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Truce ends, Israel's assault on Gaza resumes

Truce ends, Israel's assault on Gaza resumes

The tragedy will be more civilian devastation and an already flailing US credibility there

Analysis | Middle East

The twice-extended “humanitarian pause” in the Gaza Strip has ended, and the bombs are dropping again.

The Israeli assault on the territory has been a tragedy on multiple grounds, with the tragedy only likely to deepen as the attack resumes.

The most obvious tragedy is the extreme suffering of the people who live in the Strip, with resumption of the assault adding to a death toll that the destruction itself makes hard to estimate but already is well into five figures. Additional suffering includes many maimed or injured persons, deprivation of food, water, and fuel, the displacement of well over a million residents from the northern part of the Strip, and little left for the displaced persons ever to return to other than rubble. Even for anyone who cares only about the lives and welfare of Israelis and cares nothing about Palestinians, implications of a continued war in Gaza are bad. The violent operation is the latest lethal chapter of an Israeli policy — of clinging to land captured in a previous war and never resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians — which, as long as that policy continues, means that Israelis will always live by the sword and will never know true peace.

The myth underlying the declared Israeli objective of “destroying Hamas” is that there is some clearly delineated hostile capability that can be destroyed and elimination of which will end violence emanating from Gaza. The myth disregards how even if whatever capability in Gaza Hamas used in its attack on October 7 were to disappear, Hamas has long used other lethal capabilities, such as individual suicide bombers, to strike Israel. It disregards how the added suffering that Israel has been inflicting on Gaza increases the pool of recruits who are enraged at Israel and willing to replace whatever capability the Israeli Defense Forces manage to destroy.

Most fundamentally, it disregards how Hamas is but one manifestation of anger and resentment that will take other forms as long as occupation and denial of self-determination — and now, more devastation at the hands of the IDF — continue.

To the extent that Americans care about suffering of either Israelis or Palestinians, all this bad news associated with continued warfare in Gaza is a setback for U.S. interests. The perpetuation, with no end in sight, of the blood-stained Israeli-Palestinian conflict harms U.S. interests in multiple other ways, ranging from the conflict being a major distraction of policymaking time and attention away from other pressing matters, to the recurrent danger of the United States being dragged more directly into the conflict.

Despite talk about how the current war can and should be a turning point leading toward a resolution of the conflict, continuation of the assault makes such resolution less, not more, likely. It further enflames the already high mutual hatred. It provides further recruits for extremists seeking to subvert any progress toward peace. It physically destroys homes and livelihoods of Palestinians who would be expected to live contently next to Israelis. It moves the Israeli government ever farther down the road of brute force, rather than a road toward peaceful resolution, in dealing with its Palestinian problem.

The damage to U.S. strategic interests from the continued assault in Gaza centers on how the United States is widely seen, with good reason, as sharing responsibility for one of the biggest manmade humanitarian catastrophes since World War II. Like so much else regarding the current conflict, the relevant history did not start on October 7. The longstanding U.S. provision of diplomatic cover for Israeli policies of blockade and occupation, including through vetoes at the United Nations Security Council, is part of that history. So is the provision of voluminous no-strings-attached aid to Israel, which adjusted for inflation has totaled well over $300 billion.

Now amid the current war, the Biden administration is requesting an additional $14.3 billion to be given to Israel on top of the usual annual largesse. With a continued war, relatively little of that aid would go to what can legitimately be called defense. Most of it would go toward wreaking more destruction on the Gaza Strip.

The administration’s increasing talk about the need for Israel to exercise restraint — after the administration’s initial post-October 7 theme of going all-in with Israel — cannot be expected to carry much weight in the eyes of foreigners and foreign governments. Apart from the recent pause in the fighting, whatever pro-restraint urging the administration has voiced to Israel has had little effect. Observers can correctly interpret the relationship as one in which potential leverage never gets translated into usable leverage as long as the United States stays committed to being Israel’s bankroller and diplomatic patron.

