Last year, United States President Joe Biden told reporters he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “war criminal” in response to civilian casualties in Ukraine.
When a Russian airstrike hit a children’s hospital is the Ukrainian city of Mariupol last March Biden slammed the attack was an “injustice” and a “disgrace to the entire world”.
When confronted with the hundreds of mass graves in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, Biden did not hesitate to describe Russia’s actions as “genocide”.
Biden was not afraid to accuse Russia of war crimes and crimes against humanity when it invaded Ukraine in February 2022. This response saw the US widely praised for its support of Ukraine and its defence of the international rule of law.
How times change.
Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack on 7 October has raised serious questions about whether the US has a double standard when its allies commit war crimes and target civilians.
The actions of Hamas have been well documented and are undeniably barbaric, but Israel’s military response in Gaza has been brutal.
The strip lies in ruins, with Israeli airstrikes damaging or destroying more than 50 per cent of Gaza’s buildings. Israel has bombed Hospitals, schools and mosques – claiming they are used by Hamas for military purposes. 18,000 tons of explosives have been dropped on Gaza; 1.5 times more than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The result has been catastrophic.
The bombing has displaced 1.7 out of 2.2 million Gazans who have now fled south to supposed safe zones. However, journalists, human rights groups and UN workers on the ground have reported Israeli airstrikes in southern Gaza that continue to kill civilians.
The Gazan Health Ministry reports that 1 in every 57 people living in Gaza have been killed or injured in the past 7-weeks. As it currently stands, more than 14,500 people have been killed, 68% of whom are women and children.
The scale of death and destruction in such a short space of time is unprecedented. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour this week the situation in Gaza was the “worse ever” and “complete and utter carnage”.
This has seen Israel accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Palestinian civilians.
Israel has been accused of collective punishment for blocking the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza and denying access to food, water and electricity. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk has publicly criticised Israel, telling reporters “the collective punishment by Israel of Palestinian civilians is a war crime”.
Israel has been accused of war crimes for bombing civilians, including airstrikes on the packed Jabalia refugee camp. The UN later said the bombing of the camp could constitute a war crime and both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Israel of “documented unlawful attacks, including indiscriminate attacks” on civilians.
Israel’s forced evacuation and displacement of 1.7 million Gazans may be a war crime and could constate ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity. Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories stated “there is a grave danger that what we are witnessing may be a repeat of the 1948 Nakba, and the 1967 Naksa, yet on a larger scale”.
Like Russia, Israel’s actions have even been called genocide. On 2 November, several UN experts released a joint statement saying Palestinians in Gaza were at “grave risk of genocide”. Raz Segal, the program director of genocide studies at Stockton University has argued Israel’s actions are a “textbook case of genocide”.
But the US – Israel’s key ally – has refused to condemn Tel Aviv for what experts agree to be clear war crimes. It’s position has been the opposite of its response to Russia, often to the point of self-parody.
X (formerly Twitter) has recently seen several videos shared of US officials publicly condemning the killing of civilians in Ukraine by Russia but using completely different language when it comes to Israel.
This includes White House Spokesperson John Kirby, who said of Russia’s bombing of Ukraine that “into civilian infrastructure, knocking out the heat, knocking out the power… and hitting, quite literally, innocent civilian targets, playgrounds schools, hospitals. It’s utter depravity.”
On Israel’s bombing and killing of civilians in Gaza, Kirby’s wording was a world apart, stating in October that it was “obvious to us” that Israel was trying to minimise civilian casualties.
Israel has killed more civilians in Gaza in 7-weeks than Russia has in Ukraine in almost 2-years.
Biden himself has repeatedly refused to criticise Israel, repeatedly stating that Israel has a “right to defend itself” and claiming Hamas uses Gazans as “human shields” when challenged about the unprecedented casualty rate of civilians.
While Hamas are undeniably active within Gaza, Israel is yet to provide credible evidence the group has used the hospitals, schools and mosques it has bombed for military purposes, which would make them legitimate targets under international law.
Despicably, Biden has also publicly attempted to discredit the casualty figures coming out of Gaza, stating the “Hamas-run” Gazan Health Ministry was not reliable and that he had “no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using”.
This has revealed a dangerous double standard that is not just costing innocent lives but is counterproductive to US interests.
Unconditional support for Israel could undermine the US’ relationship with its Arab partners. Jordan – a longstanding US ally – has condemned Tel Aviv and argues the US has given Israel a free hand against Hamas. In October, Jordan’s King Abdullah II criticised Biden, stating that “Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of international law is optional”.
Biden’s refusal to criticise Israel could also undermine the US further afield. Russia will see Israel’s actions in Gaza as a greenlight to continue bombing civilians in Ukraine and China will likely use this double standard to continue its aggression in the South China Sea. Countries will see no reason to respect international law when the US and its allies pick and choose when it applies.
Back in Gaza, Israel has made no secret that it intends to continue bombing when the current ceasefire ends this week. Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant was filmed telling IDF personnel that they would resume fighting Hamas “with intensity” for at least two more months. This means the Biden’s refusal to reign in Israel will result in thousands more dead Palestinians over the coming weeks.
Since 7 October, Biden has said that Israel needs to act “in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law that prioritizes the protection of civilians”.
But Israel isn’t, so what would a correct US response look like?
Biden’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent war crimes was clear and consistent. The US President called for the Putin to respect international law and condemned clear war crimes when they were committed. The US was also not afraid to enact sanctions when they refused to listen.
The US position on Israel should be identical.
Biden should demand – not ask – that Israel respect international law and publicly condemn Tel Aviv for any war crimes committed. If Israel fails to listen, the US should support any move by the international community to enact sanctions and arms embargoes on both Tel Aviv and Hamas. Israel is allowed to defend itself, but it is not allowed to violate international law and commit war crimes.
The US should also reverse its position on a long-term ceasefire in Gaza. Israel’s response is clearly disproportionate and has only succeeded in causing immense human suffering. Instead, the US should lead on political solutions for Israel’s security. This includes ending the blockade on Gaza, removing illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and pushing for a 2-state solution. Hamas is a direct result of decades of Palestinian suffering, and this cannot be solved by more bombs.
The US needs to be consistent with Israel, otherwise it will continue to lose credibility abroad and Palestinians will continue to suffer.
That is in nobodies interest.