A growing number of people in the United States and around the world are calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, including an expanding bloc in the U.S. Congress. Although too many lives have already been lost, President Biden can still do the right thing—which happens to be good politics, not just good policy—and call on Israel to stop its indiscriminate assault on Gaza.
The first and most urgent priority for the United States is to back a cessation of hostilities, even a temporary one, and to broker the release of captives currently held by Hamas. Washington must then work to turn that temporary halt to the bloodshed into a lasting ceasefire and to invest in a genuine political process to address the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian civilians in Gaza are suffering unconscionable harm thanks to an Israeli military campaign that is not accomplishing Israel’s stated war aims, but is instead undermining what few prospects remain for long-term peace.
The killing must stop. The United States must use its leverage to push for a ceasefire that allows for the release of captives now held in Gaza and a large influx of humanitarian aid. Then it needs to press for the only plausible route to peace and security in Israel and Palestine: a political rather than a purely military solution.
War Without Limits
Hamas and other factions carried out grave atrocities on October 7, killing nearly 1,200 people—mostly civilians—and taking about 240 people captive. Israel has responded by launching an all-out war that aims, according to Israel leaders, to both “eradicate” Hamas by destroying its military and governing capacity and recover the hostages. Yet these stated goals are either unattainable, or contradictory.
“Eradicating” Hamas through military force seems impossible. Hamas is embedded in Gaza and in Palestinian society. The Israeli military has claimed it is making progress in “dismantling” Hamas’ military capabilities, but Hamas and other factions have managed to continue firing rockets into Israel, including into the center of the country. If Israel pursues a new occupation of Gaza, as certain statements have indicated, its policy is likely to lead to a long, bloody insurgency, either by the surviving remnants of Hamas or by other militant factions.
Destroying Hamas’ governing capacity, meanwhile, seems to entail smashing all of Gaza’s administrative bodies and civilian infrastructure. This is making Gaza unlivable now, and ungovernable for years to come—by anyone, not just Hamas. These are ingredients for an open-ended humanitarian crisis that radiates instability and violence.
This is making Gaza unlivable now, and ungovernable for years to come—by anyone, not just Hamas.
Total war on Gaza also amounts to a death sentence for the captives still held by Hamas and other factions. Already, several hostages were found dead after the Israeli military captured Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital. Israel and Hamas are reportedly close to a deal, brokered by the United States, that would release dozens of hostages in exchange for a temporary ceasefire and an expansion of humanitarian aid. So far, though, the two sides have not reached an agreement.
Meanwhile, Israel’s ongoing military campaign is killing huge numbers of Palestinians. At the time of this writing, Israel’s military campaign has killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza, most of them civilians; approximately two-thirds of recorded deaths are women and children, according to the World Health Organization. The UN children’s agency has said Gaza has become “a graveyard for thousands of children.” Statements by Israeli officials advocating Gaza’s total destruction and large-scale displacement of its residents have, justifiably, provoked fears about what the next phases of Israel’s offensive will mean for Gaza’s people.
In the seventh week of war, Israel appears little closer to achieving justice for the 1,200 people massacred on October 7 or to recovering the captives now in Gaza. Instead, the war is generating monumental human suffering and raising the risk of a regional conflagration.
Undermining U.S. Interests
Israel’s war in Gaza is not just taking a terrible civilian toll; it is also undermining U.S. interests and the Biden administration’s policy aims, in Israel–Palestine, across the region and around the world.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and now President Biden have laid out the conditions the administration envisions for a resolution in Gaza—including no Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, and Palestinian-led governance of both Gaza and the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority—as a foundation for eventual agreement on a two-state solution. The administration has also sought to prevent the war from spreading regionally. This is not where things seem to be heading, however.
On Gaza, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly contradicted Biden administration positions. He has rejected a role for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and said Israel will establish indefinite “security control” in the territory.
And the Gaza war is fueling conflict elsewhere. The situation in the West Bank is the most violent it has been since the second Intifada. With the world’s attention focused on Gaza, more than 200 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since October 7. Biden administration officials have pushed Israeli counterparts to de-escalate tensions in the West Bank and rein in settler violence, but seemingly to no avail.
The regional situation risks spinning out of control. Members of the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” continue to attack Israeli and U.S. targets, aiming, they say, to force a halt to Israeli action in Gaza. On Israel’s northern border, reciprocal attacks between the Israeli military and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are steadily escalating. Yemen’s Houthi rebel forces have been launching missiles and drones at southern Israel and just seized an Israeli-owned ship in the Red Sea. Iraqi paramilitary factions are attacking U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria multiple times a day. It seems like only a matter of time before U.S. troops are seriously wounded or killed. The United States has repeatedly bombed facilities belonging to Iran-linked groups in eastern Syria to discourage further attacks—to no obvious effect.
