Granderson: Biden is right to nudge Israel toward protecting civilians in Rafah

A man looks on as thick, black smoke rises from a fire in a building caused by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 10, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
Israel is already bombarding Rafah in southern Gaza. (AFP via Getty Images)
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This week Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) delivered another classic grandstanding moment during a Senate budget hearing. Citing reports that President Biden was pausing weapons shipments to Israel, Graham expressed his displeasure with his usual demonstrative hand gestures and a well-timed table slap. He even leaned back and licked his lips after asking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., about dropping atomic bombs to end World War II.

“If we stop weapons necessary to destroy the enemies of the state of Israel at a time of great peril, we will pay a price,” Graham said. “Give Israel what they need to fight the war they can’t afford to lose. This is Hiroshima and Nagasaki on steroids.”

First, it bears mentioning that Graham recently voted against the $95-billion foreign aid package — which included weapons for Israel — because Donald Trump told him to. Second, since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, the U.S. has made good on more than 100 military sales to Israel and repositioned warships in the Mediterranean.

Read more: Granderson: The chaos in Congress is more dangerous than the protests on campuses

In other words, Graham’s line of questioning was theater; pausing one shipment hardly tips the war toward Hamas. The senator’s poll numbers in South Carolina are as bad as Biden’s, so perhaps this would be a good TV moment for him back home.

“You're telling me that if we withhold weapons in this fight — the existential fight for the life of the Jewish state — it won't send the wrong signal?” Graham asked.

Read more: Granderson: Netanyahu owes the U.S. better answers about Gaza

Theatrics aside, he makes a valid point. Hamas and similar terrorist groups may be emboldened by the appearance of daylight between the U.S. and Israel. Where Graham goes wrong is inflating the significance of the opinions of terrorists. Other factors matter more: The United Nations has said half of Gaza is starving to death. There are more than a million civilians sheltering in Rafah, and Israel has yet to present the Pentagon a feasible plan to limit casualties.

Reportedly Rafah is home to the remaining Hamas strongholds, which is why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to invade. And Israel already has enough bombs to carry out that attack.

What Graham’s line of questioning didn’t allow for is the answer to the most important question: why. Why is the invasion of Rafah where Biden would pause? Concern about a larger humanitarian crisis is surely part of it.

Before Christmas, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III began expressing concerns about Israel’s approach to Palestinian civilians in Gaza, saying: “The center of gravity is the civilian population, and if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Months later, Germany and England have also been critical of Israel. Countries in South America have cut diplomatic ties. Turkey has suspended trade. The campus protests that began in the U.S. have spread globally. In Israel, thousands have voiced their disapproval at the home of Netanyahu.

Biden is right to exert influence and try to protect civilians. He has also been correct to respect Israel’s right to defend itself. There’s a balance to be struck on the question of civilian casualties, and it’s not a question the world’s superpower can avoid. Not when it’s supplying the weapons. Biden has already confirmed U.S. weapons have killed civilians in Gaza.

Disregard for Gazan civilians is not a new concern. In 2022, the United Nations issued a report on Gaza, in which Commissioner Miloon Kothari said: “There is so much ‘silent harm’ and psychological trauma, that may not be immediately apparent, resulting from the erosion of economic, social and cultural rights. These debilitating processes have severe short and long-term consequences and must be urgently addressed.”

The current invasion goes far beyond “silent harm.” According to Gazan authorities, nearly 35,000 have been killed and 80,000 wounded since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. No telling what the numbers will be if a full invasion of Rafah happens without a plan for civilian safety.

Pausing doesn’t mean the U.S. has revoked its support for Israel. It signals that we also support Gazans and value human life.

To Graham’s point, pausing may send a message to our enemies. It also sends a message to our friends.


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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.