Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association. Laura Belin contributed some reporting to this article.
Like all Iowans of good will, I was painfully alerted to the Hamas invasion of Israel on October 7. Many have compared the events to the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attack, in both its surprise and savagery. The scale of deaths and human loss is enormous; Israel’s total population is around 9 million.
The United States and European Union have designated Hamas a terrorist organization because of its armed resistance against Israel. Hamas has sponsored years of suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel, claiming Jewish presence in Palestine is illegitimate, which is counter-historical and denied by the United States.
One of two Palestinian territories (the other is the Israeli-occupied West Bank), the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated territories in the world. Bordered by walls and fences erected by Israel, Gaza has approximately 2.2 million inhabitants in an area about twice the size of Washington, DC. The terrorist Hamas live in and around the civilian population, the majority of which are under age 18, who have no escape path to safety.
BIDEN ADMINISTRATION ADDRESSED ISRAELIS AND AMERICANS
On October 10, President Joe Biden denounced Hamas, calling the surprise attack on Israel launched by the Palestinian militant group “an act of sheer evil,” and stressed U.S. support for Israel as it mourns the killing of more than 1,400 Israelis, including Americans. At least 32 Americans are now confirmed dead as a result of the war in Israel. The president voiced concern for Americans and others being held hostage by Hamas (said to be 200), an Iranian-backed Islamist group, whose stated purpose, he said, is to “kill Jews.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on October 11, “The message that I bring to Israel is this: You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself, but as long as America exists, you will never, ever have to.” Since, Blinken has hopscotched around the region, including to Qatar, said to have communication links into Hamas.
Biden went to Israel on October 18—the first visit by a U.S. president to that country during wartime. Talking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said,
But the point is this — that I was deeply saddened and outraged by the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday. And based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not — not you. But there’s a lot of people out there who are not sure….So, we got a lot of — we got to overcome a lot of things….And it also means encouraging lifesaving capacity to help the Palestinians who are innocent, caught in the middle of this….And — well, any rate, that’s — that’s who we are — not just me, but I mean that’s who the United States is. And it’s just not the example of our power, it’s the power of our example that’s almost as important…The world is looking. We — Israel has a value set like the United States does and other democracies, and — and they’re looking to see what we’re going to do….So, Mr. Prime Minister, I’m very happy to be back in Israel with you. Thank you for having me. And I’m looking forward to having a thorough discussion about where everybody goes from here.
Netanyahu told Biden,
You’ve rightly drawn a clear line between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism. You described what Hamas did as “sheer evil.” It is exactly that. Hamas murdered children in front of their parents and parents in front of their children. They burned people alive. They raped and murdered women. They beheaded soldiers. They — they searched for the secret hiding places where parents hid their children. And just imagine, Mr. President, the — the fear and the panic of those little children in their last moments as the monsters discovered — found out their hiding places. Hamas kidnapped women, children, elderly, Holocaust survivors. I know you share our outrage on this, and I know you share our determination to bring these people back.
In his televised remarks to Israelis, Biden warned against being “consumed” by rage. He said “Justice must be done,” adding that “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.” In his October 19 televised address from the Oval Office, Biden emphasized the importance of supporting Israel and Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression. But he repeated, “I caution the government of Israel not to be blinded by rage.” And he denounced “all forms of hate, whether against Muslims, Jews, or anyone.”
CHUCK GRASSLEY WANTS MORE SANCTIONS AGAINST IRAN
On October 10, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley posted a four-second video to his nearly 900,000 followers on the social media platform X/Twitter: “I’m Chuck Grassley, and I stand with Israel.”
Iowa’s senior senator joined nine other Senate Republicans “calling on President Biden to coordinate with the G7 nations to severely sanction Iran for its support of the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel.” The following week, he repeated his “solidarity” with Israel after meeting with Jarad Bernstein, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines.
JONI ERNST LED DELEGATION TO MIDDLE EAST
U.S. Senator Joni Ernst was in the region at the time of the Hamas attacks, as leader of a bipartisan Congressional delegation to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, and Israel to support peace in the region and deter Iranian aggression. (U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa was part of that group.)
As reported in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Ernst met in person with top Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as American citizens on October 10. After spending much of the day in Israel, Ernst told Radio Iowa in an interview from Jordan, “We want to see peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel. We know that Iran fears peace. They want more chaos and terror in the region. … It’s time that these allies and partners in the region stand united against Iran and these extreme terrorist proxies.”
On her return to Iowa, Ernst sent the following statement to KCCI-TV on October 11:
“I’m horrified by the loss of innocent life in Israel spurred on by Iran and its terrorist proxies. As co-chair of the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus, I’m dedicated to advancing peace and prosperity in Israel and the Middle East, and I was honored to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends in Israel. We must not back down from holding Iran accountable. I will continue working hand-in-hand with our partners to foster security in the region and protect Americans from extreme terrorism.”
