The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

All Eyes on Rafah

Israel’s International Isolation and Drift Towards Authoritarianism

Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus, Stanford University

June 1, 2024

Israel’s continuing war on the Gaza Strip and the shocking accounts of the human carnage it is inflicting on Rafah are deepening its international isolation. Global opinion is outraged by the unrelenting live-stream display of gruesome Palestinian civilian casualties, the targeting of humanitarian aid workers and journalists, and images of wanton cruelty by Israeli soldiers circulating on social media. Diplomatic and legal measures long discussed as alternatives to the failed U.S.-managed “peace-process” are materializing more rapidly since Israeli leaders publicly announced their genocidal intentions in invading Gaza.

On May 28, Spain, Ireland, and Norway officially recognized Palestinian statehood. Two days later the government of Slovenia announced it will follow suit. Belgium, Luxembourg, and Malta are considering joining them. Altogether,145 of the 193 UN member states recognize Palestinian statehood, including 9 of the G20 and 10 of the 27 EU countries.

Since January, Nicaragua, Colombia, Mexico, Libya, and Maldives have filed formal applications to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to join South Africa’s “Application Instituting Proceeding” charging Israel with genocide. Egypt, and Türkiye, have announced their intention to do so as well. While the U.S. and several EU countries have criticized the court’s actions, Belgium has announced it will support whatever verdict the ICJ may reach.

On May 24, the ICJ indicated further provisional measures ordering Israel to

“Immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;” and to “open the Rafah crossing for unhindered provision at scale of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance.”

Israel has flouted the court’s orders since launching its Rafah offensive on May 6. Its May 26 and May 28 attacks killed 2 Hamas leaders and some 70-80 civilians and injured 200-300. Haaretz reported that Israeli forces are expanding their offensive in central Rafah. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, humanitarian aid entering Gaza declined by 67% since May 6.

On May 20, International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan requested that the court’s Pre-Trial Chamber issue arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, charging them with committing several war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza led by “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.” Khan also applied for warrants against Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Muhammad Deif, and Ismail Haniyeh for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Israel and Gaza since October 7.

In April, 12 Republican senators sent Khan a bullying letter threatening to “target” him if the ICC issued arrest warrants against Israeli officials, declaring that they would interpret this “not only as a threat to Israel’s sovereignty but to the sovereignty of the United States.”

President Biden less egregiously merely denounced Khan’s application for warrants against Netanyahu and Gallant as “outrageous.” The president accused Khan of being a “rogue prosecutor who’s out to demonize the one and only Jewish state” and stoking “antisemitic fires.”

Republican senators were not the first to threaten an ICC chief prosecutor.

Palestine was admitted as a non-member observer state of the UN in 2012. In 2015 it acceded to the Rome Statute of the ICC and asked the court to investigate Israeli crimes in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Since then, as revealed by a joint investigation of +972 Magazine, LocalCall, and the Guardian, Israel’s intelligence agencies, at the behest of Prime Minister Netanyahu, have mounted a multi-pronged campaign of surveillance and intimidation against Karim Khan, his predecessor Fatou Bensouda, and other ICC and UN officials. Then-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen allegedly told Bensouda, “You should help us and let us take care of you. You don’t want to be getting into things that could compromise your security or that of your family.”

Haaretz editorialized that, “The picture of Israel that emerged from [the] investigation is akin to the Cosa Nostra.”

Among the main surveillance targets were Palestinian human rights organizations that provided evidence against Israel to the ICC: Al-Haq, Addameer, Al Mezan, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. In October 2021, then Minister of Defense Benny Gantz declared them and 2 other Palestinian NGOs “terrorist organizations.” Ten European states rejected Israel’s allegations against the NGOs outright. According to the Guardian, a classified CIA report found that Israel had no credible evidence to support its charges.

Israel’s surveillance yielded intelligence that the army used to retroactively open investigations into incidents the ICC was examining. The point was to “prove” that Israel’s legal system was capable of investigating alleged crimes by its military and therefore no international intervention was warranted.

Israel also pressured Palestine not to submit claims to the ICC by withholding taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s anti-democratic actions in the international arena were accompanied by its accelerating slide towards domestic authoritarianism for years before October 7.

For example, in May 2022 Haaretz reporter Gur Meggido was about to reveal Yossi Cohen’s effort to extort and intimidate ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. Security authorities warned Meggido that if he published the story he would “suffer the consequences and get to know the interrogation rooms of the Israeli security authorities from the inside.” Meggido unsuccessfully argued that security powers should not be used to prevent publication of information “whose harm is not security-related but rather reputational in nature.”

During the current Gaza war, most Israeli media outlets (with notable exceptions like Haaretz, +972, and the Arabic opposition press) have amplified government propaganda, indulged in crude jingoism, and obscured the version of events that much of the international community has witnessed in real time.

Since October 7, repression of dissent by Palestinian and Jewish citizens has intensified, prominently in educational settings. Israeli universities and high schools have initiated targeting their own teaching staff, including Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian of the Hebrew University, Dr. Regev Nathansohn of Sapir College, and Professor Anat Matar of Tel Aviv University. High school teacher Meir Baruchin was fired, arrested, and imprisoned for mourning dead Palestinian children on Facebook (he was reinstated after 3 months). Middle-school teacher Sabreen Msarwi was fired for commemorating the Nakba.

Professors Shira Klein and Lior Sternfeld describe these and other incidents in the national Jewish newspaper, Forward. They announced, “We’re Israelis who study fascism. This week, our country took a terrifying step toward the abyss.” They explained that the National Union of Israeli Students proposed a new law to the Knesset that would require

“Academic institutions … to immediately fire a lecturer, a teacher or researcher who expresses or acts in a manner that includes denial of the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, incitement to racism, violence or terrorism and/or support for an armed struggle or an act of terrorism against Israel.”

A majority of Knesset members support enacting the proposed legislation.

Now that President Biden has declared that it is time to end the war, conclude an exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, and rebuild the Gaza Strip, there is a tendency to blame the 2023-24 Gaza war and its failures solely on Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has served as prime minister continually since 2009 (except for June 2021-December 2022). Since 2001, Israeli governments have mostly careened ever rightward, entrenching the dehumanization of Palestinians and the denial of Palestinian rights as the default positions among many Israeli and diaspora Jews. The end of the war, the replacement of the current Israeli government, massive humanitarian assistance to the people of the Gaza Strip, and the physical reconstruction of the territory are urgent imperatives. They are utterly insufficient to address the rising authoritarian current in Israeli public culture which is unwilling to address Palestinian demands for justice, equality, and dignity.





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