Isolated and rebellious, Israel vows to “stand alone” in the war against Hamas

Turkey has suspended trade with Israel. The world's highest court is considering whether Israeli leaders committed genocide. Protests have overtaken cities and campuses around the world. Ireland and Spain say they will recognize Palestine as a state by the end of the month.

Even the United States – long Israel's closest ally and benefactor – is threatening, for the first time since the war began, to withhold some weapons shipments.

Seven months after much of the world pledged its support to Israel following a Hamas-led terrorist attack, the country finds itself increasingly isolated. With a war that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians and left Gaza on the brink of famine, all the international goodwill Israel built up on October 7 has been all but lost.

The most worrying thing for Israel is the breakdown in relations with the United States. President Biden, once silent about his expectations that Israel would limit civilian deaths and increase access to humanitarian aid, has become more vocal amid partisan political pressure in an election year. This week, Biden said the United States is withholding delivery of 3,500 high-payload bombs.

His warning on Wednesday that the pause could extend to more weapons was his biggest break with the Israeli government. He suggested that the outrage sweeping across capitals and campuses would continue to spread, and it did. On Friday, in a largely symbolic gesture, the United Nations General Assembly backed Palestine's bid for UN membership, and thousands of demonstrators in Sweden protested on Saturday against Israel's participation in the Eurovision Song Contest.

“If we need to stand alone,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday, both acknowledging and seeking to challenge his country's growing isolation, “we will stand alone.”

The backlash, which also extends to Israeli athletes and academics facing boycotts and protests, has stunned and confused Israelis, who are still reeling from October's Hamas attacks and mostly see the war as justified. Many blame unchecked anti-Semitism and American political parties for Israel's isolation. Others struggle to distinguish reasonable criticism from selective virtue signaling. They ask why more attention is not paid to Israeli victims and why there are no protests against China's persecution of Uyghurs or Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine.

“The demonstrations on American campuses are not calling for peace, they are not calling for an independent Palestinian state or a two-state solution,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations. “They demand the elimination of Israel.”

“It's the slow-motion formation of a pariah state,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat.

But the complex and layered reproaches from around the world cannot be ignored as mere whims of anti-Israel activists. Israel faces real consequences, from security to economic.

And while the isolation is partly a consequence of the way Israel has prosecuted the war, analysts and former officials say it also reflects international frustration over government restrictions on food aid, a shift in global policy that has pushed Israel down the list of priorities and the Israeli government narrows the public's attention to its own pain.

Israel has resisted world scrutiny before, shrugging off frequent criticism at the United Nations and a decades-long Arab boycott. Although Israel governs a spit of land no larger than Maryland, it has always had a centripetal drive, placing its wars at the emotional center of global politics. But this is not 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006 or 2014, years of previous conflicts.

Before October 7, most of Israel's allies in the West were focused on Ukraine's struggle with Russia and the challenge of a more assertive China. The Middle East had largely disappeared from radar. Climate change was driving a retreat from oil. Israel and Saudi Arabia were openly discussing normalized relations even as Israeli democracy had become more polarized and narrow.

Just then Hamas struck and Israel retaliated.

Biden's first response was one of complete solidarity: “My administration's support for Israel's security is rock solid and unwavering,” he said on the day of the attacks. Other world leaders followed suit. The Israeli flag and its colors were projected onto the Brandenburg Gate, 10 Downing Street and the Sydney Opera House.

Yet even as the horrific details of Hamas killings and mutilations sowed nightmares, there were signs of concern about Netanyahu's government and its absolutist approach.

Netanyahu's promise to “demolish Hamas” seemed to many military strategists too broad to be effective. And as Israeli forces began hitting crowded Gaza cities with huge bombs, bringing buildings down on families along with militants, support for Israel weakened.

Washington had warned Israel to better protect civilians. Israel continued to bomb. The United States and other countries have pushed Israel to create aid corridors. They called for a plan to govern Gaza after the fighting. Israel has stepped up its attack on a territory roughly the size of Philadelphia, densely populated by two million people, many of them children, keeping out most independent journalists, leaving image-sharing to those under attack.