The Atlantic Magazine writer Hussein Ibish, a Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, has written of the deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia:
Should Israel, the most potent U.S. military partner in the region, and Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most financially powerful and religiously influential one, normalize and build cooperation, Tehran would face an integrated pro-American camp. American partners, including the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan, would effectively ring the Arabian Peninsula, securing control of the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf through their three crucial maritime choke points: the Suez Canal, the Bab el-Mandab Strait, and the Straits of Hormuz. Saudi-Israeli normalization would largely block Iran’s regional aspirations in the short run and Chinese ambitions in the more distant future.
Ibish reasons that the benefits to the West are so many as to have temped Hamas (for domestic Palestinian reasons) and Iran (for regional strategic ones) “to set off an earthquake that would at least postpone such a reckoning. Iran and Hamas are counting on Israel to attack Gaza with such ferocity that the international sympathy of the past week toward Israel, even in the Arab world, evaporates quickly and is replaced by outrage at the suffering inflicted on the two million residents of Gaza. Those civilians have already been cut off from electricity, water, food, and medicine, all of which are controlled by Israel.”
Biden has promised humanitarian support for Gaza, but his planned meetings with some Arab leaders on October 18 were canceled in the wake of an explosion at a hospital in Gaza.
MILLER-MEEKS BACKS SENDING SEAL TEAMS TO THE REGION
As mentioned above, Miller-Meeks (IA-01) was in the Middle East when this crisis began. WHO-TV News quoted her as saying on October 12, “First and foremost, (Congress must) pass our resolution condemning the actions of Hamas, freeze $6 billion in funds that were going to Iran so they cannot continue to support and fund their proxies that carried this out. And we need to get back American hostages. President Biden, I think, has already made entreaties to do that. And I support sending our special operations or SEAL teams there to extract American hostages and to do what we can in those efforts.”
(Correcting the claim that Iran has been given access to $6 billion in impounded funds, Secretary Blinken, said at a news conference in Tel Aviv that Iran had neither accessed nor spent any of the $6 billion, adding: “We have strict oversight of the funds, and we retain the right to freeze them.”)
Miller-Meeks’ suggestion of SEAL teams et al is exactly what Hussein Ibish cautions against. His Atlantic Monthly article, entitled “Israel Is Walking Into a Trap: Storming into Gaza will fulfill Hamas’s wish,” is well worth a read. His colleague at The Atlantic Graeme Wood, a staff writer and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State, says, “A day that started under control, with a coordinated surprise attack by literally thousands of armed (Hamas) men, does not appear to have ended that way.” Wood does not believe Hamas has planned beyond the initial attack into Israel, saying, Hamas may not have a step two. Wood explains:
Hours after Hamas broke through the Gaza barrier, I (Wood) asked whether we were witnessing Step One of a plan that would perhaps involve Hezbollah and a front in the north—and even further moves that would threaten to break Israeli defenses altogether. Israel rapidly reinforced its northern border to prevent that, and according to reports, Hezbollah was warned that any shenanigans would be answered with the leveling of Damascus. Such phased escalations would have had their most devastating effect if they came when Israel was at its most confused and traumatized, and before it mobilized its reserves. Now that its reservists are in place, escalation seems unlikely to happen, at least not in the coordinated strategic way that could cause Israel’s collapse.
HINSON BACKS ISRAEL, DENOUNCES ANTI-SEMITISM
Like Miller-Meeks, Iowa’s other U.S. House Republicans have endorsed additional military aid to Israel and highlighted the issue in their public statements. U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson (IA-02) said in an October 12 news release,
The horrific scenes out of Israel are stomach churning. Hamas terrorists — backed by Iran — have brutally slaughtered innocent civilians, killed entire families, and beheaded babies. At least 27 Americans have been murdered and more are being held hostage right now. This is unspeakable savagery, and Israel has every right to defend itself and its people.
“America must show leadership, moral clarity, and support for Israel. We must bring Americans home, return to maximum pressure sanction on Iran, provide Israel with military and intelligence support needed to eradicate Hamas, call out anti-Semitism in every form, and take steps to thwart terrorist threats to our allies and the United States, including by securing the Southern Border.
The death toll for U.S. citizens has since risen to 32.
On a related note, Grassley delivered a Senate floor speech in May 2021 condemning anti-Semitism and hate crimes against Jews.
NUNN FRUSTRATED BY HOUSE SPEAKER DRAMA
Representative Zach Nunn (IA-03) spoke to Washington reporters on October 12 about the crisis. According to NBC News, Nunn touted his efforts to help a family in his district leave Israel, crediting Governor Kim Reynolds for helping to arrange a private charter flight. He said he was working to help another family trapped in Gaza.
Nunn introduced a bipartisan resolution to support more aid to Israel and introduced a bill that would “permanently freeze $6 billion in Iranian assets and increase transparency to prevent Iran from perpetrating future terrorist attacks against Israel or any other nation.”
In public statements, he has repeatedly expressed frustration that Congress cannot currently function. He has As of October 19, the House remains in chaos, as Republicans have failed to elect a new speaker since the ouster of Kevin McCarthy on October 3.
