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In Gaza, Israel repeats America's mistakes

The Bush administration response to a terror attack prioritized ideology over security. Two decades later, Netanyahu's far-right coalition scrambles to repeat the errors.

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I am likely not the only one who sees, in the current crisis in Gaza and Israel, parallels to America's entry into the Iraq War and its abandonment of human rights concerns under the banner of what it still calls a "war on terror." It is unnerving, the extent to which such memories tend to get blurred even after only twenty years, but it goes a long way towards explaining how the same mistakes are repeated with such near-perfect precision by generations that had seen two or three examples of such failures in their own lifetimes and ought to have known better and done better the next time around.

The repetitions are depressing because it again proves, and too conclusively, that for all our technology and philosophy and studies we are still closer to animals than we would like to admit. We are constrained by our biology; we write each new lesson down in books less as a means of passing knowledge to our children than because we ourselves are not likely to remember it, after any double-digit span of years has passed. Then we carefully shelve the books and forget their existence, too.

Like now, widespread public protests to the George W. Bush administration's worst responses to the terrorism of 9/11 were predicated on a single broad premise: Nations cannot use acts of terrorism, even at their most horrific, as justification for their own war crimes. Human rights must not be reduced to something so fragile as that, if not out of principle then out of a healthy fear of what would follow.

There were of course two major campaigns in the Bush administration premised on the opposite. The Iraq War was one. The adoption of torture as supposedly valid means of interrogating war prisoners was the other.


Opposition to the Iraq war was widespread even as the George W. Bush administration sputtered its evolving case for it, because in the case of Iraq the premise of the war was a crime to begin with.

When the United States was attacked by terrorists from numerous Middle Eastern nations on September 11, 2001, the brutality of those acts would not go unpunished. The nation sent a full invasionary force to Afghanistan, the administration rejecting last-ditch offers by the equally brutal rulers of that nation to hand over the terrorist group's leader now that their own lives and power were under threat. The resulting occupation was muddled in premise and nearly incompetent in execution, allowing the group's leader to escape to Pakistan where he lived in hiding for nearly another full decade.

When Osama bin Laden was eventually shot dead by an American SEAL team many years later, his body later dumped without ceremony into the ocean so that there would be no grave and no corpse and no nothing, once time and bottom feeders had done their work, there were no real objections. It was about damn time was the prevailing public wisdom. The man had declared himself an enemy willing to target innocents in whatever numbers he and his allies believed to be required in order for his group to bring about their goals; he led a group that remained dedicated to exactly such actions; the paramilitary capabilities of the group could be claimed to be a threat greater than what world law enforcement institutions could plausibly counter on their own, thus putting the terrorist group in the crosshairs of the world's militaries rather than world's courtrooms.

Bin Laden's execution was just one among many such military strikes, ones that over the years would dispense with a seemingly unlimited number of al Qaeda second-in-commands and third-in-commands, and public opposition to those strikes was trivial to nonexistent—except when those acts resulted in the deaths of surrounding innocents. There were those that argued that a military response to paramilitary terrorism was itself a strategic error, more likely to further the terrorist group's goals than thwart them. There were many more who opposed the expansion of military response from its original terrorist targets to a new plan euphemistically described as "nation building." It can well be argued that one or both of those groups were proved right.

The core of it, though, the notion that the plotters and allies of the September 11 attacks would be hunted down with all the capabilities the nation could bring to bear to do it—on that the nation was almost entirely united.

This was not surprising. Our animal instincts tend to categorize those who would engage in the willful murder of innocents to gain some ideological or material advantage for themselves as beyond societal redemption, and therefore beyond the protection of society's laws and constraints, and one can easily imagine the early genetic advantage of such an instinct. Every civilization encodes a host of such primal caveats as foundations of their own laws. formalizing them as justice; any government that rises above that of a petty local warlord will soon devote itself to writing down precisely which acts, by a citizen or a visitor, will result in the abandonment of which constraints.

In the name of this instinctive justice, then, there tends to be broad societal agreement that those who would engage in terrorism against innocents forfeit most protections on their own lives. If the plotters of such acts can be captured alive, so be it. If they cannot, only the very best angels among us might object to putting a bullet in their heads and being done with it.

Little of that, however, had anything to do with the Iraq War. That war was one of opportunity rather than necessity, and therefore criminal by design; it was a move to use one of the most horrific acts of terrorism in modern times as the flagpole on which some of the most destructive voices in American foreign policy history could hoist up their own longterm obsessions.

Hours after a commercial plane struck the Pentagon on September 11 2001 the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was issuing rapid orders to his aides to look for evidence of Iraqi involvement, according to notes taken by one of them.

"Hard to get good case. Need to move swiftly," the notes say. "Near term target needs - go massive - sweep it all up, things related and not." [...]

The [meeting] notes suggest a focus on Saddam. "Best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to] hit SH at same time - not only UBL [Pentagon shorthand for Usama/Osama bin Laden]," the notes say. "Tasks. Jim Haynes [Pentagon lawyer] to talk with PW [probably Paul Wolfowitz, then Mr Rumsfeld's deputy] for additional support ... connection with UBL."

The "best info" would prove to be nothing close to good enough. It was soon evident that Iraq had no plausible connections to the attack, upon which war proponents shifted instead to arguing that the Iraqi dictatorship had been developing and hoarding weapons of mass destruction, necessitating immediate and sweeping action, and when the evidence of that claim also collapsed the argument became not that the dictatorship was stockpiling the weapons but might.

That theory was one of several lumped together into the "Bush Doctrine," and it was both absurd on its face and brazenly illegal under international law. Nations are allowed to make preemptive strikes to thwart an enemy actively maneuvering to launch an attack. Nations are not allowed to engage in supposedly "preventative" war, or war premised on the claim that while their declared enemies aren't making any moves to attack them right now, they in theory might decide at some future date and so need to be wiped out before they can make that choice.

The premise of justifying a real war by pointing to the specter of a purely theoretical one is so ridiculous that it needs no counterargument; it would justify every war of conquest ever waged. The administration's show was so flaccid and embarrassing that even the most pliant of press voices expressed incredulity, but that would prove no fatal hindrance to Rumsfeld and the other Iraq War planners.

The records of those first meetings are notable because they show how administration ideologues responded in a crisis with an almost bizarre indifference to the details of the crisis itself, instead acting on reflex and turning their attention to the enemy they had already been focused on. Or, put more crudely, the nation's foreign policy drunks began looking for their lost keys under the light of a nearby lamppost rather than in the shadows where they dropped them.

The first of America's failures in responding to terrorism happened within hours of the attack.

The first of America's failures in responding to terrorism had already happened within hours of the attack. In things related and not we can already see how the administration's focus on fighting the military campaigns its ideologues wanted to fight would almost immediately begin draining military resources and attention from the one that had actually been brought to their doorstep.

The administration's inability to present a cohesive case for shifting the bulk of America's military might towards the Hussein government would quickly prove irrelevant. War planning would go on, and in the absence of justification or evidence or plausible chance of the showy outcomes war proponents promised truly coming to fruition, it would instead be sold on a simpler, nationalism-based premise: If you opposed the administration's plans, its collection of flailing and bloodthirsty incompetents, and their assertions that they would bring "freedom" to the Middle East through maximal military force, you were said to be opposing America itself.

“I want to say something about these anti-war demonstrators. No, let’s not mince words, let’s call them what they are — anti-American demonstrators.”

Those were the sentiments of radio screamer Rush Limbaugh, who was only one among countless pro-war voices whose tactics were primarily to find the most extreme voices and most offensive rhetoric within the anti-war movement and declare, with broad certainty, that the entirety of public anti-war sentiment consisted of nothing but that. It was not legitimate, in the mind of the war's most vigorous new salesmen, to oppose what had by that point been branded a "Global War on Terror;" objecting to the expansion of war into Iraq could therefore only be the result of pathologies.

"They are absolutely committing sedition, or treason,'' one commentator, Michael Savage, said of the [Hollywood, California] protesters one recent night.

His colleague, Joe Scarborough, responded: ''These leftist stooges for anti-American causes are always given a free pass. Isn't it time to make them stand up and be counted for their views?"

That particular exchange came on MSNBC's airwaves, and not long after company heads removed host Phil Donahue, a war skeptic, from the same network for presenting a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war." It was the prevailing wisdom of the pre-war period. The anti-war movement was said to contain various kooks, communists, and outright pacifists among its membership; ergo all those who oppose the war are dirty kooks who can be dismissed; ergo there is no actual anti-war movement, only millions of babbling cranks. War opponents were not motivated by logic, but were instead "deranged," and "unhinged," and spurred by "hatred" for the United States and its "power."

