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A moral crossroads for the West

Is Benjamin Netanyahu about to cross his Rubicon?

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman RightsUSA Politics

Palestinian children survey a series of destroyed apartment buildings in the northern Gaza Strip. Photo by Shareef Sarhan/United Nations/Flickr.

Seven weeks have now passed since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague ruled that South Africa’s accusation that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza was “plausible.” A final verdict may take years. But on January 26, the ICJ imposed a number of “provisional measures” aimed at “preserving … the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts of genocide” (ICJ report, ¶59).

By a majority of 15 judges to two, the world’s highest court instructed Israel among other things to take “all measures within its power” to prevent:

(a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; and (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group (¶78).

Noting the “catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip” (¶72) in which “an unprecedented 93 percent of the population in Gaza is facing crisis levels of hunger” (¶48), the judges further ordered Israel to:

take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (¶80).

In this case, the majority was 16 to one, with even the judge Israel appointed as its representative for this case concurring.

As international human rights lawyer Akila Radhakrishnan observed, while the court did not mandate a ceasefire (it could hardly do so when it has no jurisdiction over Hamas as a non-state actor), it is difficult to see how these objectives could be achieved without Israel “halting or at least drastically curtailing its military operations.”

Responding to the ICJ judgment, Benjamin Netanyahu fumed that “the very claim that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians is not just false, it is outrageous, and the court’s willingness to discuss it at all is a mark of disgrace that will not be erased for generations.” Other senior Israeli politicians dismissed not only South Africa’s charge of genocide but even the court itself as “antisemitic”—a term that is now bandied about so prodigally that it is in danger of losing all purchase on reality.

The carnage continues

Though ICJ rulings are supposed to be binding on all UN member states, Israel has to all intents and purposes ignored these orders and carried on its military campaign in Gaza regardless.

By March 11, the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Palestinian death toll in Gaza had risen from the 25,700 cited in the ICJ report (¶46) to 31,112, with a further 72,760 wounded. These are confirmed deaths of named victims, compiled by Gaza’s health ministry. The IDF’s degradation of Gaza’s health services—as of March 9, Israeli forces had destroyed 155 health institutions and rendered 32 out of the strip’s 36 hospitals completely or partially out of service, killed over 400 health care workers, and abducted over 110 others—has made reliable death counts increasingly difficult, and the true figure is likely to be substantially higher.

If we include people missing and presumed buried under the rubble, the total rises to over 39,000. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently admitted that over 25,000 women and children alone have been killed in Gaza since October 7. According to the UN, the Israeli offensive has killed more children (12,300) “in just four months of fighting than in four years of armed conflicts around the world combined.”

Genocide is not only measured in numbers of deaths but in the deliberate creation of “conditions of life calculated to bring about [the group’s] physical destruction in whole or in part.” As of March 5, Israeli actions had completely destroyed 106,000 Gazan homes and partially destroyed 250,900 others, as well as destroying or damaging 2,120 industrial facilities, 432 schools, 621 mosques, 279 health care facilities, and 175 press headquarters. In its determination to control the flow of information out of Gaza, the IDF had killed at least 95 journalists and media workers.

The Palestinian Ministry of Culture reports that out of 320 listed archaeological sites and buildings of cultural and historical significance, including old mosques, churches, cemeteries, museums, libraries, and archives, 207 have been reduced to rubble or severely damaged by Israeli strikes. Among them are the Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrios, which is believed to be the world’s third oldest church; the 12th-century Great Omari Mosque, the Al-Qissariya medieval market, and over 140 other notable historic monuments in Gaza’s Old Town; and the Pasha’s Palace, which served as the governor’s residence during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods of Palestine’s history.

All of Gaza’s 12 universities have been destroyed. Al-Israa University in southern Gaza was blown up 70 days after the IDF had transformed it into a military barracks and later into a detention centre. Not content with wanton demolition of militarily insignificant but culturally pivotal buildings, “the Israeli army has targeted academic, scientific, and intellectual figures in the Strip in deliberate and specific air raids on their homes without prior notice,” killing 94 university professors as of January 20.

