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Posts For: August 7, 2014

The President Goes Back to Iraq

And so we come full circle. Nearly three years since Barack Obama decided to trade defeat for victory in Iraq by allowing his feckless vice president to fail to “negotiate” a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government he did not really wish to have—since the president wanted to leave, leave, leave, as he had said he would do in 2007—circumstances of the simplest human decency have compelled him to commit U.S. forces to stave off the genocide of the Yazidi sect in Iraq.

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And so we come full circle. Nearly three years since Barack Obama decided to trade defeat for victory in Iraq by allowing his feckless vice president to fail to “negotiate” a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government he did not really wish to have—since the president wanted to leave, leave, leave, as he had said he would do in 2007—circumstances of the simplest human decency have compelled him to commit U.S. forces to stave off the genocide of the Yazidi sect in Iraq.

He is not responsible for the monstrous actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—in no way, and anyone who suggests otherwise is guilty of a great wrong. What Obama is responsible for is this: Having assumed we had lost in Iraq (and probably having believed that loss was just, given how little he thought of the war and the reasons for fighting it), he became president and was basically informed that the war had all but been won while he was assaulting it on the way to his landslide election. Only a colossal fool would have thrown the Petraeus-Bush gift of an Iraq rescued from civil war and on its way to a stable future in the garbage, and Obama is not a fool. So he didn’t. What he did do was remain ever mindful of his promise to leave and how failing to deliver on that promise might affect his chances in 2012.

So when the continued American presence in Iraq became contingent on reaching a legal agreement with the new government, he and his people trumped up reasons why Iraq was making that agreement impossible—because it refused to grant Americans immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, which was ironed out with the Bush administration in 2008 and which the Obamans could easily have ironed out if they had paid sufficient and proper attention to the matter—and America walked.

If you want to see Obama’s monument there, just look: ISIS on the march. The Christians of Mosul decimated and set to flee. Strategic Iraqi assets from oil to water in the hands of what is now indubitably the worst non-state actor in the region since al Qaeda’s heyday. And the possibility of some kind of super-terror state under ISIS control from the Iraqi border with Iran to the lands west of Iraq in Syria.

The United States could not stand by and watch these monsters cause 40,000 Yazidis to die of thirst up on that mountain—though it could, and did, watch as Mosul was made Christian-rein. Failure to act then was a sin of omission. Had there been no intervention now, that would have effectively been a sin of commission, a moral stain on the United States that Obama could have found no way to lay at George W. Bush’s feet.

He has acted, and that is a good thing. But the question is: What now? What now?

 

 

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Israel Does Not Exist to Make Liberal Jews Feel Good

In one of the most important pieces written during the course of this conflict, Shmuel Rosner has taken to the website of the New York Times, where he is a contributing opinion writer, with a profoundly thoughtful riposte to the disapora Jews who have expressed their disaffection with Israel as a result of the goings-on—from Jon Stewart to Ezra Klein, from Peter Beinart to Roger Cohen.

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In one of the most important pieces written during the course of this conflict, Shmuel Rosner has taken to the website of the New York Times, where he is a contributing opinion writer, with a profoundly thoughtful riposte to the disapora Jews who have expressed their disaffection with Israel as a result of the goings-on—from Jon Stewart to Ezra Klein, from Peter Beinart to Roger Cohen.

Rosner says these men may be right that Israel is in danger of losing its bedrock support among American Jews in particular. He says that would put Israel in a difficult position and represent a near-tragic development. But his central point is this: Israel is not actually their country. They do not live in Israel, they do not vote in Israel, their children are not in the Israeli army. Israel is a nation of 8 million people,  and it must act in accordance with the views of its electorate and the existential needs of its people as Israelis define them. These liberal Jews, Rosner writes,

seem to believe that the implied threat that Israel might lose Jewish supporters abroad will somehow convince the government to alter its policies. This is a self-aggrandizing fantasy and reveals a poor grasp of the way Israel operates. To put it bluntly: These Jews are very important, but not nearly important enough to make Israelis pursue policies that put Israeli lives at risk.

