Following Hamas's Oct. 7 massacre, President Joe Biden pledged US support for Israel.
But US officials are increasingly concerned about Israel killing Palestinian civilians.
An IDF attack on a refugee camp this week, which killed dozens, caused alarm in Washington.
After the October 7 massacre, what else was there to say, as an American president, except that Israel — like any country on Earth — has the right to defend itself?
"And let there be no doubt: The United States has Israel's back," President Joe Biden said while on a stop in the country, about 72 hours after 1,400 people there had been slaughtered, some tortured first, some burned alive. "These atrocities," Biden said, "have been sickening."
About a month later, more than 9,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are now dead, according to the territory's Hamas-run health ministry, most killed by one of the 10,000 bombs that Israel has dropped in its campaign to eliminate the militant group. At least 72 United Nations aid workers have also been killed, most inside their own homes, already far more than in any previous conflict.
Israel insists that, unlike Hamas, it does not target innocent people. But there can be no doubt that it is killing them, even if the militant group it's after shares the blame for using civilians as shields. And what the Israel Defense Forces considers a tolerable amount of "collateral damage" is not necessarily shared by its own allies.
A strike this week on the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, for example, killed a senior Hamas commander, according to the IDF; it also killed dozens of civilians, prompting a UN official to suggest that Israel's actions may be "disproportionate" and tantamount to "war crimes."
It was also "jarring" to Israel's most important ally, according to CNN, which cited two sources familiar with the reaction in the White House, and may well mark a turning point in terms of US support for Israel — from steadfast, in the immediate aftermath of Hamas's butchery, to hesitant in the wake of Israel's savage response. Biden, in particular, "didn't like this at all," one person told CNN, referencing the attack on the refugee camp. The outlet noted that US officials have now repeatedly warned Israel, in private, that its killing of civilians, intended or not, is at the very least a strategic blunder that will leave the country isolated and endangered.
US concerns aren't just being expressed in private, though.
All along, even as it pledged weapons and moved its own military assets to the region, the Biden administration was publicly advising Israel to abide by international law, something you don't do if you think abiding by it is a given.
Operating under the theory that the best approach was that of a concerned friend, not one of Israel's many international critics, Biden himself warned Israel against being blinded by a desire for vengeance — "While you feel that rage, don't be consumed by it" — a warning he delivered as a piece of advice from a country that had failed to heed it itself: "After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes."
But warnings, after four weeks of bombardment, have now become admonishments. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday said that Israel, frankly, needs to "do more to protect Palestinian civilians." While still defending Israel's right to defend itself, Blinken said that right does not mean anything the IDF does is acceptable. "As Israel conducts this campaign to defeat Hamas, how it does so matters," Blinken said, speaking just after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The White House is now calling for a "humanitarian pause" to the fighting, imploring Israel to allow more aid into the Gaza Strip, where the civilian population is in dire need of fuel, food, and medical supplies.
And while no one in the administration is suggesting, yet, that the United States will pull back from supplying the IDF with more weapons, the point it is arguing — that every Palestinian civilian's life matters and that each life that's ended erodes public support and damages Israel's long-term security — is being ably demonstrated by the criticism now being aired by those who consider themselves friends of the Israeli people.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an influential Democrat from Illinois, is now echoing his party's progressive wing in calling for a cease-fire, albeit on terms Hamas is unlikely to accept: releasing the 240 hostages it has in Gaza, first, in exchange for Israel pausing its air campaign. Even so, the emphasis on diplomacy — on ending a conflict that has "reached an intolerable level" of violence — is a marked departure from the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (America's or Israel's).
The number of people calling for a "pause" or "cease-fire," who can't be accused of apologism for terror, only grows each time Israel is itself accused of an atrocity.
"I share Israel's desire to destroy the threat from Hamas," Sen. Chris Murphy, a liberal Democrat from Connecticut, said this week. "But the way in which the current campaign is being waged — most recently evidenced by the terribly high human cost of the strikes on the Jabalia refugee camp — suggests that they have not struck the right balance between military necessity and proportionality."
The question, though, is what these concerned allies are going to do about it. Israel is led by a prime minister who has lost the confidence of his people, blamed for presiding over what may be the worst security failure in the country's history — a man accused of valuing first and foremost his own political "survival," and whose only redemption may well be in the form of Hamas being utterly destroyed, whatever the cost.
If Netanyahu ignores the private warnings and public advice and insists on driving his country into a moral and strategic abyss, will Israel's powerful friends step up and take away the keys?
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