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Partners in Crime

The U.S. emboldens Israeli violence—and the lies that sustain it
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III shakes hands against a blue backdrop with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The speed at which events have proceeded is difficult to convey. After fifteen-plus years of political stasis, Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel—comprising both effective strikes against military targets and violent killings of civilians—has upended a geopolitical consensus that the world believed was calcifying. In fact, it was cracking.

In the weeks since, Israel has ordered the evacuation of its southern towns and settlements in advance of an expected ground invasion of Gaza. The northernmost city of Qiryat Shmona has received a similar order in anticipation of renewed fighting and bombing along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Round-the-clock airstrikes have flattened, according to one estimate, approximately one in twenty buildings in Gaza. Figures released by the United Nations on October 19 estimate the number of Gazans who’ve been “internally displaced”—that opaque, passively bureaucratic term—at around one million, “including over 527,500 people staying in 147 UNRWA-designated emergency shelters in increasingly dire conditions.”

The current estimates of fifty-eight hundred dead in Gaza and fourteen hundred dead in Israel are sure to rise. And the dozens of Palestinians who have been killed in the West Bank since October 7 are a harbinger of more violence to come, as Jewish settlers, often accompanied by Israeli soldiers, mete out land theft, assault, murder, and arson. The most notorious of these recent atrocities took place in Huwara—not in the past two weeks but back in February; it was overseen by the Israeli army. The resurgence of violence in the West Bank, territory overseen by the Israel-compliant Palestinian Authority, represents not a break but an escalation in the pogroms carried out by settlers since the election of Israel’s current right-wing coalition government in November 2022. Settlers, under the protection of the IDF, returned to Huwara on October 21 to set parts of the village ablaze.

The deadliest of these recent conflagrations is not yet known. But surely the most revealing incident since the war began was the October 17 aerial massacre at al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital. The Jerusalem-based church that operates al-Ahli said that the hospital administration had been warned by the Israeli military to evacuate at least three times. (One can safely assume that the hospital, like many such spaces in Gaza, did not do so both because it was impractical and there was nowhere to go). And an initial appraisal by Western media and governments was that the massive explosion and sky-high fatality count could only have been caused by Israel.

Israel and Western powers would rather fight the media wars of yesterday than confront the rising discontent of millions in the Middle East and around the world.

But bit-by-bit, the media and government officials began to walk back this attribution. Despite the essentially complete absence of independent investigators on the ground—Israel has sealed off Gaza completely—everyone from the New York Times to President Joe Biden himself began citing vague intelligence reports, sourced to anonymous government officials, that claimed the explosion was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket. Several practitioners of so-called open source intelligence (OSINT) jumped in to confirm this revisionist appraisal, or at least said that Israel could not be blamed, as the impact crater didn’t look quite right. Neither did some of the flame damage.

Thus a new narrative about al-Ahli began to emerge, nearly all with the same opaque sourcing. Not only was the cause a Hamas or Islamic Jihad rocket, this story went, but the casualty count had been inflated by the Islamist group that constitutes Gaza’s limited self-government. “According to a preliminary U.S. intelligence analysis,” reported USA Today, “the death toll was on the ‘low end’ of 100 to 300.” Despite the wanton disregard for Palestinian civilian life that uniformly characterizes Israeli policy, the water had been hopelessly muddied, even as Israel continued to bombard Gaza at a dizzying pace, targeting similar shelter structures—including the Strip’s oldest active church.

The best efforts of the Israeli government and its allies, however, have not successfully closed the question of al-Ahli. Separate investigations by Al Jazeera and the UK’s Channel 4 indicate gaping holes in the Israeli version of events. The most damning analysis yet was provided on October 20 by the University of London-based atrocity investigations unit Forensic Architecture. Their report highlights acoustic evidence that points toward an Israeli origin for the strike and photographic evidence which suggests the source of the destruction was Israeli ground artillery. But the group also emphasized caution, writing that “a conclusive investigation into this attack requires full access to the site and munition fragments, as well as witness interviews.”

This will remain out of reach. After the Israeli PR fiasco of the UN’s authoritative Goldstone Report on the 2009 assault on Gaza, Israel understands that such a reconstruction cannot be allowed to take place. The crime scene will not be preserved; neither Israel, nor the U.S. or European governments, will allow the UN to lend its aegis to a serious investigation. The Americans have already publicly said so. All want the world to move on.

The episode at al-Ahli and its aftermath points to the delusions that fuel Israeli, European, and U.S. political leadership. The rather aggressive attempts to obfuscate the truth of an atrocity are emblematic of strategic weakness: a sign that Israel and Western powers would rather fight the media wars of yesterday than confront the rising discontent of millions in the Middle East and around the world.

What makes the Israeli state the Tom Ripley of geopolitics is not its lies but the fact that audiences so willingly believe them. This is not because Israeli propaganda is so damnably effective. It is because Israel is so instrumental to the projection of American power abroad that Western powers cannot imagine life without it (“If Israel didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it” is a favored Bidenism). In practice, this amounts to a tolerance for state deception enjoyed by no other major U.S. ally, save Saudi Arabia. Light treason such as that of Jonathan Pollard or the accused AIPAC lobbyists ​​Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman isn’t the half of it. The Genesis myth of this lying was the Israeli napalm bombing of the USS Liberty in 1967, a failed attempt to tip the Americans into directly intervening in the then-raging Six-Day War—which was quickly hushed up in Washington, and falsely called an accident. “Ah, the Liberty!” Gore Vidal once said. “That’s where it all began. If you can kill American sailors and still get rewarded with fighter jets, you can get away with any atrocity.”

Lies about the administration of Israeli military rule against Palestinians are swallowed just as sanguinely. After the shocking murder of Al Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Akleh in 2022, when the Palestinian journalist was killed by an Israeli soldier while reporting from the West Bank city of Jenin[*], the Israeli government immediately denied responsibility. Despite early reports indicating that not only was Abu Akleh killed by the IDF, she had perhaps been targeted as a member of the press, Israel escaped all accountability. And despite the coincidental publication of a UN report this past week that affirmed the Israeli murder of Abu Akleh, not even the soldier who committed this act was publicly punished, let alone the army whose uniform he wore.

But the most meaningful precedent in atrocity denial, I think, is this: in 1996, while Israel was still enmeshed in its more-than-twenty-year war in southern Lebanon, the IDF killed over 106 people, half of whom were children, who had taken shelter at a UN compound in the city of Qana. In its campaign that year to punish the Lebanese for hosting the Shia Islamist political party and militant group Hezbollah, called “Operation Grapes of Wrath,” Israel had also caused the displacement of an estimated four hundred thousand people. The IDF denied responsibility for the Qana massacre, a lie that was ultimately disproven by a video recording of the attack, which showed Israel’s catastrophic violation of the cease-fire then in effect.

Two things set Qana apart. First is the presence of Naftali Bennett, the rightist Israeli prime minister who was tossed out at the end of 2022 in favor of an even more extremist government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Bennett had been the officer in charge of Israeli soldiers on the ground in Lebanon, and it was he himself who reportedly made the panicked call for an artillery bombardment of the UN compound after he carelessly directed dozens of Israeli soldiers out of range of Israeli ground support.

Qana’s second dreadful distinction is that a decade after it suffered the first atrocity, it experienced a second. During the Israeli military’s failed 2006 war to eliminate Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, its forces killed twenty-eight people in Qana with an airstrike, an atrocity viewed as a turning point toward peace in that conflict. But the implications were grim. Surveying the 2006 Qana brutality in the New York Times, the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim concluded, “Never in its history has Israel been subject to less restraint from America than it is today,” a statement that has been true every day since it was written.

One outcome of the earlier Qana massacre was that Israel lost its remaining credibility with the Christian Arabs with whom it had once allied in southern Lebanon. In 1982, it was Lebanese Christian militias who carried out the massacre of thousands of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut under Israeli supervision. But after fourteen long years of extreme violence and political fragmentation in Lebanon—in no small part due to Israel’s sustained intervention—Israel had worn out whatever welcome it had. “The accidental killing of the Islamic villagers provoked unprecedented anger from Lebanon’s Christians, once believed to be relatively sympathetic to Israel,” reported the Associated Press in early May 1996. “It also fueled an international uproar.”

The same thing is happening today. At no time since the early 2010s have as many people taken to the streets across the Arab, and indeed, the Muslim, world as in this moment. That includes masses of people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in the Jordanian capital of Amman, as well as in Sanaa (Yemen), Tehran (Iran) and Kabul (Afghanistan); Jordan’s King Abdullah canceled a meeting with President Biden during the latter’s visit to Israel last week. Many of the most strident condemnations of Israel came in the wake of the al-Ahli bombing.

Israeli and American media have emphasized that Hamas’s October 7 took place on the minor Jewish holiday of simchat torah. Analysts with longer memories, however, see more significance in the fact that, as Hamas undoubtedly intended, it coincided almost exactly with the fiftieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War—the last time in Israeli history that the state’s basic security status was imperiled. The primary difference between that crisis and this one was that the enemies then were foreign nations, particularly Egypt. Today, Israel has made its enemy the Palestinians, but it has no natural place to which it can expel them: Jordan and Egypt have already announced they will not be complicit in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by accepting refugees from Gaza. This is the problem to which genocide presents a final solution. “Since the [mid-2000s], Israeli society has tried to insulate itself from the military occupation it has imposed for more than half a century, maintaining a bubble punctured only occasionally by rocket barrages from Gaza or shootings in Israeli cities,” writes the Palestinian journalist Amjad Iraqi in the London Review of Books. “That bubble has now burst. But the Palestinians are now the objects of the wrath of an Israeli government prepared to destroy Gaza and, if possible, expel its population.”

