The US is destroying the international system along with Gaza

It is time to act or to reassess the institutions—and the governments—that make international humanitarian laws futile

The US claims to champion the rules-based international system, but doing so requires that all states be held accountable for their actions - even allies.
Lina Jaradat
The US claims to champion the rules-based international system, but doing so requires that all states be held accountable for their actions - even allies.

The US is destroying the international system along with Gaza

For over five months, the world has witnessed an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

The videos of parents searching for their children buried under rubble with their bare hands, children screaming in anguish as their limbs are amputated without anaesthetic to numb the pain, young bodies emaciated from starvation, and many more haunting images have been live-streamed to our devices and will not soon be forgotten.

While some commentators—especially in the United States and Israel—will defend this carnage as a justified, albeit unfortunate, response to the attacks carried out by Hamas on 7 October that killed 1,200 Israelis and took 250 hostages, international law states that acts of collective punishment are war crimes.

If the international system that the United States claims to champion is supposed to play a meaningful role in governing how nations act—to protect fundamental human rights and prevent wars—then all states must be held accountable for their actions and held to the same standards under the law.

Read more: One UN envoy's quest to hold Israel accountable under international law

In fact, it is the responsibility of the US to use the international system and its own leverage to pressure Israel to heed global calls to end the war in Gaza and resolve the larger Palestinian conflict.

At the same time, it is impossible to understand the current crisis without acknowledging the historical context, such as Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories, its control over Palestinian life, and the systematic oppression Palestinian people have long endured.

Not only do Western mainstream narratives have a tendency to ignore this history, but they also have a habit of compartmentalising the issue of Palestinian liberation into separate disputes.

By treating the war on Gaza—of which there have been many—separate from concerns in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or even the Palestinian refugee population outside the territories who have been denied their right of return, Western narratives deliberately present a misleading picture of the conflict.

Palestinian rights for all Palestinians

There is no doubt about the destruction that Israel has unleashed on Gaza since October 2023. UN experts argue Gaza is becoming uninhabitable and estimate it will cost tens of billions of dollars and take over a decade for the territory to recover.

The current death toll in Gaza is over 32,000 Palestinians killed, thousands more still buried under rubble, and over 74,000 injured, including an unprecedented cohort of pediatric amputees.

In addition to the extraordinary pace of death and destruction, Palestinians in Gaza have also been subjected to “the fastest acceleration of a hunger crisis that has ever been seen.”

Given the enormity of the horrors, it is no wonder that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has garnered so much global attention.

However, while Palestinians in Gaza face this disaster, Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continue to be subjected to violence, apartheid, humiliation, and daily oppression with little media coverage.

Yet, these matters are not detached from each other. Instead, to grasp the full extent of Palestinian suffering and the central issue of their systematic subjugation by Israel, these issues must be understood together.

Protesters, holding banners in support of Palestinians, take part in a vigil outside Downing Street, in London, on October 18, 2023, in tribute of the victims of Gaza hospital strike.

When mainstream Western media outlets refer to Palestinians in Gaza as “Gazans” rather than “Palestinians,” this is the deliberate erasure of their national identity, which is inextricably tied to their struggle for self-determination, freedom, and equality.

The separation of Palestinian disputes in Western narratives helps to serve the Israeli strategy of dividing Palestinian territory and people to expand its control over those people and territories.

Issues of territorial integrity will be paramount to any discussions of a future Palestinian state. Yet, under the guise of the war on Gaza, Israel has increased its encroachment on Palestinian land in the West Bank, making the practical possibility of any viable Palestinian state less likely.

Just this month, Israel announced plans to build 3,500 more illegal housing units in the West Bank and the largest seizure of land in over three decades.

All of this despite pushback from the Biden administration—in language, not action—and clear statements from the UN saying the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land amounts to a war crime.

When mainstream Western media refers to Palestinians in Gaza as "Gazans" rather than "Palestinians," this is the deliberate erasure of their national identity.

Of course, the West Bank has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967, and settlements have continued to expand through the decades, which exemplifies the far-reaching history of Israel's occupation that has nothing to do with the Hamas attacks of 7 October.

In fact, the Israeli military occupation predates the existence of Hamas by two decades. This is the historical context that is largely absent in Western narratives and media coverage.

Prior to 7 October, a Palestinian human rights group had already called 2023 the "deadliest year for Palestinian children."

