Joe Biden Isn’t Rescuing Hostages — He’s Enabling War Crimes

Earlier this month, Joe Biden expressed his concern for the Israelis taken hostage in Gaza. But if he really cared about their safety, he wouldn’t be sending Israel weapons for its indiscriminate and criminal bombing campaign.

A Palestinian youth sits on the rubble of a home destroyed by an Israeli military strike on the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Octobers 15, 2023. (Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images)

On Sunday, January 14, President Joe Biden gave a statement marking a hundred days since October 7. Nowhere in the statement did Biden mention Palestinians, including the 24,000 killed, 61,000 injured, 1.9 million displaced, or the 2.2 million at risk of famine as a result of Israel’s US-backed war in Gaza.

Instead, Biden dedicated it to the hostages. “No one should have to endure even one day of what they have gone through, much less a hundred. On this terrible day, I again reaffirm my pledge to all the hostages and their families — we are with you,” the president said.

Like that of John Fetterman and other supporters of Israel’s military offensive, it’s very difficult to read Biden’s concern for the hostages as genuine. A president who truly cared about the safety of hostages held in Gaza would presumably not let it be carpet-bombed. And Biden isn’t just tolerating Israel’s bombing campaign — he’s bending over backward to enable it.

Disregard for Hostages

The hostages are far from the Israeli government’s primary concern. It has repeatedly turned down offers that would have secured the release of hostages through de-escalation and negotiation with Hamas, choosing instead to prioritize military operations.

In October, Israeli United Nations ambassador Gilad Erdan said, “Everyone who was abducted we want to see them back home, but right now, our focus is . . . to obliterate Hamas terrorist capabilities.” Former Israeli hostage negotiator Gershon Baskin admitted that a military offensive in Gaza greatly diminishes the likelihood that captives are rescued: “[Israel’s] primary objective today is to remove Hamas from its ability to govern. That means that hostages may be sacrificed,” he said.

Following the Israeli government’s lead, Biden has refused to call for a cease-fire, even though it’s clear that’s what concern for hostage safety would demand. During the temporary cease-fire in November, Hamas released 110 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinians — including women, children, and older adults — whom Israel had either imprisoned or “administratively detained.”

Outside of that seven-day pause, the Israeli army has rescued one hostage (a soldier) and killed sixty. In December, Israeli troops shot dead three hostages in broad daylight even though the hostages had their hands up and were waving a makeshift white flag. Hamas claims that another fifty-seven hostages have been killed by Israeli bombardments in Gaza.

Freed Hostages Almost Killed by Israeli Bombs

Little wonder: Israel is prosecuting one of the deadliest and most destructive bombing campaigns in history. This is hardly compatible with hostage rescue, as the freed Israeli hostages will tell you.

In a heated meeting with Israeli leaders, one freed captive said, “We were in tunnels, terrified that it would be not Hamas, but Israel that would kill us.” Another hostage who was freed with her children told Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “I was in a hiding place that was shelled and we had to be smuggled out and we were wounded. That’s besides the helicopter that shot at us on the way to Gaza [presumably on October 7].”

One woman recounted that air strikes exploded above her and her husband, a US citizen still being held captive. A mother of a hostage shouted at Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant, “I’m not prepared to sacrifice my son for your career.” One freed hostage kept in a civilian residential building was badly wounded after an Israeli air strike collapsed the building on top of him.

The razing of large swaths of Palestinian territory — including destroying more than two-thirds of all buildings in northern Gaza — is clearly not a rescue operation. But Biden is allowing the destruction to continue, even if it means aiding and abetting Israeli war crimes as directly as a US president can. In addition to proposing an unprecedented $14.3 billion in aid for Israel’s military offensive, Biden has leveraged his executive powers to expedite shipments of bombs, bypass congressional review on transfers of tank cartridges and artillery shells, and redirect munitions originally meant for Ukraine to Israel.

The Israeli military is carpet bombing Gaza. Israel dropped 29,000 bombs on Gaza. Up to 45 percent were unguided “dumb” bombs. This pie chart displays 16,000 guided bombs and 13,000 unguided bombs. Data comes from CNN and ODNI in December 2023.

Biden has now discovered yet another way to arm Israel without congressional approval. A recent Guardian investigation found that the Israeli army is drawing “significant quantities” of weapons from a US-owned, multibillion-dollar stockpile located in Israel (known as the War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition–Israel, or WRSA-I) for its military offensive in Gaza; Israel is allowed to access the stockpile if the US president authorizes it.

Its inventory is classified, but evidence suggests the stockpile is packed with antiquated, imprecise, and very large bombs. Retired US Navy admiral James Stavridis, who was in charge of the stockpile as head of the European Command, wrote that “the current stockpile is full of so-called dumb munitions (those without sophisticated guidance systems), such as . . . thousands of iron bombs that are simply dropped from aircraft.”

The size of these bombs can be deduced from a comment by a former deputy commander of the European Command, lamenting the “stockpile’s shortage of thousands of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, which convert unguided bombs into precision weapons.” JDAM kits are fitted to very large bombs: either the five-hundred-pound BLU-111/MK-82, the one-thousand-pound BLU-110/MK-83, or the two-thousand-pound BLU-109/MK-84.

Aiding and Abetting War Crimes

If these inferences are correct, Biden isn’t just endangering hostages: he’s aiding and abetting Israeli war crimes. Aside from the scale of the devastation, a major reason Israel’s aerial campaign has been likened to the carpet bombing of German cities during World War II is the overwhelming number of indiscriminate attacks — those that make no distinction between military targets and civilian objects — which are prohibited under international law.

This includes attacks that aren’t in fact directed at a specific military target, but also those that use weapons that can’t be directed at a specific military target. The big, dumb bombs Biden has made available to Israel guarantee that many attacks fit the latter description: considering their inaccuracy, wide blast radius, and the dense population in the Gaza Strip where they are being used, attacks with these weapons are virtually assured to be indiscriminate.

From October to December, the United States had provided Israel with at least 15,000 bombs, including more than 5,400 MK-84 two-thousand-pound unguided bombs. This type of munition “turns earth to liquid” and has a lethal blast radius of up to four football fields. Israel has routinely used two-thousand-pound bombs during its war in Gaza — on October 31, Israel dropped two on the Jabalia refugee camp, killing over a hundred civilians, including a reported seven hostages.

What’s more, nearly half of the 29,000 munitions Israel dropped on Gaza through mid-December were dumb munitions, contributing to an unprecedented number of civilian deaths. The vast majority of bombs Israel uses in Gaza are US-made.

The United States’ official position is that indiscriminate attacks are war crimes, and aiding and abetting war crimes is criminalized under domestic and international law. And behind closed doors, senior State Department officials have admitted the Israeli army is committing war crimes with US-provided weapons. Other US officials acknowledge Israel’s crimes openly: Joe Biden himself has repeatedly acknowledged Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza. More attention should be paid to the extraordinary effort he’s made to enable it, at the expense of Israeli hostages and the whole of Palestine.