Israel vs. Hamas: What Should Be the United States’ Role?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs President Biden in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, October 18. Image Source: Axios

The Israel-Hamas war has dominated headlines and captured the attention of audiences around the world. Since Hamas launched its unwarranted and unprecedented surprise attack on Israel on October 7, the ensuing fighting has claimed thousands of lives on both sides. According to a Congressional Research Service report published on October 20, more than 1,400 Israelis and roughly 3,785 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed. That doesn’t include the 32 American citizens that have died and the over 200 hostages that have been taken. Every day, the number of casualties increases as more and more people fall victim to the conflict. Tragically, many of the casualties are innocent civilians.

It is easy to view the deaths in the Israel-Hamas war as an inevitable outcome of the violent circumstances. It is also just as easy to succumb to the belief that there is little the United States can do to remedy the situation in the short term, much less recover any long-term peace that was beginning to build in the region. However, there is no reason why we should accept the violence or believe the United States is powerless. Amid the chaos and uncertainty of what comes next, the United States should not retreat from its role as a global leader nor abandon its goal of lasting peace and stability in the Middle East. Due to its deeply rooted ties with Israel and its own experience in combating terrorist violence, the United States is in a unique position to use its diplomatic strength and ideological influence to be a mediator in the conflict.

The United States has a long-standing relationship with Israel. In 1948, the United States was the first nation to formally recognize Israeli statehood. In the 75 years since Israel’s independence, the United States has committed to supporting its security and development. Israel, by far, receives the most U.S. foreign aid. According to the State Department’s Foreign Assistance tracker, Israel received approximately $3.3 billion in aid, more than twice the amount of any other recipient. A significant portion of Israel’s aid is military financing, including funding for anti-ballistic missile programs such as the Iron Dome and the Arrow air defense system. Aside from military assistance, the United States has maintained strong economic and cultural ties with Israel through various bilateral trade agreements, like the U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Moreover, the United States has sought to promote Israel’s regional security by cooperating with other countries in the Middle East, such as Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

The United States has also fervently supported a two-state solution by dedicating millions of dollars to the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), which seeks to strengthen engagements between Israelis and Palestinians. Although the United States has put forth a genuine effort to secure Israel and promote peace in the region, support for a two-state solution has diminished. A recent Gallup poll showed that only around a quarter of Israelis and Palestinians still believe in the hope of a two-state solution. Not only that, the onset of the Israel-Hamas war has stifled other talks in the region. For example, it was reported that Saudi Arabia iced U.S.-backed plans to normalize ties with Israel. The deal was supposed to be transformative in the development of relations in the Middle East — but apparently, peace can wait. 

Despite some setbacks, the Biden Administration has made it clear that the United States is concerned about what’s happening between Israel and Hamas. President Biden’s visit to Israel on October 18, the first U.S. president to do so during wartime, was a profound symbol to the world. In a show of material support, the United States has sent military advisors to Israel and expedited shipments of arms sales. Additionally, the White House has been participating in hostage recovery conversations and negotiations asking for humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. While assisting Israel is necessary and critical, the United States should remember that its role in the conflict is more than supplying mere material support. When the world is looking at the Middle East and wonders what comes next, the United States needs to reaffirm its commitment to its enduring global mission – the promotion of international peace, equality, and democracy. 

While it’s reasonable to be cautious of the United States acting as the world’s police, if we don’t lead, who will? If the United States is to call itself the “indispensable nation,” it must maintain a foreign policy based not just on our interests but also on our values. We are for freedom everywhere, for equality for everyone, and when those values are challenged abroad, we must respond with American strength and leadership. Right now, our allies and adversaries are measuring the United States’ commitment to these values by assessing how we respond to the Israel-Hamas war and, in effect, demonstrate our leadership on the global stage. However, employing American strength and leadership does not always mean sending troops into combat or threatening the use of force. In fact, military force should always be the last resort. Indeed, the Biden Administration should be weary of posturing the U.S. military around Israel in an attempt to demonstrate force capability to our adversaries. Doing so will not deter conflict but entice it. Rather, the United States’ true strengths lie in its diplomatic corps and ideological influence as a world power. Thus, the United States should focus on using its diplomatic might to ensure that progress toward a two-state solution drives forward, just as it was before the war. 

