World / December 18, 2023

Bernie Sanders’s Incoherent, Pernicious Gaza Cease-Fire Position, Explained

Instead of demanding that we end the war that actually exists, Sanders is lobbying for a humane war that Israel has zero interest in.

Adam Johnson
Senator Bernie Sanders arrives for a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on unions on November 14, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Senator Bernie Sanders arrives for a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on unions on November 14, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

(Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

There’s been a lot of confusion over Senator Bernie Sanders’s position on the Gaza war. On the one hand, few elected officials have been more harshly critical of Israel’s siege and relentless bombing of Gaza. On the other hand, he refuses to join global calls—by everyone from Oxfam to Amnesty International to Doctors Without Borders, along with a growing number of his congressional colleagues, including both of the other elected federal officials from Vermont—for a longer-term cease-fire. Instead, Sanders has stuck to his demand for something fairly boutique and not backed by any major human rights or Palestinian organizations: a “temporary” cease-fire—ostensibly, so aid can get into Gaza and Israel can propose a plan for a more humane strategy to “eliminate Hamas.”

In and of itself, another temporary pause is not a bad thing. But it’s neither a useful or morally sound larger strategy. The week after the November 24–December 1 “humanitarian truce,” Israel, according to the Euro-Med human rights monitor, increased the rate of daily killing 40 percent, effectively just making up for lost time. And the number of Palestinian prisoners released from prison ended up being dwarfed by the total number of Palestinian civilians Israeli occupation forces has arrested in the West Bank since October 7. Hamas freed more than 100 Israeli hostages, which is great news, but in the face of over 18,000 dead Palestinians, that is a relatively small humanitarian victory.

If Sanders were only refusing to call for a longer-term cease-fire, it would be reputation-tarnishing but perhaps not worthy of a column-length rebuke. But Sanders—either because of partisan or personal loyalty to the president or a misguided belief that neat and clean regime change is a realistic option—is doing something far more harmful: He’s actively lobbying against the logic of a longer cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. As someone viewed by many in Congress and media as the furthest left pole of “acceptable” left-wing opinion, this has undermined the big tent demand among Palestinian groups, aid groups, and human rights groups for a longer-term cease-fire.

Sanders has repeatedly argued on national TV that a permanent cease-fire with Hamas is not only inadvisable but impossible. He told CBS’s Face the Nation on December 10, “I don’t know how you have a permanent cease-fire with Hamas, who has said before October 7 and after October 7 that they want to destroy Israel.” Such statements have been gleefully clipped and shared by the right-wing American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC):

On their face, Sanders’s comments about a cease-fire with Hamas being impossible because of its desire to destroy Israel make sense. If one doesn’t look too hard, it has the right tough-guy War on Terror vibes. But upon further examination, what Sanders is saying is ahistorical demagoguery. Far from spurning negotiations with Hamas, Israel has entered into cease-fires with the group over a dozen times since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2006. Both sides have broken the cease-fires, but some have lasted several months or even several years. These cease-fires have historical precedent, and this is one major reason most of the human rights, medical, and humanitarian world has rallied around this demand. It’s happened many times before, and there’s a framework for it to happen again. Now, these longer-term cease-fires are not the same thing as “peace”—no indefinite military occupation and blockade can ever be the same as peace—but they are a necessary antecedent to any step toward a resolution to the conflict, no matter how far off the prospect seems right now. What comes after a cease-fire is a complex and difficult question, but “stop killing a kid every 10 minutes” ought to be a baseline demand for any positive outcome.

The reason Sanders opposes a longer cease-fire is that he explicitly supports the logic of Israel’s stated aim to overthrow Hamas. In doing so, he is advocating what is effectively a time-out so that Israel can present Congress with a more humane alternative to its current strategy of what President Joe Biden himself calls “indiscriminate bombing.” (It’s rare for a sitting president to casually admit that he’s a party to a war crime, but we live in strange times).

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There’s only one problem with this approach: Israel has shown zero interest in executing a humane or “targeted” war, because it clearly views every person in Gaza as a legitimate target. As I explained last week in The Nation, the logic of Israel’s military campaign—as evidenced by its rhetoric and actions—is one of collective punishment and forcible population transfers. This is the reality of Israel’s war. Opposing an actionable demand that Biden push for a longer cease-fire in hopes that the very nature of Israel’s approach to “eliminating Hamas” will magically change is the worst combination of narcissism and delusion. Instead of joining the calls for a longer-term cease-fire, Sanders is alone, holding out hope that the the Israeli coalition government will suddenly shift.

