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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Isolated and defiant, Israel vows to ‘stand alone’ in war on Hamas

The pro-Palestine tent encampment at Columbia University in New York, after the university began suspending students who did not leave, on April 29, 2024. Less than two months in, Israel was losing support in Europe and the United States — before student protests escalated into clashes with the police, before calls for divestment, before polling showed the war’s unpopularity affecting President Joe Biden’s chances for re-election. (Bing Guan/The New York Times)

By Damien Cave

Turkey has suspended trade with Israel. The world’s top court is considering whether Israeli leaders have committed genocide. Protests have overtaken cities and campuses worldwide. Ireland and Spain say they will recognize Palestine as a state by the end of the month.

Even the United States — long Israel’s closest ally and benefactor — is threatening for the first time since the war began to withhold certain arms shipments.

Seven months after much of the world pledged its support to Israel following a Hamas-led terrorist attack, the country finds itself increasingly isolated. With a war that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians and left the Gaza Strip on the verge of famine, any international goodwill that Israel amassed on Oct. 7 has been all but lost.

Of greatest concern to Israel: splintering relations with the United States. President Joe Biden, once quiet about his expectations that Israel limit civilian deaths and increase access to humanitarian aid, has become more vocal amid partisan political pressure in an election year. This past week, Biden said the United States was withholding delivery of 3,500 high-payload bombs.

His warning Wednesday that the pause could extend to more weapons was his greatest break yet with Israel’s government. It suggested that the outrage coursing through capitals and campuses would continue to spread, and it has. On Friday, in a largely symbolic gesture, the United Nations General Assembly backed Palestine’s bid for U.N. membership, and thousands of demonstrators in Sweden protested against Israel’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday.

“If we need to stand alone,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said Thursday, both acknowledging and seeking to defy his country’s growing isolation, “we will stand alone.”

Israel has endured the world’s glare before, shrugging off frequent criticism at the United Nations and an Arab boycott that lasted decades. Though Israel governs a spit of land no bigger than Maryland, it has always had a centripetal pull, placing its wars at the emotional center of global politics. But this is not 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006 or 2014 — years with previous conflicts.

Before Oct. 7, most of Israel’s allies in the West were focused on Ukraine’s fight with Russia and the challenge of a more assertive China. The Middle East had largely fallen off the radar. Climate change was driving a retreat from oil. Israel and Saudi Arabia were openly discussing normalized relations even as Israel’s democracy had become more polarized and parochial.

At exactly that moment, Hamas struck and Israel retaliated.

Biden’s first response was complete solidarity: “My administration’s support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering,” he said on the day of the attacks. Other world leaders followed suit. The Israeli flag and its colors were projected on the Brandenburg Gate, 10 Downing St. and the Sydney Opera House.

Yet even as horrific details of Hamas’ murders and mutilation sowed nightmares, there were signs of concern about the government of Netanyahu and its absolutist approach.

Netanyahu’s promise to “demolish Hamas” struck many military strategists as too broad to be effective. And when Israeli forces began to pummel Gaza’s crowded cities with huge bombs, toppling buildings on families along with militants, support for Israel weakened.

Washington had been warning Israel to better protect civilians. Israel continued bombing. The United States and other countries pushed Israel to create corridors for aid. They demanded a plan for governing Gaza after the fighting. Israel intensified its assault on a territory roughly the size of Philadelphia, densely packed with 2 million people, many of them children, while keeping out most independent journalists, leaving image sharing to those under attack.

The results were dire: By late November, people were being killed in Gaza more quickly, according to experts, than in even the deadliest moments of the American-led attacks in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which were widely criticized by human rights groups.

Less than two months in, Israel was losing support in Europe and the United States — before student protests escalated into clashes with police, before calls for divestment, before polling showed the war’s unpopularity affecting Biden’s chances for reelection.

After seven aid workers, many of them foreigners, from the World Central Kitchen were killed April 1 and with children in Gaza dying of starvation, words like “genocide” and “evil” became more commonly applied to the campaign that Israel insisted was simply self-defense.

“The poor and impoverished people of Palestine were sentenced to death by Israel’s bombs,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said Thursday, when he announced that his country, once Israel’s closest Muslim partner, would suspend trade.

Nimrod Novik, a former senior Israeli official and an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, said there was no denying the government ignored both a moral and political imperative by pursuing a “stingy approach” to aid and a war plan with no vision for peace.

“Our government policy failed to live up to its claim that our war is with Hamas, not the Palestinian people,” Novik said.

The military says aid is slowed by security measures intended to restrict weapons smuggling. On Sunday, Hamas attacked one of the few border crossings from which aid is permitted to enter, killing four Israeli soldiers.

For many, it was a reminder that the context of Israeli life is still colored by the country’s own suffering. What Israelis discuss at dinner are friends called up to fight. What they see are cities and towns covered with the portraits of hostages unreturned, apps sending alerts for regular rocket attacks from Hezbollah along the northern border, and graffiti in Tel Aviv that reads, “Hamas = ISIS.”

“There is a total disconnect between how Israelis view the situation and how the world does,” Novik said. “Mentally, we are not in the seventh month since Oct. 7. Mentally, we are in Oct. 8.”

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