Since 7 October, the situation in the West Bank has only gotten worse, with Israeli forces carrying out "a brutal wave of violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, carrying out unlawful killings, including by using lethal force without necessity or disproportionately during protests and arrest raids, and denying medical assistance to those injured," according to Amnesty International.

Settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank has become so dangerous that even the Biden administration—which has maintained its staunch support for Israel despite its brutal war on Gaza, charges of genocide and international condemnation—was forced to take some action, imposing sanctions on four individuals.

In reality, the US has failed to address the source of this violence, the conditions for which were created and continue to be permitted by the state of Israel.

The Biden administration has also failed to address Israel's crimes of apartheid. Rather than holding Israel accountable, the Biden administration has rejected the findings of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B'tselem, UN experts, and even former Israeli officials that Israel's actions constitute apartheid in the West Bank.

The list of Israel's crimes against Palestinians, including but not limited to its war crimes, is extensive. To address the Palestinian issue, the first imperative must be to treat this myriad of concerns as part of a whole system of oppression deliberately imposed on Palestinians as a matter of Israeli state policy.

The question of Palestinian justice is not over Gaza, the current war, settler violence, apartheid, land seizure, home demolitions, blockade, child detentions or any other individual concern, but rather the entirety of these issues embodied by the occupation itself.

Nevertheless, the current war on Gaza—which has taken Israel's actions to the most extreme point with a plausible genocide unfolding—may provide the best opportunity to galvanise a serious international response to pressure Israel to change course. However, this effort will require US support if it is to be successful.

Palestinian children suffering from malnutrition receive treatment at a healthcare centre amid widespread hunger in the southern Gaza Strip on March 4, 2024.

In pictures: Children starving to death in northern Gaza - WHO

Real pressure required

There is an abundance of evidence, as well as reports and statements, from international institutions, human rights organisations, experts, and aid workers that clearly show Israel's actions in Gaza are criminal.

Israel is currently on trial for genocide—the most egregious crime against humanity—at the world's highest court after the International Court of Justice refused Israel's request to dismiss the genocide case against it presented by South Africa in January.

According to Amnesty International, there was already "damning evidence of war crimes" by Israel in October. The enormous civilian death toll and Israeli restrictions on food and aid allowed to enter Gaza have raised growing questions about Israel's conduct in this war.

Israeli soldiers have shared videos online showing Palestinian detainees stripped, blindfolded and humiliated. Videos of soldiers damaging property as they cheer and mock Palestinians and other videos like taking women's undergarments and burning food have repeatedly been posted online.

A recent disturbing video that shows footage from an Israeli drone targeting what appear to be four unarmed civilians and other evidence, such as a video from January showing a planned demolition of a university in Gaza, are just some of the examples of possible war crimes the public has seen because of these viral images.

On top of this is the mounting evidence that Israel is deliberately starving Gaza and causing a man-made famine.

Read more: Starvation as a weapon of war: An all too familiar horror in history

Despite the avalanche of condemnations and statements from the international community, as well as the evidence on the ground, the Biden administration has refused to take any measures to stop Israel.

On the contrary, the administration has continued to arm, fund, and diplomatically protect Israel. But the sheer brutality and long list of Israel's crimes have brought the United States and the international community to an inflexion point.

The Biden administration has many levers at its disposal to pressure Israel, but first, it must acknowledge Israel's wrongdoings.

If the international system cannot answer the call to prevent genocide, then we must accept that it, itself, is a failure.

The US can pressure Israel by allowing the UN to carry out its function and support its recent ceasefire resolution and by stopping arms transfers and military aid to Israel while it is in breach of US laws.

These actions do not include punitive measures the US can impose, such as targeted sanctions on Israel.

As it has against other states violating international law, like Russia, the US can take the lead to impose international sanctions on Israel—which are much more effective than unilateral sanctions the US also readily imposes on its adversaries—until it ends its indiscriminate killing of civilians and lets in the needed aid to feed Gaza's starving population.

Israel has made it clear that it does not feel beholden to international law; as such, it is the international community's responsibility to take concrete action that goes beyond words.

If the US refuses to do so, international bodies like the UN should also censure the US.

If the current international system cannot answer the call to prevent genocide, which is being aided by one of its greatest advocates, then we must accept that the international system itself is a failure.

Whatever happens, we are in a watershed moment. It is time to act or to reassess the institutions—and the governments—that make our actions futile.

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