George Will:

[M]any elements of the Democratic Party, including most of its base and many of its most conspicuous leaders, seem deranged, unhinged by the toxic fumes of hatred and contempt they emit for the president. From what does this arise? It cannot just be Florida, the grievance that Democrats, assiduous cultivators of victimhood, love to nurse. No, many Democrats’ problem, which threatens to disqualify their party from presidential responsibilities for a generation, is their incontinent love of snobbery and nostalgia — condescension toward a president they consider ignorant, and a longing for the fun of antiwar days of yore

Michael Kelly:

Some – perhaps many – marched out of simple reactionary hatred: for the United States, for its power, for its paramount position in a hated world order. [...]

To march against the war is not to give peace a chance. It is to give tyranny a chance. It is to give the Iraqi nuke a chance. It is to give the next terrorist mass murder a chance. It is to march for the furtherance of evil instead of the vanquishing of evil.

MA Sieghart:

Alongside the usual suspects on a Stop the War march-- anti-globalisers, stroppy Trots and university lecturers-- marched tweedy old ladies with radical Palestinians, pacifist Christians with punks. Never in my lifetime, not even at Diana’s funeral, has there been a meeting of such divergent minds.

And in the minds of the intellectualist foreign policy set, the ones who considered themselves the foremost experts on such things, the millions of protesters were not even really protesting against what they were protesting against. It was all a sham, a pathology—a "new secular religion."

In short, while a prospective war in Iraq is the pretext for the demonstrations we have lately seen, it is rarely the cause. The causes lie at various social-psychological strata, the deepest and most important of which is the same today as it was during the Vietnam War-era protests.[1] It’s about religion.

Many antiwar activists seem to need the belief in the equivalent of a moral apocalypse for reasons of personal commitment; the more portentous and dramatic the stake, the more praiseworthy one’s dedication becomes and the more unequivocal one’s commitment must be. Simple Manichean metaphors offering the clarity of moral certainty feed an internal escalation of commitment where uncertainties and ambiguities are assuaged by increased psychological investment. Many members of adversary culture groups—and those who choose to associate with them in heady times—are impelled to express moral sentiments together with others through politics. This amounts to a form of secular worship. Social bonds reinforce personal faith and commitment, and commitment in turn forges social bonds with new strength. This is a powerful magnet, as are other forms of communal worship.

This backdrop to antiwar activism helps explain why so many activists and marchers are oblivious to rational argument. It is not only that so many are ignorant of the subject, it is rather that knowledge is subordinated to feelings. When people have a strong need to believe something, mere facts are powerless to stop them. And since everyone except perhaps the dullest of dullards needs something beyond the self in which to believe, for those who do not discover it in traditional sources of spiritual wisdom, for all practical purposes anti-establishment activism itself becomes their religion.

It is worth rereading; these were the brilliant minds that would goad America into a vastly expanded war.

That the Bush administration was, by the time of the war's opening, clearly shown to be misleading the public in each of their justifications for military action, was either dismissed as irrelevant or denied entirely. That the September 11 attacks had nothing to do with the murderous Hussein was dismissed in favor of an assertion that a government as brutal as his might stage a similar attack in the future. American lawmakers and pro-war voices met the opposition of European leaders and populations to a new American war with such roiling contempt—an unending series of petty insults directed at "our so-called ally, France" and other supposed saboteurs of our planned new world order—that the relationships remain raw to this day.

It was not long before another charge was leveled against war opponents: That they were anti-Semitic, because not wanting to open a second front in the supposed "war on terror" based on whatever falsified evidence the war's neoconservative foreign policy stalwarts could prop up was, allegedly, a move meant to bring intentional harm to Israel.

Those assertions were laid out identically to all the others. If any opponents of the war could be counted as anti-Semitic—and some certainly could, from both the far-right and the far-left, because one does not have to scrape very hard to uncover such bigotries in any population—then opposing the war was itself anti-Semitic.

One would like to believe that characters like Galloway, Stewart and Shehadeh are fringe figures in the anti-war movement. It is troubling to imagine that one could find thousands of Americans willing to be represented in such a way. But if they are fringe characters, why are they speaking from the rostrum?

Yet it could also be said that by featuring such people, the anti-war movement in the United States is performing a true public service. It is revealing something that it is important for all of society to know. It is revealing that at the core of these so-called peace marches you will find a leadership that strongly supports acts of war targeted against Americans and Jews.

It is unlikely that any but the smallest sliver of gathered war opponents had any idea who any of those particular self-indulgent cranks were, but opposition to the war was politically fraught enough (see: Donahue) and the majority of political voices cowardly enough (see: "freedom fries") that any fringe group with the wherewithal to rent a rostrum could count on an audience of thousands or tens of thousands of Americans flocking to it to demonstrate their own hostility to a war already declared all-but-inevitable by their supposed national betters. That many of the first anti-war protests were organized by voices on the far fringe of politics remains a powerful indictment of each of the far larger groups that could have spoken in their place—but instead held their tongues.

That both the Israeli government and the American Jewish community were themselves deeply divided as to the wisdom of the war did not matter to figures who now declared anti-Zionism or antisemitism to be the foundation of war opposition. The skepticism of both groups mirrored that of other mainstream war critics, most of whom focused not just on the moral and legal implications of supposed "preventative" war but on the tenuousness of the supposed positive outcomes: While it was accepted by most that a fully committed United States military could likely purge Iraq of the dictator Hussein in short order, experts with credentials and records a great deal more distinguished than those of the foreign policy wonks who clamored for war warned that it was far from certain that that plan's required mass carnage would wash away cleanly enough to lead to something better.

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed his own skepticism on those very grounds, conveying as much to Bush privately, the war's neoconservative advocates would instead turn to one of his notoriously hardline predecessors to make "Israel's" case for war.

Sharon’s argument, I wrote, was that if Saddam were removed, “Iran, a far more dangerous player, will be rid of its principal enemy and free to pursue its ambitions of regional hegemony.” That wasn’t an argument to invade Iran, but merely to leave Saddam in place. [...]

I reported Sharon’s views precisely in order to debunk the widely-circulated claim that Israel wanted Bush to invade Iraq. Israel was against it. Netanyahu argued for it, but he was a private citizen at the time, and his views were, as they so often are, contrary to those of Israeli intelligence.

Moreover, Netanyahu made his case for invasion to Congress in September 2002. But, as I wrote, the president had already decided to invade by early January 2002, as Condoleezza Rice told Israel’s national security council director Uzi Dayan. This came as a surprise to Israel, Dayan told me. Other senior Israeli security officials have confirmed this. [...]

I cited Netanyahu’s 2002 congressional testimony because it’s often cited by critics of Israel as evidence that Israel pushed America to war. I wanted to make clear that Netanyahu was speaking as a private citizen whose views didn’t reflect — indeed, were directly opposed to — the stance of Israel’s government and military.

The neoconservative push to replace Sharon's skeptical voice with that of the more belligerent Benjamin Netanyahu was an irrelevancy within Washington itself; the administration had made the decision to invade many months back and needed no further push. Netanyahu's declaration to Congress that “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region” was instead presented for public consumption. It was another of the deeply propagandistic claims war proponents flooded the public airwaves with, all meant to assure Americans that the war's quick positive outcome was not mere speculation, but—to quote the hard-right Netanyahu—a "guarantee."

The bloodshed and violence of this new American war would even, war advocates assured the public, prove an economic boon. White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey:

“The likely economic effects [of a war in Iraq] would be relatively small…. Under every plausible scenario, the negative effect will be quite small relative to the economic benefits.”

His was one of seemingly endless such assurances; we need not go through them here.

The always camera-eager Netanyahu would become an omnipresent voice on American cable news shows, sneering at war opponents with condescension and contempt. As to whether his American tour had any wartime impact beyond his own self-promotion, it is difficult to know.

It’s possible that a case could be made for Netanyahu having had some influence on some Americans through his writings and speeches, going back to the 1980s. He was known for tying together themes of fighting terrorism, defending Israel and promoting democracy in the Middle East as interconnected elements of a Western strategy. His views are often accepted on the American right, particularly among conservative American Jews, as if they represent an Israeli security consensus, which they don’t. However, if anyone has convincingly demonstrated a connection between Bibi’s writings and the American right’s quest to topple Saddam, I’m not aware of it. In fact, officials from America and other countries tried repeatedly during the 1990s to convince Israel — under both Rabin and Netanyahu — to back anti-Saddam efforts. They all failed.

And as to where neoconservatism dug up this particular boorish showboater, when the world had and has no end of others to choose from? That is considerably less mysterious.

If the Bush administration's agenda meshes almost completely with that of the Israeli right's, it's partly because the same thinkers laid the foundations for both governments' policies. As the European press has been reporting, though it's mostly been ignored here, some of the Bush administration's current ideas about military preemption and regime change in Iraq echo a 1996 policy paper called "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," authored by a group including Richard Perle, currently a Pentagon advisor, and Douglas Feith, who is now undersecretary of policy at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Written for the incoming government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the paper argues that Israel should scrap the peace process, work to subdue its neighbors by force, and overthrow the Iraqi government in order to reshape the region's dynamics. "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria," the paper says. "This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions."

