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Unilateral Actions

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A child looking out at the ruins of Rafah’s Al-Faruq mosque, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, Gaza, February 25, 2024

In the city of Rafah, at the southern edge of Gaza, people are consumed by terror and dread. Over the course of nearly five months, IDF airstrikes have funneled over half of the Strip’s population to this slim region within a few miles of the Egyptian border. Families are crammed into whatever buildings are still standing, or huddled in vast tent cities, or sprawled outside in the mud and in the streets. They now brace for what may be the final major ground incursion in Israel’s military offensive, which has to date killed about 30,000 people, wounded 70,000, and destroyed or damaged nearly two thirds of the Strip’s housing units.

Rafah and its surrounding areas were among the designated “safe zones” that Israel initially promised not to target. But like many other such zones across the Strip, they have been incessantly bombed since the war began. There are now over 1.4 million Palestinians in the Rafah region, five times its usual number of inhabitants. Half of the displaced are children; many have been uprooted multiple times over. They are suffering from acute shortages of food, clean water, and electricity. Many spend hours watching for the few trucks that bring in humanitarian aid through the Rafah Crossing from Egypt or the Kerem Shalom Crossing from Israel. Humanitarian organizations stress that about five hundred trucks are needed daily just to meet minimum needs; the actual number entering ranges from more than two hundred to less than a dozen. Only people who carry foreign passports, or can afford the brokers charging thousands of dollars to get them into Egypt, have a chance of escape. The rest are trapped.

About a two hour’s drive northeast, members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government sit in their comfortable offices in Jerusalem. They barely conceal their excitement at the news coming in from Gaza. Operation “Swords of Iron” was launched on October 7 in retaliation for “Al-Aqsa Flood,” the Hamas-led assault on southern Israel, in which militants killed 1,200 people and abducted 250. In theory, the goal of Swords of Iron is to destroy Hamas as a paramilitary government and free the remaining Israeli hostages. These objectives have yet to be fully achieved, with experts and some officials warning that they may even be unrealistic. In the meantime, though, the operation has been more successful at advancing one of the far right’s wildest ambitions: to dismantle Gaza as a pillar of Palestinian society and national struggle.

In effect Israel’s leaders have drawn up a macabre wish list, which Western governments, chief among them the United States, are helping them fulfill. From the outset, senior officials, like then–Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and current war cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar, spoke of reducing the Strip’s geographic size. Others advocated sweeping away the territory’s Palestinian inhabitants: a Ministry of Intelligence policy paper recommended as much in late October. The army has gone a long way toward accomplishing both goals. Soldiers are at present carving out a kilometer-wide “buffer zone” along the fence that separates Gaza from Israel, which would, if finished, expropriate up to 17 percent of the enclave’s territory. In the process troops have flattened Palestinian homes and razed farmland with bulldozers and explosives, often filming themselves doing so. “I dedicate this explosion to my daughter Ella for her birthday,” one says in a video.

They have also paved a road more than four miles long that slices the Strip in two, naming it the “Netzarim Corridor” or “Road 749.” It is set to function as a permanent military zone from where Israeli forces will continue their operations and control the movement of people and goods, mirroring their checkpoints and bases inside the West Bank. “You will have the ability to change the reality here,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told troops on October 10. “Gaza will never go back to what it was.”

With large swaths of the north cleared of Palestinians, the idea of resettling Gaza, once dismissed as unrealistic, is no longer out of the question. The bifurcation of the Strip with Road 749 has stoked fears that it may lay the groundwork for the de facto annexation of parts of the north. In late January eleven cabinet ministers attended a conference in Jerusalem that called for the revival of Jewish settlements in Gaza, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had unilaterally dismantled in 2005. The politicians—including the ministers of finance, national security, settlements, housing, and communications—danced with heads of West Bank settlement councils under a map of Gaza that marked the prospective locations for future Jewish homes. Two days ago a hundred settlers and right-wing activists set up a symbolic outpost near the Erez Crossing, a few meters inside the Strip. Soldiers and police stood by for hours before dispersing them. “The Arabs will move…[and] the world will accept this,” Daniella Weiss, a prominent settler leader, said at the Jerusalem conference. “There is no ‘day after’—the day after is today.”

