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Rafah Attack Escalates “Most Transparent Genocide of All Time,” Scholar Says

Israel now aims to unleash a ground invasion in Rafah, the city where over 1.5 million Palestinians have taken refuge.

Palestinians inspect the collapsed building following an Israeli strike hit the house belonging to the Abu Nahal family in Rafah, Gaza, on February 18, 2024.

Part of the Series

Over 85,000 Palestinians in Gaza may be killed over the next six months in the likely event of further escalation by Israel and epidemic outbreaks in the besieged territory, according to a recent prediction made by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and John Hopkins University. Such grim predictions are not implausible in light of Israel’s plan for a ground invasion of Rafah, a city in southern Gaza, in March, amid the continued widespread destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure, as well as the collapse of humanitarian aid deliveries and operations. Rafah has become one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, with over 1.5 million Palestinians now living in the area bordering Egypt. Talks for prisoner exchanges and a ceasefire are taking place in Paris following three days of hearings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Israel’s occupation. Israel has killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians since its military operation began after October 7 — an average of about 250 Palestinians every day, far more than the daily death toll in any other recent armed conflict, according to Oxfam.

In this exclusive interview for Truthout, international relations scholar and expert Richard Falk discusses the latest developments of the tragedy in Rafah and unpacks Israel’s goal to destabilize the region and undermine resistance.

Daniel Falcone: Could you explain the impact of Israeli attacks on the city of Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza?

Richard Falk: Israel is seeking to destroy Rafah, the last major sheltering place of refuge for over half of Gaza’s civilian population in a space of no more than 25 square miles accustomed to a population of about 110,000, or a tenth of its present dense occupancy, by desperate Palestinians. It is a kind of genocidal testing ground, with Israel pushing Egypt behind the scenes to accept large numbers of Palestinian refugees. It is also the end point of Palestinian internal evacuation with a significant percentage of survivors facing death by starvation or disease, and being forced to consider the alternatives of dying by refusing to leave Gaza or somehow find a way to cross the border to Egypt where they would likely not be welcomed, and their presence treated as a provocation by Israel, possibly widening the orbit of conflict in the region.

Rafah cannot be understood apart from the genocidal assault on Gaza that commenced days after the Hamas attack of October 7. These assaults, accompanied by Israeli forced evacuation orders, failed even to assure safety for those Palestinians that complied with orders to flee their places of residence or the sites they have previously believed safe.

This demonic dynamic of forced evacuation and destruction of residential neighborhoods of Gaza, leaving 80 percent of homes in northern Gaza destroyed and damaged, is a clear signal that Israel’s primary intent is not security or victory against an adversary in warfare, but is part of an undisclosed plan to establish “Greater Israel” by asserting sovereign rights in the West Bank and now seemingly in at least part of Gaza. A secondary goal for the Israeli government is the destruction of the capabilities, and more importantly, the will of the Palestinian people to resist in the future continuing denials of their rights under international law — above all, the right to self-determination. A likely further goal is by responding to the Hamas attack so disproportionately and barbarously, Israel seems to be sending a message to potential regional adversaries of the kind of response they might expect should Israel be attacked or provoked, what amounts to an extension of the Dahiya Doctrine articulated during the 1982 war in Lebanon.

By looking at the broader contours of Israeli policy, it seems ever clearer that it is not primarily, if at all, motivated by reasonable security concerns related to fears of future repetitions of the Hamas attack. A security justification for the fury of the retaliatory attack was relied upon by the Israeli leadership, but the tactics and extremity of the response clearly seemed to be more a reflection of Israel’s resolve to seize the occasion as a pretext, to complete the endgame of the Zionist project. Such an interpretation helps explain otherwise puzzling elements of the Israeli campaign, such as the massive, forced evacuation; scale of devastation; and the explicit effort to force Gazans to choose between dying in Palestine or somehow getting across the border to Egypt. The seemingly essential Israeli aim is to gain sovereign control over the West Bank, which has experienced a surge of government-approved settler violence while media, the UN and public concerns are preoccupied with Gaza. It may be that now the reoccupation of Gaza becomes part of the vision of “Greater Israel” with as few remaining Palestinians as possible.

