Monday, May 6, 2024

What's Going On


Tips of 15mm artillery shells and howitzer on the Israel-Lebanon border. Photo by Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images from Axios.

Activity on the Gaza front continues to intensify, not in Gaza itself, of course, where it's the same rhythm of lower-level Israeli attacks killing families in Rafah, though not the threatened major attack, and the death toll continuing to inch toward 35,000, and reports of "full-blown" famine from the director of the UN's World Food Program, Cindy McCain, yes, that Cindy McCain, but on the diplomatic side, where Haaretz (that's a gift link) reported yesterday that Hamas had agreed to Egypt's proposed ceasefire, while Israel issued a denial that this had happened. 

This round of talks in Cairo seems to be definitely over, with Haniyeh and Netanyahu blaming each other, of course, though CIA director William Burns is still shuttling around Tel Aviv, Doha, and Cairo as if it weren't, but the shape of the deal as reported makes it look to me like it's Israel that turned it down: a 118-day deal in three phases, during the second of which (34 days in)

the parties will start enacting the principles that will lead to a prolonged cease-fire, including the withdrawal of the IDF to the borderline. Not all of these principles are reported.

and in the final 42 days,

bodies of hostages will be released, and after they are identified, a five-year rehabilitation plan will begin, in which the Palestinians will commit to not build infrastructure for military purposes, and will not receive raw materials that can be used for such purposes.

It's an aspiration toward a permanent ceasefire, in which all the hostages or their remains will be released and Hamas surrender all its leverage, in return for an institutional structure that will make it very difficult for Israel to restart the war (at the risk of repeating myself, it's already impossible for Hamas to restart the war, since IDF must have restored by now the full operational control of the Gaza border that they had more or less abandoned, for some reason we'll probably never know, before October 7) and for Netanyahu to pursue his desire (I can't say "plan", since he refuses to have a plan) for an assault on Rafah. As close to a permanent ceasefire as you can reasonably get, and that's what Netanyahu has consistently rejected.

Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s most senior political leader, said on Sunday the militant group was keen on reaching a comprehensive ceasefire that will end Israeli “aggression”, guarantee Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and achieve a serious hostage-swap deal.

In his statement Haniyeh blamed Netanyahu for “sabotaging the efforts made through the mediators and various parties”.

Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to invade Rafah regardless of whether a truce is reached and despite concerns from the US other countries and aid groups.

About a million displaced Palestinians have fled to Rafah, which is also a major logistic hub for humanitarian assistance.

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said on Friday that without a credible plan to protect civilians in the city, Washington could not support “a major military operation going into Rafah because the damage it would do is beyond what’s acceptable”.

So I think we can take it as pretty likely, at least, that the Haaretz story is accurate, and that it was Hamas that had signed on to this particular (contrary to assertions made by Blinken in the course of the week) and Israel that tanked it. Meanwhile, today's surprise story, from Barak Ravid at Axios, is what Joe Biden might refer to as a big fucking deal:

The Biden administration last week put a hold on a shipment of U.S.-made ammunition to Israel, two Israeli officials told Axios.

Why it matters: It is the first time since the Oct. 7 attack that the U.S. has stopped a weapons shipment intended for the Israeli military.

  • The incident raised serious concerns inside the Israeli government and sent officials scrambling to understand why the shipment was held, Israeli officials said.

It sounds, of course, like a response to what's been going on on America's college and university campuses, or maybe among anybody who's wondering why the US government is supporting a war effort by a party that seems to be actively committing war crimes against a large civilian population, by indiscriminate bombing and depriving them of food, water, and fuel, leading to mass deaths and mass starvation; which would be a lot of the younger people and particularly younger people of color whose votes are vital to the Biden coalition in 2024, so there's clearly a political angle, but that's not all there is. 

Again at the risk of repeating myself, there's a whole process. Biden can't just decide to stop a congressionally mandated shipment of weapons to an ally, in violation of the Impoundment Act of 1974. That's what Trump and Mick Mulvaney did, with the Javelins for Ukraine, when Ukraine refused to help Trump out with the 2020 election campaign, for which Trump was impeached (though not convicted, because the Senate is the most tainted jury ever).

There are, however, circumstances where it's unlawful to ship weapons to an ally that override that rule, like if the ally is in violation of the Geneva Conventions for the protection of civilians, such as the ban on the use of human shields or the ban on attacking human shields, which also applies:

A violation of the ban on use of human shields by the attacked party is not an act of perfidy and does not release the attacker from his obligations. Because human shields are civilians, they are not legitimate objects of attack, even where they are acting in a voluntary capacity, as they are not taking direct part in hostilities. Among the attacker’s obligations to take precautions, the proportionality principle applies in the classic way, even in the case of voluntary human shields.

If a state actor receiving US military aid is found committing war crimes (should have happened to Saudi Arabia's war on Yemen, as I kept saying at the time), then the aid is supposed to be cut off, period. But first the government, led by the State Department, has to formally determine that this is the case, and inform Congress. This is the process that started in February for the Israel-Hamas conflict, and Wednesday is the day State must report:

The Biden administration is fast approaching the May 8 deadline set in its February national security memorandum to report to Congress whether countries receiving U.S. weapons and munitions are using them consistent with international humanitarian and human rights laws.

While the memorandum applies to all countries receiving transfers of U.S. defense articles, this week’s deadline has particular significance because it will apply to Israel and require a formal U.S. assessment of how it is conducting its now six-month war in Gaza. The Biden administration has authorized over 100 arms sales to Israel during this period, including tank and artillery ammunition, 2000- and 500-pound bombs, rockets and small arms.

So here's my fantasy: that the State Department has found that Israel is indeed not compliant. There's no good reason why they shouldn't, after all. It's clear, for instance, that the Israeli government isn't following the recommendations of the International Court of Justice for avoiding genocide

  • “ensure with immediate effect that its military does not commit [genocide];” 

  • “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip;” and 

  • “take all measures within its power to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide in relation to members of the Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip.” 

 (when there are cabinet ministers who openly call for ethnic cleansing of the Strip without fear of losing their jobs).

It's not something Secretary Blinken or President Biden would want to find, no doubt, but what if the rules of the inquiry compel the staffers who do the actual work to find that way?

The thing is, this would explain all the frenetic activity,  from the surprise cutoff of arms shipments to the desperate work to find a ceasefire formula, which would allow the US to say that it still supports Israel in spite of an adverse State Department finding. It's just a crazy thought, but I can't stop having it.

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