Let me be clear: I believe Israel’s relations with Jews around the world are crucially important. Indeed, I’ve devoted a great deal of my career to thinking and writing about this topic. I often find myself preaching to Israelis about the need to be more considerate of more liberal Jewish views on issues ranging from religious conversion to women’s prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. But I would never expect Israelis to gamble on our security and our lives for the sake of accommodating the political sensitivities of people who live far away.

American Jews who condition their support of Israel by standing in superior judgment of the extremely difficult choices it has been forced to make, for decades now, are guilty of converting a country of flesh-and-blood people into a one-dimensional player performing in an abstract moral pageant of their own staging and design.

These “fair weather friends,” as Rosner dubs them, hold Israel to a standard to which they do not hold other countries—and then claim they do so out of commonality and brotherhood. Light unto the nations and all that. But of course the act of separating yourself from your brethren by being their harshest critics is almost the polar opposite of true familial behavior, as Rosner notes:

If all Jews are a family, it would be natural for Israelis to expect the unconditional love of their non-Israeli Jewish kin. If Jews aren’t a family, and their support can be withdrawn, then Israelis have no reason to pay special attention to the complaints of non-Israeli Jews.

Or, to be cutesy about it, your grandmother might tell you to be a mensch while she’s stuffing you with brisket, but she does so while she stuffs you with brisket, not while she wags her finger at you and sends you to bed without your supper.

Moreover, she would be a fool if she told you that menschlichkeit required you to allow yourself to exist in a state of constant peril lest you violate some abstract moral stricture. And your grandmother is not a fool.

Which is why the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone all too often taken by these fair-weather critics is so utterly and infamously disingenuous. They are using what they have in common with Israel as a weapon against it, all the while claiming they are acting on its loving behalf.

Read Rosner’s piece. 

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Obama’s Love–Hate Relationship with Retrenchment

Does the Obama administration actually want to step back from world affairs, or does it want to control them more than ever but through obedient proxies? Until recently, the answer seemed to be closer to the former. Obama himself is noticeably uncomfortable on foreign affairs, often displaying his lack of interest in filling the gaps in his knowledge. But perhaps there’s a degree of control the president is unwilling to give up after all.

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Does the Obama administration actually want to step back from world affairs, or does it want to control them more than ever but through obedient proxies? Until recently, the answer seemed to be closer to the former. Obama himself is noticeably uncomfortable on foreign affairs, often displaying his lack of interest in filling the gaps in his knowledge. But perhaps there’s a degree of control the president is unwilling to give up after all.

Israel has always been the exception to Obama’s approach to the world. He has long denounced American meddling, though he tried in his first term (rather transparently) to collapse Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition and force a change in Jerusalem. When it comes to American retrenchment, then, Israel seems to be an exception to the rule yet again.

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the development of the Israel-Egypt relationship since the coup that replaced the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Here is some key background:

At first, Israeli intelligence officials said they didn’t know what to make of Mr. Sisi, a devout Muslim who in previous posts treated his Israeli counterparts coldly, a senior Israeli official said. As Mr. Sisi moved to take control of the government, Israeli intelligence analysts pored over his public statements, writings and private musings, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

The Israeli intelligence community’s conclusion: Mr. Sisi genuinely believed that he was on a “mission from God” to save the Egyptian state, the senior Israeli official said.

Moreover, as an Egyptian nationalist, he saw Mr. Morsi’s Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, as threats to the state that needed to be suppressed with a heavy hand, the Israeli official said.

Israeli intelligence analysts interpreted Mr. Sisi’s comments about keeping the peace with Israel and ridding Egypt of Islamists as a “personal realization that we—Israel—were on his side,” the Israeli official said.

Here’s how Hamas in Gaza viewed the change:

Under the protective umbrella of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist-led government, Hamas had imported large quantities of arms from Libya and Sudan, as well as money to pay the salaries of government officials and members of their armed wing, Israeli and U.S. officials said. His successor abruptly changed that.

