Washington—and the Biden administration in particular—is increasingly seen as enabling, funding, and arming an Israeli assault shaped by violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and more.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and serves on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Cross-posted from Common Dreams
What follows is an issue by issue look at why a ceasefire is necessary to save innocent Palestinian lives, release Israeli hostages, prosecute the perpetrators of October 7, and follow international law.
There is no military solution — this was true in Afghanistan and Iraq and it is true in Gaza. It is not possible to destroy Hamas militarily.
Going to war against a small group of militants doesn’t work — with nearly 20,000 Palestinians killed, it still appears as of this writing that Israeli forces haven’t killed any top leaders of Hamas. Such military action only breeds greater resistance.
Hamas isn’t only made up of its military wing. It has a political wing that carries out Islamic education, social welfare, and other functions. And while its religious focus is not particularly popular, it is perceived by Palestinians across Gaza as the only Palestinian force standing up to Israeli occupation, apartheid, and the 17 years of siege Israel has imposed on Gaza since before October 7.
Destroying Hamas would require the destruction or expulsion of much of the population of Gaza (and even then, the group and its ideas would likely continue in exile).
Getting the Israeli hostages returned is hugely important — and cannot be achieved while the bombing assault continues.
Without a ceasefire, there is no way to keep hostages safe to safely transfer them to Red Cross (ICRC) custody for return home once Israel returns to Qatar-based negotiations over terms of the hostage exchange.
As long as bombardment continues and the IDF continues its ground invasion of Gaza, the risk of more hostages being killed (like the three hostages killed mistakenly by the IDF on December 15) rises.
Israelis are increasingly viewing the hostage families as the moral center of their country, and many of the families are demanding a ceasefire.
The families understand that the safety of their loved ones can only be maintained if the bombing and ground assaults are ended.
The actions of Hamas and other militants against civilians on October 7 constituted terrible violations of international humanitarian law, and the perpetrators should be held to account. All those violating international law should be held to account.
But the actual work of investigating international law violations, and the identification and locating of perpetrators, cannot go forward while the constant bombing raids and tank battles continue against a densely-packed civilian population of over 2 million. That work can only happen once a ceasefire is in place.
The vital concept of “holding perpetrators to account,” in this case Hamas and other militants, does not mean international law allows for the collective punishment of millions of people, half of them children. It can’t justify killing thousands of civilians and destroying cities, towns, refugee camps, and the civilian infrastructure therein.
What President Biden and so many others have rightly called “indiscriminate bombing” has turned Israel into a pariah state, completely isolated in the region, in Europe, across the Global South, and in the United Nations.
Israel’s numerous violations against Palestinian civilians in Gaza have earned Israel a stigma in the international community that will endure well beyond the end of this particular set of military operations. Initial sympathy with Israelis after the October 7 attacks has been largely exhausted and conversation about that day eclipsed, as Israel’s widespread and disproportionate destruction in Gaza and refusal to yield to international pressure for a ceasefire have come to the fore.
Israel’s military actions have dashed plans for its own international relations efforts, particularly the expansion of the Abraham Accords, other normalization agreements with regional states, and ensuring European support for Israel through the Association Accord and beyond.
Although there’s a growing recognition that the current Israeli government is extreme and includes authoritarian and self-defined fascist elements in high positions of power, that doesn’t mean that governments and people around the world think that a mere change of leadership in the Knesset will reverse Israel’s commitment to continue this assault. The leadership of the political opposition in Israel includes numerous military leaders who were responsible for many earlier assaults on Gaza based on the strategy of “mowing the grass” to justify sequential indiscriminate attacks on the Gaza Strip. (As theWashington Post defined it, “The phrase implies the Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and their supply of crude but effective homemade weapons are like weeds that need to be cut back.”)
The U.S. is more isolated than at any time at least in the past 20 years and is similarly seen as a pariah around the world.
Washington — and the Biden administration in particular — is increasingly seen as enabling, funding, and arming an Israeli assault shaped by violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and more.
Statements from Biden and Congressional leaders that “we stand with Israel” and that “we always will have Israel’s back” — combined with the continuing U.S. provision of seemingly unlimited amounts of weapons known to be used to attack Gaza — undermine U.S. claims of concern about civilians, support for a supposed “two-state solution,” or commitment to international law.
When the U.S. cast its veto on December 8 to stop the UN Security Council from calling for an immediate ceasefire, even the UK did not support Washington. When the same resolution went to the veto-free General Assembly five days later, the U.S. and Israel stood virtually alone, with 153 countries supporting the resolution and only 8 others voting no with Washington and Tel Aviv.
The General Assembly votes are often dismissed as “non-binding.” But this vote was taken in an Emergency Session under the UN’s “Uniting for Peace” resolution of 1951, which under U.S. sponsorship allows the Assembly to consider and vote on peace and security issues generally limited to Security Council consideration. Under those conditions General Assembly resolutions are widely considered not only indications of global opinion, but arguably binding as well.
