With global calls for a ceasefire in Gaza growing and criticism intensifying of US President Joe Biden’s handling of the conflict, his administration is sounding a tougher tone with Israel on trying to reduce civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip.
“We need do more to protect the Palestinian civilians,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on his visit to Israel on Friday. “We’ve been clear that, as Israel conducts its campaign to defeat Hamas, how it does so matters.”
With the reported death toll across Gaza closing in on 10,000 people, the question must be asked: is Israel listening?
The same day Mr Blinken was in Tel Aviv, an Israeli air strike on an ambulance near a Gaza hospital killed 15 people. Israel said the strike was aimed at Hamas. Then on Sunday, Israeli air strikes hit two refugee camps in the central Gaza Strip, killing scores of people, according to Gaza health officials.
After the horrors of the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on October 7, when militants murdered about 1,400 people and took about 240 hostage, Mr Biden was quick to stress America’s “forever” backing of Israel.
But as it rushed to defend its ally, the US also said there could be no “red lines” for the Israeli military’s campaign in Gaza, where it says the Hamas leadership is hiding in tunnels under schools, hospitals and homes. Any civilians that die are therefore Hamas’s sole responsibility, goes Israel's thinking.
With such unequivocal support, the Israeli military appears to know it can brush off global calls for a ceasefire, or even for watered-down “humanitarian pauses”, and face few consequences from its top benefactor, America.
The Pentagon provides more than $3 billion in annual military aid to Israel, and the US is working to send much more than that in emergency funding for the Gaza campaign.
Among the weapons the US provides are artillery shells, small diameter bombs, and Joint Direct Attack Munition kits that convert dumb bombs into precision-guided explosives. None of these come with any sort of end-use monitoring or accountability, so we don't know how they are being used.
Often when the US sells weapons to foreign governments, there are requirements that they not be used on civilians. It’s the same for Britain, another significant arms supplier to Israel. It also has no conditions about how Israel uses its weapons.
Last week, a Pentagon spokesman repeated the Defence Department’s talking points when pressed on the mounting civilian death toll in the Gaza Strip. “We continue to talk [to the Israeli military] about the importance of applying the laws of war, which includes proportionality, which includes taking into account civilians on the ground,” he said.
Yet at the same time, the Pentagon is also stressing it has no conditions on how Israel uses US weapons.
The disconnect between the purported pressure on Israel to avoid civilian deaths and the reality on the ground is impossible to ignore.
If civilians are killed with American bombs, that is just the unfortunate reality of fighting a designated terror group, appears to be the Biden administration's rationale. “I’m sure innocents have been killed and it’s the price of waging a war,” Mr Biden said in comments last month that outraged the Arab-American community.
He also sought to cast doubt on the numbers of civilians being killed in Gaza, saying he had “no notion” that the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry was telling the truth about how many people were dying.
Mr Biden, whose life has been beset with personal tragedy, was elected president in 2020 partly on the perceived strength of his common touch and compassion.
But comments such as the ones above have proven to be alienating for progressive and Arab-American voters whose support he will need if he is to beat Donald Trump, the putative Republican candidate, in the 2024 presidential election that is exactly one year away.
A new poll on Sunday showed that Mr Biden is losing ground in six of America’s most important battleground states, with Mr Trump siphoning off support on vital issues including the economy and foreign policy.
The former president, who last month criticised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and called Hezbollah “very smart”, scored better by 11 points over Mr Biden on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Arab Americans may not vote for Mr Trump, given his “Muslim ban” and support for white supremacists, but a lack of turnout could prove devastating for Mr Biden’s re-election campaign.
If Mr Biden wants to show that he is serious about pressuring Israel to do more to prevent civilian deaths, he must direct the State Department and Pentagon to impose end-use monitoring of US bombs.
Only then can there be a real conversation about which targets are being struck and why.