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Another item on Israel’s wish list is the elimination of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Since 1950 UNRWA has taken on quasi-governmental duties for Palestinian refugees expelled in the 1948 war and their exiled descendants, providing them with basic services including health care, education, microloans, and shelter. The Gaza Strip, a majority of whose population originates from towns and villages now inside the Israeli state, is one of its chief areas of operation. Israeli politicians have long had the agency in their crosshairs, accusing it of manufacturing Palestinians’ demand to return to their lands—a right enshrined for refugees worldwide, but which Israel blocks in the interest of preserving its Jewish demographic majority.

In early January the Knesset’s subcommittee on foreign policy and public diplomacy deliberated over what to do with UNRWA. Noga Arbell, a researcher with the right-wing Kohelet Policy Forum and a former foreign ministry official, was blunt in her recommendations. “It will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA, and this destruction must begin immediately,” she said. The government, Arbell stressed, should not “miss the window of opportunity.” It has made sure not to. Since the war began Israel has struck UNRWA facilities across the Strip, including schools and shelters, often claiming that militants are storing weapons in or around them or that Hamas tunnels are underneath. Over 150 UNRWA employees have been killed, and some 70 percent of the 13,000 staff in Gaza has been displaced.

Israel has simultaneously embarked on a campaign to cut off the organization’s financial lifeline. On January 18 government authorities told UNRWA that twelve of its local employees were involved in the October 7 attack (they have since raised that number to over thirty). They also asserted that 10 percent of UNRWA’s Gaza staff were affiliated with Hamas or other designated “terrorist groups”—an obscure claim, given that the Islamist movement has a wide base in the Strip and has been the governing authority there for seventeen years—and accused the management of turning a blind eye to Hamas’s use of UNRWA property for military purposes, a charge the agency has vigorously denied.

Once the allegations were made public, sixteen governments, including the Biden administration, rushed to suspend their funding to the agency. Already in dire straits before the war, UNRWA has now lost at least $450 million in donor support. According to the commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini, Israeli authorities have also moved to evict UNRWA from its offices in East Jerusalem, restricted or denied visas for its international staff, and threatened further measures to block its privileges. All this, Lazzarini warned, has pushed the agency to its “breaking point.”

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People walking past the damaged headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Gaza City, February 15, 2024

The Israeli authorities have publicly named the twelve men and their alleged roles in the October 7 attack. The Washington Post also uncovered CCTV footage that allegedly shows one of them putting a victim’s body in a truck during the attack; in October an Israeli airstrike killed the suspect along with several of his family members. But the veracity of many of the charges remains disputed. Foreign governments seem to have been unable to verify the claims themselves (Australia’s Foreign Minister admitted that her government had not seen proof before suspending funds), and Lazzarini is still waiting for the Israelis to show him their evidence. Britain’s Channel 4 News, having reviewed an Israeli dossier on the allegations, found that it “provides no evidence to support its explosive new claim” that UNRWA staff were involved in the October 7 attack. Sky News, which similarly reviewed an intelligence document delivered to foreign allies, found it to be lacking proof for several allegations, adding that “many of the claims, even if true, do not directly implicate UNRWA.” The accusations of institutional collusion are clearly overblown, and UNRWA has issued a detailed fact sheet debunking various Israeli claims about the agency.

More recently, anonymous officials told The Wall Street Journal that a US intelligence report deemed Israel’s accusations against the twelve men “credible” yet rated them with “low confidence,” in part because Israel, one month on, has still not “shared the raw intelligence behind its assessments.” The same report recognized, one source added, that “Israeli bias serves to mischaracterize much of their assessments on UNRWA and…has resulted in distortions.” UNRWA and the office of UN Secretary-General António Guterres are both investigating the matter; they fired ten of the employees before the probes began (the other two were killed in the war). But in the meantime, they are urgently pressing donors to reverse the cuts. Heeding their call, the European Commission announced on March 1 that it would immediately send €50 million to UNRWA, with more funds to follow. Nevertheless the shortfall is nowhere close to being met.

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Amid the biggest humanitarian crisis for Palestinians since the Nakba, the donors’ response is grossly disproportionate, to say the least. It is also indicative of the low bar they have granted Israel to justify tearing down major institutions that support Palestinians in any way. Taking the cue, on February 23 Netanyahu presented his cabinet with a “day after” plan. Along with establishing a long-term military presence and a local technocratic government under Israeli supervision, Netanyahu envisioned closing UNRWA permanently and replacing it with an alternative body subject to Israeli discretion. Should the funds remain withheld, by next month, according to the agency’s estimates, foreign governments will have done the job for him.

