Woman holds the shrouded body of a child killed in Rafah

A Palestinian woman holds the shrouded body of child killed by Israeli bombardment, at a health clinic in the area of Tel al-Sultan in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 26, 2024.

(Photo by Eyad Baba/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden's Red Line Is Covered in Blood

While the Biden administration may say that the attack in Rafah doesn’t cross the president’s red line, it has rightly sparked outrage around the world.

May 26, Israel launched an attack on Palestinian civilians at a refugee camp in the Gazan city of Rafah in one of the most horrific mass-casualty airstrikes of the nearly eight-month assault. The strikes — which killed at least 45 people including children and injured more than 200 — came after a week when the International Criminal Court, European governments, and the International Court of Justice all challenged Israel’s leaders over their conduct of the war in Gaza.

Taken together, the events demonstrated the profound isolation of the United States over its steadfast support for the Israeli government. Now the U.S. government faces a dilemma: Will Israel’s latest assault be considered the crossing of the much-touted red line that finally forces the Biden administration to reconsider its support for Israel’s ethnic cleansing campaign? Or will the White House retreat further into its embrace of Israel and face increasing global isolation?

For Palestinians in Gaza, already unspeakable conditions became unfathomably worse on Sunday when Israel launched airstrikes on the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood of Rafah. The neighborhood was tightly packed with displaced families in tents who had nowhere else to go as Israel’s ground assault on the region expanded.

Israel had previously said the area would be safe and even ordered Palestinians fleeing the fighting elsewhere in Rafah to go there: the Israeli military had dropped leaflets urging in Arabic, “For your safety, the Israeli Defense Force is asking you to leave these areas immediately and to go to … the humanitarian area in Tel al-Sultan.”

The leaflets added darkly: “Don’t blame us after we warned you.”

The airstrikes, which ostensibly targeted two Hamas leaders, set ablaze the flimsy plastic tents where displaced Palestinians sought protection. The area had no real shelter, no food, no medicine and no access to water when the tents went up in flames. There was no way to douse the inferno or get people out.

Dozens of Palestinians — overwhelmingly women and children — were burned alive, with some of the bodies so charred they could not be identified. The airstrike severed limbs and heads from bodies. While initial counts indicated at least 45 people had been killed, the numbers are widely expected to climb.

Washington’s growing isolation over Israel

The United States had already been paying a significant diplomatic price for President Joe Biden’s unbreakable “bear hug” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the United Nations, the U.S. has stood alone for months, casting vetoes to prevent a ceasefire and protect its Israeli ally despite Biden’s professed commitment to the “rules-based order” and his promise to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy. Now that isolation is deepening.

In the International Criminal Court, long-reluctant prosecutor Karim Khan finally asked judges to issue arrest warrants charging Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and three Hamas leaders with war crimes and crimes against humanity. And while most of the rest of the world applauded, the White House responded with outrage. Members of Congress threatened to punish ICC personnel and their families — sanctions that top Biden administration officials signaled they would support.

Biden isn’t the first president to threaten the ICC. When the ICC opened an investigation into possible U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against former ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and her staff, including freezing assets and denying U.S. visas.

When Biden came into office he canceled those sanctions. But he left in place George W. Bush’s so-called “Invade the Hague Act” of 2002, which authorizes the U.S. military to protect any U.S. citizen or citizen of specific U.S. allies — including Israel — who might face charges in the ICC. That law remains in place today.

Breaking with a longstanding tradition of deference to U.S. demands, the ICC responded to Washington’s latest threats by noting that they may “constitute an offense against the administration of justice under Art. 70 of the Rome Statue,” and warned that anyone making such threats — “even when not acted upon” — could themselves face criminal charges in The Hague. The Court, their statement said, “insists that all attempts to impede, intimidate, or improperly influence its officials cease immediately.”

Red lines crossed

Next up, key European countries poked a finger in Washington’s eye over its support for Israel. On May 22, U.S. allies Spain and Norway, along with Biden’s family homeland, Ireland, announced plans for full diplomatic recognition of Palestine as an independent state.

Longstanding U.S. support for a “two-state solution” has never allowed for recognition of a Palestinian state before Israel agrees to one. So while the recognition is largely symbolic, its assertion by close U.S. allies at this moment further illustrates the isolation of the United States. The Israeli press is already warning that Ireland is threatening EU sanctions if Israel continues to violate the International Court of Justice’s May 24 ruling on Rafah.

On that day, the ICJ ruled almost unanimously in favor of South Africa’s urgent application for additional provisional measures designed to protect Palestinians from Israeli military actions, which the Court had already found plausibly constituted acts of genocide.

The court agreed with South Africa that a possible military escalation in Rafah (which by the time of the ruling had already been underway for almost two weeks) constituted a new level of danger to Palestinians in Gaza. In response, the Court ordered Israel to “immediately halt its military offensive” in Rafah. World opinion largely cheered the Court’s ruling, with headlines in theWashington Post and other mainstream media outlets reflecting earlier concerns from the likes of Voice of America, France 24 and NBC News all emphasizing Washington’s growing isolation.

The claim that Israel is not carrying out a major military offensive in Rafah became even harder to justify following Israel’s hellish attack on Tel al-Sultan.

Following the deadly attack, top Washington officials claimed that the latest Israeli escalation in Rafah still did not constitute a “major” escalation that would cross a red line and trigger a cut-off of U.S. military support for the attack, as Biden had floated earlier this month.

The claim that Israel is not carrying out a major military offensive in Rafah became even harder to justify following Israel’s hellish attack on Tel al-Sultan. The recorded screams of burning children in tents brought the human cost of the Gaza crisis back onto the front pages of top media outlets.

While the Biden administration may say that the attack in Rafah doesn’t cross the president’s red line, it has rightly sparked outrage around the world and made the United States more isolated globally while leading some top Democrats, including Biden ally Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), to call for a pause on providing offensive military assistance to Israel.

That could be a start, but to end the violence, what’s needed remains an immediate and lasting ceasefire and a complete end to U.S. arms transfers.

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