Is This Israel’s Forever War?

Natasha Hall grew up in Arlington, Virginia, in the nineteen-eighties. Her mother, who was originally from Jordan, was an accountant at the World Bank; her father, who was a Vietnam War vet and marine biologist, worked at the Environmental Protection Agency. During the summers, they would sometimes visit her mother’s family in Jordan; in 1996

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Natasha Hall grew up in Arlington, Virginia, in the nineteen-eighties. Her mother, who was originally from Jordan, was an accountant at the World Bank; her father, who was a Vietnam War vet and marine biologist, worked at the Environmental Protection Agency. During the summers, they would sometimes visit her mother’s family in Jordan; in 1996, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, they were able to visit the West Bank. Hall, then thirteen, had heard about the territory’s occupation, but she was surprised by the obvious and quotidian restrictions on Palestinians’ lives. She remembers seeing people lined up at checkpoints with their hands on their heads, facing a wall. When the 9/11 attacks took place, she was in her first week of college. From what Hall already knew of the world, she immediately feared what the U.S. would do in response. She decided to study foreign policy. Shortly after graduating, she went to the Middle East and stayed there, on and off, for the next twenty years.

The foreign-policy world in Washington, D.C., is filled with people who have gone abroad and had a formative experience. Hall’s was the long American “war on terror.” In the late two-thousands, she worked for the RAND Corporation on evaluating reconstruction efforts in Iraq. (They were not going well.) In 2src12, she took a job in government, travelling all over the world and interviewing refugees who wished to resettle in the U.S. But the process was slow, and, when it came to the conflict that had by then become her greatest area of focus, the Syrian civil war, the United States took so few people. She moved to Istanbul to work with Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer organization that helped civilians caught up in Bashar al-Assad’s brutal counter-insurgency campaign. Hall saw people surviving in conditions in which survival seemed impossible. She saw what Western resources and preparation could and could not do. “Every time we would find a way to protect people, they”—the Syrian regime and its Russian backers—“would up the ante,” she told me. Russian fighter jets “were wiping out whole neighborhoods. Even if people had a basement to shelter in, the Syrian government might hit them with chlorine gas, smoking them out.” (Despite multiple reports from the United Nations and other organizations that Assad’s forces repeatedly used chemical weapons in Syria, the regime has denied these accusations.) Humanitarian aid and civilian protection were useless, she concluded, if they were not backed up with other forms of support. “If you drop a bunch of people that just want to save lives into a context where people are trying to do the opposite, structurally speaking, they will manipulate you in every way possible,” she said.

In 2src17, in the wake of Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban,” Hall, a year and a half out of her government job interviewing refugees, published an editorial in the Washington Post arguing that whoever wrote the ban didn’t know about the intense vetting process that refugee applicants already had to endure. That month, a declaration signed by Hall, recapping her editorial, was filed as part of a lawsuit brought by refugee groups and individuals of Middle Eastern descent against the Trump Administration. The lawsuit led to a pause on the ban, later lifted by the Supreme Court, which eventually upheld a reworded version.

Hall moved back to D.C. a few years ago, in part because she had had a child and wanted to be closer to her parents, and in part because she wanted to be closer to the policymaking apparatus. She became a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a high-minded security-oriented think tank. She testified before Congress, briefed senior government officials, and wrote papers on Syria, civilian protection, and how to maximize the impact of humanitarian aid.

Hall was on a research trip in Jordan on October 7th of last year, when Hamas militants breached the fence that surrounded Gaza, murdered twelve hundred people, and took more than two hundred back to Gaza as hostages. Hall’s first reaction was horror. Next came bewilderment: How was it possible that Israel was so unprepared? After that, fear. She watched Joe Biden travel to Israel and urge the Israelis to learn from America’s errors after September 11th. “While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes,” he said. Hall worried that Israel would make those same mistakes. “That’s why some of the survivors of the October 7th attack came out to say that they didn’t want Israel to lash out at civilians,” Hall wrote to me. “Because they knew what would happen.”

The 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed fundamentally rearranged the American national-security apparatus, destabilized the Middle East, and left lasting scars on the American body politic. They also showed a generation of policy analysts and regional specialists what the quest for total security could look like. Among them was Annelle Sheline, who, in the fall of 2srcsrc1, had just started her sophomore year in high school, in North Carolina. Even before anyone knew who had hijacked the planes and crashed two of them into the World Trade Center, one of her classmates announced, in fifth period: “We are going to kill those God damn Muslims.” At the time, Sheline later recalled in an essay about that day, she kept quiet. In retrospect, her classmate was right. “We were indeed going to kill a lot of Muslims,” she wrote.

