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14 May 2024

Joe Biden is deluded on Rafah

America’s policy on Gaza is based on an alternative reality.

By Bruno Maçães

President Joe Biden apparently learned everything he knows about the Middle East from the Charlton Heston film The Ten Commandments, released when Biden was a young movie buff, in 1956. Recently, on 7 May, the president spoke of “ancient hatred” as the explanation for all that has taken place in the region since Hamas’s 7 October attack. There they stand: hatreds older than Hamas, older than Israel, older than America itself. They provide the foundation for his policy, if you can call it a policy.

It’s always dangerous to look for explanations in the ancient past – even more so in the mythical past of Hollywood epics. It leaves no room for genuine understanding. Biden is aware of more recent events in the region. He must realise they do not fit with his myths.

In an interview with the CNN anchor Erin Burnett on 8 May, he admitted Israel has been using massive American made 2,000lb bombs to “go after population centres” in Gaza. These are bombs with a safety radius of 1,000 metres. That’s why, he said, he had paused one future shipment of these bombs to Israel out of concern they would be used in an assault on Rafah. But if Biden knew those weapons were being used to destroy population centres, why had he done nothing before?

The political acrobatics in which Biden and his advisers now regularly engage are for the sake of preserving a myth in its daily clash with real events. When Biden says Israel must not go into Rafah – the town on the Egyptian border where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering – he speaks with the fear that such an offensive will be the moment it becomes impossible to believe Israel is fighting a war against “ancient hatred” rather than a war whose goal is Gaza’s complete destruction.

When Burnett asked him if Israel had gone into Rafah, and thus crossed his red line, Biden responded that Israel had not entered the town centre, as if the small city of Rafah were something on the scale of metropolitan Tokyo.

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It’s becoming clear that all the Biden administration really wants from Israel is its help in preserving the myth – to be careful not to allow the brutal reality in Gaza to undermine the narrative. Israel has, in fact, entered Rafah. It has bombed it as indiscriminately as the rest of the Strip. Hundreds of thousands of people have now left the area, heading north to Khan Younis, a mound of rubble, or west to Al-Mawasi, a desolate plot with no electricity, sewage or food supplies.

Since the beginning of Israel’s Rafah operation on 7 May, no aid has crossed from Egypt, threatening to extend the famine to the south of Gaza, where the majority of the population now is. Early in the morning of 13 May, there were a number of credible reports of explosions, artillery shelling, warplanes and helicopter gunfire in several areas of Rafah.

Is there a way out? The first step is to recognise we are in the grip of a mania. By “we” I mean Western democracies, even if the group includes a few outliers. We must relearn to see what is in front of our eyes. After Rafah, the whole of Gaza will be a tent city, with no buildings left. Did we not know this from the beginning? “Gaza will eventually turn into a city of tents. There will be no buildings,” an Israeli defence official told the local broadcaster Channel 13 on 10 October last year.

Yet Biden seems determined to stick to his line: Israel has not entered Rafah. Perhaps he means that Israel has not stormed Rafah, but then the Israeli forces have followed the same protocol in Rafah that they have followed elsewhere in Gaza; their goal is evidently to avoid casualties among their own troops, with an intense bombing campaign followed by a ground invasion, combined with the comprehensive demolition of buildings and infrastructure.

To the extent that there is some distance between the Biden administration and the Israeli war cabinet, it seems to consist of a disagreement about communications. Biden would want somewhat different language to be used and perhaps different bombs to be used. Yet his administration was quick to explain that only a single shipment of those 2,000lb bombs has been delayed, and even that shipment may be resumed.

Biden’s is a dangerous gamble. He has built an alternative reality, running parallel to real events in Gaza. If and when that reality collapses, a good deal more will be taken down with it. On 7 May he accused the anti-war protesters at dozens of college campuses of the same ancient hatreds that for him explain everything about the conflict. Is insulting student voters a good electoral strategy for a Democratic presidential candidate? Biden was already polling 11 percentage points behind Donald Trump among 18- to 34-year-olds, according to a CNN poll in April. Bernie Sanders is right to worry that Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza might cost him the November election.

For America’s image and prestige in the Middle East – and the world – Gaza is a historical watershed. As an official in Jordan told me in April, the US has evolved from a provider of order into an agent of chaos. It is often said that American politics has turned inwards. That is supposed to mean away from the world and towards domestic concerns. I fear the situation may be much worse. If the United States has turned inwards, it is turning away from the world and towards its own fantasies and myths, recesses of a feverish mind.

[See also: The assault on Rafah has begun]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink