Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
October 31, 2023
Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee about the need to fund military aid to both Ukraine and Israel, along with humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza and increased U.S. border security, rather than accept the new measure from extremist House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA). Johnson wants to split off funding for Israel into its own bill and couple it with cuts to the Internal Revenue Service. Those cuts would dramatically decrease tax audits of those with the highest income and thus decrease revenue for the U.S. Treasury; they are popular with Republicans.
Johnson and other extremist Republicans have made it clear they are not interested in continuing to help Ukraine fight off Russia’s invasion.
Blinken and Austin got strong support not only from Senate Democrats, but also from many Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who explained why it is important for the United States to “help Ukraine win the war” in a speech at the University of Louisville where he introduced Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova.
“If Russia prevails, there’s no question that Putin’s appetite for empire will extend to NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], raising the threat to the U.S. transatlantic alliance and the risk of war for America. Such an outcome would demand greater permanent deployment of our military force in Europe, a much greater cost than the support we have provided to Ukraine. And of course, Russian victory would embolden Putin’s growing alliance with fellow authoritarian regimes in Iran and China.”
“So this is not just a test for Ukraine,” McConnell said. “It’s a test for the United States and the free world.”
But at the Senate hearing, protesters from CodePink, the group that describes itself as “a feminist grassroots organization working to end U.S. warfare and imperialism,” had a different agenda. They held up their hands, covered in red paint, with the word “GAZA” written on their forearms, repeatedly interrupting Blinken and calling for an end to funding for Israel, citing what the organization calls “Israel’s genocide of Palestine.”
Over the weekend, as Palestinian militants continued to fire rockets into Israel and skirmish with Israeli troops, Israel began to push into northern Gaza in a ground operation U.S. officials said had been changed from the originally planned massive Israeli ground offensive to “surgical” strikes that would hit high-value Hamas targets but spare Palestinian civilians.
That advance was accompanied by even fiercer airstrikes than previous ones, and today an attack on a Palestinian refugee camp appears to have caused significant civilian loss. The Israeli military said the attack “eliminated many terrorists and destroyed terror infrastructure,” with underground Hamas installations collapsing and taking adjacent buildings down with them.
From the time of Hamas’s initial strike against Israel on October 7, the Biden administration has been keen to stop the crisis from spreading. President Joe Biden was firm in his repeated declarations that the U.S would stand firmly behind Israel, warning “any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t. Don’t.”
To deter militants backed by Iran, the U.S. moved two American aircraft carrier strike groups into the region. After repeated drone strikes against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, on Wednesday, October 25, Biden warned Iran that the U.S. would respond if Iran continued to move against U.S. troops. On October 27 the U.S. carried out airstrikes against munitions stockpiles stored at two facilities in eastern Syria linked to militants backed by Iran. Secretary of Defense Austin emphasized that the U.S. actions were “precision self-defense strikes” and were separate from the conflict in Gaza.
Drone attacks on U.S. troops in the area have increased, and the Institute for the Study of War assessed today that Iranian-backed militants, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “are creating the expectation in the information environment that Hezbollah will escalate against Israel on or around November 3.” The U.S. today announced it is sending 300 additional troops to U.S. Central Command, whose responsibility includes the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of South Asia, to protect U.S. troops from drone attacks by Iran-backed militant groups. Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters the troops are not going to Israel.
In addition to trying to hold off Iran from expanding the conflict, the U.S. has been trying to support Israel’s right to respond while also demanding that Israel follow the rules of war. The U.S. has firmly condemned the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians as “an act of sheer evil.” That evil included the taking of hostages—which is a war crime—including U.S. citizens.
But, all along, the administration has warned Israel that it must not violate international law in its retaliation for the attack. On October 18, in a remarkable admission, Biden advised Israelis not to be consumed by their rage. “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”
Responding to the October 7 massacre, he said, “requires being deliberate. It requires asking very hard questions. It requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment about whether the path you are on will achieve those objectives.”
Despite the administration’s warnings, while international eyes are on Gaza, according to the United Nations, settlers in the West Bank encouraged by the policies of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have killed at least 115 Palestinians, injured more than 2,000 more, and forcibly displaced almost 1,000. The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross are concerned that Israel’s pursuit of Hamas militants has led it to commit war crimes of its own, enacting collective punishment on the civilians of Gaza by denying them food, water, and electricity as well as instructing them to leave their homes, displacing well over a million people.
While the U.S. says it does not trust the numbers of casualties asserted by Hamas, it believes from other sources that there have been “many thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza thus far in the conflict…. Way too many.” Today the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby, reminded reporters: “We aren’t on the ground fighting in this war. There’s no intent to do that…. [T]hese are Israeli military operations. They get to decide what their aims and strategy are. They get to decide what their tactics are. They get to decide how they’re going to decide to go after Hamas.
“We’re doing everything we can to support them—including providing our perspectives, including asking them hard questions about their aims and their strategy and—the kind of questions we’d ask ourselves.”
The administration appears to be trying to defend Israel’s right to self-defense in the face of a massacre that took the lives of 1,400 Israelis, while also trying to recover the hostages, get humanitarian aid into Gaza, and prevent U.S. ally Israel from committing war crimes in retaliation for the attack. It is also insisting there must be a long-term plan for Israel and the Palestinians. To that end, it is throwing its weight behind the long-neglected two-state solution.
On October 27, U.S. Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield echoed Biden’s statement that “there is no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6th. We must not go back to the status quo where Hamas terrorizes Israel and uses Palestinian civilians as human shields,” she said. “And we must not go back to the status quo where extremist settlers can attack and terrorize Palestinians in the West Bank. The status quo is untenable and it is unacceptable.”
“[W]hen this crisis is over,” she said, “there has to be a vision of what comes next. In our view, that vision must be centered around a two-state solution. Getting there will require concerted efforts by all of us—Israelis, Palestinians, regional partners, and global leaders—to put us on a path for peace. To integrate Israel with the region, while insisting that the aspirations of the Palestinian people be part of a more hopeful future.”
The current crisis might have made that two-state solution more possible than it has been for a generation. Neither Hamas nor Netanyahu’s government supports a two-state solution, but other leaders in the region, including Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, say they do.
Hamas has little support outside of Iran, and up to 80% of Israelis blame Prime Minister Netanyahu for the October 7 attack. His leadership of a right-wing coalition has shielded him from corruption charges even as his attempts to gain more control over Israeli society sparked the largest protests in Israeli history, and there is no doubt the attack and his response to it have weakened him dramatically. At a news conference yesterday, a reporter asked if he would resign.
The recent peace talks in Egypt excluded Hamas, Iran, and Israel. Instead, the organizers invited Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority that oversees the West Bank. President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have been meeting with officials from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. On Friday, Blinken will travel back to Israel to meet with officials there, after which he will make other stops in the region.