October 13, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
‘We have to bear witness’
“We have become all too inured in the US and, some would argue globally, to obscene levels of inhumanity,” says Victoria Brownworth.
We’re now into the seventh day of the war between Israel and Hamas, with news about Israeli military forces sealing off the border around Gaza, their preparation for an anticipated ground offensive and an order this morning that nearly half of the region’s 2.3 million Palestinian residents must evacuate their homes in the next 24 hours.
Hamas, which launched the war, is calling the evacuation order “psychological warfare.” It’s telling residents to stay put, though Israel military forces have been pulverizing buildings in Gaza “neighborhood by neighborhood” for a week. The UN says it isn’t possible for that many people to move that quickly “without devastating humanitarian consequences.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was not told about the evacuation order during a visit to Israel, according to the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper said some “diplomats appeared surprised by the order for a broad evacuation of northern Gaza.”
“As with George W. Bush in 2001, it’s unclear how Netanyahu will land. He has long been a corrupt politician, but like Donald Trump in the US – though unlike Trump, a brilliant strategist – he has been able to continue to be a central figure in Israeli politics for decades.”
Victoria Brownworth is a reporter in Philadelphia who’s been following and writing about Israel and the Middle East for decades. I asked her to break down some of the fundamental things about the war, about politics in Israel and about the response to it all in America. Her Twitter feed has been for me a source of clarity and insight. I began by asking if the Hamas massacre was to Israel what Sept. 11 was to the US.
VB: That is only apt in that the Simchat Torah attack by Hamas was a surprise attack that killed a significant number of people. But Israel has a population of only 9 million and 1,200 people were killed within 24 hours and thousands wounded. There are hostages. It’s an ongoing siege. In the US, there were two targets, 3,000 were killed. There was no ground offensive in the US, no one going door-to-door dragging Americans from their homes and killing them, no mass shooting at a music festival like there was at Kibbutz Re’im Tribe of Nova, where 260 young people were machine-gunned to death. It’s a comparison about the significance of what happened to the US on 9/11 and how it altered our perceptions, but the attack on Israel is much more pervasive.
JS: In your Twitter feed, you said that Joe Biden was trying to be an honest broker. Why is that important? Explain that to normal people.
VB: Biden is working with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure the safety of the Israeli people, condemn the attack by Hamas and atrocities committed by them, but he’s also making distinctions between the Palestinians and Muslims and Hamas. He has stated repeatedly that Hamas are terrorists. He’s not giving them political or social status. That’s significant because Hamas controls Gaza. It is an unelected entity that rules by fiat. There have been no elections in Gaza since 2006. Hamas took power through a civil war with Fatah.
JS: The Republicans are blaming America first. How ironic is that?
VB: US Senator Tim Scott, of South Carolina, is trying to elevate his flailing presidential campaign by claiming the Biden administration funded this attack via Iran. He’s following other Republicans in the Senate and the House in making that false claim. This attack was planned over two years. US intelligence shows Iran was surprised by the attack. While it’s true that Iran funds Hamas, it’s unclear their role in this attack and as usual the Republicans are trying to deflect.
JS: Can you explain for us dummies the politics surrounding Prime Minister Netanyahu before and after the Hamas massacres?
VB: For 40 weeks prior, Israelis protested Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government. Thousands flooded the streets to protest Netanyahu’s plan to wrest control of the judiciary. (Biden urged against it.) Reservists in Israel refused to honor their service if Netanyahu followed through. Some say this flux, plus the 50-year anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, allowed the government to be caught off guard.
As with George W. Bush in 2001, it’s unclear how Netanyahu will land. He has long been a corrupt politician, but like Donald Trump in the US – though unlike Trump, a brilliant strategist – he has been able to continue to be a central figure in Israeli politics for decades.
JS: Biden was criticized for being too graphic. You defended him. Why?
VB: Biden was graphic in his two speeches because atrocity demands it. We have become all too inured in the US and, some would argue around the world, to obscene levels of inhumanity. In the US, we are inured to mass shootings and the machine-gunning of elementary school students in their classrooms. Imagine what an AR-15 did to a 10-year-old in Uvalde or a 6-year-old in Sandy Hook? We cannot afford to look away. Not at bloodied cribs in Kfar Aza, not at children pulled from the rubble in Gaza after an airstrike, not at Holocaust survivors escaping Nazis only to be dragged from their beds in Israel.
Journalists from the US and elsewhere have been reporting from the scenes of carnage – we have to bear witness. This was a mass and indiscriminate slaughter of Jews. That’s genocide. We also cannot look away from Gaza, because Palestinians do not equal Hamas. And Hamas is using their own people as human shields against the Israeli airstrikes. That will mean hundreds of dead Gazans, including children.
JS: You mentioned that Donald Trump may have been involved in the Hamas attack? How and what are most people missing about this?
VB: The classified documents that Trump stole from the White House after losing the election may have included security documents about Israel. This has been widely reported by the New York Times and other mainstream news outlets. In Israel, Haaretz, comparable to the Times in Israel, wrote in June about this as well. Who saw these documents and did Trump give such information to Russia, as has been suggested?
JS: Can you fill in some gaps about the evacuation news?
VB: In a news conference with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said “the camouflage of the terrorists is the civilian population. Therefore, we need to separate them. So those who want to save their lives, please go south.”
Israel said late Thursday it would allow no supplies into Gaza until Hamas frees the estimated 150 hostages that Hamas took on Saturday. There are at least 17 Americans among the hostages. There was a sneak raid by the IDF into Gaza on Friday night, Israel time, to try and ascertain where the hostages are and rescue them. The president spoke in a call with 14 of the families of hostages Friday.
An incursion into Gaza by Israeli forces would be an escalation of the war Hamas began on Oct. 7 and that Israel announced Oct. 8. Egypt has refused to open its border with Gaza, even as a humanitarian corridor. Blinken gave a press conference Friday afternoon from Qatar about the US’s effort to negotiate with Qatar, where much of Hamas leadership lives, to secure some help for Gaza civilians.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.