Ah. Indeed, it could be argued that every failed and disastrous foreign policy the United States has stumbled through for the last half century can be pinned on a single garden of self-pollinating incompetents, a gaggle of mean-minded failures too absorbed in themselves to notice the catastrophes that trail behind them like toilet paper on a shoe, but that is too much a digression. We will ignore it, for now.


There was another grotesquery the Bush administration would birth: the institutionalized torture of prisoners captured by or turned over to American forces during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.

Within weeks of the first American military actions in Afghanistan, the Bush administration had already secretly determined that acts previously described as torture when done to Americans were now not torture when done by Americans themselves. It also asserted that the Geneva Conventions and other laws and treaties prohibiting torture would not apply to prisoners suspected of involvement in terrorism—suspected being the most operative word, justifying the torture of the innocent and guilty alike, solely for the purpose of sorting out which was which.

The freeing declaration that not even wartime laws would apply to this war, if it was a war, which was another point that the nation's politicians spent a great deal of time evading for the sake of removing still more swaths of law and their own responsibilities, was justified by the assertion that terrorism was unique among crimes and war crimes alike. Preventing feared future attacks was simply too urgent a priority to abide by the now-"quaint" rules of past generations.

Bush White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales:

As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. It is not the traditional clash between nations adhering to the laws of war that formed the backdrop for [Geneva Convention III on the Treatment of Prisoners of War]. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians, and the need to try terrorists for war crimes such as wantonly killing civilians. In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip (i.e., advances of monthly pay), athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments.

Gonzales' declaration followed a prior administration memo that argued that past treaties prohibiting torture were irrelevant to begin with. Members of al Qaeda members captured by the U.S. military could not be considered prisoners of war because the group was a "non-State actor," and Afghanis themselves would not count as prisoners of war because Afghanistan did not count as enough of a State to matter.

We conclude that these treaties do not protect members of the al Qaeda organization, which as a non-State actor cannot be a party to the international agreements governing war. We further conclude that that these treaties do not apply to the Taliban militia. [...]

We believe that the Geneva Conventions do not apply for several reasons. First, the Taliban was not a government and Afghanistan was not – even prior to the beginning of the present conflict – a functioning State during the period in which they engaged in hostilities against the United States and its allies. Afghanistan’s status as a failed state is ground alone to find that members of the Taliban militia are not entitled to enemy POW status under the Geneva Conventions. [...] Second, it appears from the public evidence that the Taliban militia may have been so intertwined with al Qaeda as to be functionally indistinguishable from it. To the extent that the Taliban militia was more akin to a non-governmental organization that used military force to pursue its religious and political ideology than a functioning government, its members would be on the same legal footing as al Qaeda.

It remains a shocking argument. Afghanistan's Taliban was and remains barbaric, that much cannot be questioned, and the nation's government could not be described as anything better than ramshackle. But the assertion that our nation or any other could nullify the presumed human rights of wartime prisoners with a simple declaration that the opposing government, group, or culture does not count as one—now that is pernicious.

It is the sort of lawyering that Gonzales' profession prides itself on, these down-the-rabbit-hole declarations that nothing means what you think it means, and nothing can be counted on to mean the same thing tomorrow. To the general public, though, whether or not captured human beings should be tortured in order to ascertain their crimes or their innocence is a matter of primal instinct—of justice, as we would again have it, and one likely founded on the rather more utilitarian premise of discouraging similar violence aimed at ourselves and our own kin if the positions of jailer and prisoner are ever reversed. Even if we considered the legal opinion to be narrowly true, and that world agreements prohibiting the torture of our own nation's soldiers for the sake of extracting useful military information can just as easily be nullified by any foreign declaration that our nation is simply not civilized enough to deserve such protections, it is a catastrophic argument to actually make.

Every atrocity in history has begun with the declaration that the enemy or would-be enemy was not Civilized Enough to merit the full rights of man.

It is also not even the slightest bit clever. Not even a little bit: Every atrocity in history has begun with the declaration that the enemy or would-be enemy was not Civilized Enough to merit the full rights of man, and could therefore be imprisoned, brutalized, enslaved, or eradicated without the law's intervention. It was the theory of the Crusades, and the theory that allowed the genocidal purge of Native American populations. It backed the Spanish plunder of Central and South America; it was the central assertion of chattel slavery; it was the core presumption of the Holocaust. It is the foundational argument of genocide.

The administration's summary dismissal of the rights of prisoners also enraged the administration's own military, resulting in a flurry of memos to Bush Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from:

the Judge Advocates General of the Army and Navy, the Deputy Air Force JAG, and the Staff Judge Advocate to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, all warning that the Yoo memo failed to address the Uniform Code of Military Justice; that many of the techniques could place interrogators and their superiors at risk of criminal prosecution at home and abroad; that they were ineffective; that they could poison future attempts to prosecute detainees; and that they would leave U.S. servicewomen and men vulnerable to reciprocal treatment if captured.

None of these arguments were the dronings of pacifists, bleeding hearts, or supposedly "anti-American" provocateurs. None relied on sentiment or petty moralistic concerns. Experts worldwide were nearly unanimous in echoing the same warnings and others: Torture would produce more information that was false than was true; the revelation that America tortured its prisoners would dissuade foreign fighters from surrendering to U.S. forces, and would instead prolong the fighting and result in the deaths of more of our soldiers, not fewer; captured Americans were now very likely to treated similarly; torture-obtained evidence would be excised from courtrooms throughout the world; a United States declaration that its Middle Eastern enemies were too uncivilized to be given the minimal human rights afforded to combatants elsewhere would, undoubtably, escalate contempt for the United States throughout much of the world and broaden terrorism even as we fight to combat it.

Twenty years later, the dismissal of each of these concerns by neoconservative promoters of the two wars and their Justice Department allies remains shocking. It was arrogance nearly beyond human measure—the hubris of a brutalist assemblage of power-seeking simpletons who thought themselves the gods of a new age.


Let us now turn to Gaza.

On October 7, 2023, the terrorist group Hamas launched several thousand rockets into Israel from Gaza, the beginning of a paramilitary operation in which an estimated 3000 fighters successfully breached Israeli border defenses in numerous locations, attacked Israeli military bases and systemically murdered hundreds of Israeli civilians. At least 1100 Israelis were killed.

The act was unquestionably one of terrorism rather than alleged military campaign. The indiscriminate nature of the attacks and the intentional execution of civilians in large numbers is proof enough, but the operation's special focus on capturing Israelis to be used as hostages in future negotiations is especially notable because it proves that Hamas leadership planned and intended those crimes. The group has long used Palestinian civilians as human shields, has shown pointed indifference to the devastation its actions bring to those it hides behind, has long declared its intent to erase Israel as a nation, and has engaged in countless terrorist acts in the past. After solidifying its control of Gaza by force, it has disclaimed most governing responsibilities, with spokesmen instead brushing off the welfare of Gaza's residents in the current conflict as the responsibility of Israel.

We can dispense with arguments that Hamas, either in the times when it pretends as politics or the times it does not, is anything but a terrorist organization. Governments do not take civilians hostage to use as bargaining chips; even if the same odious Hamas spokesmen demanding the destruction of Israel brush off the horrific brutality against civilians on Oct 7 as mere "complication," the defense of such hostage-taking erases whatever other supposed ambitions the group has. It is a terrorist group; as such, it is a legitimate target not only for the Israeli military but world militaries. Hamas itself insists it is "at war" with Israel, and no reason exists for Israel and its military forces to not respond to that declaration with the severity it deserves.

The international community also has ample justification for treating Hamas as it treated al Qaeda, after that group's horrific murder of innocents. Avowed membership in the group after its Oct 7 campaign and Hamas' leadership promise to repeat it can be taken as implicit support for acts of terrorism, and the world has if anything been too lax in permitting members of Hamas' supposed "political" wing to take to news channels to pretend otherwise.

In that Hamas intended its attack as the first strike in what it presumed would be a broader, multi-front war against Israel, Israel's justification for large-scale military response seems irrefutable. Whether such a campaign is wise or will be successful—the world has the immediate examples of al Qaeda and ISIS to use as its guides—is another question. Whether Israel will emerge from the campaign in an even more precarious security situation than before is unknowable—but, given events of the last six months and the record of Israeli government figures over the past two decades, entirely possible.

But the right exists, according to the international conventions we have cobbled together and follow only sporadically: Israel has the right to respond militarily to an act of mass terrorism carried out under the guise of warfare, and may do so to whatever extent is necessary and which does not itself constitute terrorism, war crimes, or other intentional violations of human rights.

And that is where the response of the Israeli government, like the United States' response to a similar act of large-scale terrorism two decades ago, would soon begin to collapse in on itself.