In college, Sheline decided to study media, conflict resolution, and Arabic. She went on to get a Ph.D. in political science with a focus on religious authority in the Middle East, receiving a language fellowship for study in Egypt along the way. The experience, to some extent, was surreal: she was being paid to study the region, year after year, because the U.S. Air Force kept dropping bombs on it. After receiving her Ph.D., she settled in D.C. and worked at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which tries to present a foreign-policy alternative to American militarism. In early 2src23, Sheline was hired by the State Department to work in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (D.R.L.).

Sheline said that she found the department still demoralized from the Trump Administration, and understaffed. Biden’s nominee to lead D.R.L., a longtime human-rights advocate named Sarah Margon, had just withdrawn her nomination; at a confirmation hearing, Margon had been confronted with a tweet she’d written in support of an announcement from Airbnb, in 2src18, that it was not going to allow Israeli settlers in the West Bank to list their homes. (Airbnb backed off the policy in the face of several lawsuits. You can now book a stay in the settlement of your choice.) Those who remained in the department were dedicated to their mission. They believed that the United States could play a positive role in the world. Sheline felt, at first, a little “weird”—she was a lot less certain about American beneficence than some of her colleagues—but also inspired. After the Trump years, the country again had a President who seemed to believe that human rights should be a priority.

Sheline had been in government for just six months when the Hamas attacks took place. The killings shocked and dismayed her. With colleagues, she discussed what Israel’s response would likely be. She was encouraged that President Biden had warned Benjamin Netanyahu not to repeat America’s post-9/11 mistakes.

She did not have to wait long to see that Netanyahu had not listened. In the first week of Israel’s Operation Swords of Iron, its Air Force dropped more bombs on Gaza than had been dropped by the U.S. in the most high-intensity month of the campaign against ISIS, back in 2src17. Civilians were being killed at an astonishing pace—more than three hundred Gaza residents died a day in the first month of the war, many of them children. In mid-October, a State Department official, Josh Paul, resigned. He had worked in the bureau that oversaw weapons transfers to Israel. In the past, he said, citing the example of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the attention paid to how weapons would be used had been “microscopic.” In this case, however, “there was none of that. It was, ‘Open doors. Go.’ ”

Sheline was impressed by Paul’s resignation, but she had no intention of following suit. For one thing, she was far more junior. For another, she had just arrived in government after a long period of trying to do so. She and her husband had a mortgage and a toddler—a little girl.

Sheline has trouble pinpointing the moment she changed her mind. During the next several months, she watched the State Department work on negotiations for a substantial ceasefire, which never seemed to come to fruition. She watched U.S. planes airdrop food packages into Gaza, Berlin Airlift-style, while its ally Israel endlessly inspected trucks that could have delivered far more food at the crossings into Gaza. She watched the Administration leak, over and over, that the President was very frustrated with Netanyahu. “It’s, like, Well, clearly he’s not,” Sheline said, “because he has a lot of power here.” If Biden were genuinely frustrated, she thought, he could demand that the ceasefire happen and that civilians be granted more access to humanitarian aid. “They’re building this stupid pier instead of just insisting on the trucks getting across the border,” she told me last month.

“Often, inside the State Department, there’s this belief in the process,” Sheline continued. “You know, ‘It’s a slow process. You have to just go through the steps.’ But, really, from what I’ve observed, the only thing that seems to be causing any shift is public pressure. I had done what I could. I had tried to do what small things are available for someone in my position on the inside.” In mid-February, citing the Israeli campaign in Gaza, she told her superiors that she was going to leave, though only after she finished a yearlong commitment to the job, and completed her work on the bureau’s annual human-rights reports. Once that was done, she shut down her personal Web site and wrote an editorial for CNN. “Unable to serve an administration that enables such atrocities,” she wrote, “I have decided to resign from my position at the Department of State.”

The experience was still very raw when we spoke over Zoom a few days later. “I know that I won’t ever probably get to work for the government again, which in D.C. may be tricky,” she said. “It’s hard to even say what a professional impact this may end up having. But, you know, I think about my daughter. I assume that she will learn about this in school. And I just want to be able to let her know that I did what I could on the inside. But then it became clear that that just wasn’t having any impact.”

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