Biden Administration Must Change Course, Take Stronger Action to Secure Immediate Ceasefire and Address Root Causes of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

May 17, 2021

It is now over a week since incendiary efforts to dispossess Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and aggressive Israeli police actions on the Temple Mount helped spark an explosive escalation in violence between Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. As of this moment, this horror shows few signs that it is about to end.

In that time, Hamas has fired thousands of rockets indiscriminately at Israeli cities while Israel has pulverized Gaza with airstrikes. In Gaza, massive apartment blocs and structures have been leveled and over 200 people have been killed, including over 58 children, with over 1,000 injured. In Israel, families continue to sleep in bomb shelters and run for cover from incoming rockets. At least ten people have been killed, including two children. In the West Bank, 15 Palestinians have also reportedly been killed by Israeli forces, while some Israelis have been injured. Within Israel, intercommunal violence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel has reached unprecedented, boiling intensity.

J Street unequivocally condemns Hamas rocket fire against Israeli cities. We also know that the current horrific cycle of retaliation — of rockets and airstrikes killing Israeli and Palestinian civilians — can never provide long-term security for either Israelis or Palestinians. It will only bring more grief and devastation to families in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank, and leave more bloodshed and hatred in its wake. We are deeply alarmed that the Netanyahu government at this time has indicated little interest in de-escalating any time soon.

As this crisis has escalated, the Biden Administration has simply not done enough to demand, broker and achieve an immediate end to the violence and destruction. While a large number of Congressional Democrats and at least one senior Senate Republican have called on both Israelis and Palestinians to reach an immediate ceasefire, the Biden Administration has still not publicly done so.

With Israeli and Palestinian lives on the line, this combination of inadequate “quiet” appeals for de-escalation and otherwise nearly unquestioning public support for and tolerance of the Netanyahu government’s actions — including the massive airstrikes that have caused heavy civilian casualties — is unhelpful. The administration must change course.

As a global superpower and Israel’s closest ally, the US has a responsibility to do much more to end this escalation and to pursue policies that address the root causes of this conflict, including the ongoing occupation. Only intensive, progressive leadership can prevent this cycle of death and destruction from recurring. J Street calls on the Biden administration to immediately pursue the following steps:

1) Publicly call on all parties to the current violence to agree to an immediate ceasefire.

In addition to continuing to strongly condemn Hamas’ indiscriminate firing of rockets at Israeli cities as an act of terror, the US should publicly inform the Israeli government that intensive airstrikes on heavily-populated areas must immediately stop. Further, the administration should work urgently with the UN Security Council to issue a balanced call for a ceasefire that includes criticism of incendiary Israeli policies in East Jerusalem and all aspects of the current violence.

2) Appoint a senior-level Special Envoy to direct and coordinate US policy related to the conflict.

Beyond a push to stop the fighting immediately, the administration needs a longer-term plan to secure the Israeli and Palestinian people’s rights to peace, justice and self-determination. The envoy’s mandate should not be to coordinate a return to an earlier status quo or to launch new final status talks, but to actively address the underlying issues that lead to regular outbreaks of violence — that means addressing the unsustainability and injustice of the permanent military occupation of Palestinian territory, and of governing the millions of people who live there without full civil and political rights.

3) Immediately reverse steps taken by President Trump that have deepened the conflict and damaged America’s ability to be a mediator.

This must include re-opening the US consulate to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the PLO mission in Washington in order to help rebuild ties, as well as officially making clear that the US government considers settlement expansion and de facto annexation to be illegal under international law.

4) Push for an easing of and ultimately an end to the blockade of Gaza, and help finance massive humanitarian relief for Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is appalling and untenable, fostering suffering and desperation that only empowers Hamas and in the long run helps trigger repeated rounds of open conflict that threaten Israel as well. The US must work with the Israeli government and the international community to ensure Palestinians in Gaza finally have freedom of movement, trade and access to basic humanitarian needs for Gaza, as well as to support its people and help rebuild their devastated neighborhoods and infrastructure.

5) Pursue a fundamental reset of US policy towards the conflict, centering on the importance of ending the occupation and carefully reviewing and restricting the end uses of equipment bought with US security assistance to Israel.

US officials at the highest levels must be willing to speak publicly about the reality and fundamental injustice of ongoing occupation, and the need to push back against and end it in order to help secure a better future for Israelis and Palestinians. The White House must also recognize that the provision of a financial and diplomatic “blank check” by the United States to the state of Israel means that its current government feels little incentive to end occupation, pursue serious diplomacy and find a solution to the conflict that provides Israel with real security and Palestinians with their rights. While remaining committed to Israel’s security and to the full amount of assistance currently promised to Israel, the US must recognize that allowing US-sourced military equipment — including equipment bought with US aid — to be used in connection with evictions, demolitions and settlement expansion, facilitates the creeping annexation of Palestinian territory and cements a permanent undemocratic and unacceptable one-state reality. That must stop.

While horrified at the toll that this fighting continues to take on Israelis and Palestinians, we are also encouraged by the number of important leaders across Congress, the Democratic Party, the American Jewish community and the entire country who are calling for a much more responsible, even-handed and effective US policy towards this conflict. We strongly hope that the Biden Administration will begin to heed these voices.