Analysis | As Israel-Iran clash cools, Gaza’s crisis remains

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By the weekend, it seemed temperatures were cooling. Iran and Israel had clashed in worrying, unprecedented fashion over the preceding week: Angry over an apparent Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria, the Islamic Republic launched hundreds of drones and missiles from Iranian soil last Saturday toward targets in Israel. The attack was mostly neutralized by Israel and its allies, but such a brazen assault meant the Israeli war cabinet felt compelled to retaliate.

Their response seemed to come in the early hours Friday, delayed after numerous Western officials and diplomats counseled Israeli restraint. Reports pointed to suspected limited Israeli strikes near a prominent nuclear facility in the central Iranian province of Isfahan. The attack appeared to be calibrated as a warning to Iran of Israel’s reach and knowledge of the theocratic regime’s sensitive assets and military sites.

“Iran must understand that when it acts against us, we have the ability to strike at any time, and we can do serious damage,” Eyal Hulata, a former Israeli national security adviser, said on Army Radio. “We have a highly capable air force, and the United States is on our side.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian downplayed the incident in an NBC News interview, saying it “was not a strike” and “they were more like toys that our children play with — not drones.” He also bought into Israel’s plausible deniability, stressing that it was not clear there was “a connection” between the strike and Israel, and suggested Iran would not have “any new reactions” if there’s no further Israeli action.

An Israeli official said Israel attacked Iran on April 19 in retaliation for Iran launching a barrage of missiles and drones at Israel. (Video: Reuters)

In a febrile situation, that’s welcome news. The long-rolling shadow war between the two countries yields plenty of scenarios for miscalculation by either side, and experts saw the past week as perhaps one of the riskiest moments yet. Israel and Iran have entered “a new equilibrium, not so different from the old one,” said Arash Azizi, a senior lecturer in political science and history at Clemson University, to my colleagues. “The immediate threat of escalation has been lifted.”

“We feel that Israel listened to our concerns and chose an action that the Iranians could live with,” an anonymous Western diplomat told Israeli newspaper Haaretz not long after the first reports of the strike emerged. He added: “It’s not yet possible to say with certainty that the danger is behind us, but there is room for cautious optimism.”

But there’s less reason for optimism when it comes to Gaza, the besieged territory in Israel’s crosshairs that’s the site of one of the world’s most staggering humanitarian catastrophes. The Palestinian death toll over more than six months of war between Israel and militant group Hamas climbed above 34,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the dead are women and children.

Earlier this month, USAID Administrator Samantha Power said it was “credible” to assess that famine was already underway in areas of Gaza, especially the territory’s north. Israel and Washington have said humanitarian aid flows have improved in recent days, while the Biden administration is plowing ahead in its efforts to set up a pier on Gaza’s coast where U.N. agencies and other organizations can bring in food supplies via the sea. But humanitarian groups have said little has changed on the ground, and a sprawling hunger crisis endures.

The war is in full gear, as well. Israeli strikes on the southern Gazan city of Rafah, home to more than a million Palestinians displaced by the conflict, killed 22 people, including 18 children overnight, according to local officials on Sunday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to unleash a far-reaching ground offensive into Rafah, despite the objections of numerous Israeli allies, including a concerned Biden administration.

Netanyahu wants to prioritize rooting out Hamas’s battalions there, no matter the intensifying domestic clamor for a deal that would free the remaining Israeli hostages in Hamas’s captivity. Israel’s critics fear that such an offensive would put hundreds of thousands of civilians in the crossfire, push many Gazans out of Gaza — with murky prospects of being able to return — and further set back the fitful rounds of diplomacy surrounding the conflict.

At the end of last week, U.S. and Israeli officials discussed Israel’s war plans for Rafah. In a statement, the White House said that U.S. officials in these talks “expressed concerns with various courses of action in Rafah, and Israeli participants agreed to take these concerns into account and to have further follow up discussions.”

The House passed a $95 billion package to aid Ukraine and Israel on April 20. The Senate is expected to consider the measures early this week. (Video: Reuters)

None of these reservations stalled the bulk of U.S. lawmakers in Congress. On Saturday, after months of political rancor, the House passed funding bills for military aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. An overwhelming majority approved the measure of support for Israel — that is, $26 billion, chiefly in military aid. The package also includes $9 billion in humanitarian aid, some of which will be allotted toward Gaza, but cannot, by the terms of the bill, be delivered via the main U.N. agency responsible for helping Palestinians.

Netanyahu hailed the vote as an outcome that “demonstrates strong bipartisan support for Israel and defends Western civilization.” President Biden is expected to sign the bill once it goes through the Senate.

Thirty-seven Democrats were among the 58 lawmakers who opposed the package for Israel. In a statement, 19 of those House Democrats declared that while they “strongly” believe in Israel’s right to self-defense, they would not sanction funding for “more offensive weapons” that would kill Palestinian civilians. “We believe there is a moral imperative to find another path,” they said, rejecting the idea of delivering more weapons for Netanyahu’s looming campaign against Rafah.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), one of the dissenting lawmakers, said the vote was one of the first real opportunities for Congress to intervene on the war and for lawmakers to register their disquiet over its trajectory. Recent polling shows that an overwhelming majority of Democratic voters disapprove of Israel’s approach to the war; as do a majority of independents.

“We are so far behind where the people of the United States are,” Jayapal told me, referring to her colleagues in Congress. And unlike the infamous congressional vote in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, she added, “this situation is one where the public is not even with us.”

Not long ago, the idea of conditioning aid to Israel was “unthinkable” in Washington, Jayapal said, but it is now the subject of considerable debate in Congress. After mounting pressure from activists and journalists, the Biden administration is expected to reveal its “determinations” over whether certain Israeli units that have received U.S. military assistance have carried out violations of human rights or potential war crimes. Such scrutiny is required by U.S. law.

But the Biden administration’s progressive critics say it has not done enough to hold Netanyahu’s government accountable, even as it privately cautions Israeli officials over the conduct of the war. “I want my president to look strong and show the world the United States means what it says,” Jayapal told me.

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