Unless it stops an Israeli invasion of Rafah, the US could be a global pariah

The international court of justice has ordered Israel to halt its attack on Rafah. The US has a last chance to stop this bloodshed

The international court of justice (ICJ) on Friday ordered Israel to halt its military assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where about half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have taken refuge in recent months. The ruling is the closest that the UN’s top court has come to ordering a ceasefire, and it further exposes Israel and its closest supporters, especially the US and the UK, for their disregard of international law and institutions.

For much of the world, Israel is now a pariah state that has repeatedly ignored pressure from international bodies to end its brutal war in Gaza, stop using starvation as a weapon of war, and allow more aid into the besieged territory. On Monday, the chief prosecutor of the international criminal court (ICC), a separate tribunalalso based in The Hague, announced he was seeking arrest warrants for senior Hamas and Israeli leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 7 October attack by Hamas and the ensuing war in Gaza. The prosecutor is seeking warrants against the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, as well as three top Hamas leaders.

On Wednesday, the leaders of Ireland, Spain and Norway said they would recognize an independent Palestinian state, underlining frustration in Europe with Netanyahu’s rightwing government, which continues to oppose Palestinian statehood and expand settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Joe Biden and his administration should be using these international judgments and Israel’s growing isolation as leverage to stop US weapons shipments to Israel and pressure Netanyahu’s government to end its war. Instead, Biden and his top aides spent months trying to discredit various international courts, and especially the case at the ICJ, which South Africa first brought in December and which accused Israel of violating the genocide convention.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, described South Africa’s case as “meritless”, only to see the world court allow the case to go forward and issue an order in late January requiring Israel to prevent acts of genocide by its troops and allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza. South Africa’s lawyers noted that Israel had not complied with the court’s previous decision and asked the ICJ last week to impose new emergency measures to stop Israel’s invasion of Rafah.

It could take years for the tribunal to rule on whether Israel has committed genocide, but emergency orders such as the one issued on Friday are intended to prevent more bloodshed in Gaza while the case makes its way through the ICJ’s process. The court’s orders are binding on its member states, but the ICJ does not have an enforcement mechanism – and Israel and its allies have been flouting the tribunal’s decisions since January.

The ICJ can refer matters to the UN security council, but the Biden administration has already used it veto power three times to protect Israel from demands for a ceasefire in the council. In March, the US finally abstained and allowed the council to approve a ceasefire resolution. Israel ignored that measure and Washington went to great lengths to insist that the resolution was “non-binding”, even though security council resolutions are supposed to carry the weight of international law. It’s very likely that Biden would use the US’s veto power to protect Israel from additional measures at the UN that seek to enforce the international court’s rulings.

Biden has shown no interest in holding Israel accountable for its actions in Gaza or in enforcing international law, despite promising to put protection of human rights at the center of US foreign policy soon after he took office. Biden’s lofty rhetoric about respect for human rights fell apart with his unconditional support of Israel’s assault on Gaza, which has killed about 36,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, unleashed famine and displaced more than 75% of the population.

The Biden administration is not only exposing itself to charges of hypocrisy over its refusal to support the international court’s rulings on Israel, when it has urged US adversaries, especially Russia and Myanmar, to abide by past ICJ decisions. Biden and his top aides are also exposing the US – and even themselves – to potential complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity, considering that Washington is the largest supplier of weapons to Israel, providing $3.8bn in military aid a year. After months of lobbying by Biden, Congress recently approved $26bn in additional aid to Israel, which includes $14bn in unconditional military assistance.

After announcing on 8 May that his administration had suspended a single shipment of arms to Israel, delaying the delivery of 3,500 bombs, Biden shifted course less than a week later and resumed sending far more weapons than he had held back. On 14 May, the administration notified Congress that it had approved more than $1bn in new arms shipments to Israel, even as it became clear that Netanyahu was moving ahead with a ground invasion of Rafah, despite months of warnings from Washington. In this latest arms package, the US plans to provide Israel with $700m in tank ammunition, $500m in tactical vehicles and $60m in mortar rounds.

Netanyahu and his government were openly defying Biden’s “red line” of invading Rafah – and forcing more than 1 million Palestinians driven out of their homes in other parts of Gaza by the Israeli military to flee once again. How did Biden respond? By withholding one shipment of bombs, and then undermining any leverage he had over Netanyahu by assuring the steady flow of other weapons to Israel.

In fact, with its latest ruling on Friday, the international court has done more to enforce Biden’s supposed red line on Rafah than the US administration. Based on his past dismissal of the ICJ and other international bodies that ruled against Israel, Biden is unlikely to stop sending weapons to Israel. The administration has had access to many human rights groups and independent monitors that have documented Israel’s numerous violations of international law, including its use of starvation as a method of warand its campaign to block the delivery of aid into Gaza.

Biden and his top aides presumably want to avoid being implicated in supporting a genocide, but so far they have shown little willingness to end US assistance and force Israel to stop the bloodshed in Gaza. Instead, they are willing to risk the US becoming a pariah.

  • Mohamad Bazzi is director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, and a journalism professor at New York University