The Canadian economist Atif Kubursi has given a more strategic and economic rationale for why Gaza has elevated its role from being a pawn in the larger chess game to that of a major piece. With a data-based assessment he attributes economic/strategic factors, such as excluding Palestine from Eastern Mediterranean intergovernmental cooperative development of rich offshore natural gas deposits and Israel’s serious consideration of building an alternative canal to the Suez Canal, named the Ben Gurion Canal in planning documents. Whether such speculation is well-founded will have to wait upon later developments, especially whether the unfinished Rafah part of the Gaza operation finally brings Israeli violence to an end without mass expulsion, starvation, disease and the outbreak of regional war. It seems unlikely given the combination of the ongoing attacks by nonstate neighbors (Houthis, Hezbollah) and anticipated Egyptian opposition. Such combat enlargement is perhaps coinciding with an end to passive complicity in Israel’s behavior on the part of most Arab governments. “Passive complicity” denotes withholding verbal approval from the Israeli genocide, yet failing to take steps by way of arms embargoes, regional boycotts and sanctions to exert a material influence on behalf of a ceasefire.

In the interim, the mainstream media continue to limit criticism of Israel to humanitarian issues arising from its conduct of the “war,” paying virtually no attention to the near unanimous ICJ rulings, and to the dehumanization of Palestinians by the language and tactics relied upon by Israel. Without using the word “genocide,” they reconfirm in word and deed the genocidal character of the assaults on Gaza, including most recently Rafah, the most southern city in the Strip normally with a population of about 110,000, but now swollen to more than 1 million living under crowded, makeshift and life-threatening conditions.

Two elements need to be strongly asserted: Firstly, what is unfolding in Rafah in real time is the terminal phase of what I have called “the most transparent genocide of all time.” This horrifying dehumanization of the Palestinian people has been unfolding for over four months; and secondly, the contention that Palestinian civilian losses in Gaza are “collateral damage” in a “war” of self-defense is a malicious evasion of any reasonable interpretation of the violence. Israel is legally present in Gaza and the West Bank as an occupying power subject to the Fourth Geneva Convention, the core commitment of which is the duty by the occupier to protect the civilian population under its administrative authority. Hence, it is inappropriate and diversionary to speak of “war” and “self-defense.”

At most, Israel is entitled by its status limited authority to take reasonable measures to restore and maintain security and do so, as the Geneva Convention stresses, in a manner sensitive to the needs and protection of the civilian population. Such a clarification makes a mockery of Israel’s claims to be in a war of self-defense when a range of adjustments with far less destructive impact were available, starting with understanding and correcting the barely believable lapse in border security on October 7 despite advance warnings, surveillance mastery and informants.

Part of what has protected Israel from the growing rage is the active complicity of leading liberal democracies by way of direct military assistance, combat intelligence and diplomatic support that have rendered the UN helpless and the media silent as to the criminality of Israel’s behavior. This complicity includes backing Israel’s nihilistic approach to international institutions, law and procedures by outrageously viewing South Africa’s recourse to mechanisms of peaceful settlement of disputes by way of the ICJ as “baseless” and “without legal merit.” South Africa as a party to the Genocide Convention has every right, and arguably a responsibility, to invoke Article IX of the Genocide Convention, as authoritatively reinforced by interim order of the ICJ granting South Africa request for provisional measures by a near-unanimous set of rulings. Such an outcome brought honor and increased respect to the ICJ throughout the world. Nearly all the regular 15 judges cast votes that reflected their view of the law at issue rather than policy preferences of their national government of allegiance.

It is inappropriate and diversionary to speak of “war” and “self-defense.”

In summary, Israel’s assaults on Rafah seem to be an endgame within the larger Gaza endgame and should be perceived and reported by the media from such a perspective, and as an aggravating development in the underlying criminality of the assault. The refusal in the mainstream media outlets in the pro-Israeli democracies to report the hostage-rescue missions in their context of largescale Palestinian loss of life is in violation of journalistic ethics and its elemental morality to report such horrors objectively.

How are the corporate and agenda-setting media framing the airstrikes in Rafah? Furthermore, how is Israel shaping the context of this extreme action? What are the politics of “evacuation” and “aid” amid a potential ground invasion that may further this human rights catastrophe?

