Crimes against humanity demand our full witness and urgent reckoning. This is essential to prevent cruel echoes in history as we work to advance the fragile cause of peace. The horrifying attack by Hamas against civilians in Israel is an unspeakable horror that compels a reckoning for the terrorist perpetrators. But if that overwhelming punishment extends to innocent Gazans who have been turned into human shields, there will be a loss of moral clarity and a profound deepening of historic grievances. This will be fertile ground for terror and tragedies into the next generation. The United States—with our 9/11 shock and catastrophic response in Iraq—needs to take up partnership with Israel during this crisis through the prism of those hard lessons.
And the clock is ticking relentlessly, as the Israeli Defense Forces have issued a chilling ultimatum for the evacuation of 1 million Gazans into a southern region absent basic tools of subsistence.
President Joe Biden is, of course, right to affirm support for Israel as it responds to monstrous acts of terror. However, the United States must ground that support in the principles of justice and on the scales of human dignity. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has declared that U.S. security assistance to Israel would flow in “at the speed of war.” Surely, we’ve all learned by now that the war drumbeat must be paused for some interrogation. War is already bringing devastation to Gaza, so the United States must prioritize humanitarian intervention with at least equal velocity. The Israeli military has carried out thousands of airstrikes and armed settlers have attacked Palestinian villages, killing women, children, the elderly attempting to evacuate; humanitarian workers; journalists; and medical professionals. War is all encompassing and can quickly blur the mirror between victims and perpetrators. Israel is in desperate and urgent combat with vile terrorists who are holding hostages. But should this now mean that Israel, and by extension those who are arming Israel, is at war with 2 million Palestinians?
What does it mean for the United States to move at the speed of war? What are we associated with when prominent American senators such as Lindsey Graham declare, “We’re in a religious war here. Level the place”?
President Biden has also made clear his goal to prevent the spread of this conflict. Does that align with “moving at the speed of war”? With Hezbollah forces sending rockets into Israel across its southern border, the potential for spillover into Lebanon risks drawing Iran more fully into pitched battle. The U.S. destruction of Iraq following 9/11 had the disastrous impact of strengthening Iran in the Persian Gulf and diminishing the moral standing of the United States with the death of some 200,0000 Iraqi civilians by some estimates. The president understands containment and maintenance of some clarity to actually be in the long-term security interest of Israel. That requires taking stock of the best tools at our disposal to do so. Yes, defense support is part of the equation. But so is our diplomatic engagement with Israel and others in the region, as mobilized by the sober visits to Middle East capitals by Secretary Antony Blinken. Our development arms, such as USAID, also have a vital role to play in helping to establish corridors of humanitarian relief for a people currently starved of electricity, water, food supplies, and safe access to healthcare—a denial of basic human provisions that we all denounced as a war crime in the context of the Ukraine invasion.
As Israeli security forces prepare for an overwhelming incursion into Gaza, U.S. leaders must insist on compliance with international law, but we must also more forthrightly address the underlying issues that have led to repeated cycles of violence. It is possible for us to hold two distinct thoughts at once in this moral maze of heightened crisis: 1. Hamas is abhorrent and must be destroyed for the security of Israel. 2. That mission should not obscure the need for active U.S. leadership in the resolution of the question of the rights of Palestinians.
This conflict is a chilling reminder, if one was needed, that the status quo for Israelis and Palestinians can deliver nothing more than a façade of regional peace. Enduring peace will only be achieved when Palestinians and Israelis have equal rights, opportunity, and access to justice. Unfortunately, Palestinians have been denied that access for far too long. Ever-expanding settlements have displaced families in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Palestinians are subject to discriminatory legal frameworks and limitations on mobility. This status quo has created a truly desperate situation and fueled constant tension: Before the attacks took place last weekend, the death toll from clashes and repression this year had already surpassed its height in 2005. There has been a continuation of Trump era policies that favored American steered deal-making for recognition between Israel and Arab nations that left Palestinians as an afterthought. That just will not work.
The sickening slaughter of Jewish men, women, and children and the taking of civilian hostages has provoked especially profound trauma for Israelis and Jewish people in the United States. The many Israeli families mourning their loved ones have the right to justice. Attempts to minimize their loss are reprehensible. Achieving the peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians will require confronting rising global anti-Semitism, and it will require combating the virulent hate speech that has metastasized around this conflict
And yet, as blood calls for blood, Palestinian loss and mourning also mounts, and we lose all clarity in an exchange of martyrs.
History in this region can be a prison. Revenge, as opposed to justice, is its psychic lock. But it can be picked, and responsible U.S. policymakers—armed with the perspective of our own errors in response to unimaginable horror—can play a transformational role that no others have the capacity or credibility to take on. Let’s move at the speed of reflection, the speed of the right questions, and the speed of our relentless commitment to rights and freedom.