Furthermore, the necessity for a rational and proportional war should not be understated. It is just to fight a war to defend the innocent and against an aggressor. Likewise, wars that are fought to execute justice are also just. Certainly, these principles are in Israel’s favor. Innocent Israeli citizens were brutally attacked by Hamas fighters. Therefore, the Israeli government reserves the right to protect its own citizens and national interests by responding with military force. However, as St. Augustine emphasized, war is not just unless it clearly discriminates between combatants and civilians. After a month of combat and over a week into its ground invasion, Israel has experienced challenges in abiding by this fundamental principle. Israel is fighting an enemy that is unafraid to use women and children as human shields and civilian infrastructure as command and control centers. Al Jazeera recently reported that Israel flattened a refugee camp in Gaza because it was believed to be a weapons stockpile and rocket firing position for Hamas. However, Israel lacked evidence to back its claims, and 50 Palestinians were killed. This has been the narrative of the war; there are countless other scenarios like it. Throughout the war, Israel has struggled to distinguish combatants from civilians and, quite frankly, has appeared to be less than interested in doing so. If Israel’s strategy, as Prime Minister Netanyahu proclaimed, is to eliminate and destroy Hamas completely, it is constricting its ability to conduct a just war and damaging its international credibility. 

The United States, as an ally and friend, should advise Israel to act according to the principles that make our nations great – ensuring justice while upholding the life and dignity of all people. It’s impossible to ignore the raw emotion and rage Israel feels. It’s equally criminal to disregard the humanity of people. During its two-decade-long campaign in the Middle East, the United States faced a similar challenge. Although justified in its initial response to the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, our mission in the Middle East waned as the years progressed. Instead of rising above the morality of our aggressors, we fell to their level of depravity. One of the most infamous examples is Abu Ghraib, a military prison in Iraq where U.S. personnel used torture and cruel interrogation techniques on detainees. While Abu Ghraib marred the United States’ credibility within the international community, it is an experience that should be shared in the hope that it will not be repeated. The United States should not be afraid to talk about its mistakes with Israel – sometimes, our mistakes are our greatest assets. We should continue to advise Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government to respond with rationality and proportionality, not emotion and rage so that more lives are not lost. 

To its credit, the Biden Administration recognizes the need to meet this moment. In his speech to the nation on October 19, President Biden established that although the conflict “seems far away,” it is ultimately “American leadership” that “holds the world together” and “American alliances” that “keep us safe.” The President also seized the opportunity to relate the Hamas attacks on Israel to the 9/11 attacks on America. In conceding that the United States was “enraged” and “made mistakes” during The Global War on Terror, it is clear that President Biden will use our lessons learned to encourage the government of Israel not to go down the same path. Therefore, even when it appears that hope is diminishing for Israelis and Palestinians, the world should be encouraged that the United States is working and striving to keep that hope alive. 

Still, although the United States government hopes for a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to the conflict, there is no guarantee that its efforts will come to fruition. As the events of the war continue to unfold, it’s wrong to use hope as a way to reduce human suffering. As Israelis and Palestinians grieve the loss of loved ones, they are simultaneously fighting to protect the people around them who are still alive. Consequently, it seems condescending at best to tell the victims of a brutal war to hold out because hope is on the way. To them, the promise of a peaceful future appears to be a false hope. Yet, it’s difficult to know one’s level of hope and commitment to a cause until those convictions are challenged. Perhaps this moment is a true test of hope for Israelis, Palestinians, the Middle East, the United States, and the world because it seems as though hope is all that’s left. If hope is truly all that remains, and we are forced to hang onto it like a rope over a precipice, what are the chances that it will actually hold? There is no real way to know the answer. But the unknown should not discourage the United States from pursuing what is right and just. In concert with its diplomatic power and global influence, the most important message the United States can and should give to the Israelis, Palestinians, and all those suffering from the war is that America is with you – we are standing behind you, and we are going to do everything we can to build and revive the hope for a peaceful Middle East.

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