President Biden’s visit stopped short of addressing the root causes of this endless cycle of violence – that should be his aim
President Joe Biden arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday with three main goals. He wished to reaffirm his government’s complete support for the Israeli government, to repeat the warning to surrounding states against intervening in the Israel-Gaza war, and to ask that his hosts offer some humanitarian relief for Palestinian civilians in the besieged Strip, which they continue to bomb intensely ahead of the planned ground invasion.
Essentially, backed by the American aircraft carriers and British naval fleets that arrived in the region last week, the short visit has been seen in Israel as a serious endorsement of its campaign, which has already killed more than 3,000 Palestinians, including hundreds of children. Biden was received here as something of a saviour, against the backdrop of the massacres of 7 October and the widespread unpopularity of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which everyone assumes will collapse the moment the war ends.
But is this what the US president should really be doing? Deterring a regional war, if that is what US officials are most concerned about, is indeed a legitimate cause. Biden was also right to denounce the war crimes committed by Hamas on 7 October. The massacres of entire families inside their homes, of defenceless party-goers in the middle of a field, culminating in a death toll of more than 1,300, and the abduction of about 200 Israeli and foreign nationals, including children and elderly people – this should all be outright rejected by any decent person. The trauma of the Hamas attack has shaken everyone in Israel to our cores, for many also bringing up distant memories of other massacres of Jews in other places, in different times, and evoking deep fears of annihilation; in that sense Biden is right to reassure Israelis that they should not fear such a scenario.
But military aid and aircraft carriers do not offer long-term security, just as walls, tanks and the world’s most advanced surveillance systems do not – as we Israelis all painfully learned when Hamas broke out of Gaza earlier this month. After showing condolences and sympathy, Biden – and any influential friend of Israel, for that matter – should really be focusing on three basic tasks: holding Israel to account for its own war crimes against Palestinians; reflecting on how those crimes contribute to the lack of security for Israelis themselves; and demanding that Israel go back to peace negotiations, this time ensuring equal footing for Palestinians in a way that would truly guarantee an end to apartheid.
Biden need only live up to his own previous statements. “I believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy,” he said in May 2021. This vision is far from the cruel reality Palestinians are facing when the region is not on the front pages of the international press. Living under a regime that local and international human rights groups and UN reports have described as “apartheid”, Palestinians are treated as second-class citizens within Israel itself, are subjected to a racist and brutal military regime in the West Bank, and are suffocating in the world’s largest open-air prison in the besieged Gaza Strip, which is also routinely bombarded by Israel. The current far-right Netanyahu government has but exacerbated the policies of its predecessors. Palestinians have been getting everything but an “equal measure” of anything under this criminal system.
According to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, over the decade between 2010 and 2020, Israel killed more than 3,500 Palestinians, while Palestinians killed 198 Israelis. That, coupled with international support and recent normalisation deals with Arab states, has given Israelis a sense of immunity. All the while Palestinians have been feeling greater despair, with all legitimate avenues for liberation blocked, as Israel jails political leaders and kills protesters, and countries pass laws against the nonviolent campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). While the brutal targeting of civilians is unjustifiable, the 7 October attack is proof of the unsustainability of this situation.
To make this point Biden could also have lifted a dark mirror to Israel’s face. Ever since the massacre, enraged Israeli politicians, generals and journalists have been using genocidal rhetoric against Palestinians – defining them as subhuman and making calls to flatten Gaza. Many Israelis accept the collective punishment of denying the 2 million residents of the Strip electricity, running water, fuel and supplies. But if Israel can so easily cast aside international laws and conventions, if it fails to respect the rights and humanity of Palestinians, causing them suffering, destruction and death, how can it expect the latter to respect the rights of Israelis? If Israelis are reminded of the Holocaust when we see the sights from the decimated communities in the south, how are Palestinians not to fear a “second Nakba” – which Israel is effectively threatening them with, forcing a million Gazans out of their homes?
The last US president to honestly hold Israel to some level of account was George Bush Sr, who decided to make American aid conditional on Israel stopping the building of illegal settlements and opening peace negotiations with the PLO. Biden could take inspiration from him. He should not supply Israel with infinite backing, but rather demand of it an immediate ceasefire, ensure the release of civilian hostages held by Hamas (which he did say yesterday was a priority), push for a prisoner exchange deal for the release of captive soldiers and of Palestinian prisoners, and for the lifting of the siege on Gaza.
After that, Israel should be required to go back to negotiations with the PLO on an entirely different foundation than that of the Oslo years: the stated goal must be to end the system of apartheid, guaranteeing a future of peace, equality and justice to all residents of the land between the river and the sea, including Palestinian refugees, in whatever political set-up is agreed upon. Only then can the cycle of violence be broken, and Biden’s stated vision of equality come to life.
This article was amended on 19 October 2023. An earlier version incorrectly referred to “British aircraft carriers” arriving in the region. The intended reference was to “British naval fleets”.
- Haggai Matar is an Israeli journalist and political activist, and is the executive director of +972 Magazine