The results were disastrous: By late November, people were being killed in Gaza more rapidly, according to experts, than even at the bloodiest moments of the American-led attacks in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which were widely criticized by rights groups humans.

Less than two months later, Israel was losing support in Europe and the United States, before student protests degenerated into clashes with police, before calls for divestment, before polls showed the unpopularity of the war was affecting chances of Biden's re-election.

After seven aid workers, many of them foreign, from World Central Kitchen were killed on April 1, and with Gaza's children starving, words like “genocide” and “evil” became more commonly applied to the campaign Israel insisted it was simply self-defense.

“The poor and impoverished people of Palestine have been condemned to death by Israel's bombs,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday as he announced that his country, once Israel's closest Muslim partner, would suspend the trade.

Nimrod Novik, a former senior Israeli official and analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, said there was no denying that the government had ignored both a moral and political imperative by pursuing a “niggardly approach” to aid and a war plan without any vision of peace.

“Our government's policy has failed to live up to its claim that our war is against Hamas, not against the Palestinian people,” Novik said.

The army says aid is slowed by security measures meant to limit weapons smuggling. On Sunday, Hamas attacked one of the few border crossings where aid is allowed in, killing four Israeli soldiers.

For many, it was a way to remember that the context of Israeli life is still influenced by the suffering of the country itself. What Israelis discuss over dinner are friends called to fight. What they see are cities and towns plastered with portraits of unreturned hostages, apps sending alerts for regular rocket attacks by Hezbollah along the northern border, and graffiti in Tel Aviv that reads: “Hamas = ISIS.”

“There is a total disconnect between the way Israelis see the situation and the way the world sees it,” Novik said. “Mentally, we're not in the seventh month since October 7th. Mentally, we're in October 8th.”

Many Israelis believe the international community is willfully ignoring their plight, with soldiers dying and groups widely considered terrorists firing on the country. In northern Israel, more than 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes by regular rocket fire. Children don't go to school. Deep within Israel's borders, air raid sirens pierce the daily routine.

Genine Barel, a New Yorker who moved to Israel in the 1990s and now lives in Safed, the home of Kabbalah, or mystical Judaism, said it hurts to lose international sympathy.

“It would be bad enough if we were just going through this war, with the losses and the heartbreak,” she said, sitting in the empty restaurant of the hotel she owns with her husband, where business has completely dried up. “But at the same time we are vilified.”

“It's like I'm being picked on,” he added, “and accused of being a bully at the same time.”

Nathalie Rozens, 37, an actress and writer who grew up in Europe, said the discussion in Israel about the war has evolved to include more criticism. (A poll released Friday showed a decline in confidence in Israel's military leadership since March.) But outside the country, she said, Israelis are flattened into caricatures.

From his perspective, Israel's critics fail to understand the nuances, which is that this is a place where many people hate Netanyahu and complain about the killing of innocents in Gaza, but they have a brother fighting there and they are only two generations since the Holocaust attempted destruction of Israel. Global Jewry.

Banning Israeli artists from festivals, protesting against singers at Eurovision, refusing to finance Israeli films: “the pressure, in a way, hits the wrong people,” he said.

“I don't feel aligned with this government and I'm Israeli,” she said. “There is no space for my voice within the country or even abroad.”

As dangerous as Hamas or Hezbollah may be, many believe that diminishing American support for Israel would be far more catastrophic for the country. Israel needs America as a patron, and this government has “no patience, no consideration, no understanding of Israel's status in the world,” said Nahum Barnea, a veteran columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper. “So they choose to ignore it.”

Total isolation still seems far away. Israel is not North Korea. Biden has said he will keep Israel supplied with defensive weapons, and Republicans have sided even more strongly with Israel. However, according to many international analysts, what Israelis want to see as a shake-up could become a fault line as the turmoil with Israel continues to grow.

“They lost the young people,” said Ian Bremmer, an adjunct professor of public and international affairs at Columbia and president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “They were not there and did not know about the Holocaust. What they see is an incredibly powerful Israel, engaged in a seven-month war and indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians.”

Johnatan Reiss contributed to the reporting.

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