Israel alone? Allies’ fears grow over conduct – and legality – of war in Gaza

<span>An Israeli self-propelled howitzer firing over the border into Gaza last October.</span><span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
An Israeli self-propelled howitzer firing over the border into Gaza last October.Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

When Gilad Erdan, the Israeli envoy to the UN, sat before the security council to rail against the ceasefire resolution it had just passed, he cut a lonelier figure than ever in the cavernous chamber. The US, Israel’s constant shield at the UN until this point, had declined to use its veto, allowing the council’s demand for an immediate truce – even though it contained, as Erdan furiously pointed out, no condemnation of the Hamas massacre of Israelis that had begun the war.

That had been a red line for the US until Monday, as had making a ceasefire conditional on a release of hostages. But after nearly six months of constant bombing, with more than 32,000 dead in Gaza and a famine imminent, those red lines were allowed to fade, and the American ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, kept her hand still when the chair called for votes against the resolution.

The message was clear: time was up on the Israeli offensive, and the Biden administration was no longer prepared to let the US’s credibility on the world stage bleed away by defending an Israeli government which paid little, if any, heed to its appeals to stop the bombing of civilian areas and open the gates to substantial food deliveries.

Related: UK government lawyers say Israel is breaking international law, claims top Tory in leaked recording

“This must be a turning point,” the Palestinian envoy, Riyad Mansour, told the security council, mourning those who had died in the time it had taken its members to overcome their differences.

For the next few days, there were other signs that the west was changing its position, at least in terms of its rhetoric. On Tuesday, Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, announced that Berlin would be dispatching a delegation to remind Israel pointedly of its obligations under Geneva conventions, and warned the country not to proceed with a planned offensive on the city of Rafah, in the very south of Gaza. It was a notable change in tone from a country that has been Israel’s second biggest supporter and arms supplier.

Meanwhile, in the UK, foreign secretary David Cameron has been ratcheting up his criticism of Israel – particularly over its blocking of aid into Gaza – while at the same time being ultra-careful to deflect questions as to whether the Foreign Office now believes Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been breaching international humanitarian law. Trying to strike that balance has created real and increasingly obvious strains within the British government, and the Tory party.

This definite shifting of international positions has, however, changed nothing as yet for the 2.3 million people trapped in Gaza. The bombing and sniping have not stopped. The politicians may be recalibrating, but not fast enough for those in the line of fire.

In the 48 hours after the security council applauded itself for passing the ceasefire resolution, 157 ­people in Gaza were killed. Eighteen of them, including at least nine children and five women, died when a house full of displaced people was bombed in northern Rafah. Twelve people drowned trying to reach airdropped food parcels that had fallen into the sea.

The number of trucks crossing into Gaza rose slightly to about 190 a day – less than half the peacetime daily total. Israeli inspectors were still turning back 20 to 25 each day, NBC News reported, on grounds as arbitrary as the wooden pallets bearing the food not being exactly the right dimensions. Israel has banned Unrwa, the main UN relief agency in the region, from using the crossing. A US state department official told Reuters on Friday that famine had already taken hold in some parts of Gaza, echoing a similar finding last week by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

Four days on from the passing of the security council resolution, more US arms deliveries were being reported by the Washington Post, including 1,800 MK84 2,000lb bombs – massive munitions that are implicated in numerous mass ­casualty events over the course of the Gaza war.

Furthermore, despite the UN vote just days before, the Biden administration has made it clear to its allies that threatening to stop weapons supplies to Israel as leverage is off the table, at least for now. The president told a fundraising event on Thursday: “You can’t forget that Israel is in a position where its very existence is at stake.”

In the UK, however, there is a growing sense that the legal issues, and related questions about arms sales, cannot be avoided, or fudged, for much longer.

As the Observer reports this weekend, the Tory chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Alicia Kearns – a former employee of the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence – told a Tory fundraising event in north London on 13 March that Cameron’s department has been given legal advice that Israel has broken international humanitarian law, but has chosen not to make it public.

That claim will send shudders through London and Washington, as it strikes at the heart of one of the most sensitive issues in international diplomacy.

In January, appearing before Kearns’s committee, Cameron dodged questions on the issue of whether he had seen such legal advice, saying “I cannot recall every single piece of paper that has been put in front of me … I don’t want to answer that question.”

Even then, in that same hearing – and before he became as vocal as he is now – he did concede that he was “worried” that Israel might have been in breach.

It is not difficult to understand why the Foreign Office and Cameron may be being opaque. The existence of such advice, and any open acknowledgment of it, would trigger a series of requirements on ministers, not the least of which would be the duty to halt all British arms sales to Israel.

Indeed, even if the legal advice suggested there was a “risk” of Israel having been in breach, it would have to stop exports. Some say the UK would even have to cease sharing intelligence with the US because the US might hand it on to Israel.

In a recent letter to Cameron, the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, homed in on this same point about arms exports, referring to criterion 2c of the UK’s Strategic Export Licensing Criteria, which requires the government to “not grant a licence if it determines there is a clear risk that the items might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law”.

