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We’re Seeing the Calamitous Cost of Ignoring Palestine

The Biden administration thought the Palestine question could be downplayed in pursuit of other objectives. And here we are.

Injured Palestinian Mahmoud Al-Areer stands near the corpses of his children lying among other bodies
Injured Palestinian Mahmoud Al Areer stands near the corpses of his children, lying among others killed in an Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 21.

Twenty-six. That is the number of times Wadea Al Fayoume, a Palestinian American child living in the Chicago area, was stabbed in a murderous rampage committed by his landlord. The picture of Wadea in a birthday hat that has gone viral since the attack that killed him and severely injured his mother was taken eight days earlier, when he turned 6.

Chicago, home to the largest Palestinian American population in the United States, is 6,000 miles away from the Gaza Strip, a tiny piece of land that much of the world chose to forget is the epicenter of a crisis with global implications.

The rate of killing in Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip is faster and more ferocious than anything we have witnessed in several previous wars on Gaza combined. Reports now indicate that over 2,000 children were killed in Gaza by Israeli strikes in about 15 days. This is quadruple the number of children killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza in the 50-day campaign it carried out in 2014.

Like Wadea, all of them had dreams, loving embraces from their mothers, and toys they will never see again. Many of them, unlike Wadea, never had a sixth birthday.

The unprecedented horror being unleashed on the Gaza Strip right now is likely to worsen significantly if there is a ground invasion. The last large-scale Israeli ground invasion in 2014 coincided with a massive spike in civilian casualties during the war. The ground invasion being discussed seems far, far larger. Given that key Israeli officials have spoken of Palestinians as “human animals” and “children of darkness,” and immediately announced policies targeting the whole population, like cutting water, fuel, and electricity, there should be urgent concern about mass atrocities being committed in the operation the prime minister deemed Israel’s “mighty vengeance.”

While this might be the worst-case scenario for Palestinians in Gaza, it isn’t the bottom of the abyss. Beyond Gaza the region is boiling. Protests erupted across the Arab and Muslim world and well beyond it at a scale and scope we have not seen in the region since the Arab Spring. Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s Egypt, which has banned protests for years, is now calling for them because they know they can’t contain the people’s anger or be seen as trying to. Jordan, a key American ally, had to cancel a meeting with President Biden while he was on his way to the region because they couldn’t contain the public outrage. All this and I haven’t even mentioned Hezbollah yet, or other militias in the region who may well get involved if the Israeli ground incursion starts and churns on even as American aircraft carriers sit in the Mediterranean.

However this crisis ends, and I pray it ends immediately, the implications for U.S. foreign policy will be profound. “All the work we have done with the Global South [over Ukraine] has been lost.… Forget about rules, forget about world order,” said a G7 diplomat to the Financial Times. “They won’t ever listen to us again.” Ukraine has been the single biggest foreign policy and military investment of the Biden administration’s tenure. Russia and China are likely watching with glee. And, of course, there is the very real possibility of a much larger regional or even global war. The moment we find ourselves in now is being described as the most dangerous for America in 78 years.

How the hell did we get here? How the hell did we allow this to happen? To be put in a position of so much cost, so much suffering, with such massive stakes and no options but bad and worse … how? These are questions Israelis are already asking of their leaders as they ponder their intelligence failures regarding the massive and horrifying killings by Hamas on October 7. But these are questions everyone should be asking of their leadership, especially Americans.

Here is a big part of the answer: A week before October 7, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the region was quieter than it has been in years and that “the amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11 is significantly reduced.”

This is no isolated remark but rather a characterization of the Biden administration approach that, for reasons beyond my comprehension, seems to be manned by devotees of the Jared Kushner School of Foreign Policy. They have subscribed to this idea that Palestine is no longer a central issue in the Middle East and is instead one that can effectively be downplayed or entirely ignored as they pursue other objectives in the region.

The failure to address Palestine in any meaningful way, despite regional leaders sounding the alarm over rising tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and even as the most dangerous far-right government in Israeli history was conducting outrage after outrage, is just one part of this. So too, however, was the administration’s drive to bribe Saudi Arabia into normalizing relations with Israel by giving it a defense pact and nuclear technology. Peace is made between peoples, but arms deals are made between regimes. The White House was prepared not only to overlook the views of the publics in the region, which oppose normalization without freedom and justice for Palestinians, but even its own earlier commitments to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah.” The message was clear; America cares more about the interests of Netanyahu’s Israel and the rest of its allied anti-democratic regimes in the region than it cares about the people who live under them or the values it claims to uphold.

The results of this approach are on full display now, not merely once this crisis erupted but also in the failure to see it coming and in the Biden administration’s response, which has struggled to gain regional buy-in when it absolutely needed it the most.

From Chicago to Shanghai, that tiny strip called Gaza, where the world conspired to forget two million souls, is reminding us of the calamitous cost of ignoring the Middle East’s longest open wound. So many Israelis and many more Palestinians have died. We cannot bring back those we have lost, but we can work to save those still with us by demanding an immediate cease-fire and backing away from the brink.

Most importantly, we cannot keep hitting rewind on this horror film. Instead, we must demand leaders work to immediately put this issue at the top of the global agenda and finally heal this wound by bringing freedom, justice, and equality to all those who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Every day we wait to do so is a day we will regret.