Others killed in IDF strikes include artists Muhammed Sami Qraiqea, Heba Zaqout, and Ali Nasman, poets Refaat Alareer, Hiba Abu Nada, and Muhamed Ahmed, writer Youssef Dawwas, novelist Nour Hajjej, and photographer Rushdi al-Sarraj. These are not mere collateral casualties of war. The material obliteration of the Gaza Strip is coupled with the systematic obliteration of Palestinian history and culture. Bodily and cultural genocide walk hand in hand.

Starvation as a weapon of war

An open letter issued by twelve prominent Israeli human rights organizations, which was reported in a Guardian exclusive on March 11, claims that “humanitarian aid to Gaza dropped by 50 percent in the month following the [ICJ] ruling.”

Since January 26, Israel has allowed protestors to block crossings to prevent food getting into the strip; withheld visas from vital UN and international aid agency personnel; denied, impeded, or postponed World Health Organization missions to supply medical essentials to Gaza’s devastated hospitals; and carried out the now infamous “flour massacre” in which IDF troops fired on a crowd awaiting a promised food delivery, killing over 100 Palestinians.

Faced with such sabotage of the ICJ order to “enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance,” Israel’s allies have hastily cobbled together other costly and inefficient alternative schemes to get aid to Gaza’s besieged and starving population. These range from parachuted air drops (which have already killed several Palestinian children) to a floating dock (which will take at least two months to build) to bring in supplies by sea from Cyprus.

An Israeli tank sits in a street surrounded by destroyed buildings in Gaza. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A rethink in the West?

While Israel continues to thumb its nose at the ICJ, the one-time united front of its Western backers has shown increasing signs of fracturing.

Most Western governments, including the government of Canada, initially downplayed the ICJ ruling—which I suspect surprised them by both its near-unanimity and its scope. In what looked suspiciously like a coordinated effort to distract from the ICJ bombshell, 16 Western countries ostentatiously demonstrated their support for Israel when the ruling was first announced by defunding UNRWA, the most important aid agency in Gaza, on the basis of unevidenced Israeli accusations that a dozen of its 13,000 personnel had been involved in Hamas’s October 7 attacks.

But as the death toll in Gaza continued to rise and domestic opposition grew throughout the West, second thoughts began to set in.

Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, and Spain refused to join the UNRWA boycott. The Irish and Spanish prime ministers demanded that “the European Commission urgently review whether Israel is complying with its obligations to respect human rights in Gaza.” British, French, German, Australian, and Canadian foreign ministers voiced their newfound “concern” at civilian casualties.

Australia, Canada, and New Zealand issued a joint statement telling Israel that it “must listen to its friends and it must listen to the international community.” Belatedly pontificating that “Palestinian civilians cannot be made to pay the price of defeating Hamas”—as if they hadn’t been supporting Israel’s doing exactly that since October 7—Israel’s fellow settler-state Prime Ministers Anthony Albanese, Justin Trudeau, and Christopher Luxon reminded their errant ally that:

The International Court of Justice has been clear: Israel must ensure the delivery of basic services and essential humanitarian assistance and must protect civilians. The Court’s decisions on provisional measures are binding.

This latter point was one Mélanie Joly had conspicuously failed to make in her initial statement on the ICJ ruling, though on that occasion she did find space to reiterate that “Canada will continue to support Israel’s right to exist and defend itself.”

Canada, Sweden, and the EU Commission later quietly announced that they would be restoring their contributions to UNRWA.

And what of the US?

Speaking in Tel Aviv on February 7, Secretary of State Antony Blinken fired an opening shot over Israel’s bow, warning that “the daily toll that [Israel’s] military operations continue to take on innocent civilians remains too high.” The next day president Biden himself told journalists “I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the [Israeli] response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top.”

The unexpectedly large “uncommitted” vote in primaries in Michigan (13 percent), Minnesota (19 percent), and elsewhere, which resulted from a hastily organized campaign to register dissent at the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s military actions, seems to have concentrated Democrat minds wonderfully.

