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How Israel is defying Biden's 'red line' on Rafah

How Israel is defying Biden's 'red line' on Rafah
9 min read
13 May, 2024
Analysis: The Biden administration appears to have no intention of using its considerable leverage to change Israel's conduct in Rafah.

Israeli forces are currently carrying out limited ground assaults and waging an aerial bombardment against Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians, half of whom are children, are sheltering.

Despite the Biden administration warning Israeli officials against conducting a full-scale ground offensive, it seems that Israel will probably go ahead with one. Such a massive Israeli military operation in southern Gaza is set to be a major turning point in this war.

On 11 May, Israel’s military sent out an “urgent warning” that Palestinians in parts of Rafah must evacuate. “Everyone in these areas is risking their lives and the lives of their family members,” said the warning. “For your safety - we ask you to evacuate immediately to the humanitarian zone.”

Al-Mawasi, a narrow strip of coastal territory located in southern Gaza, is where Israel has ordered approximately 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate from Rafah.

In this “expanded humanitarian area”, there is insufficient water, medicine, food, hygiene products, shelter, and electricity for such an influx. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Israeli military’s “forced, unlawful” evacuation order in Rafah could result in “the deadliest phase of this conflict”.

On 11 May, Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), stated on social media that Israeli authorities “continue to issue forced displacement orders” which are “forcing people in Rafah to flee anywhere and everywhere”.

Lazzarini noted that since 7 October, “most people in Gaza have moved multiple times: on average once a month. They desperately sought safety that they never found”.

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Signals from the White House

The Biden administration has consistently stated that it does not want Israel to proceed with an all-out invasion of Rafah without any plan for sparing civilians from the inevitable bloodshed.

Consequently, some tension between the White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government exists over questions related to Rafah.

Despite continuing to arm Israel to the teeth, Biden recently delayed one shipment of 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs to Israel amid concerns about it proceeding with a massive Rafah operation.

Many Republican lawmakers in Washington and American neo-conservative voices have seized this opportunity to accuse Biden of betraying Israel. Senator Tom Cotton went as far as declaring that the president’s “position is de facto for Hamas victory at this point”.

Half of the one million Palestinians taking refuge in Rafah are children. [Getty]

There are domestic factors in the US and dynamics in the Middle East which explain the Biden administration’s decision to delay this shipment of bombs. Domestically, this move does have a connection to the protests across the US, especially on college campuses nationwide.

Although Biden does not want the pro-Israel lobby to think he is “abandoning” Israel, the US president and those in his inner circle seem to be increasingly aware of the fact that younger and more progressive elements within the Democratic Party’s base are becoming angrier at Biden for his policies vis-à-vis Palestine as Gaza’s death toll continues mounting.

“Biden is struggling to keep his vow of ironclad support for Israel’s security and have Israel’s back, while signalling to Arab-Americans and pro-ceasefire youth that he will not permit the killing of another 30,000 mostly civilian Palestinians,” explained Dr Joshua Landis, an associate professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, in an interview with The New Arab.

Spillover into Egypt

Beyond US domestic politics, the White House does not want the Gaza war to further regionalise. This has been one of the Biden administration’s main concerns throughout the past seven months.

The Biden administration’s efforts to prevent the conflict from spilling further into Lebanon, which would risk an all-out Israel-Hezbollah war that could bring in the US, have been reflective of its interest in seeing the war confined to Gaza.

Biden’s decision to delay the delivery of bombs to Israel was in part an outcome of the administration’s worries about the Gaza war spilling into Egypt. Such a scenario could easily be an outcome of Israel conducting such a full-scale invasion of Rafah.

“Biden and his administration have made clear for months now that a largescale operation in Rafah is a red line. I think the reason for that is because they understand that the kind of greater catastrophe that would ensue in the face of such an operation could potentially spill over very quickly into Egypt and elsewhere and become a much larger regional problem,” Matt Duss, the executive vice president at the Center for International Policy, explained to TNA.

“The administration’s approach here all along has been to try to contain the violence to Gaza. Now, I don’t think that’s a good approach. But that has been their approach and they’ve been clear about that. I think that the large-scale opposition to the Rafah operation has been consistent with that,” added Duss.

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Consequences for crossing Biden's red line?

Despite Biden administration officials genuinely not wanting the Israelis to proceed with an all-out assault on Rafah, there is no reason to believe that the White House will take any action to pressure Israel into not proceeding with such an operation.

