Biden’s vanishing red line: White House silent as top UN court orders Israel to halt Rafah attack

Biden had promised to reconsider US support for Israel if it launched a major operation in Rafah. He has not followed through on his words

Richard Hall
Senior US Correspondent
,Andrew Feinberg
Friday 24 May 2024 22:06 BST
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UN’s top court orders Israel to halt military operation in Gaza’s Rafah

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Joe Biden said months ago that a major Israeli offensive in the city of Rafah, where more than a million displaced Palestinians have been sheltering from the war, would be a “red line” that would force him to reconsider US support for the longtime ally.

Since then, more than 800,000 have fled Israeli bombardment in the southern Gaza city and aid agencies have compared the situation there to “hell on earth”. And yet, the president has shown no signs of following through on his words.

His administration now faces even greater pressure to act after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel on Friday to “immediately halt its military offensive” in Rafah in a landmark emergency ruling that invoked the Genocide Convention.

Dr H.A. Hellyer, a scholar of security studies and the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Biden administration risks “a massive blow to American credibility, such as it is,” if it fails to support the court’s order.

“The ICJ ruling is not in the abstract, nor is it in need of detailed interpretation. It’s very clear,” he said. “This is the highest court in the world, and they’ve said any action in Rafah that could bring about the destruction of Palestinians needs to immediately stop. So you either support international law or you don’t.”

Mr Biden has repeatedly expressed his strong opposition to a major offensive in Rafah, which had become the last refuge for more than a million Palestinians who had fled from the war raging in other parts of Gaza. It is also where most aid agencies are operating.

Magistrates are seen at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as part of South Africa's request on a Gaza ceasefire in The Hague, on May 24, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Hamas movement.
Magistrates are seen at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as part of South Africa's request on a Gaza ceasefire in The Hague, on May 24, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Hamas movement. (AFP via Getty Images)

In a March interview with MSNBC, when asked whether an Israeli invasion of Rafah would be a red line for him, he replied: “It is a red line but I’m never going to leave Israel. The defense of Israel is still critical.”

His officials have repeatedly said the US would not support a “major military operation” in Gaza’s southern city without a “credible ... executable” plan to protect civilians.

Earlier this month, the president went so far as to pause a shipment of heavy weapons bound for Israel as it prepared its attack on the city. But he has not taken any further action to restrict Israeli use of American-made arms despite longstanding US law prohibiting arms transfers to nations that violate international humanitarian law.

Absent any concrete threat of consequences from Mr Biden, Israel has rebuffed the president’s concerns and has launched an attack on Rafah that has forced 800,000 to flee and forced the closure of the main crossing for humanitarian aid into the territory even as famine grips northern Gaza.

Israeli bombardment killed at least 60 Palestinians on Thursday, according to Palestinian health officials, and tanks advanced in the southeast of the city.

Aid agencies on the ground have painted an increasingly apocalyptic picture of the situation.

Suze van Meegan, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s emergency response leader in Gaza, described Rafah as “three entirely different worlds.”

“The east is an archetypal war zone, the middle is a ghost town, and the west is a congested mass of people living in deplorable conditions," she said in a statement.

Displaced Palestinians arrive in central Gaza after fleeing from the southern Gaza city of Rafah in Deir al Balah, on May 9, 2024.
Displaced Palestinians arrive in central Gaza after fleeing from the southern Gaza city of Rafah in Deir al Balah, on May 9, 2024. (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Those descriptions stand in stark contrast to sanitised statements from the White House. National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday that Israel’s operation in Rafah has been “more targeted and limited,” and “has not involved major military operations into the heart of dense urban areas.”

He said there was “no mathematical formula” for judging the scale of the attack, but added: “What we’re going to be looking at is whether there is a lot of death and destruction from this operation or if it is more precise and proportional.”

Dr Hellyer said Mr Biden’s red line in Rafah has “been broken pretty much every single day since he made that statement” as Israel launched a military operation in the city, which has forced the administration into a series of reversals and equivocations.

“The only way to keep that ‘red line’ was for DC to try to reshape it. So it became incredibly squiggly. It became more about not using big, big, big, bombs, and very quickly, but if they do other things, and it is done over a longer period, then they are not going to consider that breaking the red line,” he added. “It’s bizarre.”

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment, but when asked about the situation a National Security Spokesperson told The Independent:  “We’ve been clear and consistent on our position on Rafah”.

In its ruling on Friday, ICJ President Nawaf Salam said that fears about an operation in Rafah have “materialized,” and “the humanitarian situation is now to be characterized as disastrous.”

As well as ordering a halt to the offensive, the court also decreed that Israel must keep the Rafah crossing into Egypt open “for unhindered provision at scale of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance.”

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said in response to the ruling: “We will continue operating in accordance with international law wherever we might operate, while safeguarding to the best extent possible the civilian population. Not because of the ICJ, but because of who we are and the values we stand for.”

Children walk after receiving food, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Jabalia, in the northern Gaza Strip April 22, 2024
Children walk after receiving food, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Jabalia, in the northern Gaza Strip April 22, 2024 (REUTERS)

Friday’s ruling is particularly uncomfortable for the Biden administration because it has spent several years promoting the idea of a “rules-based order,” a term for the use of international law to govern relations between states.

Mr Biden has used the phrase at least 16 times since taking office, and the variation “rules-based international order” six times, according to a count by The Independent.

The ruling also follows an announcement earlier this week from the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court that he was seeking an arrest warrant for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Yoav Gallant, as well as three Hamas leaders, on charges of crimes against humanity.

The Biden administration hit out at the ruling, claiming that the ICC did not have jurisdiction over the conflict to enforce the warrants.

The president now faces a choice of doubling down and contradicting a second international court in the space of one week, or of enforcing its previously stated red lines and reconsidering US support for Israel’s devastating war.

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