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In Washington, calls for a ceasefire are loud, but not pervasive or, to Biden, persuasive

WASHINGTON (JTA) — At about 11 a.m. Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration favored “humanitarian pauses” so that assistance could reach Gaza Palestinians caught in Israel’s war with Hamas.

Left-wing social media lit up: Until Blinken’s comments, made to the United Nations Security Council, the Biden administration had rejected calls for a ceasefire. 

“The tide is turning — the Biden administration is beginning to recognize that this war will only bring more death and suffering for Palestinians and Israelis,” IfNotNow, a left-wing Jewish group that accuses Israel of “genocide” and has led protests for a ceasefire, said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Blinken’s comments were a reversal of sorts. Just last week the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for a “humanitarian pause.” But shortly after Blinken spoke, John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, threw cold water on any notion of U.S. support for a ceasefire.

“We’re going to continue to make sure Israel has the tools and the capabilities that they need to defend themselves,” he said just after 1 p.m., when asked at the daily White House press briefing about the prospects of a ceasefire. “A ceasefire right now really only benefits Hamas.”

Given Kirby’s statement, it appeared Blinken’s support for “humanitarian pauses” meant just that — short breaks in the fighting so food, water and medical assistance could reach people in need, nothing more. “We want to see all measure of protection for civilians. Pauses in operation [are] a tool and a tactic that can do that for temporary periods of time,” Kirby said. “That is not the same as saying a ceasefire.”

Calls for a ceasefire from some progressives, including Jewish groups, have been loud and insistent. They are backed by nearly two dozen progressive members of Congress, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish. 

But Kirby’s forceful rejection shows how ineffective those demands have been in the face of a Biden administration steadfast in its support for Israel, as well as a large majority of Congress that opposes a ceasefire.

Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said she has counted 23 Democrats in the House and Senate who have called for a ceasefire, out of 263 overall. Congressional Republicans are opposed almost wall-to-wall to a ceasefire.

“The overwhelming majority — more than 90% of all Democrats in the Senate and the House — stand with the president on the issue of a ceasefire,” Soifer said, although she noted that she has only been tracking those explicitly in favor of a ceasefire, and not those explicitly opposed.

Hamas broke a 2021 ceasefire when it launched its attack on Israel Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians, wounding thousands and abducting more than 200. Israel’s ensuing war on Hamas has killed more than 5,000 people, Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry says. It is not clear how many of those casualties are civilians, though a significant number are children.

A new ceasefire would aim to end all combat, including Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket launches, as well as all cross-border infiltration between Gaza and Israel. It would also leave Hamas in control of Gaza. Israel rejects those terms, saying the return of the hostages and the dismantling of Hamas must come first. A ceasefire would also nix a potential ground invasion by Israel that hopes to achieve those ends.

Biden has opposed a ceasefire because he, like Israel, believes Hamas must be permanently debilitated. He has called on Congress to deliver more than $10 billion in defense assistance to Israel. He said on Monday that at a minimum, the hostages should be released before a ceasefire is countenanced. 

“We should have those hostages released and then we can talk,” he told a reporter shouting out a question about a ceasefire at a White House event.

Sanders, the de facto leader of progressives in Congress, was among the first to make the call for a ceasefire.

“The bombs and missiles from both sides must end, massive humanitarian aid must be rushed to Gaza, and the hostages must be returned to their families,” Sanders said in an Oct. 17 statement. 

Members of the Squad, the group of House progressives, joined last week’s rally at the Capitol, which was led by the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace along with IfNotNow, and culminated in arrests.

J Street, the liberal Jewish Israel lobby that is influential among Democrats, is not joining the calls. “Our position is, we have not called for a ceasefire,” said Logan Bayroff, J Street’s spokesman. “Our position is, Israel has the right to defend itself in accordance with international law.”

The group last week urged lawmakers to sign a letter spearheaded by three Jewish House Democrats wholeheartedly backing Biden’s policy on the war. The letter did not explicitly oppose a ceasefire. But by garnering a majority of the caucus — 131 signatures, including every Jewish House Democrat — it created a firewall against demands for a ceasefire when taken in combination with Republican votes. 