Criterion 2c adds that “the government will also take account of the risk that the items might be used to commit or facilitate gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women or children”. Lammy said that this was “particularly relevant, given that women and children constitute a majority of the victims of the war in Gaza”.

Many Tory MPs are worried that Cameron might be about to announce an embargo on the sale of arms to Israel. At a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers on Monday, the foreign secretary denied he was thinking anything of the sort, although Foreign Office officials say it cannot be out of the question if Israel carries out its threat to attack Rafah.

Just as in the US, the UK’s tone may be shifting to one that is more critical of Israel. But creating the political space to match this with openness about the legal advice being given, and then taking ­consequent action, will prove far more difficult.

For its part, Israel has been roundly criticised, but it is still far from a pariah. Netanyahu and his war cabinet continue to insist that Israel will press ahead with an offensive on Rafah, where more than a million displaced civilians have taken shelter, shrugging off US warnings that it would be a “mistake” which would backfire on Israeli security.

Many young Americans have jettisoned the pro-Israel reflexes of their parents, and have made Gaza an issue with protest votes in the Democratic presidential primary

Two Israeli ministers are due in Washington to discuss the planned offensive in the coming week, on a visit which Netanyahu had initially cancelled in protest at the Biden administration’s abstention at the security council.

American officials say they will use the meetings to present an alternative blueprint for counter-insurgency against Hamas in Rafah, focusing on precision raids on senior Hamas figures, but they admit they have no way to oblige their visitors to take the suggestions seriously.

“They are a sovereign state. We will not interfere with their military planning, but we will outline in general terms what we think is another way to go to better achieve the same aims,” a US official said.

In further apparent defiance of Washington’s views, the Israeli military are carving out a buffer zone around Gaza’s borders which would take up 16% of the whole coastal strip, according to Haaretz.

Israeli public opinion has to date shown itself largely impervious to US and other international pressure, and support for the Gaza war currently hovers at around 80%. Even more concerning for Washington’s hopes of containing the conflict, there is also more than 70% Israeli public support for a large-scale military operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon – something Washington has so far managed to forestall.

In Israel itself, pro-war demonstrators are far more in evidence than anti-war ones. Israeli settlers and rightwing activists have focused their protests on Unrwa over the past week, blocking the entrances to its Jerusalem office. The protesters portrayed the UN ceasefire resolution as an attack against Israel.

“If you look at the number of UN condemnations against Israel versus the number of condemnations against North Korea or Syria, you can see how they are obsessed with us, and this is another proof of their obsession,” said Roei Ben Dor, a 21-year-old from the central Israeli town of Gedera. “We should be in Gaza, not just because of Hamas but because Gaza is ours. We have every right to take Gaza, to take Rafah. This is our land.”

Aynat Libman, a 52-year-old Israeli settler from Efrat, argued the resolution simply proved the UN’s inherent antisemitism.

“How could the UN possibly say we should stop the war before we are done protecting ourselves?” Libman said. “We can do this on our own. But, of course, it would be nice if we had the support.’’

The absence of bite in the international community’s reprimands has emboldened the current Israeli coalition’s sense of immunity from global public opinion, but the onset of full-scale famine, or an offensive on Rafah, could bring a much sharper response from Israel’s friends and adversaries. And there are signs that the real damage done to Israel’s global standing could worsen over time, with possibly far-reaching consequences.

As in the UK, tension in the US is building around the question of international law. Last week, a state department human rights official resigned, saying that the government was flouting domestic legislation prohibiting military assistance to any foreign army units implicated in atrocities, or to any country which impedes “the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance”.

The official, Annelle Sheline, said the state department had evidence of violations, but it was being suppressed. “I think some of these internal processes are not going to become public until the White House is willing for them to come out,” Sheline said.

The state department has said in the past week that its review process had so far provided no reason to doubt that formal Israeli assurances that it is complying with international humanitarian law, as required under US statute, are “credible and reliable”. But a full report on those assurances is not due until 8 May, which could become a point of leverage on Israel if there is no breakthrough in the provision of food relief to Gaza.

“That is what you have to look for,” said Aaron David Miller, a former state department negotiator now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But Miller added: “I would be stunned if the administration made a judgment that the Israelis are out of compliance.”

But the other potential shift with long-term ramifications for Israel’s future is the changing attitudes of young Americans, many of whom have jettisoned the pro-Israel reflexes of their parents, and have made Gaza an issue with protest votes in the Democratic presidential primary. A recent Gallup poll found 63% of Americans aged 18-34 disapproved of Israeli military action, as did 55% overall of those questioned.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented moment of collective awareness about the ongoing occupation and apartheid conditions in Israel-Palestine,” said Rae Abileah, a progressive US Jewish activist. “I have never seen this level of people consistently taking to the streets. For years, you could say: ‘You can be progressive except on Palestine.’ We can’t say that any more.”

She added: “The writing is more on the wall than it’s ever been.”