U.S. credibility suffers from all this, especially regarding matters of war and peace. U.S. invocations of a “rules-based international order” are disdained and dismissed when the world sees the U.S. facilitating blatant and lethal Israeli disregard for the laws of war and other international law.

The credibility deficit has been especially acute regarding the other ongoing war in which President Biden has taken a strong interest — the one in Ukraine. The president himself has linked the two wars, if only as a device to get aid for both Israel and Ukraine through a divided Congress. Foreign observers can see that in one of theses conflicts the United States is supporting resistance to an armed occupation (by Russia of Ukrainian territory) while in the other it is supporting the occupier.

Biden’s own linkage of the wars also encourages comparisons of the scale of death and destruction, such as how the number of women and children killed in seven weeks of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip is more than twice the number killed in nearly two years of Russian attacks in Ukraine.

Perpetuation of the assault on Gaza makes foreign observers more conscious than ever of how much the dominant U.S. role in decades of a Middle East “peace process,” — in which the United States often functioned as Israel's lawyer — has been a failure, a point that Russian president Vladimir Putin is exploiting. That means less foreign willingness to look to the United States for leadership in handling not just this international conflict but also other ones. It means an opening for rival powers to play a greater role as peacemakers. China had already begun doing that in the Middle East and is now using the Gaza war to expand its regional role further.

This development contributes to a decline in U.S. influence in the region, and probably elsewhere, relative to that of China.

The damage to U.S. interests is a matter not only of credibility but also of the resentment and hatred that the U.S. backing of the Israeli assault — with the United States in a minority internationally by not supporting a permanent cease-fire — has engendered. That resentment is most apparent in the Middle East but not limited to that region, with many perceiving a double standard in how the United States reacts to civilian suffering from the use of force.

Even if regimes try to filter out emotion from their own decision-making and have little sympathy for the Palestinians, they — including authoritarian regimes — must take account of strong sentiment among their populations. The effects on regime policies of importance to the United States are impossible to predict in detail but can be substantial, ranging from denial of access rights for U.S. military forces to lessened support for the United States in international organizations.

Enraged populations can inflict damage on U.S. interests regardless of the policies of their government. Boycotts in the Middle East of the products and services of U.S. companies are already under way.

More worrisome is that the anger over the assault on Gaza will stimulate anti-U.S. terrorism. One of the most consistent themes in the propaganda and confessions of terrorists who have attacked U.S. interests in the past is that they were striking back against U.S. support for Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians. As recent calls to arms by al-Qaida and Islamic State suggest, the stepped-up anger resulting from the assault on Gaza may stimulate new terrorism against not only Israel but also its U.S. patron.

The ingredients are present for a repeat of the perverse relationship between terrorism and the ill-fated U.S. war in Iraq. Although that war was misleadingly sold as part of a “war on terror,” one of its effects was to increase terrorism, especially by giving birth to the group that became Islamic State. Today, the habit of labeling Hamas as nothing more than a “terrorist group” — when in fact it is a nationalist movement focused on political power in Palestine, whose only U.S. victims have been collateral casualties in attacks on Israel — obscures the potential for current U.S. policy toward the Gaza war to lead to new anti-U.S. terrorism.

These major costs to U.S. interests can be diminished if the United States calls strongly and clearly for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza and uses its leverage to move Israel in that direction. In so far failing to do so, the Biden administration has been in a minority not only internationally — with the United States becoming more isolated as a result — but also within American opinion.

The current crisis has underscored some of the major longstanding differences between U.S. and Israeli interests. But regarding the Israeli interest that ought to matter most — the long-term security of Israeli citizens — the administration can honestly tell Israelis that a quick end to the slaughter in Gaza and a turn to political means for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are far more likely to assure that security than a continuation of living by the sword.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make statements to the media inside The Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defense, after their meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday Oct. 12, 2023. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERSREPORT CONTENT

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