The ceasefire calls have at times been intensely personal. On Tuesday, nearly 300 veterans of Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns signed a letter and made a video urging him to introduce legislation in the Senate matching a resolution in the House that calls for a ceasefire. The House resolution, sponsored by Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri, has so far garnered just 18 cosponsors. “Many of us, your former staff, share your Jewish heritage,” the letter to Sanders said.

IfNotNow, which backed the letter, said Sanders needed to do more. Eva Borgwardt, the group’s spokeswoman said in an email, “We need him to stay true to his legacy of principled, antiwar leadership now.”

Also on Tuesday, the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council effectively expelled a constituent, the Boston Workers Circle, after it joined with anti-Zionist groups at a pro-ceasefire rally that also accused Israel of “genocide.”

The Intercept reported on Oct. 13 that J Street threatened to pull support from lawmakers who failed to join a separate resolution condemning Hamas — one that has so far garnered 425 cosponsors out of 434 members of Congress. (The resolution has yet to reach the floor because the Republican majority has been floundering in its attempt to elect a speaker.)

Bayroff denied that report. J Street’s political action committee is still raising money for New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who is a member of the Squad and one of the holdouts. Bayroff said he did not see the disagreement over the ceasefire creating long-term rifts between J Street and its progressive allies in Congress. The group does not endorse most other members of the Squad, including Tlaib, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Missouri Rep. Cori Bush. 

“We appreciate that views of members of Congress and folks will continue to evolve and we’re not looking for everybody to be marching in ideological lockstep right now, or to be cracking down on folks with slightly different opinions,” Bayroff said. “We certainly believe that every single one of our endorses needs to condemn or have condemned what Hamas has done in no uncertain terms.” 

Bowman condemned the attack almost immediately but did not join a letter signed by more than half of House Democrats, including some prominent critics of Israel, praising Biden’s handling of the crisis.

Soifer, who noted that JDCA’s affiliated PAC did not endorse and has no plans to endorse any of the 23 Democrats calling for a ceasefire, agreed that no intra-party rift was in the offing, because the issue of a ceasefire was a difference of policy, not philosophy. 

Soifer nonetheless said Tlaib should be considered as having crossed a red line and as having sowed danger for the Jewish community. Tlaib has not forcefully condemned Hamas, Soifer said, and has not retracted claims that Israel bombed a hospital, even though experts have now assessed that the explosion was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket. 

U.S. officials strengthened their assessment on Tuesday to say they believed with “high certainty” that a Palestinian rocket caused the blast.

“It was dangerous because it was a lie,” Soifer said.  “Once that was clear, as a U.S. policymaker and a member of Congress, she should clarify her remarks. And she chooses not to. So it’s dangerous to perpetuate that lie, especially at this incredibly volatile time.”

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On Explosive Northern Front, Hezbollah Lurks; IDF Conducts Precise Defense

UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) patrol in the village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, in southern Lebanon, July 12, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

JNS.orgAs Israel prepares for the strong possibility of a resumption of war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Defense Forces is also currently in a heightened state of alert and preparedness along the border with Lebanon, responding to the continuous threats posed by Hezbollah.

Since Oct. 7, the IDF has deployed significant military resources, including artillery, tanks and engineering corps, along the Lebanese border, striking Hezbollah anti-tank missile squads and other terrorists whenever they are detected, either after an attack or preparing for one.

This low-intensity conflict when compared to Gaza has resulted in some 90 casualties for Hezbollah and nine Israeli casualties—six military personnel and three civilians.

Several Israeli homes and military bases have sustained heavy damage from Hezbollah strikes since Oct. 7, and tens of thousands of Israeli residents from areas near the border with Lebanon remain evacuated, displaced from their homes by the threat of the Radwan Hezbollah elite terrorist unit.

In response, the IDF has employed a defensive-responsive posture aimed at protecting Israeli territory from Hezbollah’s aggression but not escalating the situation into a full-scale war front at this time.

