The grim weekend attack by Hamas produced an unusual degree of unity on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide in the US, with widespread revulsion at the scale of the killings, the horrific video of bodies paraded through Gaza, and the abduction of civilians by the Palestinian armed group including the very young and elderly.

But opinion in the US quickly divided as the broader battle for narrative took hold, particularly over the cause of the attack, alongside differences over whether Gaza is still occupied, as the Palestinian death toll, including entire families, rose sharply under Israel’s retaliatory bombardment.

The White House described the Hamas assault as “unprovoked”, a line widely adopted by some pro-Israel groups seeking to portray the attack as driven solely by hatred of Jews as Jews and the group as a Palestinian version of Islamic State.

The California-based pro-Israel group, StandWithUs, likened the Hamas assault to al-Qaida’s on the US in 2001.

“For Israelis, this is like 9/11,” it said. “The goal of Hamas is not to oppose any specific Israeli policy or action. Hamas is an internationally recognized terrorist group driven by genocidal racism against Jews.”

But the Biden administration’s position came under swift challenge, including from Yousef Munayyer, the former executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

“To call this ‘unprovoked’, as the initial [White House] statement did, is to ignore the daily and constant Israeli violence and war crimes against Palestinians, which has only escalated in recent years. It is language that erases Palestinians and enables continued violence against them,” he wrote.

The Jewish American group, IfNotNow, said its supporters “watch the unfolding horrors with heartbreak and dread for our loved ones” but it, too, objected to the description of the attack as unprovoked.

“We absolutely condemn the killing of innocent civilians and mourn the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life, with numbers rising by the minute. Their blood is on the hands of the Israeli government, the US government which funds and excuses their recklessness, and every international leader who continues to turn a blind eye to decades of Palestinian oppression, endangering Palestinians and Israelis,” it said.

“Anyone who minimizes or ignores this context will only continue to be surprised as more blood is shed.”

While the Israeli government’s supporters sought to absolve it of responsibility for raising tensions, its critics have for months warned that a mix of settlement expansion, creeping annexation of the West Bank and unrestrained settler attacks on Palestinian civilians, including the ethnic cleansing of villages, was pushing the occupied territories toward an increase in violence and even a third intifada.

The push to separate the Hamas assault from the context of events in the West Bank is partly rooted in Israel’s claim that Gaza is no longer occupied after the pullout of Jewish settlers and the army in 2005. That is a claim echoed on both sides of the Atlantic including by the senior Labour party politician in the UK, Rachel Reeves, who told the BBC: “Gaza is not occupied by Israel.”

The United Nations says otherwise, because of Israeli controls over Gaza’s borders, airspace and waters. The extent of that control was made clear with the Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant’s announcement of a “complete siege” of the territory, shutting off power, food and water to fight “human animals”.

The push to claim that Gaza is no longer occupied and therefore has no justification for confrontation with Israel is also part of an attempt to divide and rule by treating the fenced-in enclave as separate from the rest of the Palestinian occupied territories in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

US politicians who pushed for a wider perspective on the causes of violence were careful to frame their words in the context of the huge suffering caused by the Hamas attack.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who has previously faced accusations of antisemitism over her criticism of pro-Israel lobby groups, said she condemned “the horrific acts” against Israelis, “who are being slaughtered and taken hostage by Hamas”. But she warned that the cycle will continue without “peace and justice” in the Middle East.

Congresswoman Cori Bush echoed the sentiment when she said she was “heartbroken by the ongoing violence in Palestine and Israel” and that she mourned the lives lost on both sides. But she said the US is part of the problem.

“As part of achieving a just and lasting peace, we must do our part to stop this violence and trauma by ending US government support for Israeli military occupation and apartheid,” she wrote.

Others were less nuanced.

A group of organisations at Harvard University faced accusations of dehumanising Israeli victims with a statement that did not criticise Hamas and that said the Israeli government is “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”.

“The apartheid regime is the only one to blame. Israeli violence has structured every aspect of Palestinian existence for 75 years. From systematized land seizures to routine airstrikes, arbitrary detentions to military checkpoints, and enforced family separations to targeted killings, Palestinians have been forced to live in a state of death, both slow and sudden,” it said.

Lawrence Summers, Harvard’s president emeritus, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, said he was “sickened” by the university leadership’s failure to criticise the students and take a stand in support of Israel when it did so for Ukraine.

“The silence from Harvard’s leadership, so far, coupled with a vocal and widely reported student groups’ statement blaming Israel solely, has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel,” he said.

The divisions also spilled on to the streets of New York on Sunday, as the Democratic Socialists of America held a rally in Times Square, where several hundred supporters of the Palestinian cause chanted: “Resistance is justified when people are occupied.”

New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, called the rally “abhorrent and morally repugnant”.

The attack also inevitably revived demands for news organisations to follow the White House lead and call Hamas terrorists, not only because of the nature of the killings but because the US, EU and UK governments have banned the group.

Kenneth Roth, the former head of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, criticised the White House stance.

“It is not helpful to use the term ‘terrorism’ in a war when the White House only ever applies it to one side. Better to remind both Hamas and the Israeli government that humanitarian law makes it a war crime to target or indiscriminately fire on civilians,” he said.

Roth said that “Hamas already committed war crimes by seizing civilians as hostages” and warned it against compounding its crimes by “mistreating the hostages or by using them as human shields”.

But he also criticised supporters of the Israeli government who refuse to be held to the same standards of international law.

“It cheapens the concept of antisemitism – a real global curse – for defenders of the Israeli government to pretend that it is somehow antisemitic to hold Israel to the same standards of international humanitarian law as we use to assess Hamas’s conduct. A war crime is a war crime,” he said.

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