On May 20, 2024, the head prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that his office was seeking warrants for the arrest of:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, head of the Hamas Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh, and Mohammed Diab Ibrahim al-Masri (better known as Mohammed Deif), the leader of Hamas’ military arm, the Al Qassem Brigades.

Against the named Hamas officials, head Prosecutor Karim Khan cites "reasonable grounds" to believe each bears "criminal responsibility" for a litany of war crimes and crimes against humanity including extermination, murder, hostage-taking, rape, and torture, part of a "widespread and systemic attack against the civilian population of Israel" that continues "to this day." The prosecutor also notes ample evidence of those individuals' direct culpability, including "personal visits to hostages shortly after their kidnapping."

Against Netanyahu and Gallant, the prosecutor cites evidence of war crimes that include "starvation of civilians as a method of warfare," "intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population," and "extermination," including "in the context of death caused by starvation, as a crime against humanity."

While Israeli and American officials have loudly proclaimed their indigence at the probe and boasted of their intentions to ignore it, other international experts believe the grounds for the warrants are credible—and plainly bolstered by the public statements of Netanyahu, Gallant, and other Israeli officials.

[K]ey factual components of starvation crimes are relatively clear in the current context, and the relevant actions have been underway (albeit in varying forms) from the beginning. The Prosecutor has repeatedly warned of his attention to the criminality of that conduct and of the imperative to reverse it. Although applying a different legal framework (that of the Genocide Convention), the International Court of Justice has similarly placed great weight on this issue. [...]

The connections are simply clearer in the case of starvation carried out as a matter of policy. Senior leaders were explicit from early on about the sustenance denial strategy and their roles in it. Among those listed today, Defense Minister Gallant announced on Oct. 9, 2023, “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel. Everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” Ten days later Prime Minister Netanyahu stated, “we will not allow humanitarian assistance, in the form of food and medicines, from our territory to the Gaza Strip.” Other ministers have, at various points, articulated a deliberate policy of sustenance denial or openly blocked the delivery of food. Moreover, the conflict-wide structure of decisions about humanitarian access (requiring coordination at the top level of government) and the continuing nature of the crime (diminishing the plausibility of any lack of awareness among senior commanders as the situation deteriorated) both facilitate proving high-level responsibility for this crime.

Tying the blockage of civilian humanitarian aid explicitly to an alleged subhumanity of those it would go to ("human animals") seems an especially precarious move on Gallant's part.

Indeed, the steadiness with which Gaza then plunged into famine conditions with no significant change in Israeli military actions or policies may be proof enough of the government's intent. In mid-May, World Food Programme head Cindy McCain was still pleading with Israeli authorities to provide access "at scale" to humanitarian groups seeking to stave off widespread starvation.

She told Yalda Hakim: "Imagine a child wasting into the size of a skeleton - and of course passing from it - and an adult doing the same thing. That's what we're seeing on the ground.

"If we could get in now we might be able to fend off a hardcore famine, but we're not there yet and we're not getting in."

Even as such pleas were made, rightwing Israeli activists were instead dispatching protesters in systemic efforts to block what little food aid might arrive in Gaza—efforts that have included violence towards humanitarian workers.

The activists are summoned to interchanges around the country and instructed to block the trucks in any way possible. Last week, two trucks were torched, and two drivers – a Palestinian and an Israeli – were wounded. No arrests were made.

When Israeli law enforcement moved to protect the food convoys from attack, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir reportedly became incensed, demanding "his" officers be removed from those duties. Ben-Gvir allegedly discovered the scene by happenstance on his way to a Sderot rally where he and other participants demanded the construction of new settlements in Gaza. Ben-Gvir himself asserts that the war should end with "complete occupation of Gaza with full Israeli control," with the government "encouraging voluntary migration" of Israelis to the occupied region.

Ben-Gvir is not alone, among Israeli officials, in calling for the Palestinian population of Gaza to be removed and supplanted with new Israeli "settlers," nor does the rhetoric of Ben-Gvir's "true solution" stray far from what could be interpreted as the language of genocide.

Communication Minister Shlomo Karhi, of Netanyahu's Likud party, said: "In order to preserve the security achievements that our soldiers lost their lives for, we must resettle Gaza with security forces and settlers that will embrace the land with love." He added that "this is the only true way, to make the Hamas Nazis pay a price and to defend our nation and country."

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir also spoke at the march, and said that what the protesters are calling for is the "true solution."

"First," he said, "we must return to Gaza now! We are coming home! To the holy land! And second," he continued, "we must encourage emigration. Encourage the voluntary emigration of the residents of Gaza. It is moral!"

Even Ben-Gvir's presence in the Netanyahu government is itself notable. Despite a history of radical extremism, he and other far-right figures were elevated into government by a desperate Netanyahu in a last-ditch attempt to—and this will sound familiar to Americans, who have been watching the same play unfold in this nation—avoid likely prison time.

[Ben-Gvir's] ultranationalist Jewish Power party has called for the expulsion of “disloyal” Palestinians, the annexation of the West Bank — the land Palestinians envision as part of their future state — and for “revenge” against anyone who stands in its way. Until last year, it was a fringe movement, repeatedly failing to muster enough votes to enter the Knesset.

But in November [2022], Benjamin Netanyahu, facing potential jail time in a corruption trial and running out of options, won a fifth term as prime minister by orchestrating an alliance between Ben Gvir and another far-right politician, Bezalel Smotrich. Ben Gvir was named minister of national security, with an expanded portfolio that gives him unprecedented control over Israeli police, a flash-point Jerusalem holy site and security forces that operate in the occupied West Bank.

Some believe Ben Gvir is merely an opportunist who exploited a moment of political tumult and will, in time, moderate or fade away. Others argue that he is the product of a system lurching quickly and irrevocably to the far right, faithful to his Jewish supremacist roots.

Ben-Gvir, a radical who has long called for the expulsion of Palestinians so that their property may instead be claimed by often-violent Israeli "settlers," immediately used his new government position to expand violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the name of "order." Within months, observers were already seeing the seeds of a new and bloody conflict.

Israelis and Palestinians fear a return to the brutal days of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, that stretched from 2000 to 2005. Many are worried it could be worse this time. There are more guns and more militant groups in Gaza and the West Bank, where the new government has already announced a rapid expansion of settlements, alarming American officials; in Israel, Ben Gvir is helping to call the shots.

And as for Netanyahu, the conservative hardliner who two decades ago could "guarantee" that an American war of opportunity that used terrorism as the banner for a dreamed-of neoconservative rebuilding of the Iraqi state would bring benefits to the wider region, he may now have well traded domestic corruption charges for multiple international probes of alleged crimes against humanity.

The likelihood that any Israeli officials would be handed over to the International Criminal Court is close to zero, just as American architects of a terrorism-premised program of prisoner torture could count on our government to brush aside international condemnations under the usual banner of American exceptionalism. The ICC announcement was likely announced with its current urgency, and with its unusual specificity, as a warning to both governments and private citizens that efforts to intentionally block humanitarian aid during a time of famine does, in fact, rise to the level of crimes against humanity. The same hardline officials who cut off food supplies to Gaza in the first place may now begrudgingly look to prosecute past violent attempts to delay aid as means of weakening the case being built against them, and it may well act as a pressure point that encourages Israel's far-right proponents of an ethnic purge in Gaza to temper their rhetoric. Neither is assured, but the prosecutor's announcement certainly seems tailored to encouraging such self-reflection.

Indeed, previous Israeli government insistences that no food for Gaza would flow through their own borders appear to have loosened considerably in the days after the prosecutor's announcement.

In early June, U.S. experts reported that it was "possible, if not likely" that northern Gaza was already in famine as of last April. Deaths due to hunger have been occurring throughout Gaza, with food supplies becoming even more precarious after a military push into Rafah forced the closure of humanitarian aid routes in south Gaza.

The failures of the hard-right

Here we run up against another parallel between the Israeli response to mass terrorism and our own response to the 9/11 attacks. Neither the United States nor Israel have been immune from a new worldwide resurgence of the political far right; it could well be argued that the United States' neoconservative-led, simultaneously hyper-aggressive and outlandishly incompetent prosecution of the "war on terror" was a large factor in that worldwide turn. The collapse of a world landmark on 9/11 demonstrated the seemingly unending reach of terrorism, escalating worldwide fears of many more such acts; the eagerness with which America again discarded its supposed ideals to target an unrelated enemy for destruction, and the relative impotence of even a world superpower in attempting, if only halfheartedly, to bring religious radicalism to heel in Afghanistan—all of it appeared to herald a new era of technologically advanced violence that would shake even the superpowers of the world. The supposed Arab Spring that was supposed to unleash itself after Hussein's capture and execution was bloody, brutish, and short, most often either quelled by the region's leaders or resulting in a mere change of warlords rather than the disposal of them.