If Sanders has some unique insight that Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Action Against Hunger, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Red Cross, or the International Federation for Human Rights doesn’t have, he should share it. If Sanders feels he knows better than his labor allies at the American Postal Workers Union, United Auto Workers, and National Nurses United, he should explain why.

“But October 7 changed everything” is a common retort to those pointing out that a cease-fire framework exists and ought to be used as a basis to end the current slaughter. “Israel simply cannot let Hamas survive after what they did,” one often hears.

Again, this is one of these very serious statements people make without really thinking them through. It just sort of sounds profound and meaningful. But Israel cannot and will not “eliminate Hamas” from Gaza in any meaningful sense. Even the most generous estimates show Israel killing two civilians for every Hamas fighter—a ratio that suggests that Hamas would not be wiped out without an even more intolerable level of civilian death than exists already. Israel cannot kill 9,000 children, create 25,000 orphans, and expect the remaining population to renounce violence and all become compliant fishermen and NGO employees. This is an underlying reality of the conflict that even the former head of Israeli security service Shin Bet, Yaakov Peri, acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times on November 9: “We’ll be fighting [the Hamas fighters’] sons in four or five years.”

Israel cannot bomb its way out of the underlying issues of apartheid, dispossession, and occupation, and an indefinite continuation of the slaughter won’t change this fact. That is, unless Israel’s goal is to remove all or most Palestinians from Gaza. Sanders’s clarity about the folly of endless war was one of his main selling points during his presidential campaigns. Now, that clarity appears to have deserted him.

A common objection in the anti-cease-fire camp is that Israel cannot enter into a cease-fire with Hamas because Hamas crossed an unforgivable line on October 7. But this ignores history and employs a chauvinistic double standard. Israel lost over 800 civilians on October 7, and Palestinians lost over 1,441 civilians, including 551 children, in Israeli’s 2014 bombing of Gaza (five Israeli civilians died), and Palestinians were asked to enter into a cease-fire with the military that killed almost twice as many people as Israel lost on October 7. If it were fair to ask Palestinians in 2014 to enter into cease-fires with the entity that killed 1,441 civilians (to say nothing of the 300 killed by Israel in 2009 or the more than 1,000 excess deaths caused by Israel’s brutal blockade of Gaza), why is it not fair to ask Israelis to enter into a cease-fire with the entity that killed 800 of their civilians in 2023? Why is it fair to ask Palestinians to enter into a cease-fire with Israel when it has killed almost 20,000 Palestinians but not fair to ask those who suffered in Israel on October 7? Why would a cease-fire with Hamas betray the memory of the civilians it killed, but a cease-fire with Israel would not? Why are Palestinians supposed to have infinite patience while Israel is allowed to wage indiscriminate wars of revenge? Does Sanders think cease-fires are historically only between friendly countries with no bad blood?

Sanders keeps repeating the line that Hamas cannot enter into a longer-term cease-fire because it “seeks to destroy Israel,” without acknowledging that Israel’s ruling Likud party overtly seeks to destroy Palestine or even the idea of Palestine. Just days ago, the Israeli foreign ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, reaffirmed to Sky News that the government’s position is “absolutely no” to a two-state solution and that Israel will be Jewish from the river to the sea. A position that Prime Minister Netanyahu confirmed on Saturday, telling reporters, “You and your journalist friends have been blaming me for almost 30 years for putting the brakes on the Oslo Accords, and preventing the Palestinian state. That’s true. I’m proud that I prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

So what does Sanders want? One materially good thing he has done in all his incoherent messaging is attempt to hold up $10.1 billion more in funding of Israel’s war machine by working to block the bill in the Senate. He argues that doing so is necessary for Israel to come to the president and Congress with a plan to overthrow Hamas that doesn’t involve killing thousands. But from his congressional perch, he could just as soon slow down the gears of Israel funding without also degrading and demoralizing the global movement for a cease-fire or reaffirming the logic of Israel’s military campaign of collective punishment.

It’s long past time for Sanders to end his stubborn refusal to join the vast majority of the progressive world and call for an end to the bloodshed that exists in reality, not continue holding out hope that Israel will switch tactics—and its fundamental, current political nature—and embrace an artisanal, targeted, progressive regime-change operation that exists only in Bernie Sanders’s head. It’s better that Sanders do so now—while there are still civilians in Gaza left to protect.

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is a cohost of the podcast Citations Needed, and you can follow his work at The Column.

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