FEENSTRA CONDEMNS PRO-PALESTINIAN PROTESTS
Representative Randy Feenstra (IA-04) has said little in public about the House speaker drama, but has issued several statements about the events in the Middle East. An October 10 news release noted Feenstra’s support for the bipartisan resolution on Israel and denounced the “barbaric actions of Hamas terrorists.” Feenstra signed on to the bill that would freeze Iranian assets and on October 16 called on the Biden administration to “deliver humanitarian and military aid as quickly as possible” to Israel.
More than any other Republican elected official in Iowa, Feenstra has spoken out against participants in pro-Palestinian rallies. Following an October 11 protest in Des Moines, where some groups called for an end to U.S. aid to Israel, Feenstra said in a news release,
I am disgusted by the protests in Des Moines today ignoring the barbaric actions of Hamas terrorists in Israel. Hamas has committed unthinkable atrocities against innocent Israeli citizens, entire families, the elderly, and children. These despicable terrorists have no regard for human life and must be completely defeated and destroyed.
Anyone who celebrates or supports Hamas and calls to end American aid to Israel is a deeply troubled individual. As the brave people of Israel fight to defend their homeland, I remain committed to delivering critical aid to our closest ally in the Middle East to help them defeat the Hamas terrorists. The United States will always stand with Israel.
GOVERNOR HONORS LIVES LOST IN ISRAEL
Governors typically say less about foreign policy than do members of Congress. But on October 9, Governor Kim Reynolds ordered all flags in Iowa to be flown at half-mast to honor lives lost in Israel. She said in a written statement,
Iowans mourn for the families of those killed by Hamas in Israel. Hamas’ brutality knows no bounds, with reports of Holocaust survivors, women, and children taken by Hamas militants from their homes as hostages or brutally murdered. Today and every day, Iowa stands in solidarity with Israel and their right to defend themselves.
Reynolds also attended a Jewish community event in Des Moines on October 9 and had the state capitol lit up in blue on October 18 “as a symbol of our support for the Jewish community at home and abroad.”
OTHER PERSPECTIVES WORTH NOTING
The Associated Press reported on October 9 that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres put the focus on civilians in both Israel and Gaza and renewed his condemnation of the fatalities and hostage-takings by Hamas. He also warned of the prospect of more innocent lives lost: “I am deeply distressed by today’s announcement that Israel will initiate a complete siege of the Gaza Strip, nothing allowed in — no electricity, food, or fuel. The humanitarian situation in Gaza was extremely dire before these hostilities. Now, it will only deteriorate exponentially.”
The U.N. chief was careful not to underplay the devastation and intense suffering among Israelis since (the attack), decrying the launching of “thousands of indiscriminate rockets that have reached central Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem” and how hundreds of Israelis were killed and many more wounded. “I (also) recognize the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people. But nothing can justify these acts of terror and the killing, maiming and abduction of civilians,” Guterres said.
I also recommend the October 13, 2023 episode of ON POINT, the WBUR Public Radio program where host Meghna Chakrabarti interviews a quartet of individuals with differing perspectives on the Israel-Hamas War. They are 1) Ethan Bronner, Israel bureau chief and senior mideast editor for Bloomberg News, 2) Nadav Tamir, executive director of J Street Israel, 3) Sally Abed, Israeli-Arab political activist. A leader at Standing Together, the largest Jewish-Arab grassroots movement in Israel, and Dr. Eran Lerman, retired colonel in the Israel Defense Forces. Former deputy national security advisor to the Prime Minister.
Readers who want a greater insight into the Israeli crisis should read Ira Lacher’s essay, which Bleeding Heartland published on October 11. A native of the Bronx, Lacher provides an authentic education for readers, often as embarrassingly naive as me, a senior citizen who tries to be alert to world affairs, and who sees the peril of millions-upon-millions of innocent persons caught up in warfare, earthquake, floods, storms, etc. Beyond Israel, we remain in support of warfare Ukraine whose people are defending democracy against Russian attack.
I also consider Henry Jay Karp’s October 15 post at Bleeding Heartland to be essential reading. Karp is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Davenport and the co-founder and co-convener of One Human Family QCA, a social justice organization. He has traveled to Israel numerous times.
Reflecting on his thoughts from the day of the attack, Karp wrote,
As the day wore on, it struck me. The tactics of Hamas—starting with a mammoth missile barrage and followed by coordinated attacks by land, sea, and air—was not only dramatically different from every other Hamas offensive, but was too complex an operation to be masterminded by those who in the past relied upon the guerilla tactics of terrorism. The planning of this offensive smacked of a strategist with a military mind. Some of the questions that need to be answered include: Who (planned the attack? What nation provided military advisors to help Hamas with this operation? How were they able to do it under the radar of Israel and U.S., which operate some of the world’s most effective intelligence agencies?
Top photo of the Iowa state capitol in blue was first published on Governor Kim Reynolds’ X/Twitter feed.