“One day we had been sitting having great conversations with Morsi and his government and then suddenly, the door was shut,” Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, said in an interview last month.

And here’s the most important point of all, on the war in Gaza:

U.S. officials, who tried to intervene in the initial days after the conflict broke out on July 8 to try to find a negotiated solution, soon realized that Mr. Netanyahu’s office wanted to run the show with Egypt and to keep the Americans at a distance, according to U.S., European and Israeli officials.

The Americans, in turn, felt betrayed by what they saw as a series of “mean spirited” leaks, which they interpreted as a message from Mr. Netanyahu that U.S. involvement was neither welcomed nor needed.

Reflecting Egypt’s importance, Mr. Gilad and other officials took Mr. Sisi’s “temperature” every day during the war to make sure he was comfortable with the military operation as it intensified. Israeli officials knew television pictures of dead Palestinians would at some point bring Cairo to urge Israel to stop.

The Americans felt betrayed, and were clearly frustrated–as other accounts have explained in detail–by their lack of control. Walter Russell Mead calls it an “irony” that the administration wanted to have some way to step back from the world, especially the Middle East, without having it all go to hell, and yet when that opportunity arose they didn’t know what to make of it.

I think Mead is being overly generous. Obama and is advisers were more than surprised; they were resentful to such a degree that it was reflected in their public statements. But they can’t have it both ways. Obama can’t pull back from the world and put more of the burden on our allies to pick up the slack and then complain when those allies think for themselves instead of applying Obama’s magical thinking to serious conflicts.

The real irony is that all this brought Israel and the Arab states much closer together–a perennial goal of American foreign policy–only to make Obama complain they were ganging up on him. It was the one possible success in Obama’s rebalancing efforts, yet it’s the one that really bothers him.

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Israel’s Conduct in Gaza Is a Model for Other Nations

During his press conference yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was once again asked whether Israel had acted with enough care in responding to the attacks by Hamas (h/t to Scott Johnson of Powerlineblog.com).

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During his press conference yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was once again asked whether Israel had acted with enough care in responding to the attacks by Hamas (h/t to Scott Johnson of Powerlineblog.com).

“Do you feel your actions, Israel’s actions, were proportionate?,” he was asked. “And were you using the appropriate precision weapons, even if Hamas is using [innocent Palestinians] as human shields?”

Prime Minister Netanyahu gives an exquisite response, pointing out that Israel has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties while Hamas has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure civilian casualties. And Mr. Netanyahu then posed a question to the journalist. What would you do in a similar situation, in which your nation was being attacked by 3,500 rockets and your territory was being infiltrated by terrorist death squads?

Which got me to thinking about how Israel has acted versus how other nations, including admirable nations, have acted during wartime. And so I went back and read an account from World War II which is worth considering in the context of how Israel has conducted itself in its war with Hamas.

This story comes from the BBC on February 14, 1945:

British and US bombers have dropped hundreds of thousands of explosives on the German city of Dresden… Last night, 800 RAF Bomber Command planes let loose 650,000 incendiaries and 8,000lb of high explosives and hundreds of 4,000lb bombs in two waves of attack. They faced very little anti-aircraft fire.

As soon as one part of the city was alight, the bombers went for another until the whole of Dresden was ablaze.

“There were fires everywhere with a terrific concentration in the centre of the city,” said one Pathfinder pilot.

The contemporary BBC, in putting the firebombing of Dresden in context, said this:

The attack was authorised by British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, known as “Bomber Harris” for his enthusiastic support of the area bombing strategy. The idea was to target large urban areas to whittle away at German public morale, cut off relief supplies to the eastern front and give support to the approaching Soviet armies.

According to this analysis found at History.com:

On the evening of February 13, 1945, a series of Allied firebombing raids begins against the German city of Dresden, reducing the “Florence of the Elbe” to rubble and flames, and killing as many as 135,000 people. It was the single most destructive bombing of the war—including Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and all the more horrendous because little, if anything, was accomplished strategically, since the Germans were already on the verge of surrender… More than 3,400 tons of explosives were dropped on the city by 800 American and British aircraft. The firestorm created by the two days of bombing set the city burning for many more days, littering the streets with charred corpses, including many children.

