World / Comment / April 4, 2024

The Ghoulish Ostentatiousness of Israel’s Latest War Crimes

It’s as if Israel is flaunting its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Jack Mirkinson

Palestinians are standing next to a vehicle in Deir Al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, on April 2, 2024, where employees from the World Central Kitchen, including foreigners, were killed in an Israeli air strike.

(Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The past few days of Israel’s war on Gaza have been hard to bear. In quick succession, the world watched Israel withdraw from the Al-Shifa hospital complex, revealing stomach-churning scenes of death and destruction; bomb Iran’s embassy in Syria, which could escalate the conflict across the Middle East; and kill seven humanitarian aid workers with World Central Kitchen (WCK) in what even some US officials said appeared to be intentional air strikes.

These actions drew varying levels of condemnation. For instance, the attack on the WCK workers, most of whom were foreign nationals, was shameless enough to elicit criticism from from President Joe Biden, who considers WCK founder José Andrés a friend—but there is no sign that his performance of anger will cause Israel to change its tactics or the United States to stop shipping billions of dollars of weapons to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

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The assault on Gaza has been horrific from the start. But it is hard to shake the feeling that the near-total leeway Israel has been granted by the United States and its allies has gone to its head. Bulldozing bodies in plain sight. Bombing diplomatic facilities. Targeting aid workers from the most Washington-friendly relief organization. There is a ghoulish, ostentatious quality to these actions. It’s as if Israel is showing off, flaunting its ability to cross every known line of international humanitarian law and get away with it.

And make no mistake: Israel is getting away with it. All you have to do to understand that is to look at the aftermath of the WCK attack.

The attack on the WCK workers—which killed seven people, including a US citizen—was as obvious a crime as it is possible to commit in warfare. WCK had given Israel the coordinates of its location. The workers were traveling in a special “deconflicted” area. The WCK logo was visible on the top of its vehicles. But Israel bombed the WCK convoy anyway, striking each of its three vehicles one by one.

What’s more, WCK is not just any relief organization. Andrés is a global celebrity with ties to the international political establishment. WCK had been working closely with the Israeli government both in Gaza and in Israel proper. It would be difficult to think of a more mainstream, well-connected group.

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Accordingly, the attack prompted what, by the standards of this war, was an unusual level of outraged rhetoric from Israel’s allies. Biden’s statement—in which he wrote, “Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians. Incidents like yesterday’s simply should not happen. Israel has also not done enough to protect civilians”—has been framed as a dramatic escalation in tone. CNN breathlessly reported that there was “fury and indignation inside the White House,” and that the attack “has raised the frustration for Biden and his top officials to a new level.”

Israel also expressed an unusual level of supposed contrition, with Netanyahu personally apologizing for the strikes, which he called a tragic accident.

Looking at this, it would be reasonable to assume that something—anything!—might change from either Israel or the United States. After all, Biden, we’re told, is furious. This is finally beyond the pale, right?

Wrong. A “senior administration official” told Politico on Wednesday that Biden’s public statement was “all we have planned” when it came to holding Israel accountable. And National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters, “We are still supporting their right to defend themselves, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

In other words: bombs away.

The consequences of the WCK attack were immediate. WCK suspended its Gaza operations, and other aid groups quickly followed suit, saying that the situation was simply too dangerous. A cargo ship carrying 240 tons of food to Gaza turned around and returned to Cyprus with its supplies undelivered.

Presumably, this is what the Israeli government, which has been engineering a famine in Gaza, wanted to happen. It has severely damaged the pipeline of aid into the region, and sent a stark message that nobody—not even the most benign, apolitical, high-profile organization—is off-limits. In exchange, Israel endured some light criticism from Biden, while receiving assurances that the flow of weapons will continue. Overall, Israel must count the attack as a huge success.

Israel’s backers hardly blinked at the siege of Al-Shifa—perhaps because unlike Andrés, Palestinian civilians don’t have a direct line to the White House. “We don’t condition aid to Israel,” a Defense Department spokesperson said on Monday, while images of crushed and mutilated corpses at Al-Shifa were spreading around the world.

On the one hand, there is nothing new about any of these actions. Hundreds of aid workers have been killed in Gaza since October, and Israel has destroyed nearly all of the enclave’s health infrastructure.

But watching this week’s outrages unfold one after the other—watching Israel brush off atrocities at Al-Shifa that would have caused a global meltdown if they had been committed by, say, Russia; then watching it try to incite a regional war by bombing Iran’s embassy; and then watching it go after aid workers in the most deliberate way possible—feels different somehow. All three attacks were outsize, in their heinousness or their unrepentant provocation, or both. Any one of them could be seen as a terrible milestone in wartime. Taken together, it’s as though Israel wants to remind the world of its impunity and its contempt for the idea that it is accountable for what it does.

Any country that professed to care about international law, or human decency, would recoil from such a display. Biden certainly professes to care about such things. He can probably shift the direction of this war more than any single individual outside of the Israeli government. At the very least, he can stop providing the weapons being used to commit such crimes. But instead, Biden has again shown that there are no limits to what he will accept from Israel. That is the core factor driving Israel’s peacocking criminality. It doesn’t bear thinking what new horrors await Gaza because of that reality.

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Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a senior editor at The Nation and cofounder of Discourse Blog.

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