A woman carries signs as she participates in a silent peace procession across the street from United Nations headquarters in New York City (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz).

The casualty figures from the war in Gaza are unimaginably grim and getting grimmer by the day. As we go to press, at least 31,988 Palestinians—most of them women and children—have been killed and 74,188 wounded. They have been bombed, shot at, or crushed to death in their own homes. They have died of wounds and illnesses they might have survived if medical supplies had not been blocked at the border. And now, increasingly, they are dying of hunger. On March 18, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, the leading international authority on food insecurity, released a report predicting an imminent famine in northern Gaza and projecting an “extreme lack of food” for 1.1 million Gazans—about half the total population—by early July. The Gaza Health Ministry reports that at least twenty-seven people, nearly all of them children, have already died of malnutrition or dehydration. That number is sure to rise quickly in the weeks ahead unless the Israeli government lifts its restrictions on aid convoys. 

The desperation provoked by the food shortages was evident during two recent attacks on civilians in Gaza City. On February 29, Israeli troops fired on a crowd of Palestinians who had gathered around aid trucks delivering flour and canned food. More than a hundred people were killed, some from gunfire, others in the ensuing stampede. Two weeks later, at least twenty more hungry civilians were killed as they thronged an aid convoy in another part of Gaza City. The Israeli military denied responsibility and blamed Palestinian gunmen, but doctors who treated the victims reported that the wounds were from artillery shells, not bullets. 

As the atrocities mount and the desperation grows, the Biden administration has come under increasing pressure, at home and abroad, to end the humanitarian crisis. To his credit, President Biden has recently become much more openly critical of the Israeli government. He has declared, for example, that he would accept “no excuses” for Israel’s failure to allow aid shipments to enter Gaza as quickly as possible. He has warned that invading Rafah, on the southern border of Gaza, without a “credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety” of the million-plus Palestinian refugees now living there would be a “red line.” And he has clearly signaled that he is serious about eventual Palestinian statehood, in direct opposition to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Biden White House has also issued a sharply worded executive order “imposing certain sanctions on persons undermining peace, security, and stability in the West Bank,” beginning with four Jewish settlers accused of violence against Palestinian villagers, and potentially extending to right-wing members of Netanyahu’s own coalition government. No less importantly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly acknowledged that Israeli wildcat settlements in the West Bank are a violation of international law.

The Netanyahu government has used the Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack as a pretext for waging total war on the entire population of Gaza.

Still, these welcome and long-overdue developments are not adequate to either the scale or the urgency of the crisis in Gaza. Nor are the meals being airdropped into Gaza by the U.S. Air Force, nor the temporary pier built on Gaza’s coast to receive ships carrying food. Indeed, these bold displays of America’s technical power are also signs of its diplomatic paralysis. As Jeremy Konyndyk, president of Refugees International, said of the pier, “This just shows the lengths to which President Biden is being forced to go to avoid actually putting meaningful pressure on Netanyahu.” As for the food airdrops, Matt Duss of the Center for International Policy says they point to the “stark absurdity” of U.S. policy: “We’re air-dropping food to a population whose starvation we’re supporting with our arms.”

U.S. officials told Congress in a recent classified briefing that the United States had approved a hundred military sales to Israel in the months since the war in Gaza began. Were it not for American-made weapons, tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians would still be alive. “All of our missiles, the ammunition, the precision-guided bombs, all the airplanes and bombs, it’s all from the U.S. The minute they turn off the tap, you can’t keep fighting,” retired Israeli Major General Itzhak Brik remarked last fall. “Everyone understands that we can’t fight this war without the United States. Period.”

It’s time to turn off that tap. Nothing less will get the attention of Netanyahu, who has turned a deaf ear to all the Biden administration’s toothless moral exhortations and not-quite-ultimatums. He needs to see that there are serious practical consequences for the atrocities he has authorized in the name of security. Let Trump and congressional Republicans complain, as they no doubt will, that our president is tying Netanyahu’s hands. The president could tell them that he is merely applying federal law—specifically, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, which bars military aid to states that restrict U.S. humanitarian aid. The Netanyahu government has exploited Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack as a pretext for waging total war on the entire population of Gaza, using American weapons while ignoring American calls for restraint. And now Netanyahu is using starvation as a weapon of war. Enough with the hand-wringing and the pleading. So long as the U.S. government continues sending military aid to Israel, its officials remain complicit in the civilian deaths they lament. 

Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents
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