On Monday July 3, while Israeli forces were raiding the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, in a ground and aerial assault that forced thousands of Palestinian civilians to evacuate their homes, U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Fourth of July event in Jerusalem. They talked about the close bond between the United States and Israel, and smiled for the cameras.
During the Israeli military's two-day raid—the largest in the West Bank since the Second Intifada—the U.S. effectively lent its support to Israel. A spokesperson for President Joe Biden's National Security Council told the press, "We support Israel's security and right to defend its people against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups." That echoed Israel's claims that over 50 attacks against Israelis originated in Jenin over the past two years, as the far-right Israeli government presented its lethal incursion into a densely populated civilian area as a necessary "counterterror operation" targeting Palestinian militants, command posts and arms caches.
The contrasting scene between Jenin and Jerusalem was reminiscent of the May 14, 2018 inauguration of the new U.S. Embassy in Israel, which then-President Donald Trump moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, upending decades of American policy. Trump's daughter, Ivanka, nominally a White House adviser, smiled for the cameras as she officially opened the embassy in West Jerusalem before a crowd of Israeli dignitaries. Less than 50 miles away, Israeli soldiers shot at hundreds of Palestinians demonstrating in Gaza along its border during the "Great March of Return" protests, killing 60 Palestinians that day. Biden has not reversed the embassy's relocation to Jerusalem; nor has he reopened the American consulate in East Jerusalem that Trump shuttered, as he promised.
The Biden administration is sending a message of tacit approval to Israel that it is free to operate as it sees fit in the West Bank, even if that includes a full aerial assault on a refugee camp.
- Mairav Zonszein
Israel's assault on Jenin, with air strikes bombarding a densely populated urban area, was another step in bringing the doctrine of "mowing the grass" that Israel regularly employs in Gaza—bombing the besieged and blockaded strip to supposedly degrade and deter Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, while devastating the territory's civilian infrastructure—to the West Bank. And just as in Gaza, the Jenin operation did nothing to change the basic reality of the military occupation, or Palestinians' resistance to it: There have already been two separate attacks on Israelis since the raid was launched.
The Biden administration is sending a message of tacit approval to Israel that it is free to operate as it sees fit in the West Bank, even if that includes a full aerial assault with drones on a refugee camp. European governments also quietly backed the incursion, with the caveat of reminding Israel of its obligation to protect civilians. This, even after Israeli soldiers shot and killed Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin just last year—with no one expected to be held accountable; even as Israeli settlers rampage through West Bank villages with no one facing prosecution for harming or even killing Palestinians or damaging their properties; and even as the Israeli government is openly plowing ahead with ever-more settlement expansion and incrementally extending its own legal framework over the occupied West Bank in a process of piecemeal annexation.
Two people who were not invited to the U.S. Embassy's Fourth of July party in Jerusalem are two notorious far-right elements in Netanyahu's government: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. The Biden administration has effectively been boycotting both ministers, who are militant settlers themselves, since they assumed power in December 2022. (Netanyahu has also not gotten an invite to the White House, primarily because he is leading anti-democratic legislation that undermines the Israeli judiciary's checks and balances on government power.)
But this de facto boycott of what the U.S. apparently deems the Israeli government's most objectionable members has had no effect on Israeli actions. U.S. and European governments' refusal to engage with Ben Gvir and Smotrich has, in practice, left both ministers to their own devices—tantamount to giving them and the violent settlers they represent a green light to press on. The message being heard in Jerusalem is, the West will not interfere.
In the six months since Netanyahu regained power and formed the most far-right government in Israeli history, it has approved a record 13,000 new settlement housing units in the West Bank, according to Israeli anti-occupation group Peace Now. Western governments have merely repeated their boilerplate condemnations, saying settlements, which are illegal under international law, are "obstacles to peace." Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry, has been granted authority over all aspects of enforcing the law regarding all construction in the West Bank. Since he assumed those powers, enforcement of the law against illegal settlement construction has dropped significantly, while he defiantly announced his intention to double the number of settlers in the West Bank.
When the outside powers providing Israel with vital military aid and diplomatic cover take no action in the face of Israel's brazenness, the message heard in Jerusalem—and in the small, radical Israeli settlements on West Bank hilltops—is that violence works, and carries Western approval.
- Mairav Zonszein
Meanwhile, on top of Israel's military occupation and ever-expanding settlements across the West Bank, Palestinians are increasingly terrorized by settler violence, which Israeli defense officials have even admitted is being enabled by government policy. Those in power—particularly Ben Gvir, who oversees the police force—are undermining efforts and resources needed to curb settler attacks targeting Palestinian towns and villages.
The Biden administration has myriad tools at its disposal—both public and less so—to hold Israel accountable for its destructive unilateral actions in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. These include enforcement of the Leahy Law, which could limit U.S. aid to certain IDF units that are found to engage in gross human rights violations; removing its opposition to the International Criminal Court investigation into Israeli war crimes; and linking any cooperation between the U.S. and Israel on Iran on Israel halting settlement expansion and displacement of Palestinian communities in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank that remains under direct Israeli administrative and military control.
But instead of using any of these tools, the White House has been dangling the prospect of helping Israel normalize ties with Saudi Arabia, as an extension of the Abraham Accords, in the hope of incentivizing Israel's far-right leaders to not worsen the situation even more. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said, "We told our friends and allies in Israel that if there's a fire burning in their backyard, it's going to be a lot tougher, if not impossible, to actually both deepen the existing [normalization] agreements, as well as to expand them, to include potentially Saudi Arabia." Yet there is no evidence to suggest that Israel will halt its incremental annexation of the West Bank, even if it slows down on occasion, due to vague incentives.
When the outside powers providing Israel with vital military aid and diplomatic cover take no action in the face of Israel's brazenness—as it expands more settlements, displaces more Palestinians, slowly annexes occupied Palestinian territory, grants violent settlers impunity, and bombs Jenin and Gaza from the air—the message heard in Jerusalem, and in the small, radical Israeli settlements on West Bank hilltops, is that violence works, and carries Western approval.