Its approach is characterized by a reactive rather than proactive stance. Operations are tailored to respond to specific threats and attacks from Hezbollah, avoiding initiating aggression. This goal remains to protect civilian lives and property, as well as to make sure that Hezbollah cannot surprise the north as Hamas did the south. Still, the decision of any expanded war efforts in Lebanon remains up to the war cabinet.

Hezbollah’s tactics, meanwhile, involve embedding its operations within Lebanese civilian areas; using southern Shi’ite villages as bases of attack; firing anti-tank missiles at Israeli northern homes and military positions; and continuing to pose a serious and persistent threat.

The question of whether the Radwan unit, which has murder and kidnap squads much like Hamas’s Nukhba unit, could breach the Israeli border and conduct attacks has no clear answer at this time, although the IDF is present at the border in large numbers and has proven effective at detecting Radwan unit movements in real-time.

Hezbollah’s terror tactics not only endanger Lebanese civilians but are designed to complicate the IDF’s response—a familiar use of human shielding that Hamas employs as well in Gaza.

In this explosive situation, the IDF currently exercises restraint in its counterstrikes, relying on precise intelligence to target terrorist threats while minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage.

UNIFIL ineffective in curbing provocation

The role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in challenging Hezbollah’s flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans Hezbollah from operating in Southern Lebanon, is nonexistent.

Worse yet, Hezbollah has been actively using UNIFIL as human shields, launching attacks on Israel in some cases from tens of meters from UNIFIL positions.

UNIFIL’s ineffectiveness in curbing Hezbollah’s activities is self-evident, highlighting the limitations of international peacekeeping forces in such scenarios.

Despite this, the IDF continues to remain in contact with UNIFIL and has been transmitting its concern over Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities with no tangible results.

So far, Israel’s policy on the Lebanon border is a delicate balance between essential defense and cautious restraint. But it remains unclear how long this can continue since northern residents will not return to a persistent Hezbollah threat to their lives in the new, post-Oct. 7 reality, and the IDF cannot remain fully deployed in the north indefinitely.

The result is a paradox that appears to suggest difficult decisions in the future by the Israeli war cabinet if the north is to be sustainable and its residents granted a new sense of security.

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The Determination of Israel’s Reservists

IDF soldiers are seen at rest stop near the border with Gaza. Photo: Reuters/Jim Hollander

JNS.orgWho is the Israel soldier? They can be of any age and profession. It may have been a long time since they held a weapon. Many of them are at Tze’elim, one of the IDF’s largest bases, just across the border from Gaza on yellow sand.

When I meet them, they are waiting, as the brief ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was still holding. A short time later, Hamas broke the truce, attacked Israel with rockets, and the fighting began again.

These soldiers are older and more emotional than you would imagine. Their intentions are clear: “Never Again.” The Oct. 7 massacre will never be permitted to reoccur. Israel must be freed from the nightmare of Hamas.

In Tze’elim, rows of barracks and numerous disorderly tents house thousands of soldiers of all kinds. We meet with a group of them from Brigade 252. They are soldiers from the miluim—the reserves. They have completed their three-year military service—or two years, if they are women—but they all keep their “miluim bag” under the bed. If the phone rings, as happened on Oct. 7, they rush to the front, whether they are in Tel Aviv or traveling in Japan, whether they are left-wing or right-wing, professors or taxi drivers. They tear themselves away from the operating room and the shop, the lawyer’s office and the bus they drive.

Commander A. is thin, with gray hair and a kind smile. He is religious. On the morning of Oct. 7, he was in synagogue without a telephone. Someone told him “something never seen before is happening.” A. rushed to his collection point in the south and has yet to return home.

On Oct. 7, the reserves were immediately thrown into the battle to retake the kibbutzim that had been attacked and massacred by Hamas terrorists. They hunted down the Hamas men who remained and collected the wounded and dead Israelis in the fields and on the roads. A. closes his eyes. He has seen hell.