My point in raising this isn’t to condemn Great Britain (or the United States) for what it did in Dresden, though the morality of firebombing Dresden is certainly fair to debate. My point, rather, is that in war, terrible things happen. In war, innocent people die. In war, victorious nations–even the most humane nations–make mistakes. Civilian casualties happen in every conflict; and in the history of war, atrocities by the victorious side are the norm. Of course they shouldn’t be excused; but neither should we judge wartime acts without any understanding of the circumstances of the time, at a safe distance, writing from a keyboard when the main hassle of the day is rush hour traffic. The morality of war is a terribly complicated matter to sort through.

What is so unusual when it comes to Israel is that by historical standards it has conducted itself in its conflict with Hamas (to say nothing of past conflicts) with remarkable care and decency. I’m not sure there are many parallels to it. (America’s conduct in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been similar, I think, to the care taken by Israel in Gaza.) Israel could have decimated Gaza and Hamas within hours, causing far more civilian deaths. It chose a far more humane, and historically rare, option. For much of the world and much of the Western media, then, to judge Israel harshly for how it’s acted in not only wrong; it is historically ignorant and morally obtuse.

The way Israel has handled itself in this conflict is a model for other nations to follow; and the fact that Israel is on the receiving end of venomous attacks is evidence of dark and ugly impulses that need to be named.

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“Parallel States” Plan for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Is a Recipe for Disaster

I have long argued that the Oslo framework holds back the two-state solution by tying each side to a rigid set of parameters that “everybody knows” and yet nobody seems to want. The process can be disrupted and reshaped without giving up on the idea of two states for two peoples. In fact, I imagine a bit of creativity would help things along.

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I have long argued that the Oslo framework holds back the two-state solution by tying each side to a rigid set of parameters that “everybody knows” and yet nobody seems to want. The process can be disrupted and reshaped without giving up on the idea of two states for two peoples. In fact, I imagine a bit of creativity would help things along.

With that said, solutions that are radically different are not automatically preferable just because of their radicalism. At Tablet, Mathias Mossberg has published an adaptation from the new book on the conflict he edited, One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States. It is a long read, but interesting and imaginative. It is also, however, deeply misguided, unrealistic, and a formula for trouble as far as the eye can see.

Mossberg’s basic idea is one of “Parallel States,” in which both Israel and the Palestinian territories would become part of one state structure but divide sovereignty among the individuals of this modified “condominium” based on religion, ethnicity, or personal preference. It’s worth reading the whole piece to see how Mossberg has fleshed out the plan, but here is the crux:

In a Parallel States structure, one Israeli state and one Palestinian would both cover the whole area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. In such a scenario, military, political, and economic barriers would be lifted, and a joint security and defense policy, a common and equitable economic policy, and joint and harmonized legislation would replace existing divisions. Such a structure would allow both for an independent Palestinian state and for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic at the same time. It would bring an end to occupation and would permit free movement over the whole area for both peoples, as well as providing a vision for an end of conflict.

There are a few points to make in response. The first is that the bureaucracy such a structure would create would be a nightmare–it would make the current Israeli bureaucracy look like a floating libertarian utopia in comparison. How to adjudicate a neighborly dispute when each is a “citizen” of a different state authority on the same land? What if someone changes citizenship, since personal choice is an option here? Which law applies to their past contracts? Employment terms? Accumulated physical and intellectual property?

Second, Mossberg relies on a few tropes to sign the two-state solution’s death certificate, such as discredited demographic time bomb fears and the idea that settlements contribute to a state of affairs that is making a Palestinian state in the West Bank virtually impossible, which is not remotely true and glosses over the lack of outward expansion of the settlements over the last decade-plus. Any solution to the conflict that’s based on false premises, as Mossberg’s is, should raise red flags immediately.

