World

MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 26 MARCH 2024

Israel cancels Washington trip; US’s Harris warns against attack on Rafah

Israel cancels Washington trip; US’s Harris warns against attack on Rafah
Humanitarian aid falls from the sky towards the Gaza Strip on 25 March 2024. (Photo: Amir Levy / Getty Images)

The Israeli government called off a US trip by senior officials after the Biden administration decided not to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, a decision reflecting a shift of approach by Washington.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris warned Israel against a major attack on the Gazan city of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge as the war against Hamas continues.

Emmanuel Macron is hardening his stance on Israel, telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that any forced transfer of people out of Rafah would be a war crime.

Israel cancels DC trip after US allows Gaza ceasefire resolution at UN

The Israeli government called off a US trip by senior officials after the Biden administration decided not to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, a decision reflecting a shift of approach by Washington.

Fourteen of 15 Security Council members voted in favour of the resolution, which was jointly proposed on Monday by the 10 elected members of the council. The US abstained, citing the measure’s failure to explicitly condemn Hamas for its 7 October attack on Israel.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had demanded a US veto of the resolution and said it would “suspend” the visit by two of his top aides to Washington in response.

Monday’s resolution marks the first time the Security Council has openly endorsed a ceasefire since Israel began its campaign to wipe out Hamas after the attack by the group, which is considered a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union.

Until now, President Joe Biden’s administration had blocked multiple resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza in the almost six months since the Israel-Hamas war began. The US has long been steadfast in championing Israel at the UN, voting against dozens of resolutions seen as going against its ally’s interests.

The last time the US openly defied Israel’s position in a major UN debate was in 2016, when the Obama administration abstained on a Security Council resolution that called Israeli settlements illegal and demanded a halt to their expansion.

The text that was adopted on Monday demands “an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan”, which started on 10 March, and contends that should lead to a “lasting” and “sustainable” ceasefire. It also calls for the “immediate and unconditional release of all hostages” but doesn’t call that a requirement for a ceasefire.

Netanyahu’s office said that the US failure to veto the resolution “gives Hamas hope that international pressure will force Israel to accept a ceasefire without the release of our hostages, thus harming both the war effort and the effort to release the hostages”.

Without condemning Hamas by name, the resolution deplores “all violence and hostilities against civilians, and all acts of terrorism”, adding that the “taking of hostages is prohibited under international law”.

Samuel Žbogar, the Slovenian envoy to the UN and one of the co-authors of the text, called it “a small step in rebuilding trust” at the Security Council. “We will need more of this unity for Gaza as well as for many other conflicts,” Žbogar said.

After the action at the UN, Netanyahu’s office called off a US visit by Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi. They were due to leave on Monday evening for meetings with Biden administration officials on Israel’s planned invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah and ways to greatly increase humanitarian aid to the embattled area.

“There’s no reason for this to be seen as some sort of escalation,” John Kirby, the spokesperson for the US National Security Council, told reporters after the UN vote. “Nothing has changed about our policy, nothing. We still want to see a ceasefire. We still want to get hostages out.” 

Kirby added that the US was “very disappointed” the Israeli delegation would not be visiting Washington “to allow us to have a fulsome conversation with them about viable alternatives to going in on the ground in Rafah”.

US says major Israeli attack on Rafah would be ‘huge mistake’

US Vice-President Kamala Harris warned Israel against a major attack on Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge as the war against Hamas continues.

While broadly in line with the Biden administration’s repeated cautions to Israel, Harris’ comments on Sunday went beyond remarks by Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his trip to the region last week.

“I am ruling out nothing,” Harris said to ABC when asked whether there would be consequences for Israel for a military assault on Rafah, which borders Egypt. “We have been clear in multiple conversations and in every way that any major military operation in Rafah would be a huge mistake.” 

Israel says it must send troops into Rafah because it’s the last bastion of Hamas, an Iran-backed Islamist organisation. Israeli intelligence estimates there are around 5,000 to 8,000 Hamas fighters and group leaders in the city, Bloomberg has reported.

Most of the rest of the world wants Israel to call off those plans and it’s an increasingly significant source of contention between the Israeli government and the US.

Netanyahu has said the Israeli military will allow civilians out of Rafah before any offensive, but there’s scepticism it can be done safely and quickly. It’s also unclear where exactly they’d be moved to, with much of the rest of Gaza either destroyed or still a warzone. 

Netanyahu says that if Israel doesn’t move into Rafah, Hamas could regroup and eventually carry out another attack similar to the one on 7 October that sparked the war. Hamas and other militants killed 1,200 people in southern Israel and took 240 hostage that day.

Israel’s retaliatory air and ground attack on Gaza has killed more than 32,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. 

Macron ratchets up pressure on Netanyahu with Rafah warning

Emmanuel Macron told Netanyahu during a phone call on Sunday that any forced transfer of people out of the city of Rafah would be a war crime and he condemned Israel’s plan to seize Palestinian land in the West Bank. 

As the humanitarian crisis deepens in Gaza, the US and other allies have moderated their support for Israel’s war against the Palestinian group. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

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  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    I hope this will stop the supply of weapons unconditionally to Israel and they will start to consider a deal that will release the Israel hostages who survived the bombings and the release of all Palestinians who were unfairly arrested.
    A protected Israel and Palestine will close any room for militants.
    It’s will take Israel’s honest introspection of the illegal occupation and settlements for long lasting peace.
    Jews and Palestinians do exist in that space, the solution cannot be wiping each other out, and one sided support just creates more pain and suffering.

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