American Interests and Public Opinion during the War on Gaza

Between scenes of escalating protests and self-sacrifice

As the United States enters a crucial election season, the pace of American popular protests against the Israeli war on Gaza rises daily, and the voices calling for a ceasefire expand. Within these protests, there are condemnations of the direct American role in supporting Israel and obstructing international efforts to end the war. Sharp criticisms of the U.S. President label him as “Genocide Joe,” holding President Joe Biden responsible for what is increasingly confirmed by broad segments of Americans and around the world as a genocide in Gaza.

Amidst this activism, on February 25th, the U.S. Air Force soldier “Aaron Bushnell” set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, not only expressing his condemnation of the war on Gaza but also rejecting complicity in the genocide against the Palestinians, as he stated. This self-immolation incident was not the first in these protests or in the history of anti-war protests in America. It was preceded by more than five cases of self-immolation by Americans in the 1960s protesting the Vietnam War. However, the “Bushnell” incident shocked public opinion and the American administration alike because the perpetrator was an active-duty military soldier, and the incident addressed two sacred issues in the American narrative: the U.S. military and Israel.

The crucial question is whether the incident marked a turning point for the American administration or even the American public opinion regarding the genocide carried out by Israel in Gaza. After ten days, and aside from memorial commemorations to remember Bushnell and his incident, the incident was effectively buried both in the media and officially. It is difficult to determine whether changes in the official American discourse, and even in the media, are related to the incident, as it occurred at a time when these trends were on the verge of shifting towards de-escalation and the U.S. administration attempting to distance itself from Israel’s practices.

Personal transformations with global awareness

Bushnell, a 25-year-old specialising in cyber defence operations in the U.S. Air Force, grew up in a conservative Christian community in Massachusetts. He joined the U.S. Air Force during the COVID-19 pandemic, facing financial difficulties. However, his political and social beliefs, according to accounts from his friends, began to change, particularly after the killing of the African American youth “George Floyd” by the police.

It is worth mentioning that various online posts attributed to Bushnell show his alignment with anti-authoritarian ideas, criticising U.S. imperial dominance worldwide and its impact on poor communities in America and beyond. There were comments attributed to Bushnell from the middle of last year, supporting the Palestinian cause and condemning the injustice faced by the Palestinian people. It appears that Bushnell’s awareness of the Palestinian issue predates the current war, evident in his social media post where he declared his intention to engage in an extreme protest but clarified that it is not extreme at all compared to what people in Palestine endure under their occupiers. Bushnell concluded his protest by setting himself on fire, repeatedly shouting, “Free Palestine!”

Between the sanctity of the army and the sanctity of Israel

In its coverage of the incident, American media outlets attempted to depoliticize the event as they usually do in cases of mass shootings. This was done to neutralise the incident and obscure its political message by casting doubts on Bushnell’s mental state and creating confusion around the extremely radical nature of this form of protest in history. While this wasn’t the first incident condemning this war, preceding it was a woman who set herself on fire in front of the Israeli consulate in Atlanta in December of the previous year. However, the incident did not receive widespread media coverage, and the identity of the woman was not disclosed. Major American media outlets avoided mentioning Bushnell’s final words as he repeated them while his body was consumed by flames, merely labelling the incident as a protest against the “war between Israel and Hamas.”

However, the incident had significant repercussions within the United States, focusing public attention simultaneously on two sacred issues in American society: the U.S. military and Israel. While traditionally the American military tends to steer clear of political expressions, especially in U.S. foreign policy, the incident represented a culmination of apparent shifts in attitudes opposing the American role in the war on Gaza and opposing American military interventions in general. These shifts are manifested in collective political activities such as the Veterans Against War movement, a group of soldiers and veterans established post-“War on Terror,” particularly against the U.S. war on Iraq, and also the Veterans for Ceasefire movement demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. Their activities were evident in several memorial events for Bushnell in various American cities, where veterans burned their military uniforms in condemnation of the genocide in Gaza and in honor of what they considered Bushnell’s heroic and activist action. In a culmination of the escalating dissatisfaction, social media platforms at the beginning of March carried an open letter from “active-duty U.S. military members” – meaning soldiers currently serving in the army – expressing their concern about American policy in supporting Israel, stating that “It is obvious and cannot be denied that the Israeli Defense Forces repeatedly and systematically commit war crimes in Gaza … We cannot defend what cannot be defended.”

