Fueling the Middle East Fire 

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Mosques, churches, schools, businesses, residences and now hospitals. A rising death toll that has already reached more than eleven thousand human beings, mostly women and children.  The relentless IDF bombings and massive destruction that we witness every night on television are not just a war on Hamas. They represent instead a war against all of Gaza, more than two million people. They amount to collective punishment, a war crime under international law.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s determination to eliminate Hamas in retribution for its barbaric October 7 massacre that took the lives of more than 1,200 Israelis and others has become, intended or not, ethnic cleansing if not genocide. Videos of Palestinians marching southward from their homes in Gaza City and vicinity on orders from the IDF evoke memories of the Nakba (“catastrophe”) in 1948 when Palestinians were forcibly evacuated from their homes to make way for the new State of Israel.

In his October 10 address to the nation, President Biden pledged to stand with Israel, and to provide more arms to the IDF forces . His photographed embrace of Bibi broadcast to the world America’s unconditional backing of the Israeli PM. Now after more than a month of ongoing carnage in Gaza, the Netanyahu/Biden mantra, “Israel has a right to defend itself,”  rings hollow. So do the oft-repeated IDF claims that it is doing everything possible to avoid harming ordinary residents.

The ongoing siege denies a majority of the Gaza population clean water, food, and fuel. With the recent opening of the Rafah crossing, incoming trucks from Egypt bring provisions– but not nearly enough for those relocated in the south.  The death, suffering and fear that Israelis experienced on October 7  is now more than matched by victims of war in Gaza.

Protesters around the world are shouting “enough.” They are  demanding a ceasefire.  So far, their anguished pleas are met with only “humanitarian pauses” of a few hours a day–intended to spur the human exodus southward from Northern Gaza. Yet even those on the move and those already seeking refuge in the South find no relief from IDF bombs and missiles. Negotiating the release of the more than 200 hostages has apparently taken second place to the total extermination of Hamas.

My quarrel is not with the State of Israel, but rather with the Israeli government  (Netanyahu and his right-wing cabinet).  It’s not with America, but rather with its President Joe Biden (and the arms companies that lobby for war).

I fault Netanyahu for his IDF campaign to eliminate Hamas from Gaza, not because that objective is undesirable, but because it is unattainable. The military force needed for that effort requires the collective punishment of all of Gaza, a crime under international law. The daily scenes of forced evacuation, death, and destruction strike me as ethnic cleansing, if not genocide.

I fault Biden, not for his sincere expression of sympathy for Israel (which I shared), in the wake of the brutal massacre,  but rather for his total support of Netanyahu and his unconditional pledge of more U.S. weaponry. I resent his deployment of U.S. taxpayer-funded arms to destroy Gaza and indiscriminately kill Palestinian civilians.

I fault both Netanyahu and Biden for failing to choose non-military actions to hold the militants accountable, for failing to anticipate how quickly global public opinion has shifted from sympathy for Israel to sympathy for the Palestinians, and for failing to respect the international law of war.

Israel could have made (and still can make) non-military choices to achieve accountability for the October 7 massacre, such as:

1. Invoke the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation and prosecution.  When a state or the United Nations Security Council refers a case to the ICC, those responsible for the crimes can be prosecuted.

2. Establish an ad hoc tribunal as was done after WWII and after the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

3. Prosecute the criminal actions of Hamas’ militants and their leaders in countries that offer universal jurisdiction for certain international crimes.

4. Demand that the UN establish a fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of war crimes resulting from the massacre.

Israel can likely identify the surviving militants from October 7 and bring them to justice.  Israel can also bring actions against Hamas’ leaders who reside in other Middle Eastern countries. By taking the moral high ground, Israel could regain international respect.

If we want to achieve peace in Israel/Gaza and avoid a broader Middle East war, we need a ceasefire now.  Israel should either commit to recognizing a Palestinian state or ensure equal rights for Palestinians living in a one-state Israel. Above all,  America needs to stop fueling the Middle East fire.

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.