U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been eager in the days since Hamas murdered 1,200 people and Israel declared war in response, to demonstrate the depths of their support for the Jewish state in its time of need.
The groundswell of support — coming after a decade of quietly simmering policy tensions with Israel — has been reminiscent of the rhetoric in the post-9/11 era, when it was deemed taboo to deviate from grief and rage to express concern for the lives and rights of those who might be caught in the crossfire as the United States struck back.
The Biden White House has been at odds with Israel’s far-right government over settlement expansion in the West Bank, in defiance of international law and Mideast peace objectives. But that muffled criticism, which also has crept — along with a growing awareness of Palestinian grievances — into the more progressive pockets of Capitol Hill in recent years, all but vanished over the weekend, after an attack so gruesome as to render anything outside of calls for revenge almost unseemly.
In the days since Hamas militants infiltrated Israel, taking 150 hostages and leaving a trail of bodies and smoldering wreckage, lawmakers across both parties have taken to the airwaves to pledge military aid and unwavering support. Four-hundred and sixteen out of 435 House members have agreed to co-sponsor a resolution that affirms the United States’ steadfast support of the Jewish state. Jewish Democrats led a vigil for Israel’s victims Thursday night on the Capitol steps.
Lawmakers from both parties — in a Congress where pro-Israel political action committees have long ranked among the biggest political donors — have echoed Jerusalem’s battle cries for revenge.
“In terms of Hamas, kill ‘em all,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News’ Sean Hannity this week. “Gaza is going to look like Tokyo and Berlin at the end of World War II when this is over. And if it doesn’t look that way, Israel made a mistake.”
For some, an unspoken test has emerged, measuring one’s support for Israel not just in the statements of sympathy and political backing, but also in the extent to which each lawmaker is willing to give Israel a green light to do whatever it thinks is necessary in Gaza.
“I would like this administration to get out of Israel’s way and to let Israel do what it needs to do best,” said Rep. Max L. Miller (R-Ohio) on Wednesday, saying he was “advocating for … no rules of engagement.”
Israeli forces are readying for a potential ground assault on Gaza in the coming days.
“Level the place,” Graham said on Fox, declaring the war between Israel and Hamas as a “religious one.”
Human rights advocates have warned that the scale of civilian casualties could widen with a ground invasion into the dense and impoverished territory of 2 million people.
Days of Israeli bombing since Hamas’s assault have killed some 1,400 Palestinian civilians, including hundreds of children, in the Gaza Strip, a territory roughly half the size of New York City. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Union’s foreign policy chief have warned that the siege declared by Israel earlier in the week to cut off Gaza’s access to food, water, fuel and electricity could violate international law.
“I think we need to make sure that we are not responding in ways that stop us from having peace ever,” the leader of the Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), told reporters this week following a closed briefing on Israel. Jayapal, who received ferocious backlash in July, including from members of her own party, when she referred to Israel as a “racist” state, appeared to weigh her words carefully.
“I think that’s just complicated right now. It’s complicated to say in this environment. It’s complicated for people to feel,” she added.
Amid the fervor on Capitol Hill, there has been little unprompted mention of Palestinian deaths. Civilian casualities are unavoidable in a territory as densely packed as Gaza, many say; a problem rendered more complex by Hamas’s hostages and Israel’s full closure of the enclave’s borders, preventing Palestinian civilians from fleeing.
“We use the words ‘scalable’ and ‘proportionate,’ but in the end, how do you measure proportion, when 1,200 Israelis were murdered?” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) “I think Israel will always go after military targets. But when they embed military targets in the population, there’s going to be casualties.”
Some have sought to frame human rights concerns in Gaza as antisemitic.
Miller, who served as an aide to former president Donald Trump and identified himself as one of the two Jewish Republicans in the House, said it’s “disgusting” that “people are already asking for a cease-fire before they’ve even really mounted their offensive.” He called the United Nations — which has urged protection of civilian lives — an “antisemitic organization” and referred to Israel’s opponents as “savages” who “raise [their] children to kill Jews.”
Miller, who spoke to reporters this week alongside Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, cited unsubstantiated claims of atrocities to make the case for the necessity of a no-holds-barred assault on the Palestinian enclave.
“I saw a video of toddlers in cages — like animals. … As Hamas was laughing at them,” McCaul told reporters, apparently referring to a video that Israeli fact-checkers determined was, in fact, posted on TikTok before the attack.
“What I worry about is … that the narrative is going to flip to Israel is somehow the bully here and Hamas is the victim,” McCaul told reporters Wednesday.
The resolution to support Israel, introduced by McCaul and New York Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, placed direct responsibility “for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians” since the attack squarely on Hamas.
“We are going to stay side by side with the Israelis,” said Rep. Ami Bera, a California Democrat.
“There’s also a real recognition that you could have a huge humanitarian crisis on your hands — water, food, energy all cut off to Gaza,” he added. “What happens two weeks from now when there’s no medicines or people are starting to starve?”
President Biden this week stopped short of publicly urging restraint from Israel, but he alluded to his call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he urged him to abide by international law.
“Terrorists purposely target civilians, kill them,” Biden said. “We uphold the laws of war. It matters. There’s a difference.”
Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a former Army Ranger who deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, said Thursday that the “saber-rattling rhetoric” from some lawmakers on the Hill was “extremely unhelpful,” characterizing the contest of rhetorical aggression as one that “serves their political means” rather than advancing a secure Middle East.
“Israelis have a right to response. Hamas must be neutralized, I firmly believe that,” Crow said. But urban warfare, like that which Israeli forces will meet in Gaza, is brutal and difficult, he added.
“I think one of the lessons we learned during our 20-year war on terror is you have to go to great lengths to minimize civilian harm,” Crow said. “If you don’t, not only do you lose sight of your goals and humanity, but it’s counterproductive. You create more enemies and adversaries by overresponding.”