Even before Israel began its heavier ground incursion into Gaza on October 27, accompanied by accelerated bombings of the occupied territory, the situation on the ground was already severe.
According to the Gaza-based Ministry of Health, as of Saturday midday, there were 7,703 fatalities, 1.4 million internally displaced people, and more than 19,700 injuries. At least 29 journalists have died, along with at least 53 United Nations employees. The “complete siege” Israel declared on the already blockaded territory after Hamas’s October 7 attacks has resulted in three weeks rationing of food, water, medicine, and fuel for a population of 2.2 million people. As a Mercy Corps staffer in Gaza said earlier this week, “know that we are dying here; if we are not dead physically, we are dead on the inside.”
The toll from what Israel Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called the war’s “new phase” is only starting to become clear. Israel appeared to have shut off communications in Gaza. International aid groups and press organizations lost contact with their staff, creating an information vacuum.
Beyond the numbers of the dead and wounded, the extent of the bombardment and the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza are best expressed so far by a handful of firsthand accounts that were able to reach outside the territory. “The amount of explosions is massive. Endless explosions. We’re talking about an explosion every single minute. The sky is orange,” journalist Hind Khoury said in a voice note from Gaza City shared with Vox via the nonprofit Institute for Middle East Understanding.
Israel suffered tremendous atrocities at the hands of Hamas, with more than 1,400 people killed, while the militant group holds 229 hostages in Gaza. Rocket fire from the territory continues to target Israel. But the degree of Israel’s shelling of Gaza and the first indications of what may become a lengthy, intensive ground operation pose critical risks for the Middle East and the world. And among those dangers is a political one for the White House: It’s becoming clear that while the Israeli military is carrying out this attack, much of the world views Israel’s assault on Gaza as enabled by the United States — as President Joe Biden’s war.
Biden has reportedly counseled Israel behind the scenes to delay a ground assault, and in recent days the administration has been more forward in its warnings that an open-ended full-scale invasion would be disastrous. America doesn’t have boots on the ground in Israel, and it’s not clear under what, if any, conditions the US would get involved. US Marine Gen. James Glynn had been advising Israel’s operations and departed the country on the 27th. “Make no mistake: what is, has, or will unfold in Gaza is purely an Israeli decision,” he told reporters.
But that is clearly not how the Middle East, and much of the world, sees it. The focus instead is on the decades of US backing for Israel, across administrations. It’s on the US-provided weaponry that Israel is using, much of it purchased with the $3.8 billion of annual aid Washington provides; on the symbolism of two US aircraft carriers being dispatched to the Middle East; on how the US has used its veto to shield Israel from United Nations resolutions. Most striking is the image of the giant bear hug, both actual and metaphorical, that President Biden gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visited Israel on October 18.
The perception of Biden’s ownership of this war will only grow as Israel expands and extends its siege of Gaza. That’s bad for Biden’s electability with so many young American voters increasingly critical of his unfettered backing of Israel. It’s bad for US influence when it comes to other hot and cold wars where the US seeks the support of traditional allies, including Ukraine. And it’s especially bad for Arab and Muslim states, as well as countries across the Global South, where massive protests against Israel’s military campaign have also singled out the president.
“From the US point of view, I think the real dilemma is, the Biden administration is effectively backing a partner state, an ally, who is facing this no-win situation,” Emma Ashford of the Stimson Center think tank said recently. “Whatever the Israeli government ends up doing, the US government is going to be tied to that.”
Why the world sees this as Biden’s war
The perception of US support for Israel has been built over a half-century of substantial American military and diplomatic backing.
The United States has given Israel about $243.9 billion over time, adjusted for inflation. The advanced weaponry that the US has given Israel, and that it’s the single biggest beneficiary of US foreign aid, contributes to the idea of the two countries being in lockstep.
The US arms industry that enables the ongoing siege of Gaza is particularly close to Israel. On quarterly earnings calls this week, executives from the military contracting giants RTX, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman acknowledged the heinous attacks on Israel and obliquely mentioned how geopolitical developments would contribute to bigger Pentagon budgets and product orders, but made no mention of the situation in Gaza other than anodyne calls for peace or vague concerns about the humanitarian situation. Wes Kremer, the president of RTX subsidiary Raytheon, announced this week the construction of a new facility in Arkansas to build missiles for Israel’s Iron Dome system.
It’s also the years of largely unquestioned US support for Israel, across administrations from both parties, while the country has engaged in policies in the occupied West Bank that human rights organizations describe as apartheid and has squeezed Gaza with severe limits on aid. The US-led process toward a Palestinian state has been in formaldehyde since 2014.
