Cut off Israel

Plus a local update

I have some good (local) and a heap of bad news concerning the genocide in Gaza and other developments in the Middle East. I’ll start with the bad. (Sorry, it’s important.) Israel’s mass slaughter, which has already claimed over 32,000 Palestinian lives from direct violence, is entering a critical advanced phase, one which could soon break out into an all-out regional or global war.

And for all the Biden administration’s out-front posturing about peace, there is little substantive evidence that they are acting with any urgency to reign the Israelis in. It is long past time to do so, or else cut ties completely. If that sounds harsh or extreme to you, read on.

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U.S. federal law prohibits our government from sending foreign and military aid or conducting training programs with foreign militaries who have been credibly implicated in gross violations of human rights. The relevent statutes are known as the Leahy law, named for the former Vermont senator who sponsored them. (Not that it’s dispositive, but the 84-year-old Patrick Leahy himself came out of retirement to say he believes the U.S. is currently violating his law by giving and selling arms and other assistance to Israel.) Those recent transfers include $4 billion in the recent U.S. government funding package and over 100 arms transfers, the vast majority of them done in secret, including “thousands of precision-guided munitions, small-diameter bombs, bunker busters, small arms and other lethal aid.”

And that is dwarfed by what Biden is considering now: An additional $32 billion in weapons—both the $14 billion “supplemental” and another $18 billion package that would include as many as twenty-five F-15 warplanes from Boeing—as we speak.

The number of gross human-rights violations that Israel is currently carrying out against everyone in Gaza are too many to list. A big one is food. The human-made food crisis is nearing the long-feared famine stage in the north of the Gaza Strip, where over half the remaining people already face the most severe level of food shortage as measured by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system, the authoritative measurement relied on by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations. Those conditions are present when households face “a complete lack of food and/or other basic needs” and “starvation, death, and destitution are evident.” If nothing improves, by July, the consortium warns, 1.1 million Gazans will be in that category. Every single person in the strip is projected to be suffering from some level of food insecurity by then.

Mohammed R. Mhawish, a Palestinian journalist living in Gaza City, in Gaza’s north, wrote this dispatch yesterday for The Nation:

Every day, I look at my son’s face and wonder if I will ever be able to get him enough food, or even milk. Will there ever be a night where he doesn’t cry himself to sleep with hunger? Will there ever be a day when he has had enough to eat? I try to keep him cheerful even as he goes hungry. I try to put a smile on his face even when there are no reasons for any of us to be smiling. I try to keep him, and my family, safe from everything that’s happening, even though there is no way for us to be truly safe right now. I feel weak, and helpless, and naïve, over and over again. And the world is watching all of this happen—watching us slowly die. The only conclusion we can reach is that our lives don’t matter all that much.

Again, that was written from the north of Gaza. That’s the part that is closest to metropolitan Israel. The strip’s northern crossing directly abuts the Israeli towns of Sderot, Erez, and Netiv HaAsara and sits less than 30 miles from the Tel Aviv suburbs and 40 miles from Jerusalem. That’s roughly the distance between the centers of Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio. It is as if the people of Dayton, with the help of Cincinnati’s northern suburbs, were deliberately starving the children around Xavier University.

And denying that it was happening. If you have spent any time in pro-Israel circles, reading the Israeli press, handouts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or spending time in hardcore Zionist TikTok Lives, you will know that the official line is that “reports that people are starving in Gaza are false” and that insofar as there may be some sort of hunger crisis, it is a Hamas pressure tactic. That is to say, not the fault of Israelis who have wantonly and deliberately damaged or destroyed over half the buildings in Gaza, as well as destroying 200 farms, 100 agricultural warehouses, and over 600 irrigation wells in the 141-square-mile strip—all while overtly and proudly blocking aid. As the Washington Post reported last week: “The deficit between the volume of all supplies, including food and medical necessities, that would have entered the Gaza Strip if not for the war and what has actually been received has reached at least half a million tons.”

Meanwhile yesterday, Israeli forces killed seven aid workers with José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, blowing up their convoy with an airstrike in what WCK’s CEO called an “unforgivable” and “targeted attack.” The nonprofit said they had coordinated their movements with Israeli authorities and were traveling in a “deconflicted zone” in vehicles that included two armored cars with the WCK logo on them. Benjamin Netanyahu admitted Israeli forces murdered the aid workers, but called the strike “unintentional.” The consequences are clear, though: WCK is immediately halting its operations in Gaza, and other groups are sure to follow. Driving out the aid groups is yet another sign that Israel is deliberately starving Gazans, in violation of multiple orders by the International Court of Justice.

The U.S. has made a show of airdropping aid, and Biden has promised to build a “floating pier” in Gaza—a tacit admission that extreme measures are needed to break an Israeli blockade along the lines of the Soviet strangulation of West Berlin in 1948-49. But those are drops in the ocean compared to the overall need; and those symbolic food bombs also happen to be killing people, both by falling on them and drawing desperate people into the ocean to drown. (“Even the things that are supposedly there to save our lives are killing us,” Mhawish wrote.)

I should also note that by creating a hunger catastrophe in the Gaza Strip, Israel also openly risks starving to death the 101 Israeli hostages still believed to be alive in Gaza, in whose name the genocide is being carried out.

There’s also the matter of the healthcare system. You’ve probably read by now, and if not here you go, about Israel’s near-total destruction of Al-Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza. Reports vary about the death toll, but Doctors Without Borders notes: “While we cannot confirm the exact number of casualties as a result of this latest military operation, hundreds of people have been killed, including medical staff, and bodies are lying in the street, according to news reports.” Israeli forces have also conducted mass arrests of medical staff, patients, and other people in and around the hospital, the aid group said.

