Yesterday, the head of UNICEF Catherine Russel became the most senior UN official to set foot in Gaza since the October 7th Hamas terrorist attacks. “I visited the Gaza Strip to meet with children, their families and UNICEF staff,” she said in a statement. “What I saw and heard was devastating. They have endured repeated bombardment, loss and displacement. Inside the Strip, there is nowhere safe for Gaza’s one million children to turn.”
Catherine Russell then echoed calls from all senior United Nations officials–from Antonio Guterres on down — for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. But these pleas have not yet been heeded by the Biden administration, which still rejects the notion of an immediate ceasefire in favor of more limited “humanitarian pauses.”
Here are five reasons why this position is inimical to American interests — and why the Biden administration ought to press for an immediate and enduring ceasefire.
1) The Biden administration’s rejection of a ceasefire feeds the dynamics of regional escalation that the administration is ostensibly seeking to avoid. For reasons that seem odd to me, major media outlets are not making a big deal out of the fact that the United States and Iranian proxies have been in hot conflict nearly every day since October 7. There have been some 50 attacks on American bases in Iraq and Syria. The US has retaliated in kind against Iran-linked targets in the region. American soldiers have been injured, and it could be only a matter of time until there’s a mistake or miscalculation that leads to some sort of mass casualty event. So long as the conflict continues in Gaza, the risks that the United States gets drawn into another war in the Middle East grows greater by the day.
2) Everything we’ve seen so far suggests that there is a tentative deal to be struck that would include the release of hostages to a more enduring ceasefire. There’s no contradiction between freeing the hostages and a ceasefire. Just the opposite: a ceasefire implies the release of hostages.
3) America’s rejection of a ceasefire at the UN was deeply unpopular and it is not in American interests to be internationally isolated. On October 27th, 120 countries endorsed a humanitarian truce. The United States was one of just 14 countries to oppose. At the Security Council, the US cast a lone veto to block a resolution calling for a ceasefire. Other countries may be able to compartmentalize this issue for the time being, but the longer this goes on, the harder it will be for the United States to make progress on other key foreign policy priorities.
4) Domestically, a ceasefire would certainly lower the temperature in the United States, particularly in left-of-center circles. This conflict has exposed and exacerbated fissures in the same political coalition that must mobilize one year from now to prevent a slide towards authoritarianism. The risk of democratic backsliding in the United States is suddenly acute — and so long as the conflict in Israel and Palestine is top of mind, it may suppress turnout in a tight election on which the future of American democracy hinges.
5) As a matter of principle, the United States should oppose the indiscriminate killing and immiseration of civilians everywhere. Today, that includes Palestinians trapped in Gaza. Israel does not seem able to discriminate between combatant and noncombatant. The destruction of Hamas may be a worthy goal, but little thus far suggests that Israel is able to accomplish that goal without committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ends do not justify the means, at least in the kind of rules-based international order so often invoked by the Biden administration.