On this issue, the Biden administration is isolated across the country. It’s showing itself to be farther out of touch with the most active and engaged sectors of its political base than ever before — and the level of passion in the response of Biden’s base is higher than for any other foreign policy issue without U.S. troops in harm’s way.
The statistics are clear: 66 percent of the American people want an immediate ceasefire, including 80 percent of Democrats. Protests in favor of a ceasefire are continuing across the country and include Jewish organizations, unions, city councils, elected officials at all levels, churches of all denominations, and many others.
There is also an unprecedented outpouring of public and private, named and anonymous, opposition from a wide swathe of federal workers — from White House interns to congressional staff to State Department and USAID workers — all refusing to remain silent as the U.S. aids and abets the Israeli assault.
Washington’s direct financial and military support for Israel’s assault undermines its claims of commitment to the rule of law — and especially its claimed commitment to diplomacy.
The administration’s efforts to persuade Congress to send Israel an additional $14 billion in cash and weapons on top of this year’s previous $3.8 billion undermine any claims that the U.S. government requests for a changed Israeli strategy are serious. The recent announcement of a U.S. “emergency” sale to Israel of $106 million worth of replacement tank armaments and more further undermines that claim.
The Biden administration’s increasingly public requests for Israel to pay more attention to civilian safety have so far failed — and will continue to fail so long as Israel understands there will be no consequences for saying no.
Those “requests” must be turned into requirements, linked to direct changes in actual U.S. policy — such as conditioning all aid to Israel on ending its violations of the Geneva Conventions and other parts of international humanitarian law, and ending the longstanding U.S. protection of Israeli officials from accountability in the International Criminal Court. Otherwise polite requests will continue to fail.
Regardless of Washington’s public requests for Israel to scale back its ground invasion in favor of Special Forces operations, what most people across the U.S. see is the continuation of President Biden’s bear-hug diplomacy, shaped by “we have Israel’s back.”
Whatever changes happen or don’t happen in the tactics of the IDF’s ground invasion of Gaza, it is not possible to end or even significantly reduce the direct killing of civilians as long as the bombardment continues.
Gaza was one of the most crowded pieces of land on earth before this most recent assault. Now almost all of the 2.3 million people imprisoned in the Strip have been forced to move to the southern third of the territory. That means the lack of water, sanitation, electricity, fuel, food, medicine are all much more drastic and urgent. According to the World Food Program, 90 percent of Gazan families are now hungry and half the population is starving, while diseases are spreading due to the lack of clean water and sanitation as well as shelter.
Israel’s bombing has destroyed about 60 percent of all housing in the Strip, and most of the rest is severely damaged. Israel has also targeted UN facilities, schools, hospitals, clinics, mosques, and churches — all of which had been serving as overcrowded shelters for the 85 percent of Gazans forced from their homes.
Like the U.S. response to 9/11, Israel’s military assault is rooted in vengeance (“destroy Hamas”), not justice (“find and bring to account the perpetrators of October 7”). And that assault is violating numerous parts of international humanitarian law.
Displaced Palestinians take shelter at the UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) Beach School, after evacuating their homes damaged by Israeli air strikes, on October 12, 2023 in Gaza City, Gaza. (Getty)
All perpetrators of war crimes should be brought to justice. The fact that the October 7 attacks on civilians violated international law does not give Israel the right under international law to launch a full-scale military assault on the entire population of Gaza. Israel’s response has violated provisions of international law including:
- Distinction: the requirement to distinguish between civilians and combatants.
- Collective punishment: a complete prohibition on attacking anyone not specifically responsible for an act of war or violence.
- Proportionality: the requirement that any attack on a civilian person or civilian target deemed necessary because of urgent and specific military necessity must be limited as much as possible, and any civilian casualties must be proportional to that specific military necessity.
Israel’s violations include targeting hospitals and medical personnel and firing on people attempting to surrender, including the three shirtless Israeli hostages holding a white flag and shouting for help in Hebrew.
There are also specific and absolute obligations of an occupying power (such as Israel in regards to Gaza) to provide the basics for survival including water, food, medical care, fuel, and shelter. So the expanded siege imposed after October 7,, on top of the Israeli-imposed siege underway since 2007, represents another set of violations.
Washington’s acquiescence to Israel’s continuing violations of international humanitarian law makes the U.S. complicit in those crimes.
The U.S. failure even to acknowledge Israel’s violations sends a message to governments and people around the world that the much-vaunted U.S. commitment to international law is conditional on whether the government violating international law is deemed a close ally or a potential opponent.
According to many influential scholars of genocide studies, Israeli violations may be approaching specific violations of the Genocide Convention. As a signatory to the Convention, the U.S. is obligated to do whatever is in its power to prevent a potential genocide. But instead of using its influence to stop these dangerous Israeli actions, the U.S. is enabling them by sending money and arms without conditions, which would certainly violate the Convention’s specific crime of complicity in genocide.
On the other hand, U.S. support for an immediate ceasefire would go a long way towards meeting Washington’s obligation to prevent genocide.