Aid workers’ deaths may well be a turning point in the Gaza war

  • 2024-04-06 01:11:00

The killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza is seen as the tipping point for humanitarian aid after six months of a war that has claimed the lives of more than 32,000 Palestinians, and 196 aid workers, most of them from UN agencies. This time, though, it was an organization and its founder, both household names in Washington, that brought the war to America’s doorstep. Jose Andres is well known and respected in the US capital, with even President Joe Biden describing him as “a friend.”

The deaths of seven of Andres’ staff in Gaza, including an American, sparked outrage in Washington, from the president and his administration to Democrats in Congress and the wider policy community — this in addition to the worldwide fallout. Many of the workers came from countries allied with the US, and their leaders made their voices heard loudly with Washington. This anger translated into a decisive phone call, some say months late, between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The official White House statement was short and policy oriented, quoting the president telling Netanyahu that the “strikes on humanitarian workers and the overall humanitarian situation are unacceptable.” After asking for, announcing and implementing “a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm,” it delivered a warning. The statement said the president “made clear that US policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.”

But, most importantly, Biden “underscored that an immediate ceasefire is essential to stabilize and improve the humanitarian situation,” asking Netanyahu to “empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay to bring the hostages home.” The president was telling Netanyahu “to bring this war to an end,” as former US official Martin Indyk tweeted.

The US media picked up on the warning, and on what it called a threat of change in American policy if Israel did not change course, especially on humanitarian aid. “A blinking red light for Israel in American politics,” headlined Politico. But this red light did not come easy or fast.

Even after the killing of the aid workers, the White House said there would be no change in policy, despite rising tensions in the Israel-American relationship, the immense pressure on Biden and the White House, and the bad news for the president’s reelection campaign because of his stand on the Gaza war.

The tension between Washington and Tel Aviv was best illustrated by a story on NBC News about the virtual meeting between top US and Israeli officials to discuss Israeli plans for a ground invasion of Rafah. The report recounted how an Israeli official “began yelling and waving his arms around” after the Americans appeared skeptical of Israel’s plan to move the Palestinians in Rafah to tents north of the city. The Economist wrote “Israel’s relations with America reach breaking point.”

The leaked stories, and increased criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war and behavior were not matched with the right US action, or sometimes were matched with a contradictory action, leading to confusion over the exact policy. On the day of the aid workers’ deaths, the Washington Post revealed that the Biden administration had approved “the transfer of thousands more bombs to Israel.” The administrations’ strategy on humanitarian issues, the “key pillar of its approach to the crisis, now seems to be failing,” wrote Josh Rogin.

The impression in Washington was that Israel is not listening to the president, and this makes him look “weak.”

A report on Israel’s use of artificial intelligence to identify targets in Gaza had a chilling effect, even in a city as jaded as Washington, with some to pointing to a “structural problem,” and calling for addressing “a broader issue than a single strike,” as Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the advocacy group J Street, wrote.

But the most important pressure on Biden came from his strongest supporters in Congress, his fellow Democrats who were angered by the Israeli action, especially Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who reacted to the Israeli attack saying: “Enough is enough.” These Democratic lawmakers were outraged, widening the rift between them and the White House. They requested a halt to US military aid until an internal American investigation showed whether US rules concerning arms transfers were violated. In a letter last month, they urged the president “to enforce rules restricting US weapons transfers to countries that impeded humanitarian aid.”

The president told Muslim community leaders at the White House that his wife, Jill, was urging him to end the war, telling him to “stop it, stop it now.”