The captivity of Israeli solider Gilad Shalit is over two weeks old, with no sign of a breakthrough, and a second front with Hizbullah now threatens to divert world attention from the conflagration in Gaza.

Following Israel’s grievously disproportionate military rejoinder to Shalit’s capture, over 70 Palestinians, including several civilians, and one Israeli soldier lie dead. A Gazan power plant insured by American taxpayers lies in ruins. Even Time magazine wants to know: “Where is the U.S.?”

Washington is supposed to be the “honest broker” between Israel and the Palestinians, the sole superpower that prevents this incendiary conflict from burning out of control. Is the Bush administration’s non-response to the latest flareup a function of its many distractions? Severe as other global crises are, the answer is no. It is, in fact, the Bush administration’s policy to do no more than tut-tut while the already singed hopes for moderating Hamas go up in smoke.

Israel’s Operation Summer Rains has redefined the term collective punishment. After three armed Palestinian groups killed two Israeli soldiers and took Shalit prisoner, Israeli warplanes bombed the power plant, which serves most of Gaza’s 1.4 million people, sealed tight the only commercial crossing into the coastal strip and, until July 1, shut off the fuel pipeline as well. What remains of the Gazan electric company struggles to channel six hours of power to Palestinian homes per day. Hospitals are running neonatal incubators and other equipment on their own generators, which guzzle the scarce fuel. Meanwhile, the Israeli air force regularly breaks the sound barrier above Gaza, usually in the wee hours of the morning, jangling Palestinians’ nerves and terrifying children. Shrugs Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: “Nobody dies from being uncomfortable.”

In the face of this assault, not to speak of Israeli arrests of some its leaders and seeming assassination attempts on others, Hamas will be loath to use whatever leverage it has with Shalit’s captors to secure the soldier’s release. For years, the Islamist movement lambasted the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority for knuckling under to Israel’s shows of superior force. Now that they are nominally in charge, they do not wish to display weakness. Hamas hardliners who want the movement to go underground will be strengthened as the crisis develops, particularly after Olmert rebuffed the ceasefire offer from Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, their party leader.

Watching the confrontation heighten from Washington, Bush officials have merely affirmed Israel’s “right to self-defense” at every opportunity, while conspicuously declining to identify how properly functioning air conditioning in Gaza City poses a threat to Israeli civilians. In a nod toward balance, White House spokesman Tony Snow added: “We have urged and continue to urge the Israeli government to proceed with moderation.”

This tiptoeing around the facts, while it sounds unusually absurd on this occasion, is in line with Bush (and Clinton) administration practice of long standing: Blame the Palestinians for starting the fight, exonerate Israel of any culpability, place the onus on the Palestinian leadership for Palestinian suffering at Israeli hands and hint at behind-the-scenes pressure on Israel to stand down. These last hints have grown steadily more delicate in the post-9/11 years. When the Bush administration decided that they, too, wanted to order missile strikes against Islamist militants on foreign soil, they stopped complaining about Israel’s extrajudicial executions in Gaza and the West Bank. When President George W. Bush called for Israel’s “immediate” withdrawal from reinvaded West Bank towns in April 2002, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice clarified that “now” did not mean “right away.” The withdrawal, she said, should be “orderly,” and not “helter-skelter.”

Still, decorum required the White House to insist that Israel not “remove” Yasser Arafat and, eventually, to prevail upon Israel to provisionally accept Bush’s “road map” to peace. In the name of that document, the State Department objected when Israel wanted to withdraw from Gaza without any coordination with the Palestinians, and Rice set about polishing her diplomatic rock-star image with an arduous parlay to open a Gazan border crossing that Israel kept closing even after withdrawing.

In the wake of the Hamas victory in January’s Palestinian elections, however, the daylight between U.S. and Israeli positions disappeared. That border crossing has been closed for nearly half of 2006, to the predictable detriment of Gazan exports and incomes. The U.S. discontinued financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, and stayed quiet as Israel withheld millions in customs revenue that belong to the Palestinians by treaty. So it seems superfluous to ask “Where is the U.S.?” as Gaza feels the squeeze.

Rather, the questions ought to be: Will the U.S. demand that Israel not unleash similar collective punishment on Lebanon? Meanwhile, how can Bush believe that the U.S. can help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by unequivocally backing one side? And when will Americans demand that their presidents act as truly honest brokers?

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Letting Gaza Burn," Middle East Report Online, July 13, 2006.

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