Third, Mossberg doesn’t–at least in this lengthy essay–really grapple with the toughest obstacles. Here is his section on security:

Security and defense would be of paramount importance in a Parallel States structure, as well as in a more conventional two-state structure. This poses particularly vital questions, in that security is a basic need for each side in existential and concrete ways. To craft a common Israeli-Palestinian security strategy, outlining how Israelis and Palestinians could cooperate and ultimately join forces in a common security system, covering external borders as well as internal order, is a challenge that should not be underestimated.

A joint external security envelope, with a high degree of cooperation on external security and with joint or coordinated external border control, has to be envisaged. It is worth noting, though, that already today there are elements of an internal security structure that contains separate institutions and security forces, but also a high degree of coordination.

Yes, it would be a challenge. How might it be solved? Not with academic platitudes, that’s for sure.

Fourth, Mossberg all but cheers the end of the Westphalian order. This strikes me as a mistake. Just because the nation state is struggling in the modern era does not mean it deserves to perish. It’s true that Mossberg is not removing sovereignty when he removes the nation state. But it would be a step backward in global order–possibly with major repercussions elsewhere.

Finally, there is the reason we are having this discussion, at least according to Mossberg: Gaza. The recent Gaza war, he says, probably signals the end of the traditional two-state solution. But his Parallel State structure calls for the erasure of borders. Israel and the PA in the West Bank have established some very constructive avenues for security cooperation, though they would be challenged significantly by this state condominium-esque arrangement.

Gaza, on the other hand, is a different entity entirely. Yet Mossberg mostly treats Gaza as a question of economic integration, with not nearly enough energy devoted to the much greater question of security. Gaza is led by Hamas. The terrorist group won’t disappear just by having its official authority taken away. How could Hamas be integrated into a borderless Israeli-Palestinian state project? The answer is: it couldn’t, not in a way that would enable the survival of the state structure.

If the answer is, then, that Hamas has to be routed and replaced in Gaza, then that seems to be an argument for the rejuvenation of the two-state solution, not its abandonment. In any case, the Parallel States structure is not the answer.

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R2P Is MIA for the Besieged Yezidis of Iraq

Once upon a time–and not so long ago–President Obama and senior members of his administration openly embraced the idea of “R2P” or “responsibility to protect.” This meant that the U.S. and other civilized nations have a responsibility to do something when genocide or other terrible crimes are occurring in other people’s countries.

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Once upon a time–and not so long ago–President Obama and senior members of his administration openly embraced the idea of “R2P” or “responsibility to protect.” This meant that the U.S. and other civilized nations have a responsibility to do something when genocide or other terrible crimes are occurring in other people’s countries.

Susan Rice, now the national security adviser, then the UN ambassador, gave an impassioned address in 2009 in which she said: “The Responsibility to Protect—or, as it has come to be known, R2P—represents an important step forward in the long historical struggle to save lives and guard the wellbeing of people endangered by conflict.” This principle formed an important justification for the U.S. intervention along with NATO allies in Libya in 2011 to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from slaughtering opponents of his regime. In 2012 Obama even created an Atrocities Prevention Board to carry out this humanitarian doctrine.

But in practice R2P has been MIA in this White House. Since 2011 more than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria–one ongoing atrocity after another–and the result has been a shrug from the White House which seems more concerned with stopping Israel’s war against Hamas terrorists. Now there is an even more urgent example of precisely the kind of atrocity that should motivate the U.S. and other powers into action. I am referring to the plight of the Yazidis–members of a small religious minority rooted in Zoroastrianism–who have been in the gunsights of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as its black-clad fighters have rolled over northern Iraq.

Last week ISIS took the Iraqi town of Sinjar, forcing tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee for their lives. Many took refuge on Mount Sinjar where they have been meeting an appalling fate–devoid of food and water, they are slowly dying yet are afraid to come down from the mountain for fear that they will be slaughtered by ISIS if they do so. As many as 40,000 people remain trapped and they are desperate for help. The Washington Post quotes a UNICEF official saying: “There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads. There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”

Tens of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq are also on the run, knowing they face death at the hands of ISIS. Yet so wary is the Obama administration of any involvement in Iraq that it is not even willing to send U.S. cargo aircraft to drop food and water to the trapped Yazidis–much less to call in air strikes that would break the siege of Mount Sinjar.

