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Rafah: Display of Horror

US unhappiness and disgust with the death of innocent Gazans should result in tangible action against Israel’s continuing military activities in Gaza
12:00 AM Jun 01, 2024 IST | Vivek Katju
rafah  display of horror

On May 27 the Israeli Defence Forces fired ‘precision’ bombs to kill two Hamas members in the vicinity of a tented camp in Rafah, Gaza for internally displaced refugees. The Hamas members were killed but the bombs caused a fire which swept the camp resulting in the death of forty to fifty persons, including women and children.


The incident caused an international outcry. Israel was condemned and demands for its forces to ceasefire were reiterated. In a post on X the next day United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres stated “I condemn Israel’s actions which killed scores of innocent civilians who were only seeking shelter from this deadly conflict.


There is no safe place in Gaza. This horror must stop”. A United Nations spokesperson added that the UNSG was “heartbroken by the images of the killed and the injured, including many small children”.


Guterres’s sincerity in wanting hostilities to end cannot be doubted. Besides, he was expressing an emotion which arises in those who are not directly involved in a conflict on seeing photographs or videos of the horrendous effects of violence and war on the innocent, particularly children.


However, the attitude of other leaders, including US President Joe Biden, in wanting a ceasefire and stopping what is euphemistically called collateral damage, is conditioned by more complex factors because the national interests of the states they lead are involved.


Thus, US Vice-President Kamala Harris may be genuine in saying that the word ‘tragic does not even begin to describe’ this horrendous incident but the expression of that sentiment did not extend to her publicly pressing Biden that the incident crossed a ‘red-line’ and hence, US unhappiness and disgust with the death of innocent Gazans should result in tangible action against Israel’s continuing military activities in Gaza. But Harris did not go so far. Instead, US officials said that while the incident was ‘devastating’ it did not cross Biden’s redline. That would have to be if Israel undertook a major ground attack in Rafah. Consequently, only then would the US consider stopping arms sale to Israel.


The US has vetoed UN Security Council Resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire. As I write these lines reports indicate that Algeria which is currently a non-permanent UNSC member is proposing to move a resolution in the Council demanding an immediate ceasefire by both Israel and Hamas and also the release of the Israeli hostages held by the group.


The media has quoted the Chinese representative as supporting such a resolution while his US counterpart has said that she is waiting to see a text. After the Pentagon has held that in carrying out the attack—which, as noted earlier, it called ‘devastating’—Israel did not breach President Biden’s redlines it is extremely doubtful if the US will support a UNSC resolution that will seek Israel to stop its military action in Gaza.

The fact is that the US also wants Israel to eliminate Hamas as completely as possible. At the same time, it wants that Israeli action should not cause collateral damage. That is impossible to avoid in any conflict. The US itself is aware of this because of the collateral damage its forces inflicted, even if inadvertently, in theatres of war, such as Afghanistan.

The death of forty to fifty civilians in Rafah in the Israeli attack of May 27 came three days after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered by a majority of 13 to 2 that Israel should (i) Immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life which could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (ii) Maintain open the Rafah crossing for unhindered provision at scale of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance and (iii) Take effective measures to ensure the unimpeded access to the Gaza Strip of any commission of enquiry, fact-finding mission or other investigative body mandated by competent organs of the United Nations to investigate allegations of genocide.

The ICJ decision to ask Israel to ceasefire in Rafah came in response to South Africa’s appeal that the Court had to modify its earlier orders of January and March to ensure that the people in Rafah did not become victims of genocide. South Africa approached the ICJ in January under the Genocide Convention asking that it order Israel to stop its military operations. Israel had opposed the South African application.

It had taken the view that its operations against Hamas were necessary to ensure the security of its people. In January and March, the Court had cautioned Israel to ensure that its actions did not violate the Genocide Convention. It had also ordered Hamas to release the Israeli hostages it had taken in its action of October 7. Now after Israel began ground operations in Gaza the Court found that the conditions of the internally displaced persons were intolerable and hence went further to demand that Israeli ground operations should cease.

Clearly, the Israeli action of May 27 demonstrated its rejection of the ICJ ruling. The only body which can take action to enforce the Court’s decision is the UN Security Council. In view of the US attitude, it is impossible to conceive that the UNSC would ever do so.

Hence, the ICJ ruling may further alienate global opinion against Israel but Benjamin Netanyahu is not concerned with the loss of his country’s international reputation. His quest is to finish off Hamas at any cost. That is the meaning of what the Israeli National Security when he said that military operations in Gaza would continue through this year.