During the Israeli attacks on Gaza this past summer, U.S. officials were unusually vocal. After shelling killed four young Palestinians on a beach, for example, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called it “horrifying.” “The tragic event makes clear that Israel must take every possible step to meet its standards for protecting civilians from being killed,” she said. Asked whether Israel was doing enough on that count, Psaki replied: “We believe that certainly there’s more that can be done.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called it “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible” when Israeli shelling of a United Nations school in Gaza killed 16 civilians. Israel, he said, “can and should do more to protect the lives of innocent civilians.”
“We feel profound anguish upon seeing the images of suffering from Gaza, including the deaths and injuries of innocent Palestinian civilians, including young children, and the displacement of thousands of people,” said Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. On July 22nd, she offered this running tally of the misery:
“In Gaza, the toll of the violence has been devastating. More than 600 Palestinians have been killed, the large majority civilians, including at least 59 women and more than 121 children. More than 3,700 more have been injured. Thousands of homes have been damaged, many totally destroyed. And more than 100,000 people have been displaced. As the destruction mounts, some 35,000 Palestinians who need food have not yet been reached. 1.2 million people have little or no access to water or sanitation. And behind every number is a real person, perhaps even a child. The suffering is immense.”
By the time of the late August ceasefire, six Israeli civilians and a Thai national had been killed by rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, while 1,462 Palestinian civilians had died as a result of Israel’s war, according to the United Nations.
But while the administration and State Department were rebuking Israel (albeit mildly), and the president himself was expressing “serious concern” about the growing number of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza, the Pentagon was replenishing the Jewish state’s dwindling ammunition stockpile without the approval of either the White House or the State Department. “We were blindsided,” one U.S. diplomat told the Wall Street Journal.
Since then, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey (who has recently seemed to ignore, if not defy, his commander-in-chief when it comes to Iraq War policy) has offered his own dissenting assessment of Israeli conduct during the most recent campaign in Gaza. Instead of using terms like unacceptable, indefensible, or horrifying, Dempsey claimed that Israel had gone to “extraordinary lengths” to limit civilian casualties. “I can say to you with confidence that I think that they acted responsibly,” he told the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. In fact, Dempsey suggested that the U.S. military could learn a thing or two from the Israelis, noting that the Pentagon dispatched a “lessons learned team” of senior commissioned and noncommissioned officers to study the methods the Israel Defense Forces employed in Gaza.
In her latest piece for TomDispatch, filmmaker Jen Marlowe suggests that Israel’s 2014 Gaza campaign, like the 2008-2009 campaign before it, might not be the optimal model for the U.S. (or any other) military. In a striking piece of reportage, she offers a counter-narrative to the one advanced by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Chronicling one family through a night of terror and more than five years of loss, she walked streets on which Dempsey has never set foot and surveyed the rubble he’ll never see to shed light on what life in Gaza is like for civilians caught in the path of war.