Just as the 1973 war came as a bolt from the blue to both the United States and Israel, the Biden administration was caught on the back foot on October 7. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had chosen to make the Trump-era Abraham Accords, which sought to normalize Israeli relations with the Arab world, the centerpiece of his Middle East strategy. Consequently, the Americans put Palestinian rights on the back burner, emphasizing instead the need to rally around Ukraine and, further down the line, against China.

The events of October 7 call this whole play into question. The American-directed regional Israeli-Arab rapprochement has been indefinitely called off, and U.S. credibility with both Middle Eastern political leaders and masses seems to be at an all-time low. On October 12, Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman spoke on the phone with the president of Iran, a first for both men, to discuss the situation in Gaza. “From everything I have gleaned from senior U.S. officials, Biden failed to get Israel to hold back and think through all the implications of an invasion of Gaza for Israel and the United States,” wrote no less than establishment-whisperer Thomas Friedman in his New York Times column published on October 19.

I must hope that Western powers do not have the stomach to see Israel actually bring to fruition all of this violence, against the consent of future generations and virtually the entire non-U.S.-aligned world.

Biden’s address to the country that evening indicates that the United States intends to double down on current policy. While the House of Representatives drifts through a Speaker selection process more humiliating for the nation than any other that came before it, Biden has requested from Congress $105 billion in new aid for, primarily, Ukraine and Israel. The package, reports the Guardian, includes “$61.4 billion for Ukraine, incorporating replenishment of U.S. weapons stocks, $14.3 billion for Israel and $9.15 billion for unspecified humanitarian assistance in both countries and the blockaded Gaza Strip Palestinian territory.” The cherry on top is that we are also sending a three-star Marine Corps general and other military brains to consult on the coming ground war. According to Axios, “The American officers have shared lessons the U.S. has learned from fighting ISIS in Mosul.”

Surveys of the American public indicate a key contradiction. Respondents believe in sending more aid and humanitarian relief to Gaza while also supporting aid to Israel (they are more mixed on whether Israel should receive more military help). Basically what the Biden White House is already doing, in other words. But support for Israel has softened dramatically since the 2000s, in particular among Democratic voters and the country’s youth. After all, young Americans have only known Palestinian conditions at some of their most dire and wretched, and many see military operations claiming to break up Islamic “terror networks” as the biggest—or at least the costliest—geostrategic lie of their lifetimes. The “Defeat ISIS Mission in Iraq and Syria” rolls on, the Taliban rules Afghanistan, and Hamas has called the shots in Gaza for seventeen years already.

And yet Israel has so far received the permission of the governments of the “civilized” world to destroy Hamas under just such a premise, going so far as to specifically make the claim “#HamasIsISIS.” There does not appear to be an appetite in Israel to negotiate for the return of the estimated two hundred hostages that Hamas took back with them into Gaza as a symbolic strike at the arbitrary detention of Palestinians and as a potential bargaining chip for future talks with Israel. According to a poll by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, 65 percent of the Israeli public surveyed support a ground invasion.

Netanyahu himself promised “mighty vengeance” in the early hours after the Hamas strike, and according to The New Yorker’s Susan B. Glasser, Israeli diplomats cautioned the Biden administration that their ground operation to eradicate Hamas may take as long as a decade. Israel’s supposedly centrist President Isaac Herzog has openly defended the ongoing collective punishment of Palestinian civilians, saying, “It is not true, this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved.” One of Israel’s most popular singers, Eyal Golan, called for Gaza to be erased without a single person left. “A leadership that feels sorry for monsters that massacred us is not worthy of leadership,” posted the right-wing politician Revital Gottlieb. “Without crushing Hamas and flattening Gaza we will not have the right to exist.” Residents of Tel Aviv hung a banner reading “Image of victory: population zero in Gaza” from a highway overpass. And ex-minister Naftali Bennett, of Qana infamy, has demanded a biblical “pillar of fire” to pave the way for IDF soldiers into Gaza. Israelis who do not believe the consequences of this frenzy will be felt closer to home are kidding themselves.

On October 19, I co-interviewed the Israeli Knesset member Ofer Cassif, a communist recently suspended from parliament for forty-five days due to his public insistence that Israeli leaders acknowledge the hand of Israeli policy in producing the October 7 attacks. When we spoke, he brushed aside concern for his own marginalization and laid out what he viewed to be an underrated threat—the capacity for things to get much, much worse:

The fascist militias that are organized within Israel under the auspices of Israeli police, and the [security] minister [Itamar Ben-Gvir] are going to get a green light to attack a democratic Jews and Palestinian citizens. That’s going to be a terrible bloodshed. That’s going to lead to rivers of blood. And I’m afraid that we are on the brink of that . . . I’m afraid that everybody is going to drown in rivers of blood.

In spite of this calamity, I must hope that Western powers do not have the stomach to see Israel actually bring to fruition all of this violence, against the consent of future generations and virtually the entire non-U.S.-aligned world. Governing without such legitimacy only works if you are prepared to drown the world in blood.


[*] On October 21, 2023, Jenin became the first place in the West Bank publicly revealed by Israel to have been targeted by an airstrike, destroying a mosque.