On the other hand, the sanctity of “Israel” in American circles has also begun to waver, especially among youth, progressive movements, and minorities. Voices opposing Israel’s practices against civilians in Gaza have risen, including from conservative figures like the right-wing commentator Candace Owens. The decline in the sanctity of Israel is also attributed to the role of American Jewish circles opposing Zionism and condemning the war on Gaza. They have undertaken the task of differentiating between Zionist ideology as a colonial political project and Judaism as an ethnic-religious-cultural identity, thereby dispelling the charge of anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism. In the midst of all this, social media platforms have become a generator and driver of many of these changes, providing a platform for voices expressing different perspectives from the dominant media narrative and official narrative.

Amidst all this, there is a rising generation in America and around the world that no longer trusts traditional media outlets and prefers to rely on direct coverage from the ground, i.e., journalists and influencers from within Gaza. The mask of Western media professionalism, especially, has fallen before this generation during this war, which prefers “freedom of expression” through alternative means despite all the efforts of major companies for these means to control and restrict this freedom in the case of the ongoing Gaza war and in criticising Israel.

The election season and the shift in the American administration’s “language” towards de-escalation

Returning to assess whether the Bushnell incident will constitute a significant turning point in the American domestic scene – both official and public opinion – towards the Israeli war on Gaza, it is challenging to separate the incident from the ongoing shifts in the official discourse of the American administration and in American public opinion. These shifts are in line with the expectations of political activists, especially those opposing the war on Gaza, who anticipated a gradual shift in both official and media discourse in two contexts: First, the context of exhausting the war machine and the increasing international isolation of America in its direct support for genocide, which exposed the international system to concepts of human rights, international law, humanitarian values, and the aura of Western civilization. As the war dragged on, American double standards and hypocrisy toward the situation in Palestine, especially when compared to American discourse and policy toward the Russian war on Ukraine, became evident.

The other, more urgent context is the beginning of the election season. It was and still is expected that significant shifts will be witnessed in domestic political discourse, particularly from Democratic Party leaders, notably President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Both traditional parties, Democratic and Republican, enter this election season in a crucial competition, showing former Republican President Donald Trump’s advancement over all his competitors within his party in the primaries, indicating a high possibility of his return to power in the White House, especially amid declining popularity of President Biden on several fronts, including domestic and foreign policy, and certainly his administration’s policy towards the Israeli war on Gaza. It is certain that we will witness more pivotal shifts in the discourse of the Democratic American administration, especially after the resounding vote of the anti-war movement in Michigan (where more than a hundred thousand voters voted “uncommitted”), which is considered a protest vote signalling a warning to wide popular circles, including Arab Americans, youth, and progressive circles, that they will not vote for Biden in protest against his administration’s policy on the war in Gaza.

On March 5th, on Super Tuesday, both Trump and Biden positioned themselves as major candidates despite organised protests by the Arab community and youth circles in various states to protest against Biden. Regarding Gaza, Biden resorted to using evasive language in his State of the Union address, calling for an “immediate and temporary ceasefire” instead of using the term “truce” and announcing a maritime aid dock for the people of Gaza. This language and the microscopic shift in the direction of the American administration towards the war had its procession forced to take a longer route towards the Capitol building due to protesters blocking the road in an angry demonstration demanding a permanent and immediate ceasefire in Gaza.


In summary, despite the escalating pace of protest and rejection of American policy and the transformations occurring in American public opinion, which is pushing the Democratic administration today towards further evasion, the discourse directed by the American administration to the American people and to the world at large is more incentivized by geopolitical and economic interests on the international level, greater even than the competition between the traditional parties for governance. Consequently, it is also greater than the ability of a young white soldier’s self-immolation to create a significant turning point in American hegemonic policy, which provides continuous cover and support for Israel and its war policies on Gaza.

Back to top button