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Analysis

Hamas rockets squandered moment in which US sympathies were with Palestinians

A week ago, Biden officials were criticizing Israel over East Jerusalem evictions and police conduct at Temple Mount; DC seems to have changed tack since Gaza fighting began

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

It was just a week ago when the US and Israel were nearing their first public spat of US President Joe Biden’s administration, according to an official familiar with the matter.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was pushing back against Washington’s criticisms of its conduct in Jerusalem, including the looming evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood as well as police crackdowns against protesters there and at the Temple Mount.

“The Biden administration has been keen to avoid public disputes with Israel, especially this early on, but there was recognition that the issue of Jerusalem was explosive and the US did not want to be dragged into a conflict with so much else going on,” the official told The Times of Israel, requesting anonymity to speak candidly.

That concern turned out to be warranted, as terror groups in Gaza capitalized on the Jerusalem escalation on Monday, by firing rockets toward the holy city for the first time since 2014. The situation has only deteriorated from there, with roughly 2,000 rockets fired by Hamas, killing nine Israeli civilians, and hundreds of IDF counterstrikes that have left over 100 Palestinians dead. The IDF says most of the Gaza dead are terror group members or, in a few cases, died from errant Palestinian rockets.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then US vice-president Joe Biden speak in front of the media prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

The rocket fire upended the lives of Israelis throughout the entire country as civilians were slowly returning to post-COVID routine, but appeared to reverberate all the way to Washington, which has since struck a starkly different tone in its comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Willingness to criticize Israel over what led to the rockets has disappeared,” said one Security Council diplomat.

“There appeared to be genuine sympathy with the Palestinian plight in Jerusalem,” said an Arab diplomat. “That sympathy might still be there, but the US buried it when Hamas started firing rockets.”

Tough love

Carefully crafted statements from the Biden administration in the days just before and after Hamas began firing barrages of rockets at Israel demonstrate the shift rather clearly.

As protests in Sheikh Jarrah began to pick up last Friday, US State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter read out a statement at the daily briefing expressing “deep concern” over the looming evictions, noting that many of the homes ultra-nationalist Jews are seeking to take over are inhabited by Palestinian families who have lived there for generations.

The Sheikh Jarrah evictions are based in part on a 1970 Israeli law that allows Jews to reclaim East Jerusalem land owned by Jews before 1948. No similar law exists for Palestinians who lost their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war and the Knesset passed a law in 1950 barring them from reclaiming property lost.

Palestinians protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 9, 2021, in solidarity with Palestinian families facing Israeli eviction orders in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

Porter also reiterated a previous statement calling on Israel to “avoid unilateral steps that would exacerbate tensions or take us further away from peace, and that would include evictions, settlement activity and home demolitions.” No similar remark was made regarding the Palestinian leadership or actions.

Hours later, after police entered the Temple Mount in order to respond to what they said were violent riots instigated by Palestinian worshipers, the State Department issued another statement, expressing “extreme concern” over the confrontations.

To Israel’s dismay, the statement did not mention Palestinian violence specifically, and appeared to tacitly criticize Israeli forces by highlighting the “scores of injured people.”

The press release included condemnations of a shooting attack on Israeli soldiers by Palestinian gunmen earlier that day along with “reciprocal ‘price tag’ attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank,” in a manner which Israeli critics said equated the two.

The US called on both sides to act to de-escalate tensions and preserve the status quo at the Temple Mount — a suggestion that Israel had violated the fragile agreement when police entered the site — known to Muslims as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or Al-Haram Al-Sharif — en masse. The May 7 statement also reiterated concern over the Sheikh Jarrah evictions.

Israel forces stand guard outside a building where a Jewish family lives during a Palestinian protest in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, May 4, 2021. (Jamal Awad/FLASH90)

“We also urge the authorities to approach the residents of Sheikh Jarrah with compassion and respect, and consider the totality of these complex historical cases and how they impact real lives today,” the statement concluded.

After the situation further deteriorated over the weekend, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan phoned his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat to express his concern. The White House readout called on both sides to restore calm while again highlighting US disapproval of the looming Sheikh Jarrah evictions.

A source briefed on the matter said Sullivan also urged Ben-Shabbat to prevent the controversial Jerusalem Day Flag March, in which nationalist religious Jews march through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, as it has long been viewed by critics as an unnecessary provocation.

But Ben-Shabbat challenged Sullivan, telling him that the international community had been misconstruing the events in Jerusalem and that caving to their narrative would be rewarding violent extremists, according to the source. The Israeli National Security Council chairman maintained that it was the Palestinian leadership that needed to be threatened, not Israel.