The timing of the allegations was also convenient. A week before, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held hearings in response to South Africa’s charge that Israel was committing the crime of genocide in Gaza. On January 26 the ICJ approved several provisional measures, including ordering Israel to cease actions and incitement that could be deemed genocidal and to immediately allow in humanitarian aid. Western governments, many of which have been dismissive of the grounds for the charges, seemed all too ready to divert their attention to the UNRWA saga.

But the assault on UNRWA is emblematic of the very agenda that South Africa’s legal team warned about at the Hague: the effort to unravel Palestinian society and render Gaza’s recovery impossible. For decades, as the political economist Sara Roy has argued in these pages, Israel has employed a series of closures, “dedevelopment” policies, and military assaults to render the Strip unlivable. Swords of Iron is intended to see that project through. Most of Gaza’s hospitals, bombed and in some cases raided by the Israeli army, are no longer functioning. Those that remain are on life support, with little electricity or medical supplies to meet the endless stream of patients. The heightened siege has led to widespread starvation and disease, turning low-risk illnesses like influenza and diarrhea into fatal threats.

Conditions are even worse in the northern Strip, where acute malnutrition is rising sharply and some residents are, as the BBC reported, “grinding grains used for animal feed into flour.” Children have begun to die from starvation, with images of gaunt infants haunting social media. The speed of Gaza’s spiral toward famine, according to the World Health Organization, is “unprecedented globally” in modern history. UNRWA estimates that, in the month since the ICJ issued its interim orders, the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza dropped some 35 percent.

In the early hours of February 29, in what is being called “the flour massacre,” over a hundred Palestinians near Gaza City were killed and hundreds more injured as hungry crowds rushed toward incoming aid trucks, with Israeli forces stationed nearby. The army oscillated between claiming there was a tragic “stampede” and admitting that soldiers had fired at people’s legs to fend off charging masses. Palestinians on the ground described the Israeli troops firing indiscriminately; medics said they primarily treated or witnessed gunshot wounds on patients and corpses. To try to sift through these competing claims is to miss the fact that the same culprit is responsible for both the loaded guns and the empty stomachs. Gaza, an integral piece of the Palestinian social fabric, is being torn apart before our eyes.

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As troops prepare to converge on Rafah, foreign leaders, including President Biden, sensing the dangers of an invasion, have publicly urged Israel to reconsider. Israeli officials say that a ground incursion is crucial to breaking Hamas’s “last stronghold,” though some, according to Bloomberg, have privately admitted that there is still “no precise strategy for how to do it, how long it will take or where the people will go.” Yesterday Biden declared that the US would join other countries, including Jordan, in airdropping food into Gaza. Recognizing that the current flow of aid was “nowhere nearly enough,” the US, Biden said, would be “pulling every stop we can” to hasten the delivery. The Americans, it seems, are willing to do everything except order Israel to stop its assault and fully open all crossings.

Despite the growing pushback, the Israeli government is evidently keen to see just how far it can push its ambitions. With the missiles still falling on the city, fears have grown that the army may try to squeeze Palestinians into the Philadelphi Corridor, a thin stretch of land along the Egyptian border which Netanyahu has insisted “must be in our hands,” with the aim of pressing them into the Sinai—or, in Israeli doublespeak, to encourage “voluntary emigration.” Egypt, for its part, has reinforced its barriers and is reportedly cordoning off a vast zone in the desert in case of a mass spillover of refugees. Cairo’s threats to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if it pursues expulsion are yet to be taken seriously. Desperation may yet compel people to burst across the border, with or without Egypt’s consent. But Palestinians also fear that any “temporary” escape will likely be made permanent. Seventy-six years after the Nakba, Israel still bars refugees from returning to their ancestral homes.

