WASHINGTON — Massively amplifying even Hamas’s own figures, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders suggested Israel had killed “over 10,000 innocent” Palestinian civilians in Gaza during the war there in the summer of 2014, and said the high casualties were the result of an “indiscriminate” Israeli military offensive. Hamas health authorities in Gaza put the civilian death toll at about a seventh of the figure cited by Sanders; Israel puts it lower still.
In an interview with the New York Daily News editorial board published on Monday, the Vermont senator acknowledged that he did not have the exact figures memorized, but twice said he believed that the Palestinian civilian death count surpassed 10,000, and excoriated Israel for what he deemed its disproportionate use of force.
“Anybody help me out here, because I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?” he said first.
Told that the number was “probably high,” Sanders responded: “I don’t have it in my number… but I think it’s over 10,000. My understanding is that a whole lot of apartment houses were leveled,” he went on. “Hospitals, I think, were bombed. So yeah, I do believe and I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.”
Contentious casualty count
Sanders’s estimation far exceeds that of official Palestinian sources. (It was clear from the context that Sanders was referring to the 2014 war; however, the Palestinian civilian death toll from all three rounds of Israeli-Hamas conflict in the years since the terror group seized control of the Strip also falls far short of the figure he cited.)
According to Palestinian figures cited by the UN Human Rights Council, 1,462 civilians were killed out of a total of the 2,251 Gaza fatalities during the 51-day conflict. Israel, for its part, has said that up to half of those killed on the Palestinian side were combatants, and has blamed the civilian death toll on Hamas for deliberating placing rocket launches, tunnels and other military installations among civilians. Seventy-three people were killed on the Israeli side of the conflict.
In the past, Sanders has condemned Hamas for launching rockets at civilian areas and building tunnels into Israel proper, including in a testy exchange with some of his constituents in August 2014, where he simultaneously criticized Israel’s military response.
When asked by the New York Daily News what he would have done in Israel’s place, he said: “You’re asking me now to make not only decisions for the Israeli government but for the Israeli military, and I don’t quite think I’m qualified to make decisions.
“But I think it is fair to say that the level of attacks against civilian areas… and I do know that the Palestinians, some of them, were using civilian areas to launch missiles. Makes it very difficult,” he added. “But I think most international observers would say that the attacks against Gaza were indiscriminate and that a lot of innocent people were killed who should not have been killed.”
His discomfort with the nature of the Israeli campaign notwithstanding, Sanders said he did not support Palestinian attempts to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court for a war crimes trial.
Addressing the conflict
Sanders was also asked how he would address efforts to forge a comprehensive peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians, and how he would address the settlement issue.
In a speech released two weeks ago, which Sanders said he would have given at the annual AIPAC policy conference had he not been elsewhere campaigning, the underdog Democratic candidate called for “pulling back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza,” referring to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to unilaterally remove all settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
When pressed by the New York newspaper to describe the kind of “pullback” he envisioned, Sanders responded by saying, “Well, that’s the Israeli government’s plan, but I think that right now… I’m not going to run the Israeli government. I’ve got enough problems trying to be a United States senator or maybe president of the United States.”
“If I had some paper in front of me, I would give you a better answer,” he added. “But I think if the expansion was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory, I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate.”
While he would not detail exactly how he would pursue bringing the two sides back into negotiations, Sanders went on to slam settlements as being an obstacle to reaching the coveted two-state outcome “for long-term peace in that region, and God knows nobody has been successful in that for 60 years, but there are good people on both sides,” he added. “And Israel is not, cannot, just simply expand when it wants to expand with new settlements.”
Sanders, the only Jewish candidate for president, also stressed his support for Israel’s right to live in security and emphasized his time spent on a kibbutz in the country, in 1964, and that he has family currently living there, while indicating the US has an interest in improving the quality of life for Palestinians.
“I lived in Israel. I have family in Israel. I believe 100 percent not only in Israel’s right to exist, a right to exist in peace and security without having to face terrorist attacks,” he said. “But from the United States’ point of view, I think, long-term, we cannot ignore the reality that you have large numbers of Palestinians who are suffering now, poverty rate off the charts, unemployment off the charts, Gaza remaining a destroyed area”
Sanders also vowed to place demands on the Palestinian political leadership, which he said included “the absolute condemnation of terrorist attacks” and ensuring foreign donations aren’t used to advance terror. “Foreign aid should go to housing and schools,” he said, “not the development of bombs and missiles.”
Concern over the use of foreign aid for Palestinians, however, is mostly directed toward Europe, as US foreign aid is already under strict congressional oversight and restrictions based on congressional concern that it could be “diverted to Palestinian terrorist groups.” All aid is thus relegated to US-administered project assistance and budget support for the Palestinian Authority, along with donations going to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
‘To the degree that (the Israelis) want us to have a positive relationship, I think they’re going to have to improve their relationship with the Palestinians’
On the nature of how he would manage the US-Israel alliance if elected president, Sanders said the strength of Israel’s ties with the US would depend upon how things are progressing with the Palestinians: “To the degree that they (the Israelis) want us to have a positive relationship,” he said, “I think they’re going to have to improve their relationship with the Palestinians.”
Sanders is currently trailing behind former secretary of state Hillary Clinton by 701 delegates, with Clinton holding 1,712 to Sanders’s 1,011.
The next primary contest is taking place Tuesday in Wisconsin.