Lloyd Austin, the U.S. secretary of defence, has walked a twisted road since that horrendous day of infamy on October 7.
At the outset, he offered Israel unflagging support to crush Hamas once and for all. But the other day, he changed course, warning Israel that Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire must be protected at all cost.
For all intents and purposes, he is trying to tie Israel’s hands as it confronts Hamas in an existential struggle on its very doorstep.
Like President Joe Biden, Austin has sought to strike an uneasy balance between two diametrically opposed positions — endorsing Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas and unseat it from power in the Gaza Strip, while at the same time seeking to restrain Israel’s fierce and justifiable military response.
Within a week of Hamas’ slaughter of 1,200 Israelis and foreigners, Austin flew to Israel in a demonstrable show of solidarity. Declaring unambiguously that Israel had the “right to defend itself,” a phrase that the Biden administration would tirelessly roll out for public consumption, Austin said he respected the professionalism of the Israeli army because he had worked with it over the years as a general.
“They are professional, they are disciplined and they are focused on the right things,” he told reporters on October 13 after meeting Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “As the president said, we have your back,” Austin told the Israeli war cabinet.
These were not mere words.
At their direction, and in line with the United States’ strategic alliance with Israel, Iron Dome interceptor missiles were airlifted to Israel on an urgent basis and two aircraft carrier strike groups were deployed to the eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf to ensure that Iran and Hezbollah, Hamas’ allies, were not tempted to open a second front in the war.
But as the war dragged on, resulting in the deaths of an unprecedented number of Palestinians, a sense of mounting dread and unease descended on the White House.
Amid insistent calls for an immediate ceasefire from Arab, Muslim and European states, and in the face of growing concerns that a lengthy war may adversely affect his chances of winning reelection next year, Biden began exerting private and public pressure on Israel to tone down its ground offensive so as to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties.
Israel, in fact, has hewed to such a calibrated policy.
During the early days of the war, when Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas sites around Gaza City, Israel urged Palestinians to leave the northern Gaza war zone through prescribed routes. More recently, as Israeli troops have advanced into southern Gaza, Israel has advised Palestinians to seek refuge in clearly marked safe zones, which can be accessed on cell phones.
Israel’s attempts to save innocent lives have been acknowledged by the United States.
John Kirby, the coordinator of the White House’s National Security Council, has said that Israel has been open to U.S. concerns. As he put it on December 3, “We believe they have been receptive to our messages here in terms of trying to minimize civilian casualties. There’s not a whole lot of modern militaries that would do that, I mean, that is, to telegraph their punches in that way. So they are making an effort.”
Israel’s efforts, however, have fallen short because Hamas has deliberately embedded itself in residential neighborhoods so as to use civilians as human shields.
As a result, ordinary Palestinians have been needlessly killed and injured, arousing waves of international indignation and warnings from the United States.
It was within this somber context that Austin scolded Israel. In a speech on December 3, he compared his combat experiences in fighting Islamic State in Iraq with the urban warfare facing Israel in Gaza today.
As he said, “Like Hamas, (Islamic State) was deeply embedded in urban areas. And the international coalition against (Islamic State) worked hard to protect civilians … even during tough battles. So the lesson … is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. If you drive (the Palestinians) into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
Austin has a point, of course. Whenever possible, out of humanitarian considerations, Israel should try to keep civilians out of the line of fire. But in Gaza, this formula rarely works because Hamas has seen to it that its tunnels, command centers and weapons storage facilities are near or inside apartment buildings, mosques, schools and even hospitals.
In light of this disturbing reality, does Austin really expect Israel to halt military operations merely because Hamas’ amoral leaders have cynically stacked the cards against their own people?
Austin, too, should bear in mind that Gazans already have been driven into Hamas’ arms, regardless of Israel’s intentions or actions in Gaza. Long before the current war in Gaza broke out, Palestinians there, mostly the descendants of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, loathed Israel with a passion.
And as Austin well knows, a plurality of Palestinians voted for Hamas in the 2006 legislative election, the last one to be called since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007.
Since then, the majority of Palestinians have regarded Hamas as a symbol of Palestinian national resistance to Israel, though one suspects that some Palestinians resent Hamas for having brought little more than death, destruction and misery to Gaza.
No one should be fooled by what Hamas represents in Palestinian history. Hamas is the ugly visage of the rejectionist and self-defeating Palestinian movement, which has not reconciled itself to Jewish statehood and still rejects a two-state solution.
Long story short, the Palestinians have been ill served by Hamas.
Austin should take these factors into consideration before he lectures Israel in another moralizing speech.
Israel has strategically important work to do in Gaza, and Austin should not get in its way.