Nor are Palestinians in Gaza alone in facing a forced exodus. In the West Bank, army-backed settlers have chased out more than a thousand Palestinians since October 7, emptying sixteen entire villages, enabling the state to seize more land. Western governments have been more willing to reprimand Israel on this front. The White House and several European capitals recently issued sanctions against a handful of notorious settlers. On February 23 Secretary of State Antony Blinken reversed a Trump-era position and reasserted—over three years too late—that the Biden administration regards settlements as “inconsistent with international law.” All this may have irked the Israeli government, but it will do little to dissuade the settlement project, enmeshed as it is in the country’s economy and security apparatus. Such tiny diplomatic gestures will also ring hollow as long as the White House continues to block global calls for a ceasefire, as it did again at the UN Security Council on February 20, and provide Israel weapons with which to pulverize Gaza.

It would be convenient to lay the blame for this state of affairs squarely on Netanyahu and the most vocal extremists in his coalition, like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. It is true that the prime minister, whose public support has tanked since October 7, is prolonging the war in order to cling to power; his lofty demand for “total victory” over Hamas is both manipulative and unfeasible. The army brass has been at loggerheads with the political branch over what they regard as unattainable war aims and conflicting postwar plans. Israelis themselves, meanwhile, are losing patience with and trust in the government. Distressed by what they see as mishandling of the military operation and the growing risks to hostages and soldiers, some have come back into the streets to protest.

Yet these internal fissures have not dented the consensus behind Gaza’s decimation. Humiliated by the army’s failures on October 7, IDF generals are desperate to shore up their reputations and deter regional foes. In January Gallant warned Hezbollah, in the north, that “we can copy-paste [Gaza] to Beirut.” Public opinion remains firmly in support of the war: in Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index last month, more than 92 percent of Jewish Israelis said that the army was using either an “appropriate” amount of force or not enough. Much of Hebrew media has worked itself up into a genocidal frenzy: commentators on mainstream channels have brazenly called for the expulsion and even extermination of Palestinians as the only way to restore security. “Maximum bodies,” national security researcher Eliyahu Yossian encouraged on Channel 12.  “Don’t forget for a second what Amalek did,” the prominent journalist Amit Segal said on Channel 14. “Eradicate this evil from the face of the earth, not a centimeter less than this.”

Meanwhile, apart from the Arab-led parties, opposition Knesset members are largely backing the war effort, even as they chastise Netanyahu for leading it. Some are ex-generals who bolstered the army’s capacity to wage wanton violence. Gadi Eisenkot, who is now sitting in the war cabinet as part of an emergency government, helped author the “Dahiya doctrine” during the 2006 Lebanon war, which codified the disproportionate killing of civilians and the destruction of civilian property. Benny Gantz, who also joined the war cabinet from the opposition benches, served as IDF chief of staff during Operation “Protective Edge” in 2014 (then the deadliest war on Gaza, with 2,251 Palestinians killed). He boasted during his 2019 electoral campaign of having sent Gaza “back to the Stone Age.” Gantz appears to have come back to finish the job; polls indicate that he would surpass his rivals in a future election. Resentful of international efforts to revive the two-state solution, 99 out of 120 Knesset members, including more than half of the opposition, backed a February 21 resolution rejecting foreign recognition of Palestinian statehood. Peace, Netanyahu declared, cannot be achieved through “unilateral actions”—as if Israel’s assault on Gaza were no such thing.

A post-Netanyahu government, if one should arise, is therefore unlikely to take a different policy toward Gaza. And while Swords of Iron is expected to whittle down into a protracted counterinsurgency operation, the underlying approach will almost certainly remain the same. Between 2021 and 2022, a ramshackle coalition led by the religious nationalist Naftali Bennett and the secular centrist Yair Lapid advocated “shrinking the conflict”—a clinical phrase for suppressing the Palestinians’ capacity to oppose the occupation. The current goal of “shrinking Gaza” is a more vicious iteration of the same policy.

So far most Western governments have played along with the idea that a war waged with openly sadistic intent is more conducive to peace than bringing that war to an immediate halt. Now, as they begin to reckon with the consequences of their complicity, they are acting as if they can influence Israel more readily with carefully chosen words than by wielding the vast economic and military leverage at their disposal. If that logic is inverted, a ceasefire is only the first step. The obliteration of Gaza is proof, if any more were needed, that Palestinians must immediately be released from the tyranny of apartheid—not to live in a shriveled quasi-state at the mercy of Israeli diktats, but to live as free people in their homeland. That is an item worth adding to the wish list for the “day after.”

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