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Bush says US must support Israel ‘no ands, ifs or buts’ amid 9/11 comparisons

The US must support Israel “no ands, ifs or buts”, the former US president George W Bush said as he advocated for tough action in response to violence by Hamas which many observers have likened to the 9/11 attacks on US soil, after which Bush led his country and much of the Middle East into 20 years of war that cost millions of lives.

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In an interview with the historian Mark Updegrove, reported by Axios, the 43rd president, now 77, was asked for his thoughts on the attacks that have killed more than 1,100, prompting Israeli air strikes that have killed more than 1,500 in Gaza amid expectations of a ground invasion, with more than 100 Israeli hostages taken.

“My thoughts were that we need to support Israel,” Bush said. “No ands, ifs or buts.

“This is an unprovoked attack by terrorists, people willing to kill innocent people to achieve an objective. Hamas is a political organisation. They do not reflect the majority of the Palestinians. Don’t be surprised if Israel takes whatever action is necessary to defend herself. And it’s gonna be ugly for a while.”

On 11 September 2001, Islamist terrorists hijacked four airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center in New York, one into the Pentagon in Virginia and one into a field in Pennsylvania. The death toll was 2,977.

In October 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan, which had sheltered leaders of al-Qaida, the group behind the attacks. In March 2003, US and allied troops invaded Iraq, which Bush sought without evidence to tie to 9/11. The US withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan 10 years later after a huge cost in human life, the vast majority civilians.

The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University puts the US death toll in post-9/11 war operations at 7,057 and the number of wounded far higher. It says 30,177 US veterans of the 9/11 wars have died by suicide.

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According to the Imperial War Museum, 454 Britons were killed in Afghanistan and 179 in Iraq. Other US allies also lost troops. The toll on regional allies was huge: the Watson Institute says approximately 177,000 “uniformed Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis and Syrian allies [had] died as of November 2019”.

Of the civilian death toll related to US operations after 9/11, it says: “Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Pakistan have taken a tremendous human toll.

“As of September 2021, an estimated 432,093 civilians in these countries [had] died violent deaths as a result of the wars. As of May 2023, an estimated 3.6-3.8 million people [had] died indirectly in post-9/11 war zones. The total death toll in these war zones could be at least 4.5-4.7 million and counting … civilian deaths have also resulted from US post-9/11 military operations in Somalia and other countries.”

Nonetheless, in conversation with Updegrove in Santa Barbara, California, Bush held a hard line for a military response to the Hamas attacks. For Israel, he said, responding would be “tough … you know, going out in the neighbourhoods of Gaza is gonna be tough.

“[Israel has] a very seasoned military but they just called up 300,000 reservists … and to the extent they’d be put in harm’s way it’s gonna be awfully difficult on the prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] but he’s got to do what he’s got to do.

“You’re dealing with cold-blooded killers. And you can make all kinds of excuses why they are but they are and [Netanyahu’s] job is to protect his country. And anyway, we’ll find out what he’s made of.”

Observers say Israel’s response, inevitably killing civilians, risks exchanging one war crime for another.

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Bush faced similar accusations after 9/11.

In January 2002, in his State of the Union address, he coined the phrase “axis of evil”, to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea. In California on Thursday, Updegrove asked to what extent Bush linked Iran to the Hamas attacks.

“I don’t know,” Bush said. “I don’t get the intelligence anymore. Their stated objective is the destruction of Israel. That’s what the leaders say. And in this world, you got to take what they say seriously. And Iran has been pretty good at using surrogate terrorist groups, Hezbollah [in Lebanon] being the key word of course.

“… I am kind of a hardliner on all this stuff. I never thought we should try to accommodate Iran, in any way, shape or form … these are the kind of people that if you show softness, they will take advantage of it.”

Saying the US should “stand squarely with Netanyahu” and praising Joe Biden for doing so, Bush said: “The immediate future doesn’t look very bright. Particularly if you’re on the Hamas side. It’s going to be chaotic.

“In a democracy, the people’s voices matter. And there’s gonna be a weariness. You watch. The world is going to be, ‘OK, let’s negotiate. Israel’s got to negotiate.’ They are not going to negotiate. These people have played their cards. They want to kill as many Israelis as they can. Negotiating with killers is not an option for the elected government of Israel.

“And so we’re just gonna have to remain steadfast. But it’s not going to take long for people to say, ‘This is going on too long. Surely there’s a way to settle this, with negotiations. Both sides are guilty.’ My view is one side is guilty, and it’s not Israel.”

His comments were met with applause.