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WCK aid worker deaths ‘outrage’ may not cross Biden’s ‘red lines”

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This week’s killing of aid workers in Gaza left no gray area. The workers were driving through a deconfliction zone in marked vehicles when they were repeatedly targeted, leaving one Palestinian and six foreign aid workers dead. That the seven dead were working with World Central Kitchen, headed by the widely admired chef José Andrés, made it almost impossible to ignore.

Some view the tragedy as a potential turning point in the Israel-Gaza war, which has dragged on for almost half a year. Notably, the strike on the WCK convoy led to the death of a U.S. citizen: 33-year-old Jacob Flickinger. “The killing of foreign aid workers in Gaza might finally exhaust the considerable patience of Israel’s allies, led by the United States,” Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s veteran international editor, wrote Wednesday.

But have the attacks crossed President Biden’s “red line”? Though Biden and U.S. officials have repeatedly criticized the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over recent months, they have so far refrained from exerting their real leverage: blocking military aid and the sale of weapons to Israel.

In fact, the Biden administration has arguably done the opposite. Biden requested a historic increase in the amount of military aid to Israel after the Oct. 7 attacks on that country. After months of growing concern about the war’s civilian toll and growing criticism of Israeli efforts to avoid civilian harm, U.S. weapons still flow. The Washington Post reported last week that Washington authorized the transfer of 1,800 MK-84 2,000-pound bombs and other weaponry to Israel.

In an interview with MSNBC last month, Biden was sharply critical of Netanyahu but offered an unclear response on whether he would stop this support for Israel. While he said an Israeli ground offensive into Rafah, one of the last places of refuge in Gaza for displaced civilians, could cross a “red line,” he seemed to strongly qualify what that would be.

“I’m never going to leave Israel. The defense of Israel is still critical,” Biden said. “So there’s no red line [in which] I’m going to cut off all weapons so they don’t have the Iron Dome to protect them.”

It’s not clear whether that will change with the WCK killings. Biden offered a strong statement in response, connecting it to broader problems with delivering aid in Gaza. “This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed,” Biden said Tuesday. That’s why aid distribution has been so difficult, he said, “because Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians.”

Despite this, U.S. officials have stated that there has been no change in the administration’s policy toward Israel. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Wednesday said the United States would let Israel complete its investigation before coming to any conclusions.

“No country should have to live next door to a threat that is truly genocidal as Hamas has been,” he said. “So while we make no bones about the fact that we have certain issues about some of the way things are being done, we also make no bones about the fact that Israel is going to continue to have American support for the fight they’re in.”

Kirby added that the State Department has so far “not found any incidents where the Israelis have violated international humanitarian law,” a legal designation that could cause the United States to block military exports to the country.

Critics say Israel has a far broader pattern of loose targeting in Gaza. An investigation by +972 Magazine and Local Call published this week pointed to the use of artificial intelligence in military strikes, alleging that the program allowed a high amount of “collateral damage” during assassinations of low-ranking militants. One expert called the system “the nightmare of every international humanitarian lawyer come to life.”

U.S. officials have told reporters that Biden was personally “angry” about the WCK strike, partly due to widespread respect for the work that the Washington-linked organization does. But there was no sign of change. “It’s just rinse and repeat with the Israelis. The American political system can’t or won’t draw a real line with them and that is regrettable,” Politico quoted one unnamed U.S. official as saying.

The Israel-Gaza war has led to some degree of realignment. Recent polls have found that more than half of Americans now disapprove of Israel’s military action in Gaza and that Democrats in particular were increasingly supportive of Palestinians. Former president Donald Trump, Biden’s Republican rival in this year’s election, recently shocked Israeli interviewers by telling them to “finish up” the war and make peace.

But in some ways, things are very familiar. The U.S. response to the 2022 killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was muted, despite the ultimate conclusion by Israel that it was “highly likely” an Israeli soldier shot her dead after its own investigation. “If she was killed in another part of the world, then of course it would have been handled in a totally different way,” Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen’s niece, told The Post last year.

Speaking to the New Yorker this week, Aaron David Miller, a former State Department diplomat who advised on the Middle East and now works with the Carnegie Endowment, offered an unusually frank admission that Biden, like many in the United States, doesn’t view Israel the same way he views others.

“I think it’s fair to say, yes, that America and Americans have a pro-Israeli sensibility,” Miller said, later adding, “Do I think that Joe Biden has the same depth of feeling and empathy for the Palestinians of Gaza as he does for the Israelis? No, he doesn’t, nor does he convey it. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

Even if that is true, sometimes circumstances call for tough love. “The U.S. must do more to tell Prime Minister Netanyahu this war needs to end now,” WCK’s Andrés said in a Wednesday interview with Reuters, adding that it was hard to understand the U.S. position.

“America is going to be sending its Navy and its military to do humanitarian work, but at the same time weapons provided by America … are killing civilians,” Andrés said.

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