The 252 was then sent into the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, home to 50,000 inhabitants who serve as human shields for what is essentially a massive rocket launching pad. The reservists were trained in a mock-up of a Gaza city. They practiced how to enter, shoot, exit, climb, attack and go through tunnels full of TNT. They trained against ambushes, snipers and RPGs.

A. says that, when they went into Beit Hanoun itself, “We had to quickly learn a lesson: Beit Hanoun’s ambush is in his heart, not its outer circles. The terrorists let you enter easily. There’s a row of houses, two or three more, and that’s where Hamas is waiting for you—where you don’t expect it, in civilian structures.”

A. explains, “If we decide to destroy a structure and there are civilians inside, we warn the civilian population. … There are precise rules for evaluating whether we have to act, whether it’s essential because if we don’t act, the lives of soldiers or Israeli civilians are in danger. We try to stop Hamas’s continuous use of human shields by moving the civilians out completely.”

A. is happy to say, “Of civilians killed in Ben Hanoun, the number is zero.”

Israeli soldiers, however, were killed. Maj. Moshe, a 50-year-old engineer who works in high-tech, explained, “An army generally advances on a territory that, once occupied, is the starting point of your next step. But here, through the tunnels under the ground, suddenly you find the enemy shooting at you from behind.”

Thus, great efforts were made to locate the tunnels. “With the use of sophisticated instruments, and also sometimes suffering unexpected explosions given that Hamas’s specialty is to mine everything with large quantities of explosives, we quickly understood that the tunnels were a very sophisticated network, not holes of various sizes dug here and there, but an enormous spider web that converged on the urban center.”

“The structures used by Hamas, which they protected with human shields, included a mosque, a school, a hospital, a public swimming pool, civilian homes, children’s rooms, even their beds. There were weapons everywhere,” he says.

As a result of the truce, Moshe states, some of the evacuated civilians have begun to return. “We can block them,” he says, “but not attack them or approach them. There is a truce.”

Nonetheless, I point out, three soldiers were wounded two days ago in an attack. “True,” Moshe replies, “and we returned fire. If we are in danger we respond.” He notes that some of the returnees are Hamas terrorists, “but we are in a truce, we act according to the rules of defense.”

“We have two ways of being at war: offensive and defensive,” he continues. “The offensive is much easier: You face the enemy. You can move. Defense is unnerving, even dangerous, especially when there are civilians around.”

However, he says, there is much to do, even during a truce. “For example, we had completely dismantled the explosive systems inside a building, and then we realized that everything had been mined again.”

Hamas, he says, is “easier to deal with than endure while you can’t move. So, we wait for orders. The mission is to destroy Hamas and bring the kidnapped people home. That and nothing else.”

Now that the soldiers are back at war, the humanitarian issue is certainly important to them; not because of what the Biden administration tells them, but because that is what an Israeli soldier is.

First and foremost, however, they are Jews who know exactly what was done to their people on Oct. 7 and will continue their war of justice and survival. One of them tells me, “Yes, I feel when we fight, feel it physically, that our kidnapped citizens are not far away, and I fight for them too with all my heart. This is the most just war of all time.”

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The Moral Bankruptcy of IfNotNow

IfNotNow supporters at a rally in New York City. Photo: IfNotNow via Facebook.

JNS.orgA few days ago, I attended a webinar entitled “Jews for Ceasefire,” presented by the young Jewish anti-Zionists of IfNotNow. It was hosted by an earnest young woman named Gen (IfNotNow activists often don’t use their surnames), who began by reaffirming what the group calls its main goal: to “end American support for Israeli apartheid.” She went on to emphasize that all the positions taken by IfNotNow are “deeply grounded in Jewish tradition.” To prove the point, she called on Rabbi Monica Gomery, who led a prayer and enthusiastically praised the group’s work.

Next up was Noa, a young woman who said, “I’m going to root us in the moment.” “The moment,” however, did not include Hamas’s Oct. 7 genocidal attack on Israeli civilians. Noa said nothing whatsoever about it. Instead, she presented a litany of alleged Israeli abuses inflicted on Palestinians. Her omission appeared to be deliberate, as it helped portray the IDF’s defensive military operations in Gaza as an unprovoked act of aggression.

