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Calls for ‘balance’ blunt the horrific human toll of rape and destruction in Israel-Hamas war

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — It should not be hard to categorically condemn Hamas terrorists’ depraved use of rape as a weapon of war against Israeli women and girls.

And the idea that Israel could think that a ratio of two civilians killed for every Hamas fighter in Gaza would be a “tremendously positive” result is callous.

But raging disputes on both these issues underscore the extreme politicization of the conflict and, more importantly, threaten to downplay the inhumanity of a war exerting a horrific toll on defenseless civilians.

The first episode concerns Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who was forced on Tuesday to issue a long statement walking back her comments to CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday that “horrific” rapes need to be “balanced” against civilian deaths in Gaza.

The second drama stems from comments by Israel Defense Forces spokesman Jonathan Conricus, also on CNN, about Palestinian civilian deaths that the lieutenant colonel was also forced to clarify.

The controversy over Jayapal’s remarks follows a period, predating the most recent Hamas attacks, in which some on the left have been criticized for seeming to be less inclined to condemn crimes against humanity carried out against Jews than other ethnic groups. And progressives across the Western world, many of whom are supportive of Palestinians, have sometimes been less strident than they might have been in trying to eradicate antisemitism.

Days of footage of the murderous Hamas rampage through kibbutz communities and grieving Palestinians pulling dead children from the rubble of their homes is hard to watch. But if the world tunes out, the reality of the carnage risks being overshadowed by arguments about the relative weight of horror suffered by either side or related diplomatic and political point-scoring typical of Middle East conflicts.

Emphatically condemning the evil that unfolded on October 7 should be an easy call, even for critics of Israel who decry its long-term policies toward the Palestinians. And it hardly needs to be seen as an endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline policies. Similarly, efforts to mitigate the civilian bloodbath in Gaza shouldn’t be seen as implicit acquiescence of theocratic Hamas fascism. That neither of these is a given sums up the paucity of political debate about the war, its intractability and ultimately, the endlessly repeating tragedy of this conflict.

Often, a desire to seek political advantage from the situation comes from those with no direct contact with the human agony of those in the firing line. The plight of Palestinian civilians, for example, is sometimes coopted into self-serving anti-colonialism narratives favored by the American left. A backlash against American Jews over Israel’s conduct since the October 7 attack has many traumatized.

Horrendous accounts of rapes

Reaction to excruciating reports of systematic rapes and genital mutilations perpetrated by Hamas fighters underscores how politics shapes responses to war.

The imprecision of Jayapal’s remarks on CNN left the impression that she did not condemn these outrages strongly enough. Florida Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday, for instance, that “it was almost like the congresswoman was concerned she was criticizing Hamas too much.”

After two days of criticism, Jayapal clarified and expanded on her comments at a time of growing Israeli fury at the United Nations and other institutions over a perceived sluggishness in condemning the atrocities.

“Let me be completely clear again that I unequivocally condemn Hamas’ use of rape and sexual violence as an act of war,” Jayapal wrote. “This is horrific and across the world, we must stand with our sisters, families, and survivors of rape and sexual assault everywhere to condemn this violence and hold perpetrators accountable.” She added: “My comment about balance was not about rape, and not intended to minimize rape and sexual assault in any way. It was about recognizing the tremendous pain and trauma of so many —Israelis, Palestinians and their diaspora communities—in this terrible war.”

The statement by Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was one of the clearest signs yet that the war in Gaza has carved deep political splits in the United States, especially in the Democratic Party, that threaten to endure through 2024 and could impact President Joe Biden’s reelection hopes. The president, whose administration has spent recent days urging Israel to ease the toll on Palestinian civilians, issued his own strong statement condemning the rapes on Tuesday. He bemoaned “reports of women raped — repeatedly raped — and their bodies being mutilated while still alive — of women corpses being desecrated, Hamas terrorists inflicting as much pain and suffering on women and girls as possible and then murdering them.”

“It is appalling,” the president added.

The lack of global attention to the sexual violence led Netanyahu to rebuke international institutions on Tuesday in a televised address when he exclaimed: “Where the hell are you?”

Awful accounts of the rapes and assaults were aired in an event at the United Nations Monday, hosted by Israel, that featured volunteers and soldiers giving harrowing testimony about the sexual mutilation of some of the dead bodies they encountered. Former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg warned, “Silence is complicity,” and added, “Rape should never be used as an act of war.”

And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Organizations, governments and individuals who are committed to a better future for women and girls have a responsibility to condemn all violence against women.”

“It is outrageous that some who claim to stand for justice are closing their eyes and their hearts to the victims of Hamas.”

How Israel’s defenders explain away civilian carnage

An unwillingness of some to fully recognize the horror of the rapes of Israeli civilians is mirrored by the way civilian casualties in Gaza are sometimes explained away.

Israel’s closest supporters in the United States often point out, correctly, that Hamas embeds its forces in civilian areas in order to create international outrage when innocent people are killed in reprisal strikes against their positions. The Israeli government insists it takes scrupulous steps to avoid killing civilians. But this does not necessarily absolve Netanyahu’s government of the moral consequences that come in an offensive that has killed so many innocent people. Almost 16,000 Palestinians have died since October 7, according to the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza, although those figures don’t distinguish between combatants and civilians. There have been “many, many thousands of innocent people killed” in Gaza, White House National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby told reporters on a virtual gaggle Monday.

The Biden administration – which has been stalwart in defending Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas and in opposing a permanent ceasefire – has warned its ally not to repeat in southern Gaza the devastation it wrought in northern Gaza during the stage of its operation, when tens of thousands of Palestinians fled to the south. But the intensity of the fighting in Gaza – and humanitarian destruction accounted by international aid agencies – raises serious questions about whether Israel has listened.

On the conservative right, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, speaking on CNN Sunday against a ceasefire, dismissed warnings that civilian Palestinian casualties would breed more terrorism, seeming to rationalize those casualties on the grounds that Palestinians “are taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them.”

This is the background to the comment by Conricus over the supposed ratio between Hamas fighters and civilians killed – an assessment first reported by the AFP news agency on Monday. Whether or not that’s true, Conricus calling it “tremendously positive” appears callous. Like Jayapal, Conricus issued his own walkback, saying that the IDF was seeking to kill as few civilians as possible and added: “Every loss of life is sad, I should have chosen my words more carefully.”

Léo Cans, head of mission for Palestine for Médecins Sans Frontières, painted a picture of utter human horror inside Gaza in an interview with CNN International on Tuesday. He spoke of a collapsed health system, a lack of food, drinking water and refuge and of Palestinians being bombed in areas in which Israel suggested they would be safe. Ironically, his language recalled the plea by Netanyahu for the outside world to take notice of the atrocities represented by Hamas rapes. “It is really an attack on humanity that is going on right now in Gaza, I am talking about the humanity of all of us,” Cans told Isa Soares, speaking from Jerusalem.

“The world is watching what is happening there. I am wondering, where is the international community? Where are they to stop this indiscriminate and disproportionate bombing that is going on in Gaza right now?”

US officials told CNN on Tuesday that they expect Israel’s ground operation in Gaza will last several weeks before it transitions by January into a lower-intensity, localized strategy targeting Hamas militants and leaders. But US officials remain deeply concerned over how an offensive that has carried a devastating toll will unfold.

That timeline means that, not for the first time in this horrible war, civilians will bear the brunt.

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