The war in Israel-Gaza, triggered by a surprise attack by the Palestinian militant movement, Hamas, has sparked a raging fury of opinions and calls for action. The immediate prospect for a ceasefire is most certainly bleak, yet it is clear to us that addressing the root causes of the conflict and seeking a just, long-term resolution is essential to prevent further bloodshed and suffering in the region. As US President Joe Biden heads to Israel on a solidarity trip, Washington’s role in this process could shift the direction of the conflict.
We cannot help but view the escalation of violence triggered by Hamas against Israel with an air of inevitability. Certainly, no one could have predicted the sudden sweeping military offensive, the slaughter of innocents and the levels of depravity against Israelis not seen en masse since the Holocaust. The Hamas invasion of towns and cities deep inside Israel has resulted in Israel’s deadliest day since its founding in 1948. Gruesome images of casualties have galvanised the world, and predictable promises of an overwhelming use of force against Gaza are being fulfilled.
But nation-states, though human organisations, should not behave as humans would. Where the people crave vengeance, the nation-state must instead seek justice. Where people are baying for blood, nation-states must engage in restraint, buttressed by diplomatic and political action. The lesson that Biden must pass on to Benjamin Netanyahu should be not to use America’s response to 9/11 as the template for responding to Israel’s 9/11.
There is a cruel nexus between the inflammation of tensions in the occupied Gaza and its two million souls, and Israel’s all-out war that has already doubled the death toll of Palestinians to Israelis. Where Hamas murdered 1 200 Israelis through bomb and gun attacks and random slaughter, Israel under Bibi Netanyahu has already bombed 2 700 Palestinians to death, the latest outrage being the deaths of over 500 Palestinians in a Gazan hospital.
The military siege of Gaza, a strip of land no larger than our own, brings the region to the brink of a broader regional war that could be as protracted, messy and ultimately futile as Washington’s foray into regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan. Experts like the leading Palestinian rights advocate Yousef Munayyer argue that addressing the root causes of the conflict is essential. He suggests that Washington should make genuine efforts to resolve the longstanding grievances of Palestinians who have been denied basic rights to freedom and dignity.
The Biden administration’s response to the crisis has been unequivocal in its support for Israel. We accept the president’s immediate and forceful statement that Israel has the right to defend itself, and additional military support is on the way, adding to the annual $3.8 billion in support. This is already backed up by the presence of a US Navy carrier group in the area. Yet, uncritical support for Israel could be seen as a green light to its military actions in Gaza, despite concerns about civilian casualties.
The heavy-handed retributive response of Israel under Netanyahu is not a mere ‘eye-for-an-eye’ defensive reaction of a nation-state under attack. It is no accident that the hard-right policies of an administration that was already at war with its own people in its consistent assault on the judiciary and Netanyahu’s own Trump-like bid to stay in power under a cloud of criminal indictments coincide with Hamas’s strike and Israel’s response with all-too-predictable overwhelming force. Already, this ham-fisted approach threatens to bring the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon to make incursions in northern Israel, thus further widening the conflict.
The ongoing structural violence against Palestinians, the long occupation, and the blockade of Gaza cannot be separated by Israel’s far-right governance. The pathway to peace must involve lifting the siege, ending the occupation, and dismantling Israeli apartheid. But that path must also include political change in Israel.
Biden’s trip, therefore, should reinforce Washington’s insistence that even as it pursues Hamas, Israel as a democratic nation must follow its obligations under international law to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity. Granting Israel carte blanche in its actions, no matter how justifiably we grieve with the Israeli people over this outrage, will plunge the region into generational conflict, where the mastermind of the next 9/11 attack is possibly seeking shelter as a small boy in a Gazan hospital.
This is not about whataboutism. There is human suffering on both sides of the conflict. The people of Gaza are no more or less deserving of the visage of death and destruction than the people of Israel. There must therefore be a concerted effort to de-escalate the situation. Killing more Palestinians in Gaza won’t bring back the dead of Sderot. This, then, is the tightrope that Biden, an avowed high-wire foreign policy artist, must walk if this region can look beyond the bloodshed to begin to build a future in which all people in the region are free from oppression, occupation, and terrorism.