Israeli National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat (right), and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (Flash90, AP)

Ben-Shabbat’s pushback had followed what Channel 12 reported to be three dismissals in the past month by Netanyahu of Biden officials’ objections over Israeli expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Ultimately though, Netanyahu agreed to shift the Flag March route and the state also delayed a Supreme Court hearing on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions that had been scheduled for Monday — Jerusalem Day, when tensions were already peaking.

It was that day, when Israeli frustration with US pressure was reaching a boiling point amid a chorus of criticism from countries around the globe, that Hamas began firing rockets at Jerusalem and later at Tel Aviv.

Putting aside differences

Shortly after the barrages were launched at Israel in significant numbers, the statements from the US began to increasingly focus on the rocket attacks.

At a Monday press conference, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken opened by expressing his concern over the Hamas rockets, while also calling for calm in Jerusalem, though without mentioning Sheikh Jarrah.

At a press conference later that day, State Department spokesman Ned Price opened by condemning the “unacceptable escalation” that was the Hamas rocket fire. “While we urge de-escalation on all sides, we also recognize Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and to defend its people and its territory,” he said, using a common pro-Israel talking point.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 1, 2021 in Washington, DC (Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

The statement also welcomed Israeli government decisions to delay the Sheikh Jarrah eviction hearing and reroute the Flag March. Price also hinted at the US decision to block a joint statement in the UN Security Council that would have criticized both sides for the ongoing violence. “We want to see to it that those products, be they statements or anything else, don’t escalate tensions,” he said of the proposed press release that panned Israeli actions in Jerusalem as the White House had done days earlier.

At his briefing on Tuesday, the State Department spokesman again opened by condemning Hamas rocket fire and insisting that Israel has a right to defend itself. When pressed by reporters on what steps the US thought Israel should take to de-escalate the situation, Price avoided giving an example, instead calling for calm and lamenting innocent lives lost on both sides.

Asked whether he thought the Israeli government’s alleged movement to the right made calm more difficult to reach, Price responded, “we will always have a partner in the Israeli government.”

Smoke rises following Israeli missile strikes on Gaza City, Thursday, May 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

In phone calls with various regional leaders on the escalation Tuesday and Wednesday, the sentiment continued. Sheikh Jarrah was mentioned in the readout from Blinken Tuesday’s call with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, but only generally and with no mention of the looming evictions. The top of the readout discussed Hamas rocket fire. It was the same case in the White House statement on Sullivan’s second call with Ben-Shabbat that took place later that Tuesday.

“Sullivan conveyed the President’s unwavering support for Israel’s security and for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians,” the readout stated, while adding that Biden hoped to see a de-escalation soon. No mention was made of Sheikh Jarrah in that statement. The readout from Blinken’s call with Netanyahu on Wednesday had largely identical messaging.

Even in Blinken’s conversation with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the secretary avoided criticizing Israel, rather stating “his belief that Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, dignity, security and prosperity,” according to the White House readout.

An IDF artillery unit near the Israel-Gaza border in southern Israel, May 13, 2021. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

At a press conference later that day, Blinken noted that there is “a very clear and absolute distinction between a terrorist organization, Hamas, that is indiscriminately raining down rockets – in fact, targeting civilians – and Israel’s response defending itself that is targeting the terrorists who are raining down rockets on Israel.”

And in Biden’s call with Netanyahu later that day, the president echoed the same message.

Discussing the conversation with reporters shortly afterward, Biden said, “my expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory,” in what wasn’t exactly an indication that Washington was pressuring Israel into agreeing to a ceasefire.

Again on Thursday when asked about the call, Biden struck a similar tone, saying he didn’t think Israel was overreacting to Hamas rocket fire.

In this July 20, 2015, file photo, members of the Security Council vote at United Nations headquarters on the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. (AP/Seth Wenig, File)

The Biden administration has dispatched Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to the region for talks with both sides aimed at achieving a ceasefire, but a source familiar with the matter said Thursday evening that the US was not expecting one in the next couple of days.

“As long as rockets persist, the Biden administration will be almost completely in Israel’s corner,” said a Security Council diplomat, who voiced frustration with Washington’s twice blocking of a joint statement from the top UN body on the violence. The US also managed to delay an open session of the council from Friday to Sunday, saying that it wanted to give more time for its own diplomacy efforts to play out.

“Whatever bad will have been between the sides, it’s been brushed over at least for now,” the diplomat added.

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