The overwhelming scale of Israeli killing and destruction in Gaza begs the question: How, in the twenty-first century, before the eyes of the world, can such violence be allowed to pass?
Part of answering this question requires a critical look at the past two decades of war making that the United States has led in the name of “fighting terrorism.”
There are features of the current Israeli assault — crucially enabled by the United States — that are uniquely cruel and devastating. But there are also aspects of this chapter of colonial violence that are familiar and reiterative of U.S. practices over more than 20 years in the lands stretching from North and East Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia.
According to the Washington Post, Israeli destruction caused by its aerial bombardment of Gaza’s cities, for example, is happening at a much more aggressive pace than the destruction that the United States caused when it bombarded Mosul in 2016 and 2017, Raqqa in 2017, as well as Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo in 2016.
The Post’s use of these examples of devastating bombing as points of comparison, however, highlights how unfortunately familiar they are regarding the current assault on Gaza — even if the current bombing is happening with far more intense speed and destruction.
Another feature of the Israeli offensive, the mass displacement of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, has echoes of fairly recent U.S. actions in neighboring countries.
Massachusetts Congressman and Marine veteran Seth Moulton actually boasts that, in the 2004 invasion of Fallujah, U.S. Marines displaced nearly the entire city’s population as they attacked it. Moulton writes:
Dropping leaflets, broadcasting announcements and, critically, providing safe passage and safe haven, the Marines evacuated civilians from Fallujah so effectively that, by the time they went back in, up to 90% of the city had left. Only the hardened insurgents remained to be eliminated.
One could easily take Moulton’s telling of the U.S. assault — which he celebrates as “humanitarian” because it uprooted the people of a city rather than slaughtering them all — and replace “Marines” with “Israel Defense Forces” and “Fallujah” with “Gaza City” and it would be at home in an IDF press briefing today.
The U.S. carried out horrendous episodes of violence — like the sieges of Fallujah, Raqqa and Mosul — largely out of the view of the American public, with mainstream U.S. media neglecting to cover their toll. But today, officials are openly drawing on those very histories to inform the Israeli atrocities in the assault on Gaza.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and other Pentagon officials have explicitly pointed to the U.S. assaults on Iraqi and Syrian cities in their current conversations with Israel about Gaza.
“There are some lessons learned that we will be more than happy to share with our allies here, Austin told reporters, regarding what the United States did in cities like Mosul and Raqqa. “In terms of operating effectively in dense urban terrain, creating safe humanitarian corridors, making sure that we’re thoughtful about how we shape the battle and making sure that our objectives are well defined.”
The legacy of these U.S. assaults is mass death and displacement.
The U.S. bombardment of Raqqa, for example, resulted in the displacement of nearly the entire population of that city, 80% of which was made entirely uninhabitable.
The fact that U.S. officials can refer positively to these histories in the mainstream media indicates precisely how little critical interrogation of those attacks were taking place when the United States was carrying them out — or since.
Israeli officials are picking up on these “lessons” imparted from their U.S. counterparts, referring to devastating assaults that transformed the human and physical landscapes of whole cities after which the United States declared victory and faced little scrutiny by the media or public.
Mark Regev, the senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has justified Israel’s current actions in Gaza by referring to the past U.S. actions in Iraq.
When asked about the proportion of Palestinian civilians that Israel is killing in Gaza, Regev said, “when the United States was leading a coalition to get ISIS out of Mosul, there were civilian casualties.”
Unlike in the cases of the invasions of Mosul, Raqqa, Fallujah and other cities by the Americans, there actually is tremendous scrutiny toward Israel’s U.S.-armed and enabled assault on Gaza today. The massive outpouring of protest is forcing Israel and the White House to answer for their actions.
Washington and its allies have gotten away with countless human rights violations over the past two decades. It is painfully clear that the most urgent demand to fight for is a cease-fire to the catastrophe that has unfolded in Gaza. But we cannot end there. The practices and justifications for what the United States and other countries have carried out and enabled in the name of “fighting terrorism” must be excavated, interrogated and uprooted if we are to have any hope for just and peaceful futures.
We must also hold Netanyahu, Biden, George W. Bush, other war criminals and those abetting and facilitating war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable instead of continuing to bestow accolades upon them.
The era of impunity is over.
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Khury Petersen-Smith is the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), researching U.S. empire, borders and migration.