A man embraces Palestinian children at the site of an Israeli airstrike on a residential building in Gaza City (OSV News photo/Yasser Qudih, Reuters).

In joint statements about Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel, which left more than 1,400 people dead—including more than a thousand civilians—both U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the phrase “moral clarity.” Netanyahu called it “the first prerequisite of victory” in the coming war, while Blinken invoked it in a call for everyone to “unambiguously condemn” the attacks.

Blinken is right, of course, that Hamas’s leadership and fighters—who shot infants, raped women, burned bodies alive, beheaded soldiers, murdered 250 innocent concertgoers, and took more than two hundred hostages—deserve unequivocal condemnation. The celebrations of the attack by some Western leftists as an act of self-defense or “decolonization” display deep-seated moral confusion and, in the worst instances, anti-Semitism.

But “moral clarity” should extend beyond Hamas’s actions, both to the wider context in which they took place and to Israel’s ongoing response. Later in his remarks, Blinken said, “We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard.... That’s why it’s so important to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.” President Biden has similarly urged that Israel abide by international law and “protect civilians in combat as best as they can.” But these admonitions ring hollow without an acknowledgment that Israeli forces have already flagrantly disregarded civilian life and international law, both in a decades-long occupation that deprives Palestinians of basic human rights and in the ongoing bombardment of Gaza.

In the first six days of airstrikes, the Israeli Air Force dropped six thousand bombs, nearly as many as the United States dropped in an entire year during the war in Afghanistan. Israel, which withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but still controls its borders, also cut off water, electricity, and fuel. On October 13, it ordered more than one million residents in northern Gaza to evacuate, initially giving them only twenty-four hours to comply. Some evacuated families were later killed by Israeli airstrikes within the southern “safe zone.” Many others have refused to leave, fearing another Nakba (Arabic for “cataclysm”), the 1948 expulsion of seven hundred thousand Palestinians from what is now Israel.

But “moral clarity” should extend beyond Hamas’s actions, both to the wider context in which they took place and to Israel’s ongoing response.

International efforts to create an aid corridor at the Egyptian border were stymied for twelve days amid Israeli concerns that weapons might be smuggled in. As of this writing, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health, over five thousand Palestinians have been killed, nearly half of them children. Meanwhile, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for a humanitarian pause in the fighting (though the Biden administration has since changed its position and is now calling for one).

Hamas’s attacks ended a period of relative calm in Israel. Biden has said that they were likely spurred in part by his administration’s negotiations to establish diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. These talks were an extension of the “Abraham Accords” negotiated by the Trump administration, which saw Israel gain recognition from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco. Like Saudi Arabia, these states had previously refused to recognize Israel without a path to Palestinian statehood, but economic partnerships, arms deals, and a mutual interest in countering Iran’s regional influence convinced them to sideline the Palestinian question. Though Saudi Arabia was demanding much more than the other Arab countries had, including NATO-like defense guarantees from the United States, the Saudis and Israelis appeared close to a deal before Hamas’s strike. Biden had hoped normalization with Saudi Arabia would better integrate Israel into the Middle East, while promoting stability and countering China’s efforts to become a force in the region by brokering a pact between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

By taking the Palestinian question off the table, these deals allowed Netanyahu’s far-right government to facilitate new settlements in the West Bank and further cripple the prospect of a two-state solution. Israel’s border with Gaza was so poorly protected partly because soldiers had been redeployed to protect West Bank settlers engaged in clashes with Palestinians, including a riot against a Palestinian town that an Israeli general described as a “pogrom.” Netanyahu’s explicitly stated strategy has been to strengthen Hamas at the expense of the more moderate Fatah, which controls the West Bank: “Those who want to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said at a meeting of his Likud party in 2019, “should support the strengthening of Hamas and the transfer of money to Hamas.” Biden claimed the United States remains “committed to the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination,” but he has thus far failed to restore a State Department policy, reversed by the Trump administration, that treated Israeli settlements as a violation of international law.

If the United States really wants stability and democracy in the Middle East, it should promote Palestinian self-determination and leverage its influence to curb Israel’s Far Right instead of brokering pacts between authoritarian states and the deeply compromised Netanyahu government. To his credit, Biden seems to be discouraging an all-out Israeli ground invasion that would likely create even more resentment and extremism. It will take further diplomatic efforts to prevent the war from spreading north to the Lebanon border, where skirmishes with Hezbollah have already broken out. Whatever happens in the days to come, one thing is already clear: U.S. policy with respect to Israel has long lacked “moral clarity” and is due for reexamination.

Published in the November 2023 issue: View Contents
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