President Biden has also repeatedly stressed the U.S. interest in Israel remaining democratic. Yet the war has compounded Israel’s ongoing political crisis, with the government cracking down on free expression and persecuting Israel’s Palestinian minority. Violence between Israel’s Jews and Arabs, as happened in 2021, is increasingly likely.
Lastly, the Biden administration’s present support for Israel’s war in Gaza is damaging the United States’ global standing, as well as its credibility on rights and the laws of war. President Biden has repeatedly tried to square his administration’s positions on Ukraine and Israel, comparing Israel to Ukraine and Hamas to Russia. But America’s would-be partners in the Middle East and the Global South view Israel as the party committing violations of international law, making America’s talk of values look like naked hypocrisy.
Mounting Calls for Ceasefire
The Biden administration has so far resisted a ceasefire that would leave Hamas in control in Gaza, or that would not entail the release of all captives. Calls for an end to the violence and death are mounting, however, both in the United States and around the world.
Since the start of the war, the Biden administration has repeatedly vetoed UN Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire. It has been increasingly isolated, however; on October 26, UN member countries overwhelmingly called for a “humanitarian truce” in Gaza. On November 15, the administration finally allowed a Security Council resolution that called for the release of hostages and for “humanitarian pauses,” or short, temporary ceasefires.
At home, meanwhile, the ground is shifting fast in American politics. Public opinion polls and protests suggest new and robust resistance to U.S. support for Israeli actions, while Congress has upped its criticism of the war and Biden’s positions.
National opinion polls show a majority of Americans support a ceasefire, including three-quarters of Democrats and an overwhelming proportion of youth and voters of color. Voters are calling their elected representatives in droves to demand a ceasefire.
Congressional support for a ceasefire is catching up with voter sentiment. House progressives introduced a resolution calling for a ceasefire on October 16, and since then, more and more congresspeople have joined calls for a ceasefire—a November 15 letter to the president carried twenty-four signatures. Others in Congress have questioned American support for the war or suggested placing new conditions on assistance to Israel, as former U.S. officials have warned that U.S. support for Israel in Gaza may violate U.S. and international law.
The Biden administration still opposes a ceasefire, even now. But it seems clear where U.S. opinion on this is heading—public discomfort with Israel’s war in Gaza is going up, not down.
No Time to Waste
The Biden administration should now openly support a ceasefire. What’s more, the Biden administration ought to seize the initiative and lead the push for a ceasefire itself, rather than accede, belatedly, to calls for a ceasefire because of domestic political discontent and defections from international allies.
A ceasefire isn’t only good politics; it’s the right policy. An immediate cessation of hostilities would, most immediately and importantly, save many innocent Palestinian lives and allow urgent measures to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. A ceasefire would also provide space for an agreement to release the captives still held in Gaza. It could help de-escalate the West Bank, where Gaza’s war has led to an alarming increase of settler and army violence. And it would also reduce tensions regionally, lessening the risk—currently increasing daily—of a broader war that draws in the United States.
The Biden administration’s stated objections to a ceasefire, meanwhile, are not compelling. A stop to the fighting cannot wait for Israel to eliminate Hamas—a goal that could not be accomplished at any tolerable cost, even if Israel had a viable plan to do so. And the release of all captives cannot be a precondition for a halt to the violence and the delivery of more humanitarian aid, as President Biden’s top Mideast adviser argued last week, in what sounded like an endorsement of collective punishment.
The United States cannot wait for some post-Hamas political condition before it supports a ceasefire. It needs to first stop the violence, and then work to turn any cessation of hostilities into a lasting ceasefire. That means a plan for rehabilitation of Gazan society, infrastructure, and institutions, reintegration of Gaza and the West Bank, and a renewed push for Israeli–Palestinian political talks that bring the two sides together.
President Biden is right that there can be no return to the pre-October 7 status quo. Israel understandably responded with military force to Hamas’ attack—but part of that broken pre-October 7 status quo was Israel’s determination to impose a solely military solution on a political problem. The United States should clarify that Israel can never realize lasting security through force alone. The only path to real safety and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians runs through the reestablishment of a political horizon and ultimately a negotiated political resolution to the conflict.
It’s true, as President Biden has said, that so long as Hamas persists, “a ceasefire is not peace.” But a ceasefire is a necessary first step toward peace. And the cost of the alternative—continued war and death in Gaza—is intolerable. Only a viable political pathway can provide an alternative to repeated cycles of violence.
Too many people have died already. It’s time for the Biden administration to lend its voice, on both moral and strategic grounds, to a ceasefire in Gaza, and to a political rather than military solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.