Netanyahu and other hardliners have held firm to conservative theories of security that have once again collapsed around them.

Through all of this, Netanyahu and other hardliners have held firm to conservative theories of security that have, inarguably, once again collapsed around them. In America, neoconservatism had its heady way with the nation as figures like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Perle and Feith insisted that it was brutality, not diplomacy, that would pave the way to a new era of American-led peace. They were given the keys to the military, the law, and the White House, to do with what they will—and the results were catastrophic. Their every prediction proved to be farce and fantasy; from the most narrow of concerns (Rumsfeld's obsession with modernizing military operations by corporatizing large chunks of them) to the most global (the theory that Hussein's ouster would bring new stability to an entire region and that America would get both credit and world adoration for bringing it about), there was seemingly no element of their philosophy that survived its own real-world application.

Twenty years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu was a failed former prime minister who insisted that hardline positions prioritizing military strikes and rebuffing diplomacy would bring new security to his nation. Twenty years on, he is under indictment in his nation, he clings to power on the grace of a radical far-right movement that demands the large-scale removal of Palestinians so that their property can be commandeered by Israeli "settlers," and his policies have, unquestionably and irrefutably, at no point either brought security to Israel or ever come close.

Former prime minister Sharon was no peacenik himself, and even as he expressed his private skepticism of Bush's war goals, America's war was seen as useful for the Israeli right. "[T]he havoc that the United States will rain down on Saddam will enable Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to engage in his favorite political habit — buying time and postponing any chance of negotiating with the Palestinians. No matter what happens, that will be the end result," opined one Israeli editorialist. That prediction, at least, would prove solidly true.

Netanyahu followed up and hardened those policies of delay and detachment, and after twenty years of it and three terms as prime minister he has nothing in his record to claim credit for. Israel is not safer. He cannot claim his hardline policies have weakened Hamas or stifled terrorism—certainly not after Oct 7, and not before it either. He has maintained an Israeli policy of postponing any would-be peace plan that might see Palestinians granted new rights, and has helped oversee a further dismantling of such rights so systemic that it is now regularly compared to South Africa's former racist policies of apartheid.

Israel's hard-right has regularly demanded harsher and harsher treatment of Palestinians under the banner of security, but no such security has emerged, nor will it—not even if the nation engages in the "true solution" demanded by Ben-Gvir, the "relocation" of the entire Palestinian population to make way for a greater, ethnically cleansed Israel.

In both America and Israel, conservative demands that both peace and national dominance be established through programs of violence and the curtailment of human rights have proven to be the words of incompetent buffoons. Both groups have failed, time and time again, only to repeat their same shoddy claims and assertions whenever the next microphone is thrust in their face.

In both America and Israel, calls for maximal violence flooded out not as demonstrations of supposed strength, but as the bleatings of men who had come face to face with their own failures and who were now lashing out in acts of self-preserving desperation.

Galit Distel Atbaryan, a hard-line minister in Netanyahu’s government, resigned after October 7th; she later talked of her “burning anger” toward him. She was hesitant to attack Netanyahu during wartime, but, she told Israeli television, she herself had “sinned” for her own role in dividing Israeli society. When she woke on the morning of the seventh and heard the news of the catastrophic attack, her first thought was “You did this. You weakened the nation.” Now, she said, “the days of this government are numbered—that’s obvious.” [...]
The moments when Netanyahu shows disdain for Biden are galling to American diplomats, but they play to his base. “The extent to which Netanyahu is desperate is manifested in his willingness to bite the hand that feeds him,” Martin Indyk told me. “His sheer survival instinct is to show he can stand up to America. He boasts about it.” Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. State Department Middle East negotiator and analyst who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me, “The political narcissism that has driven his career, particularly in the last decade, is astonishing. The challenges that Israel faces are incredible and yet its leader measures every single decision with an asterisk: What does this mean in terms of my political career and my freedom?”

The immediate reactions to the ICC announcement that warrants were being sought not just against Hamas leaders but Israeli officials alleged to be using famine as tool of war are themselves instructive.

PM Netanyahu called the ICC move an "outrage," saying its equivalence between Israel and Hamas was an example of the "new antisemitism that has crossed from campuses in the West to the court in The Hague." [...]

President Isaac Herzog said the decision was "beyond outrageous, and shows the extent to which the international judicial system is in danger of collapsing."

Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the ICC move was "a display of hypocrisy and Jew-hatred" that "we haven't seen since Nazi propaganda." [...]

Sen. Lindsey Graham, Israel's top Republican Senate ally, said he will "feverishly work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle in both chambers to levy damning sanctions against the ICC."

Netanyahu's statement is the most telling. A probe into starvation in Gaza after the Israeli government hardliners proudly announced their intent to block humanitarian aid is dismissed as "antisemitism." And, in a far more peculiar move, the enemy that Netanyahu calls out as the closest parallel to the ICC prosecutor's investigation are the "campuses in the West."

It is demonstrations on college campuses that come quickest to Netanyahu's mind, when grasping for an enemy equal to international institutions of justice? We are to believe that the "new antisemitism" allegedly steering investigations into Gaza famine has, as its root cause, teenage demonstrators in the United States?

Cindy McCain and others warning of escalating deaths in Gaza as the indifference to Israeli military planners to large-scale civilian casualties made humanitarian aid nearly impossible to deliver—the result of protesting college students?

It would be a bizarre apparent non sequitur, if the move to dismiss public war opposition as the illegitimate, idealistic, hateful frothings of college students had not been the dominant, omnipresent rhetorical device of war advocates for over a half century now.

The planners and backers of America's disaster in Vietnam claimed college students as a veritable fifth column of communist and/or pacifist and/or malevolent sentiment.

[A]t a press conference [Ohio Gov. James Rhodes] had held in Kent on May 3, the day before May 4’s [Kent State] killings, he had vowed to “eradicate the problem” of campus demonstrations. And Rhodes declared that campus demonstrators were “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

Netanyahu is cribbing here from the long tradition in which the most powerful figures in a nation attribute society's ills to those with little to no power at all, a tradition that claims public protest, not their own violent incompetence, to be the real threat to the nation. It is not inventive. It is not new. It is not credible.

If anything, the eagerness with which Netanyahu leaps to blaming college protests for his ills shows the hollowness of the man. He remains a pathetic figure, like so many of his hardline compatriots. The world has taken to elevating petty and inconsequential men to positions of consequence, to the extent that we can only presume it to be human civilization's guilty little hobby.

As for the broader hobby of rejecting all anti-war sentiments as the illegitimate ramblings of a contempt-worthy underclass, that, too, has quickly reemerged as one of the dominant occupations of war proponents and of the press. The denunciations of anti-war demonstrators mirror those of the Iraq War era almost precisely, and the claims are hoisted up by many of the same shameless professional brickheads who wandered from the catastrophe of that war to this one with not a skin flake's worth of self-contemplation.

Once again, anti-war demonstrators are alleged to be either terrorist sympathizers or terrorists themselves. Once again, the notion that war critics could feel true revulsion at human rights abuses is considered a mere shield behind which the group's secret and contemptible true objectives are hidden. Once again, maximal nationalistic aggression—of the sort that has failed utterly each time it is tried, but which feels very pleasant when rubbed against our primal id—is considered the intrinsically patriotic stance—and Jewish Americans and Israelis alike who voice objections to those theories are once again viciously attacked as supposed anti-Semites themselves.

Fox News and conservative radio show host Mark Levin said Jewish Voice for Peace, which has been involved with ceasefire demonstrations, is “the Jewish wing, in my opinion, of a terrorist movement” and that it was “heavily funded by overseas operations, by Hamas’ network.” [Media Matters, 10/19/23] [...]

Salem Media Group’s Charlie Kirk argued: “A lot of secular Jews fund NYU and fund Harvard. You guys are funding the suicide of the Jewish people.” Kirk was amplifying a targeted harassment campaign directed at campus activists objecting to Israel’s response to October 7. [Media Matters, 10/17/23]

Kirk also blamed “elite Jewish culture” for being “one of the main funding sources” for “elite” colleges and universities that he suggested are breeding “Jew hatred.” [Media Matters, 10/13/23] [...]

On Bannon’s show, longtime Islamophobe Frank Gaffney called Schumer a “court Jew” who “was sent out to Kosher-ize, if you will, the Biden team's antipathy towards Israel.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room3/15/24

Bannon also hosted self-proclaimed “proud Islamophobe” Laura Loomer, who said, “I say this as Jew myself: Sometimes the Jews’ worst enemy is the Jew themself.” Loomer continued, “And we're seeing this play out right now where you have all these leftist progressive Jews, people like George Soros who's probably the biggest financier of all of this progressive, pro-BLM, Palestinian, Islamic Jihad, anti-Jewish nonsense that has spread like a cancer on college campuses, and nobody wants to call it out.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room10/31/24]

In January, Loomer declared on her podcast: “It's always the Jews … for some reason so many rich Jews have a fixation on trying to destroy America.” She added, “I'm really sick and tired of watching all of these Jews with large amounts of money in our country donate to fund the destruction of our nation and the communist takeover of America.” [Rumble, Loomer Unleashed1/26/24]

The declaration that Jewish American elites are the driving force behind a plot to damage America and Israel to instead engineer "Jew hatred" and "communist takeover" is one of the more peculiar challenges to antisemitism one can imagine, but one that the American far right is experienced in making. It, too, seems reflexive.

