Protecting civilians should be Gaza 'red line'

Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.

•••

On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists killed about 1,200 Israelis and took hundreds more hostage. The depravity of the attack, including brutal sexual assaults independently verified by the United Nations, confirmed why the U.S., European Union and several other countries consider Hamas a terrorist group, and confirmed why Israel had to respond militarily to a movement committed to killing Israel's citizens and ending its existence.

Reflecting America's enduring alliance and President Joe Biden's career-long support of Israel, the U.S. came to the country's aid and projected military and diplomatic strength in order to keep the conflict from becoming a regional conflagration.

"Israel will forever be grateful for President Biden for everything he did since Oct. 7," Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Yinam Cohen told an editorial writer while in Minnesota this week. "For his moral leadership, for his support for Israel in our darkest time in our history, for his in-person visit in Israel during the war, for a show of solidarity to the people of Israel, for the messages that you send to some of our most dangerous rivals in the region not to jump into the war."

Those messages included sending the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford to the region. "Hamas' assumption," said Cohen, "was that Oct. 7 would be a trigger to their most ambitious vision," which Cohen described as Iran "unifying all the fronts" in the West Bank, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and in Gaza. One of the reasons that hasn't occurred, Cohen said, "was the clear message that they got from the Americans."

This Israel-U.S. unity is increasingly frayed, however, due in part to a soaring, searing casualty count, including more than 31,000 killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. While ultimately it's Hamas, which started the war and hides among civilians (and often under them, in tunnels), that is responsible for so many innocent Gazans being killed, Israel has a moral and legal responsibility to protect civilian populations.

That's the point the president is stressing in his increasingly public pushback against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When asked about a "red line" in a recent interview, Biden said that Netanyahu "must pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost" and that the Israeli leader is "hurting Israel more than he is helping Israel."

In a separate interview, Netanyahu retorted that he, too, has a red line. "You know what the red line is? That October 7 doesn't happen again."

The "daylight" between the allies "was essentially inevitable," Ronald Krebs, a University of Minnesota professor of political science, told an editorial writer. "It was very clear from the beginning that the Israelis did not have a clear vision for the future" and "it was very clear that Israeli and American timelines were not in alignment. And it was very clear from the beginning that the military operations in Gaza would be extremely costly for the civilian population."

Biden "is caught between contending principles that I believe he holds quite sincerely," Krebs said. He "quite firmly and sincerely believes that in Israel's right to defend itself" and that "the elimination or severe degradation of Hamas' capability is a legitimate objective of the war." Biden also believes, Krebs continued, that "many Palestinians have needlessly died and that far too many Palestinians are in danger of starving. And so he is stuck between those two contending political pressures and concerning principles."

Fearful that Gazans, particularly those cornered in Rafah, where Israel is likely to strike next, are facing a humanitarian catastrophe, Biden announced at his recent State of the Union address that the U.S. would accelerate its aid efforts by building a floating pier off the Gaza Strip to facilitate more deliveries. That decision, which reflects the nation's enduring history of humanitarian relief, is welcome. But the fact that the U.S. humanitarian aid is being sped to people endangered by U.S. military aid reflects a potentially untenable tension in U.S. policy that has resulted in a policy, and political, collision course between Washington and Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, the administration seemed to try to cool the rhetoric, but not the requirement that Israel provide safe passage for those sheltering in Rafah, where many gathered at the instruction of Israel only to find themselves in harm's way. Security for Israel is achievable, Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, told the New York Times. But "that path does not lie in smashing into Rafah, where there are 1.3 million people, in the absence of a credible plan to deal with the population there. And again, as things stand today, we have not seen what that plan is."

The Israeli government should in fact provide and implement such a plan, lest it further increase its international isolation. Not hurting the hostages — or innocent Gazans — should be among its highest priorities. Indeed, protecting innocent lives should be everyone's red line.