A tightrope walk over a blazing fire

The US is making a bad situation worse by failing to rein in Israel’s war crimes. Domestic politics in the US is making it a more dangerous dangle
A tightrope walk over a blazing fire
Express illustration | Sourav Roy

How is it that from having the sympathy of almost everyone for being the victim of Hamas’s dastardly terror on October 7, Israel has gone to the brink of being accused of genocide and its leaders of war crimes and crimes against humanity in just eight months? This descent from being a country with which Gulf nations were seeking to ‘normalise’ relations, to one with which its own allies are wary of engaging has been swift and unexpected.

In an unprecedented move, International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Karim Khan requested arrest warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Gaza Strip—a stunning step against a nation that prides in calling itself the only democracy in West Asia. More specifically, the charges include causing “extermination”, starvation as a method of warfare, including the denial of humanitarian relief supplies, deliberately targeting attacks on civilians in conflict and other inhuman acts. Three Hamas members were also charged for other crimes.

The notion that the ICC may actually hold leaders of Western democracies accountable has come as a bolt from the blue. Africa had been a target of the ICC earlier. The only instance of sitting political leaders being tried by the ICC was the then Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto.

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour, Khan revealed that a senior elected US official threatened him that the ICC “was built for Africa and for thugs like [President Vladimir] Putin”, but not for the West or its allies. The US realises that if this happens to Israel now, next in line will be the US itself for possible abetment to war crimes due to its unconditional supply of arms to Israel to conduct this war.

Twelve US Senators threatened Khan: “Target Israel and we will target you… you have been warned.” The same West hailed Khan earlier for issuing arrest warrants against President Putin. To their credit, some European nations refused to interfere with the “independence” of the ICC. But trying to avoid accountability for their actions is par for the course for the West.

Meanwhile, two rulings by the International Court of Justice (ICJ)—one in January 2024 determining the potential for genocide in Gaza, and the recent one in May 2024 ordering Israel to immediately stop attacks on Palestinians in Rafah—have tightened the legal noose. They have, predictably, been completely disregarded by Israel. Within days of the latest ruling, tents housing displaced Palestinians in a designated area in Rafah were bombed and 45 civilians killed, taking the tally to an unconscionably high 36,000 Palestinians killed, including 16,000 children.

Earlier, an Indian official under the UN flag escorting a humanitarian convoy in Gaza was tragically killed. Netanyahu has pledged to continue the offensive rather than pursue a ceasefire, since rooting out Hamas seems to have taken precedence over the release of Israeli hostages. The EU is ostensibly discussing sanctions against Israel for violating the ICJ rulings. Not for the first time, Europe is rethinking its sustained support for occupation and violation of international humanitarian and human rights laws by Israel.

Apart from these legal strictures, Israel’s regional misadventures have been to their disadvantage. By hitting Israel directly from its own soil for the first time, Iran did the unthinkable. It exposed Israel as deeply vulnerable in spite of all the missile cover and weaponry the US provides. This has irretrievably changed the rules of engagement between the two countries, which for decades fought through their proxies or took refuge behind the veil of denial of any culpability for killings. For the first time, the US actually stopped Israel from targeting Iran to prevent a regional conflict drawing the US directly into it. Hezbollah fire from Lebanon has made parts of northern Israel unliveable.

While regional security becomes more unstable for Israel, the two-state solution is back in play—something the Gulf countries actively ignored while ‘normalising’ relations with Israel. Now, three European countries—Spain, Norway and Ireland—have recognised a Palestinian State. This makes it 146 countries. More European countries may follow suit. But do they really matter? Not much.

There is deep scepticism that once again the West may not go beyond lip service. But even more fundamentally, after October 7, the Israeli government and people continue to be against conceding a Palestinian state irrespective of their political leanings. Sensing this defiant mood, the Israeli government is redrawing the 1967 borders by expanding illegal settlements and killing or forcibly evicting Palestinians from their homes in West Bank. Anticipating Israel may be moving towards a “final solution” through “voluntary” or forcible eviction of Palestinians from all occupied territories, ICC’s Khan put Israeli leaders on notice by investigating Israeli actions in West Bank.

For the first time, individual Israeli settlers in West Bank have been sanctioned by the US for violent attacks against Palestinians. The US administration also found, inter alia, Netzah Yehuda, a religious-nationalist West Bank battalion, of human rights violations that contravene the US’s ‘Leahy laws’ prohibiting the supply of arms for those indulging in gross human rights violations. No action has been taken by US administration on these findings.

The US itself is gamely struggling to diminish the domestic impact of Israel’s intransigence in an election year. A recent upsurge is in pro-Palestinian campus protests in more than 140 American colleges and universities. Students demand their colleges divest from Israeli-linked American arms manufacturers and companies. The right-wing and centrist donors of many of these colleges, who support Israel unconditionally, have unleashed harsh campus crackdowns, giving substance to the “target Israel and we will target you” threat.

These crackdowns belie America’s claim of commitment to freedom of expression. India has called it out in a blunt statement that the US will be “judged” by what they do at home and not what they say abroad. A controversial fallout of these protests is the Antisemitism Awareness Act being voted on in the US Congress which, among other things, makes criticism of Israel antisemitic.

Due to their electoral tightrope walk, the reluctance or inability of the US to control Israeli actions has turned West Asia into a vehicle without brakes hurtling in the wrong direction.

(Views are personal)

T S Tirumurti | Former Permanent Representative of India to the UN and the first Representative of India to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza (1996-98)

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express