Following Noa, there was a testimonial from a young man named Boaz. He made what appeared to him to be a confession that his grandfather helped perpetrate the “nakba.” What he meant was that his grandfather was a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence. For Boaz, his father’s participation in Israel’s successful effort to prevent a second Holocaust was a source of shame, not pride. As he explained, he was trying to work through his guilt. A poster behind him bore the slogan, “Palestine will be free,” a popular euphemism for that second Holocaust.

After Boaz’s self-flagellation came the highlight of the webinar—an appearance by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Tlaib has been an ally of IfNotNow for some time. In fact, the group’s leadership began collaborating with Tlaib before she was elected to Congress. During her presentation, Tlaib referred to them as her “siblings.”

Sporting a t-shirt that said, “Justice from Detroit to Gaza”—a slogan that falsely connects Israel to police brutality controversies in the U.S.—Tlaib declared that Congress must demand a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas and “stop funding war crimes.” Like her IfNotNow supporters, Tlaib conveniently made no mention of the Oct. 7 attack or the hostages held by Hamas.

It apparently did not bother the leaders of IfNotNow that the House of Representatives had just censured Tlaib for her genocidal call to free “Palestine from the river to the sea.” Indeed, IfNotNow leaders repeat the same call in their training sessions. That training also endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to economically strangle Israel, as well as the so-called “right of return,” which aims to demographically eliminate the Jewish state.

It seems that IfNotNow leaders are unperturbed that Tlaib has characterized Hamas’s rampage of crimes against humanity as justified “resistance” to an “apartheid state.” These Jews, it appears, are perfectly happy to align themselves with someone who supports murdering large numbers of Jews. They are also unbothered by the fact that Tlaib posted a video on social media that says, “Joe Biden supported the genocide of the Palestinian people”—a genocide that is not happening. One of IfNotNow’s campaigns calling for a ceasefire is entitled, “No Genocide in Our Name.” Having erased Hamas’s genocidal attack, IfNotNow appears to have fabricated one.

In addition, IfNotNow has officially endorsed Tlaib’s statement, “You cannot claim to hold progressive values yet back Israel’s apartheid government.” To them and other young Jews who clasp hands with Tlaib and her compatriots, condemnation of Israel is the sine qua non of being a progressive, and a policy of racist exclusion must be imposed on any Jew who doesn’t get with the program. IfNotNow looks to Tlaib to lead the way, even though, like antisemites throughout history, she is happy to exploit them and eventually discard them once they have outlived their usefulness.

Most tellingly, IfNotNow has been unfazed by Tlaib’s open antisemitism, such as her claim that American supporters of Israel “forgot what country they represent,” clearly invoking the “dual loyalty” libel. She has also engaged in antisemitic conspiracy theories, talking about the “people behind the curtain” who are exploiting victims “from Gaza to Detroit.”

Worst of all, Tlaib is the only member of Congress to call for an end to the Jewish state. It should not be surprising that IfNotNow is fine with that, as they proudly state that they take no position on Israel’s right to exist.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has perfectly and accurately described such people as “Hamas’s useful idiots.”

The origins of IfNotNow’s ideology are obvious. Like Tlaib and many other “social justice” ideologues, IfNotNow divides people into two groups: Oppressors and the oppressed. Depending on your racial or ethnic identity, you by definition belong to one or the other. There are no gradations, no nuance and only one permissible narrative. Thus, decades of genocidal Arab violence go unmentioned, including the Oct. 7 massacre. There is only Israeli oppression and Palestinian “resistance.”

It would be a mistake to believe that IfNotNow is an inconsequential outlier. They have nine chapters across the United States and an office on K Street in Washington, D.C. The webinar I attended had more than 1,600 attendees.

They also have powerful friends and an enormous amount of money. According to NGO Monitor, IfNotNow has received grants from the wealthy Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation, the New Israel Fund’s Progressive Jewish Fund and the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

All that, plus support from a member of Congress. It seems that racism, hate and support for genocide pay off.

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