We cannot ignore the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza. The victims are not abstractions, nor are they the inevitable collateral damage of a just war. They are the result of choices Israeli leadership has made on how to pursue this just war.
To be sure, Hamas holds primary responsibility for this war and its casualties, having committed the horrific atrocities on Oct. 7 that provoked Israel’s response. Hamas also puts civilians in harm’s way by placing operations and facilities amid critical civilian infrastructure — which is a war crime.
But as an American citizen and U.S. foreign policy professional, my question is: What can the United States do to mitigate civilian harm and help secure peace?
The U.S. government has and must continue to condemn the acts of Hamas. But America’s leverage is over Israel, so that is where it can make a difference in this war.
Principal weapons supplier
The United States has no relationship with Hamas, having designated it a terrorist organization since 1997 and sanctioned anyone who associates or cooperates with it. In stark contrast, Israel has been a uniquely close U.S. partner for decades.
Israel has been in the top three recipients of American aid for half a century. The United States has been Israel’s principal weapons supplier since Israel was founded in 1948, providing $124 billion in military aid since then.
In the 1970s, the United States adopted a policy committed to ensuring that Israel maintains a “ qualitative military edge” over its neighbors. Since 2019, it has provided Israel nearly $4 billion in military aid annually. The Biden administration’s proposed $14 billion emergency aid request suggests that Israel continues to rely heavily on U.S. support.
This is America’s leverage, and the U.S. government has a responsibility to its own citizens to use it to ensure that Israel doesn’t conduct this war in a way that undermines America’s own interests — including peace and security in the region — such as facilitating unnecessary civilian harm.
U.S. hurt peace prospects
The uncomfortable truth is that unconditional U.S. military assistance for decades has likely undermined rather than enhanced prospects for peace by insulating the Israeli government from the need to resolve the Palestinian question.
For most of the last 15 years, Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership has put Israel on a dangerous and provocative path. From undermining the Iran nuclear deal, to expanding settlements in the West Bank, to complicity with rampant settler violence and illegal seizure of Palestinian land that continues today, Netanyahu has only stoked conflict. He abandoned any pretense of pursuing a two-state solution and instead launched a containment strategy that kept Hamas strong enough to subvert the Palestinian Authority and to keep talks of a peace agreement at bay.
The U.S. government watched these developments with alarm but continued to rely on quiet diplomacy, which clearly failed, dismissing calls for harsher action such as making U.S. military support conditional on Netanyahu’s government changing course. This has served neither Israelis nor Americans well.
The time has come for the United States to take a harder stand and use its military support to help put Israel on a better path to peace.
This means convincing the Israeli government to heed U.S. advice to mitigate civilian harm in its fight against Hamas. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made clear, the United States supports Israel’s right to defend itself, but “ how Israel does this matters.” U.S. policy prohibits the transfer of weapons when they are likely to be used in ways that cause excessive civilian harm.
Minimize the damage
Some civilian harm is inevitable in an urban space as dense as Gaza, and Israel must take the fight to Hamas there. But U.S. civilian and military officials have made clear that they believe Israel can and must do more to minimize the damage.
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The U.S. military has experience with urban warfare and has provided specific guidance to Israel on how to approach it. This includes using much smaller bombs, gathering more intelligence prior to strikes and employing ground forces to separate civilians from militant areas. It would also require far more humanitarian support and a pause in fighting to facilitate it.
Israel has so far rejected these calls, laying blame on Hamas for any civilian harm. This approach is dangerous, not only for moral reasons — Gazan civilians should not have to pay for Hamas’ crimes — but also because more civilian harm will lead only to more extremism. The trauma Gaza’s children live through today, for those who survive, will make ripe recruiting for future terrorist groups.
The U.S. government must condition transfer of additional military assistance on Israel demonstrating to U.S. authorities that it is taking every reasonable step to minimize civilian harm and lay a path forward for peace. This is in the interest of America, Israel and the broader region. In fact, a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey conducted in September found that more than half of Americans supported placing restrictions on U.S. military aid to Israel so that Israel could not use that aid toward military operations against Palestinians. Netanyahu would be wise to heed such a warning, and he will if the United States really means it.
It is politically difficult for the United States to put any strings on aid to Israel, but if the U.S. government cannot bring itself to do so, then we hold some responsibility for these deaths too.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat. ©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.