Reprinted with permission from MondoWeiss.
After 243 Palestinian deaths, more than 1,900 Palestinians wounded, 16,800 Palestinian homes destroyed, tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced from their homes and a refused Egyptian proposal of a ceasefire, Israel has accepted an Egyptian ceasefire.
But it never had to happen.
On April 6, 2021, the United States returned for the first time to talks whose hope was to resuscitate the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran.
Within weeks, Israel had reportedly concluded that they would not be able to pressure the US to significantly strengthen the nuclear agreement. So, while Israel re-focussed their demands to greater International Atomic Energy Agency powers to inspect Iran’s nuclear sites, they knew they had to back down on one of their most desired demands: expanding the deal to include Iranian support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Within weeks of that apparent defeat, Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza.
Within three days of those Israeli strikes, all but six Republican Senators, led by Senator Marco Rubio, had sent a letter to President Biden, calling on him “to immediately end negotiations with Iran, and make clear that sanctions relief will not be provided,” since sanctions relief would allow Iran to increase funding to Hamas, which would allow Hamas to continue acquiring rockets.
Whether or not Israel chose to inflame the conflict with the Palestinians to harm the nuclear negotiations with Iran, or whether or not Netanyahu chose to inflame the conflict to keep himself in power and out of jail, or whether Israel made the choice simply because it was time to “mow the lawn,” Israel did choose to ignite the conflict. The current assault on Gaza was a choice made by Israel with permission granted by the United States.
A War of Choice
On September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon led a group of Likud politicians, surrounded by a thousand armed police men, up the Temple Mount, home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque: an unprecedented provocation at the time at one of Islam’s holiest sites. The next day, as thousands of Palestinians protested, Israeli police opened fire on the protesters, and, the day after that, the second intifada was born.
Sharon knew what he was doing, and, importantly, he knew where he was doing it. According to several scholars, including Patrick Tyler in A World of Trouble, Sharon’s ascent of the Temple Mount was well planned and intentionally provocative.
Netanyahu knows what happens too. On September 24, 1996, Netanyahu opened an ancient tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem that came very near the foundations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli intelligence had warned him that such a provocative move near the mosque would invite violence. It did. Protests erupted, and Israeli police responded by firing rubber bullets from close range, killing Palestinian protesters.
It was with the backdrop of this seared in history that Israel chose to respond to Palestinian protests by repeatedly raiding the Al-Aqsa Mosque and by firing rubber bullets at worshippers in the mosque while assaulting them with tear gas and stun grenades: inside the mosque.
Israel not only chose provocatively to start the violence, they chose not to stop the violence. Hamas sent peace offerings; Israel turned them away. According to Israeli media, Hamas sent Israel a ceasefire proposal through the Russian foreign ministry in which both sides would cease attacks on a mutual basis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, immediately rejected the offer and, instead, had his security cabinet approve a plan to intensify attacks.
Others brought peace offerings too. Insisting that Israel will not negotiate a ceasefire before Hamas pays a price for its attacks, Israel also rejected a ceasefire proposal from Egypt and the United Nations.
A War of Permission
The war was not a disobedient war of choice: it was a war with permission. The Biden administration continued the American tradition of offering Israel cover at the United Nations. The Security Council began discussing a draft statement calling “on Israel to cease Jewish settlement activities, demolitions and evictions, and urge[s] general restraint.” It condemned both sides’ use of violence and called on both sides to de-escalate the situation. But the joint statement’s release was blocked by the US: not once, but twice.
A second attempt by the Security Council was blocked by the US. Although the other fourteen members of the Security Council were in favor of the joint statement that “demanded immediate cessation of all acts of violence, provocation, incitement and destruction” and “called for respect for international law, including international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians,” the US, again, blocked the statement.
Then, for the third time in a week, the US, once again, blocked Security Council action. A third attempt at a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire, this time lead by Norway, China and Tunisia, called for “de-escalation of the situation, cessation of violence and respect for international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians, especially children.” China called the US’s actions at the Security Council “obstruction.”
Continuing the obstruction, on May 19, the US responded to a new French initiative for a Security Council resolution by again obstinately refusing to support the action. This time the draft text called for an immediate cessation of hostilities while condemning “the indiscriminate firing of rockets against civilian areas.” Though the condemnation did not single out Israel, the US still continued to provide Israel cover at the UN.
Outside of the UN, reiterating “the steadfast partnership between the United States and Israel,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken “expressed his concerns” to Prime Minister Netanyahu, “regarding the barrage of rocket attacks on Israel, his condolences for the lives lost as a result, and the United States’ strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself.” He added his wish that “all parties… de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence.”
On May 12, President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He conveyed his “encouragement” to restore calm. He also “condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including against Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians.”
Perhaps worst of all, Biden went beyond condemning Hamas’ rocket attacks but not Israel’s bombing and gave his approval of Israel’s bombing. Biden gave his evaluation of Israel’s assault on Gaza by concluding that “there has not been a significant over-reaction.” With that statement, Biden gave US approval and permission to the war on Gaza.
American restraint of the UN and international negotiators seems to have been intended to provide Israel cover and time to accomplish the goals of their bombardment of Gaza before allowing diplomacy to take over. That intention was apparently achieved. White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained, “We believe the Israelis have achieved significant military objectives that they laid out to achieve, in relation to protecting their people and to responding to the thousands of rocket attacks from Hamas. So that’s why, in part, we feel they’re in a position to start winding their operation down.”
Both because of Israeli provocation inside the Al-Aqsa mosque and Israeli rejection of Hamas peace offerings and international cease fire proposals, this war was a war of choice. Because of US “obstruction” at the Security Council, condemnation of Hamas rockets but not Israeli bombs, strong statements of support for Israel and approval of Israel’s actions as not over-reactions, this war was a war of American permission.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.