The US is in a bind over the ICC seeking arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas officials

The biggest problem for Biden is the manifest truth of the accusations

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yahya Sinwar of Hamas. AFP
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The application by International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan for major indictments against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant could constitute a significant step in international jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But it has also drawn the ire of the Joe Biden administration in Washington, for two reasons. First, the US has always rejected the very concept of the ICC (fearing the potential prosecution of its own military and civilian officials); and second, it exposes significant weaknesses and contradictions in the President’s policies. The Prosecutor’s brief was remarkably well-balanced, fact-based, compelling and impartial.

It laid out clear grounds for the international criminal indictment of both Hamas and Israeli leaders. Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas would be charged with authoring, organising and overseeing murder and kidnapping against Israeli civilians. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gallant would be accused of using starvation of civilians as a matter of policy and, therefore, a weapon of war.

All five appear manifestly guilty of these transgressions, and the key point of Mr Khan is that it makes absolutely no moral or legal sense to hold one party accountable for its lawless brutality, but not the other. Through this symmetry, or balance, Mr Khan has revealed precisely the bleeding heart of the tragedy.

Hamas led an attack into southern Israel that involved hunting down, killing and kidnapping innocent civilians in kibbutzim and a nearby music festival. It was a bloodthirsty killing spree. Armed struggle against military occupation does not exempt insurgent groups from the laws of war. Fighting occupation doesn’t allow anyone to murder and kidnap civilians.

Israel responded with what Mr Netanyahu promised on October 7 “a mighty vengeance”. That’s practically the only thing that’s happened. Israel hasn’t achieved any other stated aims, such as eradicating Hamas, freeing hostages or restoring security for its public.

Instead, it has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, in addition to an untold number still buried under the rubble. Several entities – including South Africa in an application to the International Court of Justice (which has jurisdiction over states, while the ICC has jurisdiction over individuals) – have accused Israel of genocide for this mind-boggling death toll.

Yet genocide charges will take years to adjudicate and hang on a difficult claim to prove, namely intent.

Where Israeli leaders are most vulnerable is the systematic denial of food, water, medicine and other essentials to the Palestinian population, which it has driven from one part of the Gaza Strip to another, willy-nilly, as its military has rampaged through the territory often shooting anything that moves, including escaping Israeli hostages, journalists and humanitarian aid workers. Israel’s de facto blockade has strangled Gaza, creating a man-made famine in the north, and a dire situation everywhere.

The biggest problem for Mr Biden is the manifest truth of the accusation. He dismisses it at his peril, especially because he implicitly made the same point about Israel using food as a weapon of war during his own State of the Union address in January. His professed outrage is both a reflection of traditional, yet indefensible, US policies and entirely political.

The problem for Mr Biden is not just that he knows about the horrendous impact of Israel’s blockade. It is also that his own government has documented it and has, therefore, built a maritime port to try to get aid to the Palestinians despite Israel’s vicious recalcitrance. The killing of the World Central Kitchen’s aid workers was almost certainly another manifestation of Israel’s use of starvation as a weapon of war, and a clear message not to interfere with that too brazenly.

The Biden administration is further aware that every time Israel negotiates indirectly with Hamas, the question of humanitarian aid – including food and medicine – is on the table. Indeed, humanitarian supplies to Palestinian civilians are a counterpart to the issue of Israeli hostages held in Gaza, in the negotiations between belligerents. Yet Mr Biden cannot acknowledge this without breaking long-standing American traditions of opposing any ICC charges against allies, taking a huge political risk, and betraying his own sentimental pro-Israel instincts.

Yet genocide charges will take years to adjudicate and hang on a difficult claim to prove, namely intent

It’s much easier just to denounce the whole thing. At the same time, his administration doesn’t seem to have any objection to potential charges against equally manifestly guilty Hamas leaders. That suggests the ICC can reasonably assert jurisdiction over some belligerents but not others.

Worse, the proposed ICC action is based on the fact that all of this has occurred in, or coming out of, “the state of Palestine”, in its capacity as a non-member observer state in the UN General Assembly. Israel, like the US, isn’t a party to the ICC, but the state of Palestine is, and that should certainly give the court jurisdiction over everything that has happened in Gaza and coming out of it.

The greatest complication is that the Biden administration has based its Middle East foreign policy strategy and vision on securing Israeli acquiescence to the right of Palestinians to a state (which Israel has never formally acknowledged), and on Israeli agreement to enter into a process to eventually establish and recognise that state. Insisting that Israelis cannot be held responsible for what they do in the nascent Palestinian state effectively negates the principle of the two-state solution, even if that state now operates mainly as a prototype in multilateral institutions.

Holding Hamas leaders accountable for their brutality is just fine, apparently, but Palestinians must wait until they get their state from Israel before they can be protected from Israeli war crimes in areas that would undoubtedly become a key part of that indispensable and necessary state? That’s the preposterous moral and legal position implicit in the Biden administration’s harsh derision of Mr Khan’s arrest warrant request.

That’s too convoluted, contradictory and contorted a position to hold up in anything but empty campaign rhetoric and as miserable humbug. It won’t do, because it only adds to the humiliation and degradation already inflicted by excessive support for Israel’s intentional yet apparently aimless rampage of vengeance in Gaza upon Washington’s international standing and strategic position globally, and especially in the Middle East.

It’s a moral low point in an already sorry American saga.

Published: May 21, 2024, 2:00 PM