The drive to not just demonize, but criminalize anti-war dissent is similarly not a new tool of the far-right, but after the last twenty years of effort it, too, is bearing new fruit. Demonstrations in support of Palestinians have now "provided cover for the right to expand its attack on protest," writes Jewish Currents editor-in-chief Arielle Angel, "–a project advanced significantly after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020."

In a tactic familiar from the post-9/11 landscape, GOP lawmakers and civil society leaders from groups like the ADL and the Brandeis Center have endeavored to paint student protesters and groups as “terrorists”. This is bad news for activists across the country: a 2024 report by the Center for Constitutional Rights details how “core features” of US antiterrorism law, “driven by anti-Palestinian agendas”, were “expanded and ‘brought home’ to repress other protest movements”, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests against the “Cop City” Atlanta police training center. [...]

The moral panic around antisemitism has been a useful vehicle to further the campaign against DEI, as congressional hearings on antisemitism since 7 October have made clear. “Evidence shows that campus DEI bureaucracies play a major role in propagating the spread of antisemitism,” said the US representative Burgess Owens at a November hearing. “It is a dirty little secret at the heart to DEI.”

Also familiar to Americans is the rote dismissal of actual violence targeting the war's perceived domestic enemies as war advocates instead continue to demand national attention focus on the theoretical violence they claim those enemies might perpetrate if left unchecked:

To be clear, all of the most serious violent attacks since October have been on Palestinians and their supporters. In Chicago, a six-year-old Palestinian American was killed and his mother injured in a stabbing attack by their landlord. In Vermont, three Palestinian students were shot while wearing keffiyehs and speaking Arabic; one is permanently paralyzed. At Stanford, an Arab Muslim student was targeted in a hit-and-run after a Palestine solidarity protest. Just this week, a cousin of the extremist Jewish leader Meir Kahane allegedly rammed protesters with his car outside the home of a Columbia trustee. And last week at UCLA, 25 students were hospitalized after an attack by a Zionist mob with wooden planks, fireworks, and pepper spray.

Yet there is no discourse in Washington suggesting that Palestinians are unsafe in the United States, or that pro-Israel supporters are “genocidal” – and no comparable rush to legislate.

There is undoubtably a rise of anti-Semitic sentiments on college campuses, off college campuses, and in fact throughout the world as television screens show months of accumulated mass devastation inside Gaza and far-right American and Israeli officials litter the airwaves with assertions that there are no true "noncombatants" in Gaza deserving of either food or sympathy.

Whether this signals "the decay of democratic habits" and "the collapse of the liberalism that had insulated American Jews," a "society that has lost its capacity to express disagreements without resorting to animus," as a recent Atlantic cover story premised on the "end" of the "golden age of American Jews" would have it, is markedly less clear. We can hope, and have reason to believe, that just as anti-Arab (and anti-Hindu, and anti-anyone whose skin color or dress confused the vast base of American bigots that make up much of our population) sentiments soared after the 9/11 attacks, these new sparks of bigotry will fade with new news cycles.

But this particular moment has seen the inalterable insistence, among far-right political figures in America and in Israel, that to be Jewish means supporting a campaign of maximal violence and minimal human rights that would reduce Gaza to a depopulated wasteland for the sake of retribution against a small sliver of its population. It comes with the parallel assertion that Jewish objections to such a campaign are illegitimate, stripping the objectors of their own Jewish identity so that an alleged purity of thought can be maintained among "true" members of the community.

Those are dangerous notions. One cannot imagine that there would be zero members of the American unintelligencia willing to embrace the theory that the current violence is the only legitimate expression of Judaism. It is a claim that especially resonates with the already hateful, and is a shameful—and pernicious—argument to invent and propagate.

It is the sort of rhetoric that can have especially long-lasting consequences: Conservative post-9/11 declarations that equated "true" American patriotism with support for torture and for wars of conquest led to heightened worldwide belief that, indeed, Americanism was synonymous with such crimes. The election of Donald Trump, likely Netanyahu's closest American parallel now that both stand indicted and neither has been demonstrated to have political convictions that go beyond the need for eternal self-promotion, has likely given the world a new batch of opinions of Americans and their alleged beliefs. It would be difficult to argue with many of them.

But the truth of it is this: Benjamin Netanyahu is not Israel, and Israel's far-right fringe, no matter how much power Netanyahu has traded away for its votes, is not Israel either.

The far-right has been desperate in insisting on the contrary, on the notion that Netanyahu is the personification of his nation just as George W. Bush was the very avatar of Americanism, and that any objection to Netanyahu's failed policies and brute-force current response is no different from objecting to Israel's very existence. The far-right in both countries would love for Jewish identity itself to be predicated on support for their own far-right policies, such that that same identity can be summarily stripped, on their own say-so, from all those who object.

Declarations that domestic opponents are not just wrong, but are rendered illegitimate citizens by virtue of that opposition, are intrinsic to all nationalist movements.

But these are the techniques of demagogues and petty tyrants everywhere; they are not new. Declarations that domestic opponents are not just wrong, but are rendered illegitimate citizens by virtue of that opposition, are intrinsic to all nationalist movements. They are the means by which dissent is quelled, then criminalized. That they are repeated time and time again suggests, again, that the compulsion to expunge one's ideological opponents from society appears to be hardwired into the primal psyche. Some can resist it; some cannot.

The notion that Netanyahu's decades of hollow failure are now the unalterable foundation of Israeli identity and triumph—now that may be antisemitism writ large, given its willingness to discard the voices of every Jewish voice in favor of a single designated replacement. It will also be terribly short-lived, one imagines: Netanyahu's time will quickly pass. George Bush rose to national avatar status by overseeing an act of mass terrorism, only for his own movement to discard him and pledge loyalty to a worse and crueler supposed savior within the span of a decade. One cannot imagine that Netanyahu will fare much better once nationalistic fervor wears off and the magnitude of his coalition's many failures can no longer be brushed aside.

Each time Muslim faith leaders and scholars declare their religion to be one of peace, denouncing violence by the Islamic far-right, conservative voices in America and Israel sneer in contempt and call them liars. Now many of those same far-right voices insist that being "Jewish" means supporting an enforced civilian purge and famine, so absolute a decree that the great many Jewish voices who think otherwise are labeled anything from "court Jews" to "terrorists"—while railing against the transparent antisemitism of anyone hateful enough to believe such a lie.

In Israel itself, protests against the Netanyahu government and its handling of the Oct 7 attacks and aftermath continue to be robust—and present no crisis for Israel or for Judaism. Assertions that identical criticisms voiced by American college students, lawmakers, or others do pose such dangers appear to be grounded more on political posturing than on sincerity.

U.S. repercussions

The United States can now expect to face at least three emerging crises as a result of the increasing civilian deaths in Gaza. The first and most obvious result of the Hamas attack and pointedly unfocused Israeli response is an almost certain escalation of terrorism against Israel, America, and other targets for at least a generation. No Palestinian child fleeing Israeli airstrikes only to find themselves crowded into refugee camps rife with disease and starvation will forget the experience, and few will understand the alleged strategic necessity of leveling the communities they grew up in no matter how patiently it is explained to them.

A large percentage of the world already believes America to be the primary reason Israel has been able to adhere for decades to hardline policies that have increasingly stripped Palestinians of their human rights and worse. We will be blamed for backing Israel even as government figures like Ben-Gvir demand acts of ethnic cleansing; another generation will conclude that America is an enemy.

There are grounds for such claims. It can be plausibly be argued that the Israeli far-right would not hold the power it has grown to hold if it were not for the "special" relationship between our two countries. The necessity of the relationship has long been clear; Israel's existence is indeed threatened by a host of bordering and near-bordering hostile nations. The nation's small geographic size makes such threats only too real, and the relative ease with which a hostile force could sweep through the nation in a campaign of murderous mass destruction, if Israel had not armed itself to the teeth and then some, is the reason Israel has long taken a hyper-aggressive stance towards potential threats, staging air strikes and other military operations that could well have ignited multiple wars if the United States was not with similar regularity standing behind Israel and vowing to defend it with all the force a world superpower can muster.

