'No red lines': US response to West Bank assault underlines Israel's free hand
Israel's increasing use of sophisticated military hardware in the occupied West Bank, including drones and Apache attack helicopters, has been met with a muted response from the Biden administration, underlining Washington's lack of red lines as violence against the Palestinians escalates.
On Monday, Israel launched a deadly raid on the Jenin refugee camp in what the government said was a campaign to eliminate Palestinian fighters.
As the raid entered its second day, more than 3,000 Palestinians had been displaced from their homes. The Palestinian death toll also climbed to 12 killed, according to Palestinian health officials.
Palestinian armed groups have so far claimed five of the dead as members, but Palestinian authorities have not specified whether those who died were fighters or civilians.
The raid on Jenin is a culmination of weeks of military strikes that have seen Israel deploy ever more heavy weaponry in the occupied West Bank.
"The US clearly has no red lines when it comes to Israel's use of force," Marwa Maziad, an expert on US-Arab-Israeli relations at the University of Maryland, told Middle East Eye.
In June, helicopter gunships were dispatched to the occupied West Bank for the first time in nearly 20 years after an Israeli troop carrier was hit by what the military called a "pretty advanced" improvised explosive device (IED). Just two days later, Israel killed two members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement's military branch and a Fatah military leader in a drone strike near Jenin.
Some experts have said the US is concerned that Israel's introduction of armed drones into the occupied West Bank has the potential to loosen rules of engagement and inflame tensions further, but analysts tell MEE that Israel's deadly raid on Jenin where about 1,100 troops are supported by armed drones shows its a muted issue for the Biden administration.
'Going with Israel's flow'
On Monday, a National Security Council spokesperson expressed US support for "Israel's security and right to defend its people against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups".
"The US is completely going with Israel's flow of events," Maziad said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has wasted no time trumpeting US support as a counter to domestic opponents who say his far-right government has imperiled relations with Israel's closest ally.
"America has provided Israel with moral and political backing," Netanyahu said. "Security cooperation [with the US] has never been better, intelligence sharing has never been deeper."
Netanyahu has been under pressure from hardline members of his government to take a harsher stance against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right member of Netanyahu's government who holds a ministerial position within the defence ministry, had called on the government to "replace tweezer activity with a broad operation" in the occupied West Bank.
After four Israeli settlers were killed in a shooting by a Palestinian in the occupied West Bank last month, national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir said: "We need a return to targeted killings from the air, bringing down buildings, setting up roadblocks, expelling terrorists."
Both men have been snubbed by the Biden administration, and Netanyahu himself has yet to secure a White House visit.
But those tensions are largely due to the optics of Netanyahu's far-right government, whose members are unpopular within the US Democratic party, and his contentious plans to overhaul the country's judicial system.
"If Netanyahu said tomorrow the judicial overhaul is dead, the Biden administration would schedule a visit for him," Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East adviser, told MEE. "The reason he isn't coming isn't attached specifically to the Palestinians."
The Biden administration has backed Israel, when some hoped it would call for stronger support for Palestinians.
"The US knows well that the Israeli operation in the Jenin refugee camp should be seen in the context of Israel's future plans to take over more Palestinian land and squeeze Palestinians out," Nadim Rouhana, from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told MEE.
Those thoughts have been echoed by progressive members of Biden's party.
On Monday, Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib tweeted footage from Jenin saying: "Israeli forces are now blocking ambulances from reaching the dozens of wounded Palestinians… Congress must stop funding this violent Israeli apartheid regime."
But other Democratic lawmakers, who have previously urged the Biden administration to take a tougher stance against Israel, have been quiet during the Jenin raid. Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, who once criticised the administration's "tepid statement" in support of Palestinians during Israel's May 2021 war on Gaza, hasn't issued a comment on Jenin.
Miller says the Biden administration is unlikely to ever consider withholding American military systems from Israel, even with the new deployments of heavy weaponry.
'Elections and the Crown Prince'
The Biden administration's response to the rising tensions is also complicated by the 2024 presidential elections. "The administration is not interested in giving the Republicans any edge in creating the impression that it is pursuing an adversarial policy towards Israel. A lot of it has to do with fundraising," according to Miller.
Compared to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and heightened tensions with China, tensions in the occupied West Bank are a back-burner issue for the White House. Washington's main concern is how tensions impact efforts to broker a normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
"We told our friends and allies in Israel that if there's a fire burning in their backyard, it's going to be a lot tougher, if not impossible, to actually both deepen the existing agreements, as well as to expand them, to include potentially Saudi Arabia," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.
Even analysts are divided over how much the spiralling violence in the occupied West Bank impacts Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's calculus. In exchange for normalising ties, Saudi Arabia wants security guarantees from the US, help in developing a civilian nuclear programme and fewer restrictions on arms sales.
Miller says the crown prince's "threshold" on developments in the occupied West Bank would be low if all his needs are met.
But Maziad said that Riyadh would have no interest in owning normalisation with these tensions brewing, particularly as it already benefits from quiet security cooperation with Israel. She noted statements from Turkey, the UAE, Jordan and Egypt condemning the Jenin raid.
"The US would be foolish to think it can brush aside the conflict."
Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that "Palestinian resistance to Israeli oppression is almost assured to go on" regardless of the success of the Jenin raid.
She believes the muted US response will lead to "the continued hemorrhaging of [US] credibility when speaking about human rights and respect for international norms".