Is this Israel’s forever war?

Is this Israel’s forever war?

Keith Gessen writes:

For many people, in Washington and beyond, the American response to the 9/11 attacks settled an old question about the U.S. and its commitment to human rights. Clearly, it seemed to them, the U.S. had no such commitment. It was happy to preach to other people—to Serbs, Russians, Chinese—about human rights. But, when it came under attack, it would do just about anything to wipe out the threat.

Paradoxically, though, it could be argued that the American war on terror redeemed or even reconstituted the human-rights community in the U.S. In the context of that war, American human-rights advocates were no longer primarily criticizing other countries’ human-rights abuses; they were criticizing and trying to mitigate their own. In the past six months of war in Gaza, that community has been very vocal in its criticism of a longtime U.S. ally. Analysts and former government officials, many of them shaped by the American forever wars, have written eloquently about the principles of proportionality and the potential for war-crimes prosecutions not just of Israelis but of their American counterparts. They have demanded that the Biden Administration enforce American legal requirements for weapons provided by the U.S.

When I spoke to [Natasha] Hall [a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies] last month, she said that she had never seen a war like this one. In Syria or Iraq or Ukraine, civilians could usually flee. In this conflict, Gazans are trapped. Neither Israel nor Egypt will let them in, and they know, from bitter experience, that if they leave, they may not be able to return. Another difference is the state of Gaza before the war. It was already ground down from multiple rounds of destruction and rebuilding, poor governance, and the Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade; some of the buildings that were bombed had been constructed out of concrete from previous buildings that had been bombed. (It does not help matters that, for years, Hamas put scarce resources toward its extensive underground tunnel network.) Then, there is Gaza’s water. In Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held area east of Damascus that was besieged by the Assad regime for more than five years—one of the longest sieges in modern history—Hall saw people digging wells in their back yards. In Gaza, this is hazardous. The coastal aquifer is depleted; the water underground is brackish without treatment. This greatly cuts down on the ability of Gazans to survive.

Above all, Hall was seeing an army prosecute a war using indiscriminate means. “Urban warfare is notoriously difficult, but we still have rules,” she said. “There is no military reason to withhold medicine, water, and food to a civilian-populated area—and some of the weapons being used don’t make sense.” Israel was dropping two-thousand-pound bombs (supplied by the U.S.), which have the capacity to kill within a quarter-mile radius; in Gaza, which is just five miles wide in certain places, this was a very large radius. “You don’t use weapons like that in densely populated urban areas, or, rather, shouldn’t,” Hall said. More than thirty thousand Gazans had been killed—more than a third of them reported to be children—and epidemiologists had begun to warn of famine.

For Hall and many other observers, Biden’s failure to intervene was the key factor. Hall thought Biden had made a simple political calculation: that the progressives in his party had nowhere to go. He also had a well-known soft spot for Israel, and believed deeply in its role as an American ally in the Middle East. He may also have been trying to keep Netanyahu close to prevent him from escalating with Hezbollah and Iran. Still, at some level, it was a mystery. “If you ask me what I am puzzled by, it’s not the barbarity of either Hamas or the Israeli government,” Ian Lustick, a political scientist and longtime student of Israeli affairs, told me in late March. “It’s why Biden is so slow on the uptake here.” [Continue reading…]

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