U.S. State Department warns diplomats not to mention a Gaza ‘ceasefire’
A Palestinian woman kisses the sheet-covered body of a child killed by an Israeli airstrike, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, outside the al-Aqsa Hospital in Gaza. | Adel Hana / AP

WASHINGTON—As the Israeli military escalates its assault on Gaza, the U.S. State Department is forbidding its diplomatic staff and employees around the world from using words such as “ceasefire,” “de-escalation,” “end to violence,” or “restoring calm” in any statements or comments on the war.

Emails were reportedly dispatched around the globe on Friday by high-level officials in Washington immediately after Israel ordered more than 1.1 million Palestinians to leave northern Gaza ahead of an impending ground invasion by the Israeli army. The development was first reported by HuffPost correspondent Akbar Shahid Ahmed.

State Department officials refused to comment on the matter when asked by the press, but the memo suggests the administration of President Joe Biden plans to do little to publicly restrain the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his military steps up its war against the Palestinian people.

As of Monday morning, the Gaza Health Ministry put the Palestinian casualty count at 2,750 dead and 9,700 wounded since the latest fighting began on Oct. 7. More than 1,400 Israelis have died, most in the initial Hamas attack.

An Israeli artillery unit fires into Gaza, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023. | AP

In United Nations-operated shelters in Gaza, Palestinians have less than 1 liter (1 quart) of water each to survive on per day. Hospitals are on the verge of collapse, with the emergency generators that power ventilators and incubators for babies expected to run out of fuel within the next day or so. Supplies of medicine have dwindled to almost nothing.

No interest in de-escalation

While the U.S. muzzled its diplomatic staff from talking about steps to end the violence, Israel showed no interest in a ceasefire or de-escalation anyway. As Palestinians fled the looming ground invasion using one of the two escape routes open to them, Israeli bombers attacked the convoys of fleeing civilians.

The Israeli military had designated two “safe routes” for Gazans to use to evacuate, but on Friday afternoon at least 70 people, mostly women and children, were killed on Sala-al-Din Road by an Israeli airstrike.

Israel denied responsibility, but analysis of aerial photos, social media posts, and geolocation data by the Forensic Architecture investigative unit at the human rights organization Al-Haq concluded otherwise.

Intentional strikes on civilians—a war crime, if confirmed—would not be out of line with statements made in recent days by a number of top Israeli leaders. President Isaac Herzog on Friday declared that there were “no innocents” in the Palestinian territories and that all Gaza residents were responsible for the Hamas attacks that sparked the latest war.

“It is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” Herzog said at a press conference. “It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’état.”

In the U.S., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lashed out at Herzog’s remarks and the Israeli decision to cut off all food, water, and electricity to Gaza. “This is collective punishment and a violation of international law,” the New York Democrat said. “We cannot starve nearly a million children to death over the horrific actions of Hamas.”

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby took an entirely different line. “We’re going to be careful not to get into armchair quarterbacking the tactics on the ground by the [Israel Defense Forces],” Kirby said. “What I can tell you is we understand what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to move civilians out of harm’s way and giving them fair warning.”

His comments about Israel’s supposed efforts to protect civilians were made just hours before the evacuation convoys were bombed.

War crime evidence piling up

With diplomats gagged and Biden administration officials continuing to offer nothing but unqualified endorsement of the Israeli military’s actions, behind the scenes, worries are apparently rising among some about the optics of Washington’s top Mideast ally openly committing war crimes with American endorsement.

Speaking anonymously, a few administration officials say there are concerns that public opinion in North America and Europe could turn sharply against Israel as its brutality becomes more apparent. “We’re trying to convince them [the Israelis],” one official told NBC, “but emotions are running high.”

Antonio Macias’ mother cries over her son’s body at a cemetery in Kfar Saba, Israel, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023. While attending a music festival, Macias was killed in the initial Hamas attack on Oct. 7. | Francisco Seco / AP

In private, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Biden himself have supposedly asked Netanyahu to go easy on the civilian casualties. In a television interview on Sunday, Biden also said it would be a “mistake” for Israel to again impose a military occupation on Gaza, as it did before 2005. He refused to criticize Israel for its bombing campaign.

“I’m confident that Israel is going to act under the rules of war,” Biden said on 60 Minutes. “There are standards that democratic institutions and countries go by. And I’m confident that there’s going to be an ability for the innocents in Gaza to be able to have access to medicine and food and water.”

The chasm between Biden’s confidence in Israel’s regard for Palestinian “innocents” and the reality on the ground, however, grows wider. Human Rights Watch reported, and video evidence confirmed, that Israel fired white phosphorus on Palestinian civilian areas last week, as well as into Lebanon.

White phosphorus is a chemical used in munitions and often deployed as a smokescreen. When ignited, it bursts into extremely hot flames of up to 815 degrees Celsius, producing blinding white light and thick smoke. It can cause severe burns, often going all the way through skin and flesh down to the bone. The smoke can also cause respiratory damage and organ failure.

Despite the pile-up of evidence of Israeli war crimes, though, Biden is expected to soon visit Tel Aviv to show his government’s firm support for Netanyahu and the Israeli military. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks to reporters in Egypt on Sunday were seen as a preview of the message Biden will deliver on his own trip: “We will stand with Israel today, tomorrow, and every day, and we’re doing that in word and also in deed.”

Sticking to the State Department’s line, though, Blinken of course made no mention of the need for a ceasefire or de-escalation of the violence.

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.