Time’s Up for Israel’s Impunity
Side by side on the screen, the images could hardly be more grotesque. In Jerusalem, a beaming Ivanka Trump, clad all in white, extends her hand like a game-show hostess, unveiling the plaque of the new American embassy that bears her father’s name. Scarcely 40 miles away, dozens of unarmed Palestinians, children and a baby among them, are slaughtered by Israeli soldiers near a fence in Gaza.
In the hours following the massacre, U.S. officials followed a familiar script to convey upon Israel, yet again, a blanket impunity. As Gazans were still counting their dead, a White House spokesman blamed “a gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt” by Hamas. Jared Kushner declared the Gazans to be “part of the problem.” At the U.N., U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley managed to blame Iran. And the president, icon of oblivious disregard, praised the “big day” for Israel. “Congratulations!” he tweeted.
Without question, much of the cable news chattering class echoed the White House’s talking points. Yet this time, many who ordinarily provide cover for Israel found the whole thing too much to stomach. “Daddy’s Little Ghoul,” declared the front page of the New York Daily News, as the smiling Ivanka’s outstretched hand appeared to point to the carnage in Gaza. “Israel Kills Dozens of Unarmed Protesters in Gaza as Jared Kushner Speaks of Peace, in Jerusalem,” the New Yorker intoned. And The New York Times, blasted on social media for tweeting that “Palestinians have died” in Gaza (from what—a flu epidemic?), corrected its passive language in a subsequent headline: “Israel Kills Dozens at Gaza Border as U.S. Embassy Opens in Jerusalem.”
In Hollywood, criticizing Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza risked career suicide. But in late April, after Israeli soldiers had wounded hundreds of unarmed Gazans and killed 28, actress Natalie Portman pulled out of a prestigious awards ceremony in her native Israel. After Monday’s massacre, more were emboldened. “You have lost your humanity,” director and comic Judd Apatow replied to a troll on Twitter. “You watch these images and see a game, not the death of children.” Added Bette Midler: “Fifty-two people die in protest. … Thanks, asshole! Your uninformed and demented actions have consequences! Don’t you get it? Those people had families too!”
Could cracks finally be appearing in the armor of Israel’s impunity? For decades, American shade excused Israel’s criminal behavior: its theft of lands by hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers; its imprisonment of thousands of young men and children without charge; its military occupation without end; its ongoing siege of Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison. Even during the 2014 Gaza War, in which Israeli explosive power outnumbered that of Hamas by 1,500 to 1 and American-made Israeli rockets and bombs killed more than 500 children (compared with one Israeli child killed by a Hamas rocket), American politicians and punditry convinced the masses that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”
But now, before the images of thousands of defenseless Gazans being shot down by one of the world’s most powerful armies, the impunity may be crumbling. Perhaps it is the sickening juxtaposition itself—the raw imagery of carnage alongside the imperious celebrations of the callous elite—that is finally too graphic to ignore.
A cynic might say that this response is different because Donald Trump is president, not Barack Obama. After all, it was under Obama, in 2014, that the American military resupplied Israel’s ammunition depot—in the middle of the Gaza War. And it was Obama who implored both sides to seek a peaceful resolution, just as he inked a 10-year, $38 billion pledge to renew Israel’s arsenal.
Yet the disgust with Israel’s slaughter of innocents in Gaza, as it was celebrating the 70th anniversary of its birth from the ashes of the Holocaust, is palpable. The images of Gazans yearning to live in freedom and dignity being gunned down while trying to are not something open-hearted people can un-remember.
Perhaps this moment will fade quietly into the mosaic of terrible images and memories from generations of the tragedy that is Israel and Palestine. But sometimes a single moment, and the understanding that comes from it, can change everything. Nick Ut’s image of the screaming, naked “Napalm Girl” helped shift the understanding of the American role in Vietnam. In Birmingham, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church helped turn the tide in the American civil rights movement.
The Gaza massacre of 2018 could be a catalyst to change the way Americans think about Israel’s behavior and its blanket protections from America. Twenty years ago, when I was reporting in Gaza, a white-haired old man in a crisp blue suit forecast as much. “The Israelis think that America will always protect them,” Issam Shawa told me. “They think America will always give them arms, and they will always be the biggest power in the Middle East.
“They are now. But do you think this can prevail forever and a day?”
For the people who lived through them, the last 70 years in Israel and Palestine may only feel like forever. But it’s foolhardy to think that the political and military status quo will stand for seven decades more.