A prime example of how the US has supported Israel has played out at the UN Security Council. Numerous presidential administrations have used their veto over the years to protect Israel from resolutions that condemn its policies. Most recently, on October 18, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield vetoed a Brazil-led resolution that called for a humanitarian pause.
On Friday, as Israel held Gaza in the dark, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution that called for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities.” There were 120 countries voting in favor of the measure led by Arab states, while the US was among the 14 votes against. (Others included Hungary, Austria, Czechia, and several Pacific Island countries.) The Biden administration said it was because the resolution did not condemn Hamas’s initial attack or mention the ongoing hostage situation.
Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi of Jordan, one of the US’s closest Middle East partners, put it bluntly: that voting against the resolution “means approving this senseless war.”
Massive protests against Israel’s actions — 3,000 people marching to the US Embassy in Jakarta, tens of thousands in London on Saturday, and widespread protests in the Arab world and in the occupied West Bank — don’t typically separate Israel from the US role. Arab leaders may say they support Israel’s destruction of Hamas behind closed doors but are less likely to make such declarations aloud, because public attitudes count in undemocratic countries, too.
The US is seen above and beyond as Israel’s most crucial backer. Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj drew Netanyahu as a fighter jet dropping bombs on mosques, hospitals, and civilians in Gaza, with Biden in aviators spreading his arms as if he were the plane’s wings.
Could the US policy approach change from within or without?
While Biden’s core team of advisers appear in alignment, signs of dissent within the Biden administration grow each day Israel’s intensive bombardment of Gaza continues. Josh Paul, a senior State Department official in the bureau that signs off on arms sales, resigned in protest on October 18. He acknowledged Biden’s efforts to deescalate Israel’s response and expressed frustration with “rushing more arms to one side of the conflict, that I believe to be shortsighted, destructive, unjust, and contradictory to the very values that we publicly espouse.”
Other senior State Department employees reportedly plan to convey their concerns through the dissent channel. The White House has hosted listening sessions, and senior administration leaders have started to adjust their rhetoric. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is tweeting about Palestinian rights. “As hard as it is, we cannot give up on peace,” President Biden posted. “We cannot give up on a two-state solution.”
But how the administration is actually handling the situation in Gaza — not calling for a ceasefire and largely unable to ensure that even the basic minimum of humanitarian aid enters the territory — offers a more accurate display of its policy. The US may have pushed for a narrower ground assault, but it’s not opposed to one in general. Biden, for example, has said Israel has a right and an obligation to respond to Hamas’s October 7 attack. And the current policy has been criticized by the UN, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, Save the Children, and other groups, which have urged a ceasefire.
Even leaders of loyal Democratic Party institutions in Washington have criticized Biden’s approach. “There’s nothing complicated about being able to say killing innocent people is wrong and needs to stop,” Patrick Gaspard, the president of the Center for American Progress, posted. “We said it when it was Hamas. We can say it now that it’s Israel. This is wrong. This needs to stop.”
In foreign policy, perception can be reality, and at some point, US support for Israel will be seen as active participation. It may not matter that the US is not directly involved, or that Biden has taken steps to try to reduce the toll, or that a President Donald Trump would likely be putting no restraints on Israel, much as current Republican candidates have called for. There’s something different now that transcends US support for Israel over decades and several Gaza wars, with longtime US negotiator Aaron David Miller having famously called Washington “Israel’s lawyer.” The scale of this invasion will almost certainly be lethal beyond the scope of previous wars, and many critics will say that the US has not done enough to stop the killing.
The billions of dollars of high-tech weaponry has been thought to have bought the US some leverage over Israel. Now the limits of that influence are apparent. “If such leverage exists, yet isn’t employed to halt civilian bombings, it signals complicity, demanding accountability from those responsible,” Nancy Okail, the executive director of the Center for International Policy, a progressive foreign policy think tank, posted.
Of course, the Biden administration does not want to be drawn into a larger war. The president has repeatedly warned the militant group Hezbollah and countries like Iran to stay out of it, and much of his focus in the moment is likely in employing US power in the region to ensure that remains the case.
Last week, the US’s military bases in Iraq and Syria, and its aircraft carrier passing by Yemen, came under rocket fire from militants. In response, Biden authorized “narrowly tailored” strikes on Iran-backed militias in Syria. Such tit-for-tats have happened with some frequency in recent years, but the context of Israel’s Gaza incursion raises the stakes considerably.
As Sarah Leah Whitson, a human rights lawyer who directs Democracy for the Arab World Now, put it, “This is now Biden’s war.”
Correction, 9:15 pm ET: An earlier version of this story misstated Ukraine’s response on the UN General Assembly resolution. The country abstained from the vote.