It is notable that a State Department report about Israeli actions in Gaza, which emerged on 10 May, concluded that it is “reasonable to assess” that the Israelis have violated international law while fighting this war in the besieged enclave.

Yet, the report also said that “it is difficult to assess or reach conclusive findings on individual incidents”. Ultimately, this is a caveat that will likely be used by the Biden administration to circumvent anything standing in the way of further military assistance to Tel Aviv.

To be sure, Washington has the leverage to immediately change Israel’s conduct. Starting to use this leverage now seven months into the war would be better than never doing so. But it does not appear as though the Biden administration has any intention to do so.

Thus far, the White House’s delay of one bomb shipment and certain measures against a select number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank have had a minimal impact. Such actions have fallen very short of pressuring Israel into not launching a massive military campaign against Rafah.

The White House's delay of one bomb shipment and certain measures against a select number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank have had a minimal impact on Israel's conduct in Gaza. [Getty]

“It’s now clear that Israel’s war cabinet is sort of giving the finger to its US ally even though the US has gone the extra mile in the past few months to support Israel and offer a new aid package. The Biden administration had made it clear that Rafah was a red line and yet Israel seems to be ignoring these US warnings,” said Dr Karim Emile Bitar, a professor of international relations at Saint Joseph University of Beirut, in an interview with TNA.

“So far, the Americans did not use leverage that they do have [over] Israel and if the situation in Rafah deteriorates further, they could be impacted by the Leahy Law. So, I think the time has come for the US to significantly raise its voice and signal to Israel that it’s completely unacceptable to ignore US warnings,” added Dr Bitar.

Dr Mouin Rabbani, a political analyst and co-editor of Jadaliyya, told TNA that the Biden administration’s priority is to reach a ceasefire agreement and prevent further regional escalation and domestic unrest in the US.

“Israel’s priority is to continue fighting until it can achieve something of military [significance] to show for its efforts. Biden has sent a clear public signal of his disapproval of Israel’s course of action,” he added.

“But [it] is wholly insufficient to compel Israel to change course, particularly since he later sent out his spokespeople to emphasise how insignificant the measures are.”

It is also unclear at what point the Biden administration will formally acknowledge that Israel is crossing any of the White House’s red lines. This is because the Israeli military campaign against Rafah has started slowly and is gradually intensifying.

“Right now, all eyes are on the operation, which is ongoing in Rafah,” Duss told TNA. “It’s clear that the Israelis are moving in slowly, so it’s not to be seen as crossing a specific red line. But I think it’s clear there is an operation very ongoing already. The question is, if and when the president will recognise that.”

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A wider context

Although much of the mainstream media coverage suggests that US-Israel relations are now experiencing “unprecedented” levels of strain as an outcome of the tense situation over Rafah, the current state of bilateral affairs must be interpreted within the wider context of how the Biden administration has been dealing with Israel’s war on Gaza since October 2023.

“The limited, temporary and ill-defined pause of some kinds of US weapons shipments announced by the president a few days ago actually only seems significant because it is a departure from what has been an extremely tight ‘bear hug’ over the last seven months - a period marked by little meaningful US pushback to Israeli actions that have resulted in extreme harm to civilians and wrecked deep strategic, political, and legal harm to both US and Israeli interests,” said Nicholas Noe, the president of The Exchange Foundation, in an interview with TNA.

In practical terms, this departure by Biden is very mild. All signs suggest that Biden has intentionally tailored this pause in bomb deliveries in ways that are both limited and ambiguous in order to make it possible for the Israelis to circumvent the White House’s restrictions on US military support to Tel Aviv.

“We have seen exactly this happen many times over the decades, with the Israelis ultimately succeeding in overcoming US desires or prohibitions to assert the facts on the ground that they deem best for Israeli interests. Even in the examples some are now pointing to as evidence that past US presidents successfully leveraged weapons’ pauses or other measures in a manner that advanced US interests - Reagan in the 1980s - in each of those cases, the Israelis ultimately got what they wanted, and the US relented without gaining anything in return,” Noe told TNA.

“It’s a track record that probably stands as one of history’s most stunning examples of a small state continually outmanoeuvring a superpower, with real harm done to the interests of the latter as well as, arguably, the former as well,” said the Beirut-based analyst.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero