising that politicians and journalists who fully support this ongoing massacre would rather talk about anything else than what is happening in Gaza right now.

Netanyahu has told his allies how concerned he is about “huge demonstrations in Western capitals.” The Biden administration has warned him that it can only hold out against the weight of “global opinion” for a limited period of time. Every protest and every form of pressure on the United States and its European allies makes it harder for them to continue supporting Netanyahu’s war on Palestinian civilians. Nobody can claim in the future that they didn’t understand what was going on, or what the consequences would be — the time to act is now.