US Officials Acknowledge Moral Issues in Gaza, But Will They Do Anything?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Over the past several months, officials in Washington have acknowledged that one of the fundamental issues at stake in Israel’s military campaign in Gaza is its effect on the people of Gaza.

Even as the United States has continued helping Israel wage its military campaign, the highest-level officials in Washington have indicated that Israel’s operations have violated a basic moral principle by resulting in the deaths of so many innocent civilians.

“Far too many Palestinians have been killed, especially children,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in January.

Since October 7, the Israeli military has conducted a major offensive in Gaza, the Palestinian territory that is a stronghold of Hamas. After Hamas militants invaded Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people and abducting another 240 people, Israel launched a massive bombing campaign and ground invasion that has so far killed more than 27,000 people and displaced another 2 million.

Since the start of the war, critics have charged Israel with trying to destroy Gaza. A primary Israeli goal, they say, has been to depopulate Gaza, just as several Israeli officials have demanded.

U.S. officials have disavowed calls by Israeli officials to depopulate Gaza, knowing that they are inconsistent with international law.

“We reject the statements by some Israeli ministers and lawmakers calling for a resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza,” Blinken said in January. “These statements are irresponsible; they’re inflammatory.”

Other countries have take more direct action. South Africa has brought a case to the International Court of Justice in which it has accused Israel of committing genocide. Although the court did not rule on the charge of genocide or call on Israel to end its military offensive, it did permit the case to proceed and called on Israel to ensure that its forces do not commit acts of genocide in Gaza.

Although these charges have focused on Israel’s intent, there are additional moral considerations at stake. One concerns the consequences of Israel’s military campaign for the people of Gaza. For consequentialists, these consequences are critically important.

U.S. officials have acknowledged the necessity of taking into account the consequences of Israel’s actions. Over the course of Israel’s military operations, they have repeatedly insisted that they are monitoring the effects on the people of Gaza, even conveying these points to the highest-level Israeli officials.

When Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last November, he told him that it was not enough to intend to protect civilians. The manner in which Israel’s operations affect the people of Gaza is a fundamental consideration, Blinken said, even indicating that it is the key issue at stake.

“As I said to the prime minister, to the war cabinet, intent is obviously where you start and it’s vitally important,” Blinken explained, referring to an intent to protect civilians. “I’m very confident in the intent, but results, of course, are fundamentally what matters.”

For those in Washington who take the position that it is the consequences of Israel’s actions that ultimately matter, it is long past time for a reckoning. Not since the founding of Israel have so many Palestinians been killed in a conflict with Israel.

Israel’s military offensive has made Gaza uninhabitable. Israeli ground forces have razed neighborhoods. The air force has bombed mosques, schools, and hospitals. An estimated 30 percent of the buildings in Gaza have been destroyed or damaged. The risk of famine becomes worse with each passing day.

“The entire population of Gaza is enduring destruction at a scale and speed without parallel in recent history,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres observed in a statement to the UN Security Council in January. “Nothing can justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

What is truly extraordinary, however, is that officials in the Biden administration have supported Israel’s military offensive while acknowledging the devastating consequences for the civilian population.

In fact, the Biden administration has enabled Israel to maintain its offensive. It has vetoed a UN ceasefire resolution, continued to supply Israel with weapons, and brushed off calls to reduce the flow of U.S. weapons to Israel.

“We are not contemplating that,” State Department official Barbara Leaf said at a February 1 press briefing, referring to the possibility of reducing U.S. arms shipments to Israel.

Given the extent of the destruction of Gaza, many lower-level U.S. officials have come to question U.S. policy, fearing that it has been a moral failure. Hundreds have formally protested U.S. actions to the Biden administration, with some even resigning their positions.

“I know Secretary Blinken and President Biden will continue to emphasize the importance of addressing the issue of the Palestinian people,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said at a recent press conference. Still, “we’re not doing enough,” he acknowledged.

Indeed, the most powerful officials in Washington are still supporting Israel’s siege of Gaza, even while recognizing that it is violating basic moral principles, particularly as they concern the consequences of Israel’s operations for the people of Gaza.

This first appeared on FPIF.

Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.