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The gap between Biden’s words and deeds on Gaza is growing — and there are two words the US president can’t shake

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24 December 2023, ABC, by Brad Ryan in Washington DC

Eleven days after 1,200 people were killed in the brutal October 7 attacks, the American president was in Tel Aviv with a message for grieving Israelis.

“Israel, you are not alone,” he promised. “The United States stands with you.”

In the weeks since, the world’s watched Israel bomb Gaza tens of thousands of times. Declaring it wants to eliminate Hamas, it’s hit hospitals, residential neighbourhoods, and crowded evacuation sites it had told Palestinians were “safe”.

A stream of images of children and families experiencing unimaginable human-inflicted horrors has motivated protesters to take to the streets in huge numbers, and a majority of nations to call for a ceasefire.

Through it all, the US has stuck to its promise to stand with Israel. But for Joe Biden — faced with public protests and pressure inside his party — it’s become a more uncomfortable place to stand.

“Genocide Joe” has been a common chant at rallies, and a trending tag on social media. The White House says it’s inappropriate. But for many, the moniker has stuck.

And so, as he battles to counter that perception, the way Biden talks about Israel has been changing.

Evolving language

Initially, Biden largely left it to his White House advisors to telegraph the administration’s concerns about civilians.

About a month after war was declared, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke after a visit to the Middle East. “Far too many Palestinians have been killed,” he told media in India on his way home.

The comment made headlines because it was the closest the US had come to criticising Israel’s military actions. In the subsequent weeks, the line was repeated frequently by spokespeople at White House and State Department press podiums.

A day earlier, Biden himself spoke about Benjamin Netanyahu’s resistance to pauses in fighting to allow aid into Gaza. Asked if he was frustrated with the Israeli prime minister, Biden said:  “It’s taken a little longer than I hoped.”

Several days later, as doctors caring for dozens of babies at Al-Shifa hospital said it was coming under fire, Biden commented again.

“It’s my hope and expectation that there will be less intrusive action relative to the hospital,” Biden said from the Oval Office. “The hospital must be protected.”

The president was becoming publicly prescriptive about the ways he wanted Israel to operate.

The shift in language was significant — but appeared to achieve little. Hospitals weren’t protected — most are now barely functioning. Genuine pauses have been rare, aid is scarce and a famine disaster looms. And civilians continue to be killed en masse.

Israel blames Hamas and its use of “human shields”.

The president has continued, slowly but steadily, toughening his talk.

Earlier this month, after referring to Netanyahu as a “good friend”, he said his government needed to change, and accused Israel of indiscriminate attacks:

“It [Israel] has most of the world supporting it. But they’re starting to lose that support by the indiscriminate bombing that takes place.

“It was pointed out to me by Bibi [Netanyahu] that, ‘Well, you carpet-bombed Germany. You dropped the atom bomb. A lot of civilians died’.

“I said, ‘Yeah, that’s why all these institutions were set up after World War II — to see to it that it didn’t happen again’.”

Shifting sympathies

Biden’s complaint about indiscriminate bombing is his strongest public criticism of Israel since October 7. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited by international humanitarian law.

But his comments were generous, too — particularly his insistence that Israel enjoyed most of the world’s support.

Within hours of that comment, 153 nations had demanded an immediate ceasefire via a UN vote. The resolution expressed “grave concern over the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip”. Just 10 countries — including the US and Israel — voted against it, and 23 abstained.

Previously, the UN Security Council had voted on a similar resolution. Thirteen of its 15 members supported it, the UK abstained, and the US vetoed it.

While many Western leaders were still giving qualified support to Israel, large chunks of the rest of the world had been condemning its bombardment of Gaza for weeks.

In Latin America, for example, countries like Chile and Colombia had recalled ambassadors from Israel. Bolivia cut all diplomatic ties. Argentina’s foreign ministry said “nothing justifies [Israel’s] violation of international law”. And Brazil’s president said Israel’s actions in Gaza were “as grave” as the Hamas attack. “They are not killing soldiers, they are killing children,” he said last month.

And in Asia, many Muslim-majority countries refuse to even recognise Israel. They include Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia, which recently banned all ships bound for Israel from its ports, citing its “ongoing massacre and continuous cruelty against the Palestinian people”.

So the comment about global support for Israel was a stretch. The UN vote then put the US at odds with traditional allies like Canada, France and even Australia.

But American backing for Israel goes much further than shielding it from its foreign critics via mechanisms like UN vetoes.

On the same day the US blocked the Security Council vote, the State Department found a way to expedite the supply of arms to Israel, without the usual sign-off from congress.

Unconditional support

Despite its toughened talk about Israel’s actions in Gaza, the Biden administration’s material support remains rock solid, and out of step with some of what it’s been saying.

The US gives $US3.8 billion ($5.6 billion) in military aid to Israel every year. After October 7, Biden asked congress to approve an extra $US14.3 billion ($21 billion).

Its approval has been held up, but only because it’s become tangled with unrelated political fights over Ukraine funding and domestic spending. It has broad support from both parties in both houses.

And the State Department’s move to bypass congress resulted in a fast-tracked sale of 13,000 rounds of tank ammunition.

On Friday, the New York Times and CNN both reported the US has now also sent Israel more than 5,000 MK-84 munitions — 900-kilogram bombs whose impact is so devastating, they’re rarely used by Western militaries in populated areas. Satellite images suggest bombs of that size have been dropped in densely populated Gaza hundreds of times.

Biden has faced calls to place conditions on the supply of weapons to Israel — including a ban on indiscriminate bombing. “The blank cheque approach must end,” independent senator Bernie Sanders has argued. “We cannot be complicit in actions that violate international law.”

Some Democrats want conditions imposed on the provision of arms too, but most of congress doesn’t. And while Biden once described imposing conditions as a “worthwhile thought”, his administration later walked his comments back.

The president instead continues to rely on behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and the White House argues this approach has led to some wins. One is the temporary ceasefire that facilitated a prisoner/hostage-swap. Another is Israel’s initial decision to allow aid in when some of its leaders wanted to keep Gaza under total siege.

The Biden administration has for days been saying it’s encouraging Israel to switch to a new phase of battle, with more targeted tactics.

But with no consequences for “indiscriminate bombing”, and no conditions on weapons supply, Biden’s words about civilian welfare look to be doing little to alleviate any of Gaza’s misery.

So the humanitarian catastrophe only worsens each day. The images of human-inflicted horror keep coming — and so do the chants of “Genocide Joe”.

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Article source: ABC | Brad Ryan in Washington DC | 24.12.23

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000