As Gaza Burns, Where is Washington's "Respect for Norms" Now?

Fire billows from Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, on May 10, 2021. Israel launched deadly air strikes on Gaza in response to a barrage of rockets fired by the Islamist movement Hamas amid spiralling violence sparked by unrest at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. (Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)

As Gaza Burns, Where is Washington's "Respect for Norms" Now?

Lamentations for the dead and dying in Gaza from the Biden administration are nothing more than crocodile tears.

Washington DC -- In this city by a river, Rep. Liz Cheney is being lionized by the country's elites for defending the country's political "norms," that pretense of civility that allows people to discuss the immiseration and deaths of others with the proper level of decorum. When it comes to Israel's slaughter of Palestinians, however, there is no concern for civility, norms, or even international law. Savagery, not civility, rules the day.

Take the destruction of the al-Jalaa Tower, which held the offices of news outlets that included the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. It's a violation of international law to attack civilian targets with evidence of an immediate military threat. Al-Jalaa wasn't targeted because it posed an immediate danger. It was targeted because journalists worked there. The idea that it was an "intelligence center" for Hamas (which, incidentally, is the legitimately elected government of the area) was preposterous.

Even more absurd was the IDF's claim that Hamas was using civilians as "human shields" there. The building's occupants were given precisely one hour to escape. Journalists, residents, and others in the building fled without interference. "Human shields," by definition, cannot leave.

Burn Notice

The lying wasn't merely done to conceal a war crime. The bold transparency was a message to the world's media. Journalists: They know that you know they're lying. That was the point. They were taunting you with the fact that they can destroy and lie, and there's nothing you can do about it. You'll never catch them, never stop them, never fully reveal what they're doing--not as long as they have the backing of the world's largest superpower.

What else can explain the brutal arrogance behind Israeli "Defense" Minister Benny Gantz's statement that if Hamas rocket attacks mean "citizens of Israel have to sleep in shelters, then Gaza will burn"? This conveys the clear and premeditated intention to commit a war crime, by attacking a civilian population as an act of revenge. Gantz did not say that "we will attack military targets in Gaza" if rockets are fired, after all. He said the entire region would "burn."

Why? Again, because he knew he could.

Gantz is considered a "moderate" or "centrist" in Israeli politics, and ran to the left against right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But that comes with a caveat. In the Israel of recent decades, the "moderates" tend to be as hawkish and militaristic as the right. In Israel, "moderates" advocate superficially reasonable solutions while doing nothing to advance them, spew violent rhetoric at the drop of a hat, and back the military machine whenever it really counts.

In other words, it's a lot like the US.

Selective Outrage

Rep. Cheney, it should be remembered, is being lionized by Democrats and out-of-power establishment Republicans for reportedly "standing up for the rule of law" by voting for the impeachment of Donald Trump. (It's conveniently forgotten that Cheney has promoted unconstitutional voter suppression, and that she was put in politics by a father who lied to the public and committed war crimes.) Cheney has been refashioned as a voice of sanity against the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6.

The newly-formed Cheney Fan Club rightly condemns Trump and his most violent supporters for racist and violent rhetoric. They claim that, by voting to impeach Trump, Cheney affirmed the anti-democratic nature of Trump's speech, while provoked brutal attacks by some of his followers.

It's odd, then, that they don't have the same concern about Israel's politicians, whose rhetoric is even more extreme. Netanyahu, for example, likened Palestinians to "wild beasts" and said that Israel should handle Palestinians by "beat(ing) them up, not once but repeatedly, beat them up so it hurts so badly, until it's unbearable."

"I am happy to be a fascist!" said Miri Regev, said Netanyahu's Minister of Transportation. "A Jew always has a much higher soul than a gentile," said a former minister, "even if he is a homosexual."

There's more, but you get the idea: these extremist politicians triggered mobs and arsonists who make the January 6 crowd look like facilitators at a sensitivity seminar. And yet, somehow, the finely-tuned antennae of the civility crowd never vibrated. Few condemnations of this rhetoric, worse than Trump's, can be found in the town beside the Potomac.

America the Predictable

Not that Netanyahu and his ilk are always wrong. "I know what America is," Netanyahu once said. "America is a thing you can move very easily ..."

He had that right. As pictures of dead and dying children flash across the world's screens, we will undoubtedly hear cluck-clucking from some of America's politicians. We're already hearing that "diplomatic initiatives" are underway, now that death has already rained from the sky and great damage has been done. But what did America's leaders do when it counted, before the mass killing started, when their words could have saved lives?

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this on May 11: "I condemn the escalating and indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas against Israel. Israel has the right to defend herself against this assault, which is designed to sow terror and undermine prospects for peace."

For his part, President Biden said this on May 15: "Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory. My hope is that we'll see this coming to conclusion sooner rather than later."

Let's be clear: For Israel, these statements are a license to kill. They portrayed Israel as an innocent party, with no acknowledgement of its inciting actions in Sheikh Jarrah (the UN, seemingly unnoticed, called for a halt to the evictions there) and at the Al Aqsa Mosque. (The media didn't say much, either.) There was no call for "diplomatic initiatives" when these violent provocations began, and none in advance of Israel's military assault on the Palestinians. Just green lights, as far as they eye could see. Any lamentations now are nothing more than crocodile tears.

Gantz's threat was a promise of "collective punishment." As the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says, "Israel collectively punishes the population in Gaza by targeting homes and civilians."

This violation of norms, too, goes unnoticed in Washington's "civility first" circles. NPR described Biden's response to the escalating situation as "muted." "Cowardly" would be a better word. But then, leaders from both parties have looked the other way for decades as Israel illegally establishes settlements on stolen land in the occupied territories.

Before It Ends

Yes, some politicians on the Democratic Party's left are speaking out now, and that's good. But the real shift is happening elsewhere, in the hearts of people in the U.S. and around the world who have come to see that the occupation and its accompanying violence has to stop. It will stop, someday--not because the political establishment finally led the way, but because it could no longer stop the inevitable. But too many innocent people will die in the meantime.

The norms that we violate with this support of Israel aren't just the polite fictions of the powerful; that is, the norms celebrated in Washington. They're the norms laid down by law and ethics over thousands of years.

Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder whose actions debased the truths he spoke. But he did speak the truth at times, and never more so than when he addressed himself to those who profess faith but don't act on it. "I tremble for my country," he said, "when I reflect that God is just."