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‘The Killing In Gaza Will Stop When Hamas Releases The Hostages’ Is A Pro-War Crime Argument

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Over the past six months, dozens of ostensibly mainstream politicians and commentators—including senators and spokespeople for the White House—have echoed a popular Tough Guy talking point that sounds superficially reasonable but, upon even the most casual inspection, is an explicit advocacy for collective punishment, which is, of course, a black letter war crime. In response to countless stories, reports, and gruesome videos of children being bombed, contracting diseases in refugee camps, or wasting away from starvation, these politicians and commentators reply that all this suffering, while perhaps indirectly caused by Israel, is fundamentally the result of Hamas refusing to “release the hostages” or “surrender.” 

The syllogism goes something like this: “Why are you blaming Israel? If Hamas released the hostages or surrendered, this could all end overnight.”

Using starving children in Gaza as a bargaining chip is an entirely acceptable position in US media because these children are not seen, per se, as innocent, much less human.

Setting aside the fact that this isn’t true even on its own perverse terms (Israeli officials have said that, even if all Israeli hostages were returned tomorrow, their “war on Hamas” would not end), it’s fairly brazen advocacy for collective punishment as a tool of war. It’s simply a variation on siege war logic: attack and punish a civilian population until the military actor, ostensibly operating on said population’s behalf, capitulates to particular demands. Siege warfare is one of the oldest known forms of warfare, dating back at least 3,500 years, but every one of these pundits and politicians acts like they’ve cracked the Da Vinci code by reciting this facile, Tough Guy line:

There are a few important things to point out about this glib formulation. First, and most obviously, calls for Hamas to release Israeli hostages are almost always paired with calls for Israel to comply with a ceasefire—independent of the release of hostages, not in exchange. Because, again, Israel’s military response to a paramilitary group cannot be contingent on the threat of punishing civilians. 

Secondly, the way this pro-war-crime argument poses as something more benign is by sidestepping the fact of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and collective punishment altogether, framing Israel’s campaign as a “war” against Hamas. Indeed, if this was a “war” in any meaningful sense—which is to say, a generally symmetrical battle between two armies—they may have a point. But, as Rep. Ocasio Cortez points out in the Jake Tapper clip above, and thousands of others have noted for months, the assault on Gaza is very much not that. It’s a campaign that is openly predicated on depopulation and collective punishment of a largely defenseless refugee population. It exists within the context of over half a century of military occupation, apartheid, and the maintenance of a caged population in Gaza that has no control over its borders, civil society, air, water, power, imports, or exports. As such, Israeli officials have stated dozens of times that they are using food, medical care, water, and electricity as leverage over the civilian population of Gaza to try to influence the actions of Hamas and other militant groups living in what’s left of Gaza. This admission was read aloud, in detail, by the International Court of Justice on Jan. 26, which laid out the case for “plausible genocide” on the part of Israel. 

One cannot deflect from accusations of genocidal acts against civilians (as Israel has done, and as the US has done on behalf of Israel) by simply claiming the genocide would stop if militant group X simply did Y. What combatants do or don’t has no bearing on the morality or legality of mass killing and starvation of a civilian population. It’s a non sequitur, and we know this because that non sequitur is the entire foundation of all post-World War 2 international law. 

Feigned concern for Israeli hostages in Gaza is all so cloying and bad-faith: a cheesy gotcha line used to paper over support for an indefensible mass killing campaign that ignores the fact that many of the hostage families are, themselves, begging for a ceasefire.

Perhaps if we turned the tables, the racist logic underpinning this Tough Guy line would be more apparent: “Hamas should be able to kill Israeli children every day, by the dozens, until Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank, ends its siege and blockade of Gaza, and permits a Palestinian state.” If a pundit or elected official were to say this on American airwaves, it would be universally condemned, and this person would be rightly and summarily fired. The “argument” would be called genocidal, cruel, heartless, and objectively in favor of war crimes. And yet one is allowed to freely spout different variations of this argument about Palestinian children, day in and day out, on US airwaves, in newspaper columns, on social media, and it’s presented as a normal, healthy, mainstream, Tough on Terror opinion. Using starving children in Gaza as a bargaining chip is an entirely acceptable position in US media because these children are not seen, per se, as innocent, much less human. They are collectively responsible proto-terrorists who, instead of searching for grass to eat, should be personally taking on Hamas militants with their bare hands—or so the logic goes; it’s not entirely clear.

US pundits and politicians’ feigned concern for Israeli hostages in Gaza is all so cloying and bad-faith: a cheesy gotcha line used to paper over support for an indefensible mass killing campaign that ignores the fact that many of the hostage families are, themselves, begging for a ceasefire. And Israel has arbitrarily detained thousands more Palestinians in its prisons, but literally no one in power in the US cares about them, despite the fact that they are being held without trial or they were judged before a rigged military tribunal that every human rights group dismisses as a kangaroo court. If unlawful detainment of people is a major worry for our pundits and politicians, it is only so, clearly, in a selective, racist, and self-serving way. 

This would all be much simpler—and less grating—if those supporting Israel’s policy of collective punishment of civilians in Gaza would just come right out and support collective punishment on its own terms, out in the open, and defend the practice as such, rather than trying to couch their sociopathic support for starving children as some heavy-hearted lament for Israeli hostage families. “The killing in Gaza will end when Hamas releases the hostages” isn’t some novel insight, or appeal for the freeing of hostages, or savvy statement of realism. It’s a dead-inside call for a continued policy of extermination, a defense of collective punishment, and an open admission that the speaker supports clear-as-day war crimes.

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