Defeat Terror. Protect Civilians. Pursue Peace.

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on November 16, 2023

A little more than five weeks ago, Hamas terrorists committed the most grotesque, barbaric atrocity in their long-running war against Israel – the most horrific attack on Jewish people since the end of the Second World War.

Yesterday, J Street supporters marched in Washington, DC with Americans from across the country to remember the victims of this atrocity, demand accountability, stand against antisemitism in all forms, and urge our leaders to do everything possible to ensure the safe and swift return of hostages.

As Hamas continues to launch missiles and other attacks from underground tunnels and secret hideaways throughout Gaza – in densely populated civilian areas – we continue to support the goal of removing Hamas from control of Gaza and bringing the perpetrators of October 7 to justice.

Tragically, innocent civilians are bearing the brunt of Israel’s response to Hamas above ground while terrorists hide in tunnels below.

We are horrified at the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, the thousands of Palestinians killed and the unimaginable percentage of the population that is now displaced and struggling to find clean water, food, shelter and sanitation. Disease is spreading and aid agencies fear an even more cataclysmic humanitarian catastrophe ahead if urgent steps are not taken now.

Hamas could end this intolerable suffering tomorrow by releasing hostages, ending its terror campaign, and agreeing that its leaders will leave the territory. Unsurprisingly, they have indicated they intend to fight to the last man, and that, if they had the capacity, they would commit yet further atrocities against Israel as they seek its destruction.

J Street has been clear that we stand with the state and people of Israel as they defend themselves and respond to Hamas’ unthinkable barbarity in accordance with international law.

We have also made clear that how Israel conducts its response matters – as both a moral imperative and a strategic priority.

Israel’s response must accord with the letter and spirit of international law – frameworks the Jewish people were instrumental in championing after WWII. The level of violence used must be minimized to that which is necessary to achieve the war’s objectives; the level of humanitarian assistance should be maximized. Every conceivable effort must be made to protect hostages and civilians from harm, to restore water and power, and to avoid a horrific situation growing orders of magnitude worse on Israel’s doorstep.

We’ve urged the Biden Administration to press for longer pauses in hostilities for specific purposes: allowing hostage negotiations and releases to progress, families to seek shelter, and aid agencies to operate. We’ve urged using precision strikes and smaller munitions where possible; facilitating evacuations from hospitals, residential areas and shelters; committing to the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid surges; and immediately restoring power and water to critical civilian infrastructure.

And we’ve called out appalling rhetoric from senior Netanyahu government officials openly supporting violations of international law – calling for “Nakba 2023” and “damage not accuracy,” among other alarming and hateful statements. Such language is unacceptable on its face, further fractures support for Israel, and calls into serious question the goals of the military campaign.

The greater the destruction wreaked on innocents, the greater the risk of spiraling escalation in the West Bank and on Israel’s northern border; and the greater the long-term risk to the international standing of both Israel and the United States.

J Street is a pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy organization. We support the state and people of Israel, and when they are attacked, we support their right to respond decisively within the bounds of the laws of war.

We support the effort to remove Hamas because so long as Hamas remains in control, there will never be a path to achieving our ultimate goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

However, support for Israel’s operation doesn’t require providing a blank check for the Netanyahu government to operate without a clear exit strategy – or without any commitment to a political vision beyond his failed “conflict management” approach.

The US must insist that the ongoing military operation, and plans for what should come “the day after,” align with US and Israel’s strategic national security interests, and uphold the rights of the Palestinian people. They cannot be based on personal political motivations, or on the extreme ideology of the Israeli far-right.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times this week,

“Biden needs to make clear that America will not be Netanyahu’s useful idiot. We are going to lay down the principles of a fair peace plan for the morning after this war – one that reflects our interests and that will also enable us to support Israel and moderate Palestinians and win the support of moderate Arabs for an economic reconstruction of Gaza after the war.”

“Without such a shared strategy, the Biden administration and the American people, particularly American Jews who support Israel, will need to make some fateful decisions.”

As Congress considers the request for $14 billion in additional security assistance to Israel, Congress should ask the Biden Administration for assurances in three key areas:

  1. Building a Better Future. First and foremost, a clear commitment that – when the fighting is over – the administration will insist on an Israeli pledge to end the occupation of the Palestinian Territory in a defined and reasonable time period – and that it will jump-start an ambitious international campaign to build a Palestinian state that encompasses both Gaza and the West Bank.
  2. Minimizing Force and Protecting Civilians. Clear commitments that the administration is ensuring that Israeli strategies and tactics are as narrowly targeted as possible to minimize harm to civilians, that military aid will be delivered in full compliance with relevant American laws and international law, and that steps are being taken to stop extremist settler violence on the West Bank.
  3. Maximizing Humanitarian Assistance. The administration should commit that humanitarian assistance sufficient to meet the needs of the civilian population of Gaza will be provided, including deliveries of sufficient water, food, medicine and fuel; the opening of additional border crossings to allow aid delivery; and the creation of true safe zones with the free flow of aid workers and international agencies.

Together, we must commit to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that ensures the horrors of the October 7 attack and this ongoing war can never be repeated.

Israel is a sovereign country. Its elected leaders, whether in this government or the next one, will ultimately decide what path they wish to go down and what steps they want to take.

It’s America’s choice, however, whether we will enable our close ally and friend to pursue a dangerous plan of action filled with violence, bloodshed and pain, or whether we will instead do all we can to guide them to a better path.

The stakes of this moment could not be higher for all that J Street cares about – peace, security, human rights, democracy and more – or for Israel, the Palestinian people and the region.

Congress has a real opportunity, in the weeks leading to the vote on supplemental assistance, to ensure that out of this horrible nightmare, we are on a path that leads toward conflict resolution and that provides both peoples with self-determination, security and freedom in states of their own.

At this vital juncture, US policy cannot simply stand back and give carte blanche to the Netanyahu government. We should set out clearly the destination – two states for two peoples – and a comprehensive and achievable plan, with clear guardrails, for getting there.