Israel claims there were Hamas fighters sheltering and/or meeting in the hospital, facts that they have used to justify the destruction of the area’s largest medical center, where at least 107 people remain trapped, including dozens of adults and children in critical condition. There may have been Hamas fighters inside, though Israel should have burned through whatever credibility it had making such claims last year, when it insisted there was a multi-story underground Hamas superheadquarters under the hospital, only to proudly announce they had found a single tunnel and an out-of-use living quarters.

Palestinians inspect the damage at al-Shifa Hospital complex today (April 2), following a two-week military operation by the Israeli army in Gaza City. (Photo by Omar Ishaq/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Attacking healthcare facilities is almost entirely forbidden under the laws of war, unless a beligerent can prove that they were used “to commit, outside their humanitarian functions, an ‘act harmful to the enemy.’” There is a very high bar to making that case; as the International Committee of the Red Cross notes, merely having light weapons on hand for self-defense, or armed guards, or having “sick or wounded combatants no longer taking part in hostilities” is not sufficient grounds to justify an attack on a hospital. And beligerents are required to give the benefit of the doubt: “In case of doubt as to whether medical units of establishments are used to commit an ‘act harmful to the enemy,’ they should be presumed not to be so used."

Doctors at the remaining healthcare facilties in southern Gaza meanwhile say that children are being rushed to them after deliberately targeted by Israeli snipers.

Far from “trying to limit civilian casualties” or whatever wording the Biden administration now perfers, or seeking a ceasefire in good faith (as he was ordered to last week in a binding resolution by the U.N. Security Council), Netanyahu is showing endless signs that he intends to escalate the slaughter even further. He is overtly thumbing his nose at the U.S. by insisting that, fake red lines be damned, he is going to invade Rafah—the last refuge of over 1 million Palestinians who have fled from elsewhere on the strip, many of whom come from families that were ethnically cleansed from Israel between 1947 and 1949.

“We have already approved the military steps that are going to be taken,” Netanyau told reporters on March 31. “Nothing will stop us … not American pressure, nothing. Because if we do not destroy the Hamas battalions there we cannot actually win. Otherwise it is an existential threat to the State of Israel.”

Meanwhile, Israel bombed an Iranian Embassy building in Damascus yesterday, killing a senior Iranian general, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, along with two other generals and at least four other people. The New York Times reports that officials with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a organization that had fighters in Gaza as of October 7, may have been among those killed. Iran is promising major retaliation. The Times quotes Ralph Goff, a former senior C.I.A. official, in calling Israel’s strike “incredibly reckless” and saying that “the Israelis are writing checks that U.S. CentCom forces will have to cash.”

There are many possibilities here, among them that this was part of the retaliation Biden promised after Iranian proxies killed three U.S. troops at an outpost in Jordan in January. Or perhaps Netanyahu is indeed going rogue, either trying to employ Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” (convincing his enemies that he is simply insane and thus not worth escalating against, as the U.S. president tried to do in Vietnam) or, more likely in my opinion, trying to ratchet up a major war that the U.S. has no choice but to get directly involved in.

Biden seems to believe that he can just wait Netanyahu out—that perhaps the Israeli generals will revolt, or the massive protests demanding the longtime Israeli leader finally resign will have their intended effect. It’s a bad move. First of all Netanyahu is nothing if not extremely cagey; facing the end of his political career (if not personal liberty outside of an Israeli prison), he may decide to go for broke, attacking Tehran directly or simply leveling Rafah with 1 million people trapped inside. Second, the Israeli public beyond Netanyahu overwhelmingly support the war as it is being conducted; if he is thrown out of office, whoever replaces him will more likely than not continue the killing, perhaps with the briefest of pauses to negotiate for the exchange of the remaining hostages—however many are still breathing and able to travel.

In other words, Biden’s problem—and ours—isn’t Netanyhau. It’s Israel. Biden has the legal tools to stop the flow of weapons to a genocidaire who is openly declaring his intention to “finish the job” of ethnic cleansing and unchecked escalation with a growing world power. Israelis love to shout about how they don’t need to justify their actions to anyone; that they are self-dependent and not a catspaw for any empire, including the U.S. Good. Then they can go out on their own. For us, as James Baldwin wrote in 1963, worse than being party to the crime of destroying hundreds of thousands of lives is the fact that we “do not know it and do not want to know it.” It is, he said, “the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

Finally, the long-promised bit of good news. For the last few weeks I’ve been engaged in a bit of community activism and organizing—trying to get Charlottesville, Virginia (where I live) to adopt a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. It took weeks of organizing, two different hours-long council sessions, a failed vote, and a lot of in-person lobbying (including by yours truly).

Well, last night we got it:

Here was my little speech at the first council meeting. (I spoke again last night but don’t yet have the video of it):

I’d have liked a stronger resolution; one that specifically called out Israeli genocide and for an end to arms sales, and so on. But politics is famously the “art of the possible.” And getting an adamantly liberal, quietly reactionary, and extremely cautious city council—still psychically burned by what it sees as its role in somehow causing the 2017 Nazi rally that made the city both famous and infamous around the world (they weren’t ultimately responsible, but we can get into that another time)—to approve even this resolution was an difficult lift. It is now being sent on to the White House, Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and (in a complete waste of paper) Rep. Bob Good.

The power of this action is in numbers. Charlottesville is now one of over 100 American cities and municipalities that have called for an end to violence—and generally U.S. support for said violence—in Gaza. There is no doubt that the Biden administration is feeling the pressure from its base, and in an election year, to at least look as if they are taking our pleas seriously. I think that’s a big part of where the shifts in rhetoric and the key abstention at the Security Council came from. The next step is to force them to follow it up with real action. Here’s to continuing to work for that.

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