Congressman and Biden campaign surrogate Ro Khanna, who was long opposed to a ceasefire in Gaza, is now urging “if [Netanyahu] defies the United States, not allowing aid, or going into Rafah, [then] no more weapons transfers … unconditionally.”

Even Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, whose Zionist credentials are unimpeachable, is now calling for new elections in Israel. Netanyahu, he says, has “has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel.” The current Israeli government “has been too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows. Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah.”

Talk of a “rift” between Netanyahu and Biden has led to speculation that Biden is contemplating cutting off further supplies of offensive weapons (though not the defensive Iron Dome) if Israel does not soon alter course (see CNN, Haaretz and Politico).

Though Biden has still not committed to using America’s considerable leverage to pressure Israel into changing its policies, he did not pull any punches in his March 7 State of the Union address.

Thirty-two million viewers watched him put it on record that:

This war has taken a greater toll on innocent civilians than all previous wars in Gaza combined.
More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed.
Most of whom are not Hamas.
Thousands and thousands are innocent women and children.
Girls and boys also orphaned.
Nearly 2 million more Palestinians under bombardment or displaced.
Homes destroyed, neighborhoods in rubble, cities in ruin.
Families without food, water, medicine.
It’s heartbreaking …

“Israel must allow more aid into Gaza and ensure that humanitarian workers aren’t caught in the crossfire,” the president went on. “Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority.”

We have come a long way from October 26, when Biden told reporters assembled in the White House rose garden: “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed. I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s a price of waging war. But I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.” Where we are headed, on the other hand, still remains unclear.

Pro-Palestine rally in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Becker1999/Wikimedia Commons.

At a crossroads

Facing down his critics, Benjamin Netanyahu continues to insist that Israel will fight on until “absolute victory” is achieved over Hamas. He is adamant that the IDF will invade Rafah, where one-and-a-half million “displaced” Palestinians have sought a last refuge, unmoved by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s plea that “If the Israeli army were to launch an offensive on Rafah under these conditions, it would be a humanitarian catastrophe” or any other Western entreaties.

Rafah may prove to be Netanyahu’s Rubicon. Mounting an assault without first evacuating civilians would challenge the “red line” Biden laid down in an MSNBC interview after his State of the Union address, in which the American president told Israel that:

They cannot have 30,000 more Palestinians dead as a consequence of going after … there’s other ways to deal with the trauma caused by Hamas.

But if Netanyahu is facing his Rubicon, the West has finally arrived at its own moral crossroads.

After months of uncritical (and I would argue, unthinkingly racist) support for Israel’s assault on Gaza and weeks of equivocation as the magnitude of its inhumanity has become undeniable, there is still time to draw back from the abyss and defend the post-war rules-based international order whose highest legal authority is the ICJ.

“We find ourselves in an unprecedented situation,” writes Pankaj Mishra:

Never before have so many witnessed an industrial-scale slaughter in real time. Yet the prevailing callousness, timidity and censorship disallows, even mocks, our shock and grief. Many of us who have seen some of the images and videos coming out of Gaza—those visions from hell of corpses twisted together and buried in mass graves, the smaller corpses held by grieving parents, or laid on the ground in neat rows—have been quietly going mad over the last few months. Every day is poisoned by the awareness that while we go about our lives hundreds of ordinary people like ourselves are being murdered, or being forced to witness the murder of their children.

The West can end its complicity in what Naomi Klein, with a nod to Jonathan Glazer’s film The Zone of Interest, has called this “ambient genocide.” The film follows Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss’s everyday life with his wife and children in a stately home and lovingly-tended garden whose wall hides the sight, but not the sounds, of the extermination camp next door.

Glazer caused an uproar—and also garnered much applause—at this year’s Oscars when accepting the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. He stated:

All our choices we made to reflect and confront us in the present. Not to say ‘look what they did then’—rather, ‘look what we do now.’ Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It shaped all of our past and present …
Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza—all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist?

Over to you, Mr Biden. Over to you, Messrs Joly, Hussen, and Trudeau. The choice is yours.

Derek Sayer is professor emeritus at the University of Alberta and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His most recent book, Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, won the 2023 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Scholarship and was a finalist for the Association of American Publishers PROSE Award in European History.


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