The president’s chief foreign policy guru Ben Rhodes grandly proclaims that Obama is busy positioning “the U.S. to lead for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.” His gaze firmly fixed decades in the future, Obama seems to be missing the preventable atrocities–which not only violate the R2P doctrine but also threaten vital American national security interests–that are occurring in the here and now.

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No Donor Conference for Gaza

Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was doing the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Once again, as the smoke clears in Gaza, the European community is stepping in with calls for a donor conference. That’s simply crazy.

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Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was doing the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Once again, as the smoke clears in Gaza, the European community is stepping in with calls for a donor conference. That’s simply crazy.

The Palestinians have received more per capita than any other national community, but have the least to show for it. The problem is not Israel, but rather an unwillingness to foreswear terrorism and concentrate instead on internal development. Sure, some Palestinians and Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth might complain that it’s not terrorism but rather resistance—but that’s just the problem: So long as their leaders and the international community indulge Palestinians in the notion that violence is honorable, then Palestinians have an excuse for their own domestic failings.

Make no mistake: Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have suffered during the recent conflict, although not nearly as much as some in the media suggest. The casualty numbers are most certainly exaggerated. Regardless, because Hamas and its surrogates claimed multiple casualties from single strikes, this suggests the number of destroyed civilian structures to be low. Gaza was never as desperate as many Palestinian activists and their fellow travelers have claimed. And while Gaza may be densely populated, density and poverty do not always correlate. Just ask residents of Singapore or Hong Kong about that.

But what harm can a donor conference do? Sometimes foreign aid can do good but never when it removes accountability from a government or society. If Hamas—or any Palestinian administration—knows that the international community will always step in and rebuild houses, schools, or government buildings, then it makes it easier to dedicate what revenue the Palestinian government does have to terrorism and military adventurism. The international community’s knee-jerk reaction to violence in the Middle East has always been to subsidize the Palestinians further to the tune of billions of dollars. Clearly, that strategy has neither worked nor in any way furthered peace. Seldom do European officials and Western donor nations consider that their strategy has actually made the situation worse.

A major problem, of course, is the United Nations Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA). UNRWA was never supposed to live out the 1950s. Economist Fred Gottheil did a masterful job of examining support for UNRWA as an illustration of moral hazard. Former UNRWA employee James Lindsay has also provided an in-depth study of what is wrong with UNRWA and how to fix it. The UN, however, has never been adept at either efficiency or bureaucratic reform. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is no more serious about reform than his predecessors, even the venal Kofi Annan, whose tenure was marked by multibillion-dollar corruption schemes. Had the secretary-general been serious, he would have replaced the leadership of UNRWA immediately for having allowed Hamas to transform UNRWA facilities into weapons storage centers and then to return missiles found in UNRWA stores to Hamas.

In northern Iraq, tens of thousands of Yezidi children are surrounded by Islamic State fighters who would like nothing better than their slaughter. In Jordan, Syrian refugees force their preteen and teenage daughters into exploitive marriages simply because their situations are so desperate. In northeastern Syria, Kurds have put together a functioning and stable government that now shelters tens of thousands of Christians and hundreds of thousands of Muslims, and yet the international community largely ignores them—and Turkey, the Syrian government, and Iraqi Kurdistan all prevent their supply with medicine. In every case, a fraction of what European donors would give to Gazans could make a world of difference to peoples who actually want to improve their lives, not eradicates others’.

Perhaps it’s time to stop treating taxpayer dollars—American, European, or otherwise—as an entitlement to Palestinians who have made bad choices (or elected a government which does so). Only when Palestinians in Gaza realize that Hamas brings nothing but ruin can there be a possibility for something better. It’s time the international community act as if it truly cares about Palestinians’ fate and show some tough love; no longer should they enable the Palestinians’ self-destructive lack of accountability. The problem isn’t money; it’s culture.

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