Biden Administration Faces Criticism Over Rafah Offensive Silence

U.S. Silent as Global Condemnation of Israel’s Rafah Offensive Grows

by Faruk Imamovic
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Biden Administration Faces Criticism Over Rafah Offensive Silence
© Getty Images/Spencer Platt

The United States, often seen as a global champion of human rights and international law, remained conspicuously silent on Friday after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to comply with its “obligations” under the Genocide Convention and “immediately halt its offensive” in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza.

This lack of response from the Biden administration contrasts sharply with its reaction to a similar ICJ ruling in March 2022, which demanded that Russia “immediately suspend the military operations” it had just commenced in Ukraine. At that time, the State Department praised the court's role in peacefully resolving disputes under the U.N. Charter and called on Moscow to comply.

The administration, however, has rejected comparisons between the two situations, highlighting that one began with an attack on Israel by a terrorist group, while the other involved an unprovoked invasion by one U.N. member state into another. Instead of making a statement on the Israel ruling, the National Security Council authorized spokespeople to respond to any inquiries with a single sentence: “We’ve been clear and consistent on our position on Rafah.”

Conflicting Positions and International Reactions

The U.S. position that Israel’s invasion of Rafah is a “limited” incursion aimed at rooting out remaining Hamas fighters, avoiding undue civilian harm, and freeing around 100 Israeli hostages, contradicts the ICJ’s conclusion that Rafah represents a “change in the situation.” The ICJ had previously warned that Israeli actions in Gaza risked genocide.

Despite the court’s lack of enforcement mechanisms—its orders must be voted on by the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. holds veto power—this ruling has further isolated Israel and the United States from world opinion. “We should all recognize that this is a turning in a very negative direction, and the United States is becoming very isolated because people are starting to equate its support with aiding and abetting illegal action,” said Harold Hongju Koh, a Sterling professor of international law at Yale Law School and former State Department legal adviser in the Obama administration.

“The 13 countries in the majority decision of the 15-member court include major European Union countries, as well as the Middle East and Africa,” Koh added. The White House “can’t ignore the political message this is sending. It threatens to put the United States on the wrong side of international law.”

The two dissenting votes on the court came from Ugandan jurist Julia Sebutinde and Israel’s Aharon Barak, former head of Israel’s Supreme Court. Barak argued that the order was “qualified” and does not prevent Israel from continuing its offensive, citing a lack of evidence of intent to commit genocide and pointing out that Hamas initiated the war with its October 7 attack on Israel.

Ceasefire Talks Remain Stalled As Israel Escalates Military Activity Around Rafah
Ceasefire Talks Remain Stalled As Israel Escalates Military Activity Around Rafah© Getty Images/Amir Levy
 

Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza

International criticism of Israel intensified even before the ICJ ruling, with the E.U. urging Israel to stop the Rafah offensive, warning that it would strain E.U.-Israel relations. The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor called for arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant if they entered any of its 124 member countries. Norway, Spain, and Ireland announced they would join the 140 nations recognizing Palestine as a state.

As the ICJ called on Israel to provide “unhindered provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance,” aid organizations painted a grim picture of the worsening situation inside Gaza. “As feared, it has been a tragedy beyond words,” said Martin Griffiths, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, in a statement on Friday. The offensive has displaced more than 800,000 people, cut off aid flows to southern Gaza, and crippled an already overstretched humanitarian operation.

Despite Israel dismissing international appeals to spare Rafah, the global demand for an immediate stop to the offensive has grown too loud to ignore. “This is a moment of clarity. It is a moment to demand respect for the rules of war to which all are bound,” Griffiths stated.

Rising Concerns and Efforts for Resolution

The Biden administration, while maintaining its description of the Rafah offensive as “limited,” has shown growing concern. David Satterfield, the administration’s envoy for humanitarian concerns, highlighted two major worries: the displacement of up to 1.5 million people and the resulting humanitarian crisis. “Where would they go? How would they receive humanitarian support, shelter, water, food, medical support,” Satterfield questioned during a discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Israel’s control of the critical Rafah crossing has effectively halted aid to southern Gaza. This growing humanitarian crisis prompted President Biden to call Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi on Friday, seeking help. Sisi agreed to allow aid from Egypt to transit to Israel’s nearby Kerem Shalom crossing and secured a promise from Biden to negotiate reopening Rafah.

However, this stopgap measure, along with the U.S. military’s construction of a temporary pier to deliver assistance directly to central Gaza, is unlikely to change the situation significantly without a halt in the Israeli offensive. The fighting has progressed steadily westward from eastern Rafah, prompting further evacuation orders.

Diplomatic Efforts and Continuing Conflict

In the absence of an immediate resolution, the administration has returned to its long-standing effort to secure a temporary truce with Hamas, which would allow the release of hostages and a significant increase in humanitarian aid. This initiative, which began months ago, largely fell apart earlier this month when Hamas and Israel rejected each other’s amendments to a deal negotiated by the U.S., Egypt, and Qatar.

This weekend, CIA Director William J. Burns, the chief U.S. negotiator, met in Paris with his Israeli counterpart and Qatar’s prime minister to revive the initiative. No immediate results from the meeting have been announced.

As the Rafah offensive continues and the humanitarian crisis deepens, the United States faces increasing pressure from the international community. The Biden administration’s response—or lack thereof—will likely shape global perceptions of American leadership and its commitment to international law and human rights.

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