Whether that Israeli policy of preemptive action has gained the nation more security than it has stripped is a debatable proposition, and the balance is likely not the same now as it may have been thirty years ago. But the presence of a superpower as security guarantor is likely what has allowed Israel governments to brush aside would-be peace proposals would, of necessity, include difficult-to-stomach compromises, and the relationship has certainly emboldened nationalists like Ben-Gvir and his far-right "settler" movement to engage in human rights violations that Israel could not so easily ignore, had the U.S. not been working to thwart proposed international repercussions.

The Israeli far-right has long abused the so-called "special" relationship between our countries, making explicit calls for ethnic cleansing and engaging in a longstanding campaign of human rights abuses only to hide behind America's skirts when new rounds of international fury come their way. Netanyahu himself has for twenty years been notorious for partnering with America's political far-right in efforts to sabotage more moderate administrations, and his self-serving moves to cling to power by elevating those in his country who so easily advocate for a nationalistic purge of non-Jewish populations—an appalling and grotesque alliance—was so blatant in its mockery of international human rights concerns that may not have been politically possible without America's still-steady backing.

Even now, those inside Israel who are loudest in proclaiming that there are "no non-combatants" in Gaza and that Israel is justified in targeting the entire Gazan population can rest easy, assured that any American threat to withhold military aid is a bluff. The reason is simple: America cannot stomach an expansion of the war that would require Israel to fight on multiple fronts, but even a short-term embargo of U.S. military supplies could well convince other terrorist groups or enemies of Israel that the disruption of ammunition has created a new opportunity to strike.

America cannot stomach Israel being forced into a multi-front war, but those inside Israel who voice such loud indifference to mass casualties among Gaza's civilian population do not have to give a damn about such possibilities. They have every reason to believe that not even a campaign of horrific brutality would truly risk American abandonment, if neighboring nations furious at such an act attempted to strike back themselves. Ben-Gvir can rest easy knowing that American soldiers will spill blood to protect him if the situation escalates to the point where Israel's soldiers cannot; Netanyahu can mock threatened probes of war crimes so long as international flights can ferry him between our two countries without landing anywhere else.

It should be noted that while many of Israel's American defenders are likely outraged at the specific declaration that Israel's far-right fringe has long sheltered itself behind American skirts, it is not so controversial a notion in Israel itself. Protests against the provable cruelty and incompetence of the Netanyahu-led response continue to grow, as do public calls for Netanyahu's own resignation. Netanyahu is not Israel, not even if he pretends to be, and his new partnership with his nation's most aggressive human failures may yet see him come undone. We must reject—and strongly—the impulse to equate leader and country. And we must reject the notion that any nation is immune to criticism; it is a self-serving demand by governments, one meant to protect them more from internal opposition than external.

The second American crisis is that a Gaza famine—with certainty, if it continues, but quite possibly even if it does not—now poses a plausible threat to America's own democracy. The now multiply-indicted fascist blowhard Donald Trump remains in presidential contention, a fact which of itself may prove our own national decay more than any other. He has a plausible chance of regaining his old position, and he and his allies have been quite clear in their declarations that the law will not stop them, the next time around. They promise mass deportations, broad curtailments of citizen rights and voting rights, and a purge of government designed to ensure party loyalists are in charge of all agencies and all decision-making, including decisions on which laws to enforce and which are, to use Gonzales' words, now too quaint to apply.

It is a program of the dismantlement of American democracy, and there is every reason to believe that a hollowed-out press and venomously antidemocratic Republican base will giddily guide it into fruition. Trump's opponent, President Joe Biden, has had every reason to believe he could muster a victory that would, one hopes, end Trump's brief political career for good, but that is now less likely.

And it is less likely because as another mass terrorist act again produces a likely self-defeating response premised on blind punitive violence and only blind punitive violence, young Americans have become increasingly disillusioned with the notion that political leaders will ever manage anything better. Some are threatening to sit the election out in protest; the vast majority will not, but there is little question that political enthusiasm is waning.

The genocide in Gaza has quickly become a moral rallying cry for many Americans, particularly young people and people of color. And the disgust at Israel’s massacres is not confined to campus radicals: more than half of Americans now disapprove of Israel’s handling of the Gaza war, according to a recent Gallup poll. Maybe that’s one of the same polls that the Biden campaign feels determined to ignore. But they shouldn’t: the “uncommitted” movement that aimed to express displeasure at Biden’s support for the attack on Gaza in the Democratic primary produced vote tallies higher than Biden’s 2020 margin of victory in some states. [...]

[T]hese lesser-of-two-evils argument do not lessen the tax on the conscience that many anti-war Americans will feel when they consider whether to vote for Biden in spite of his support for the genocide in Gaza.

Not every analysis is that bleak. Others can point to polls and focus groups that show anger at the current administration to be real, but unlikely to sway many actual votes. Others go down the well-traveled road of arguing that young voters aren't angry about the things they say they are angry about, at least not enough to matter.

All of that would be encouraging, if the polling margins between a lifelong politician and an indicted and tyrannical right-wing crank were not so precarious already. And none of it implies that yet another assemblage of American politicians should feel more pressured by their own career interests than by human suffering and death.

It is, however, another familiar moment. Terrorist acts by ultraviolent far-right groups tend to lead to the worldwide growth of nationalistic far-right sentiments demanding new ultraviolent responses, a disillusion-based retrenchment or new apathy from liberal groups, and a subsequent curtailing of human rights at the hands of far-right demagogues able to take advantage of the shifting terrain. The world is rightly frightened of the new technological ease with which terrorists can unleash mass destruction that is on par with what militaries can muster. The world continues to lose confidence in its own leadership, frustrated both by the evident impotence of leaders and institutions tasked with countering those threats and by the crudeness of the retaliations that follow. The American public is not immune.

There may not be a single person in the world who does not recognize that imposing the collective punishment of famine on the civilian population now Hamas hides itself behind will assuredly expand terrorism's reach, not contract it.

It may be made worse this time around by the memories of Iraq and Afghanistan and the promises, the utterly stupid and contemptible promises of a new era of peace waiting for us so long as we muster the will to kill all those who resist. There may not be a single person in the world who does not recognize that imposing the collective punishment of famine on the civilian population now Hamas hides itself behind will assuredly expand terrorism's reach, not contract it; we know, on all sides, what the outcome will be. And, once again, it makes not a damn bit of difference.

The third American crisis we have already alluded to: the continued delegitimization of dissent. Those with microphones are nearly united in declaring that those without microphones should shut up and listen to their betters, and it is college protesters in particular who have raised the ire of everyone from the bellicose Netanyahu to the American far right to our eternally useless pundit class. The right's push to criminalize dissent in public places, up to and including laws seeking to immunize drivers who may drive through crowds of protesters insufferable enough to delay them from their daily rounds, has seen steady progress over the last decade. College campuses are already under far-right attack as alleged hotbeds of tolerance and indoctrination, so a new focus on criminalizing college protests and declaring all those who participate in them to be anti-Semitic allies of terrorism was inevitable.

The ferociousness of those new attacks, however, was less expected.

This week’s jarring news out of the University of Southern California that its Muslim valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, would not be allowed to give her upcoming commencement speech because of what the school called “safety concerns” — after some critics had singled out some of her X/Twitter posts over Palestine — gave the rest of America a window into what students and some of their professors have been saying for months: Free speech and political expression at U.S. universities is facing its greatest threat since the 1950s “Red Scare” and the heyday of McCarthyism.

Two Carleton College professors who write frequently and host a podcast around questions of academic freedom actually argue the current crisis is even worse than that dark era

“We’re both historians and so we don’t use this term lightly,” the Minnesota-based professors Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder told me by phone. “The threats to free speech and academic freedom are unprecedented.”

Incidents of both anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim violence or near-violence have been reported in schools across the nation, but in another parallel to the post-9/11 American environment, Muslim Americans continue to accuse both campuses and police departments of implicitly sanctioning the latter, if not participating in it.

One of the most now-notorious such incidents occurred in April.

Law enforcement stood by for hours as counterprotesters attacked the pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA on April 30, which erupted into the worst violence stemming from the ongoing college protests around the country over Israel’s war in Gaza.

While a criminal investigation is underway into the assaults that occurred at UCLA, the identities of the most aggressive counterprotesters have gone largely unknown. A CNN review of footage, social media posts, and interviews found that some of the most dramatic attacks caught on camera that night were committed by people outside UCLA – not the university students and faculty who were eventually arrested.

Many at the scene appeared dedicated to the pro-Israel cause, according to social media and their own words that night. The violent counterprotesters identified by CNN, which included an aspiring screenwriter and film producer and a local high school student – were joined by unlikely allies, several of whom are known throughout southern California for frequenting and disrupting a variety of protests and public gatherings.

College campuses have long been hotbeds of anti-war sentiment—always to the great chagrin of political leaders who have ago long aged out of any new threat of military service themselves. The extent to which campuses are now buckling to conservative demands to restrict or punish such protests are more concerning.

From Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress, it is also clear that it is a strategic move from defenders of what international legal experts are now probing as potentially criminal acts. The intentionality of the effort to turn press and public attention to the supposed extremism of college students, rather than the tens of thousands of civilian casualties and expanding Gazan famine caused by their own actions, is transparent, and our press should again feel humiliated by their canine eagerness to chase whatever ball has been thrown.

Justice, security, and war crimes

A nation cannot use acts of terrorism as justification for war crimes. If the world can agree on nothing else, it must agree on that.

No argument needs to be made in support of the statement, because it is self-explanatory. Terrorism is an act of war carried out by a stateless or allegedly stateless perpetrator, and in intentionally targeting innocents it is a crime by nature.

If we claim that crimes committed by one nation or group justify war crimes in response, than there is no such thing as "war crimes" to begin with; every act is justified by every preceding act. The extermination of entire civilian populations could be justified by a single thrown rock.

It is a statement of justice that is, like most, entirely pragmatic. Maintaining claims of civilized enlightenment during wartime is always something of a farce to begin with; war is a declaration that normal societal constraints no longer apply against a designated enemy—that their lives are now forfeit, and that whatever laws have previously been written down about such things can now be done away with. "Crimes" during such campaigns consist of whatever actions so turn the stomachs of even wartime observers that demands for justice—the animal instincts that demand prevention, protection, and punishment—rear up again even in the most blood-soaked of battlefields.

• A nation may not use war as justification for eradicating civilian populations, either through force or famine.

• Soldiers may not kill or perform other acts of violence against noncombatants or against prisoners, or engage in looting, hostage-taking, or wanton destruction of non-military targets, or order that subordinates do so.

• The use of mass-casualty weaponry with effects that cannot be controlled and are likely to spread beyond the battlefield—including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons—is barred.

The prohibitions are intended to strip claims of military necessity from nations or paramilitary forces that use the violence as cover for ethnic cleansing, religious purges, or genocide, and the regularity with which past conflicts have escalated into such campaigns should provide ample evidence of why the international community sought to formalize the line between the two.

The United States can consider itself experienced when it comes to war crimes, as it has perpetrated a great many itself. The Allied firebombing of Dresden could be counted as one; the use of chemical weapons during the Vietnam war was another. The internment of Japanese Americans and the confiscation of their property, the long-lasting campaigns of genocide against native populations—the list is long. No other major world power, past or present, can boast differently. (History also records that while war crimes of defeated nations may be prosecuted vigorously, after the fighting has stopped, crimes authorized by the governments of victorious nations are seldom reckoned with. That is the flaw that undermines the whole regime, and one that must be remedied if our pretenses of civilization are ever to become more than illusory and intermittent.)

What we saw in the United States' response to 9/11 was illuminating, in that it again demonstrated the human instinct to meet violence with violence and a broad indifference to who that violence is aimed towards—a seemingly primal human compulsion towards eliminationism, and not one limited to Nazi-era Germany, to religious warfare, or to colonial ambitions. The enemy is within us; from the Stanford mock-prison and Milgram electrocution experiments we see that a predilection to use newfound authority to carry out pointless cruelties is either an innate feature of our societies, our genetics, or both.

None of this, then, is theoretical. We have an immediate historic example of a dominant world power turning to acts previously acknowledged as war crimes in response to an act of mass terrorism. We cannot act outraged at such claims now, not when we ourselves serve as the example of such failures.

Both of our nations are justified in pursuing terrorists who have committed atrocities against us—that much is certain. But both of our nations, like so many others at so many other points in history, have instead allowed far-right ideologues to commandeer the response and reshape it into what they themselves would rather devote themselves to, a reflexive and purely retaliatory broadening of the violence that both makes a mockery of supposed national ideals and weakens national security rather than strengthening it.

Even where the acts stop short of the explicitly criminal, they are foolish beyond measure, and listening to the same ideological incompetents that promised peace through military conquest so many times before is an act of stupidity.


Let us close with the rote rebuttals, so as to do away with the most foolish before they are made.

— Why do you defend the protesters to demonstrate against America or Israel when these demonstrators did not come out to protest against Iraq's gassing of its Kurdish population or Hamas' numerous previous acts of terrorism or [myriad examples of foreign atrocities]?

As this has been one of the hoarier examples of far-right punditry for many decades now, it is probably worth dispensing with first. Populations do not generally come out in large numbers to protest the actions of terrorists and of dictators because there is no expectation that terrorists or dictators will give a damn. People do come out in large numbers to protest against actions of their own governments or allied governments, because there is the expectation that those governments are, at least supposedly, obliged to listen to the grievances of their citizens. There is little that American or European protesters can do to usefully chastise the malignant leadership of North Korea or of Iran, but acts of torture done in our own names, new military campaigns that will risk our children, or perceived acts of ethnic cleansing done for our supposed "security"—surely there are no pundits truly dull enough to not grasp that it is social proximity to a wrong that spurs public outrage, not mere magnitude. We wish to clear our own names, when our leaders attribute their own cruelties or incompetence to us.

— How can you support the military execution of Osama bin Laden while opposing the violent treatment of captured prisoners?

The operative word is prisoners, from which the rest of the logic follows. While a true pacifist may make a case that nothing necessitates the taking of another human life, more common societal notions of justice allow for such actions for the purpose of protecting ourselves or others. In a small-scale military option meant to remove one of the most consequential continued terrorist threats in the world, few would argue that soldiers are obliged to capture the man peacefully.

But it is not necessary to justify here the notion that violence against a human being who poses no such threat is similarly not justified. Direct your complaints to philosophers, faith leaders, and law books; leave the rest of us out of it.

— Hamas shows no concern for the Palestinians it uses as human shields: In arguing that Israel must, you are demanding that Israel fight with one hand tied behind its back.

Correct. Such is the obligation of nation-states, and what differentiates legitimate governments from illegitimate ones. There is no international consensus declaring that targeting civilians, using famine as weapon, or conducting ethnic cleansing is acceptable if it is expedient. Such acts are also astonishingly foolish: at this point it appears Israel's unfocused moves to rout the whole of the Gazan population rather than act with more caution in distinguishing its targets may be causing the collapse of its efforts to defeat Hamas itself.

Even the most cynical of propagandists would advise Israel to flood Gaza with food rather than allow innocent noncombatants to go hungry, if it was truly seeking to turn civilian sentiments against Hamas and shrivel support for the group. The failure to do so remains the most conspicuous feature of the far-right government's response.

In that Hamas is willing to commit any number of crimes in order to protect itself, it has an advantage that Israel does not. Israel can counter that advantage elsewhere—but not emulate it.

— You have argued that the United States was wrong in declaring the Taliban an illegitimate government in Afghanistan while arguing that Hamas can be stripped of its pretensions at being a government now. It is inconsistent.

Whether the Taliban was or was not the "legitimate" government of Afghanistan at the time of the American invasion was irrelevant; I instead assert that nations cannot cite the supposed "illegitimacy" of another nation's government as justification for stripping human rights from its citizens. Human rights may not be held as dependent on such quasi-legal maneuvering; it is untenable.

Even if Hamas had not plainly engaged in a terroristic act on Oct 7 in its widespread and brutal targeting of Israeli civilians for execution, for torture, and for use as bargaining chips in a desired new prisoner exchange, its own illegitimacy as alleged Gazan government was made clear by (1) the continued and broad declarations of its spokesmen in declaiming all responsibility for protecting Gaza's civilians from the resulting violence and humanitarian crisis while (2) using those civilians as intentional human shields.

So Israel need not pretend that Hamas is the acting "government" of the Gaza Strip, and whatever negotiations take place between the two groups for the purposes of a cease-fire or a prisoner exchange need not be premised on such arguments. In undertaking not an act of war but an act of mass civilian destruction, Hamas holds a position equivalent to the one al Qaeda once did—and the world, not just Israel, is justified in targeting it for military elimination.

That is the role Hamas chose for itself. It does not absolve the Israeli government from its obligations to both protect Gaza's civilians now and negotiate with whatever new government its population recognizes, but there is no comparison here to the Taliban because Hamas itself now publicly rejects any such pretended-at governmental status. It is al Qaeda, a group that hides amid civilians while making no pretense of governing them, that is the closer match.

Of special note is that this means that the once would-be members of Hamas' "political" wing can no longer plausibly claim such separation. If there is no Gaza body with governing responsibility during the crisis, then Hamas spokesmen can claim no parallel diplomatic protections. They are terrorists and nothing more.

Hunter Lazzaro

A humorist, satirist, and political commentator, Hunter Lazzaro has been writing about American news, politics, and culture for twenty years.

Working from rural Northern California, Hunter is assisted by an ever-varying number of horses, chickens, sheep, cats, fence-breaking cows, the occasional bobcat and one fish-stealing heron.


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