It is hard to know about the tactics shaping the approach to Rafah as the causal networks of influence are not transparent. Some insight is gained by comparing the policy goals of lobbying groups with special reference to Israel, security threats and the military budget. Comparing policy outcomes with lobbying priorities gives some insight. Following the money has often been an edifying guideline, especially since there exists no neutralizing influence brought to bear in support of either demilitarization or Palestine.

John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt wrote persuasively in 2007 as “realists” about the tensions between ultra-levels of support for Israel in ways contrary to the pursuit of adherence to the national interest of the U.S. in foreign policy context. [see The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy]. As might be expected, their well-grounded arguments were ignored by the State Department “realist” architects of U.S. foreign policy and by the most influential media platforms.

The “deep state” operates in a nonaccountable manner invisible to the public. Congress operates in these policy domains with the tacit approval of nonaccountability to the extent that its worldview and policy goals contravene international law. To a limited extent, whistleblowers have exposed this “black box” mode of operations, which can impact the views of high elected officials and public opinion. Whistleblowing and conjecture by informed scholars addressing past, present and future foreign policy initiatives can expose some dark and hidden undertakings of the “deep state.” American absolutist support for Israel is clarified by being seen through such an optic, as is the unwavering endorsement of record highs in military budget despite a record over the past half-century of losing war after war.

Such an understanding helps explain the response of the liberal democracies, led by the U.S. under a NATO umbrella, to Israel’s post-October 7 genocidal behavior in recent months to Gaza. This Israeli campaign is on course to consummate this unspeakable tragedy to the 2.4 million long-suffering Palestinians by its all-out assault on Rafah, the last sheltering space within Gaza. The basic logic of Netanyahu, [Defense Minister Yoav] Gallant, [Minister of National Security Itamar] Ben Gvir and [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich all along has stressed forced displacement, destruction of homes, and attacks on hospitals, schools and UN buildings. The unmistakable message to the Palestinians written in blood is “Leave or we will kill you,” and at best, make Gaza unlivable. Even before the Hamas attack, Israel as led by Netanyahu and extreme Zionists has pursued thinly disguised goals under the guise of “self-defense” associated with satisfying remaining territorial ambitions and solidifying ethnic supremacy.

Yet the governments of the liberal West refuses to alter their complicity by challenging the genocidal victory scenario that has been operationalized with lethal consequences for Palestinian children and women that comprise over 70 percent of the nearly 30,000 deaths, increased by at least another 7,000 missing and presumed dead. And when South Africa finally mounted a formal legal challenge in the International Court of Justice, which ruled that Israel take steps to curtail its violence until a substantive determination of whether genocide had been committed, its interim order of January 26 was defiantly rejected by Israel and dismissed by several Global West governments. These governments, led by the U.S., even exhibited the moral and legal audacity to claim the allegations against Israel were without any legal merit, indirectly validating Israel’s defiant response to being legally challenged. It is barely credible to deny genocide in Gaza, but to deny the existence of a legal concern based on the observed realities is not credible and amounts to a rejection of the relevance of international law about genocide if it clashes with strategic interests of geopolitical actors.

This refusal to hold some states accountable for the most vicious of crimes can no longer be hidden from ordinary people throughout the world. Some governments in the Global South are slowly building and encouraging a nonviolent solidarity campaign in support of the Palestinian struggle. With the spillover to neighboring countries tied in various ways to Iran, Israel and its supporters would seemingly benefit from an encounter with Iran both as a distraction from the Rafah finale to the Gaza operation and to strengthen prospects for establish regional hegemony in the Middle East built around the relations between the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. The anomaly of Saudi Arabia aligning with the West is an expression of opportunistic preoccupation of its absolutist dynastic regime and does not refute the intercivilizational nature of what is at stake in Gaza, which serves as a metaphor for the growing cleavage between the Global West and the rest of the world.

I’ve noticed just in the past two weeks alone a huge groundswell in support for Rafah from the grassroots and electoral level in the U.S. and abroad. Could Israel’s fundamental immoralities in Rafah be “costly errors” on Netanyahu’s part?

I agree that the extremity of Israeli tactics in Rafah, and indeed this long Gaza genocidal assault, have had a huge negative impact on Israel’s reputation as a legitimate state on the level of public opinion and by standards of acceptable international behavior, but this downward reputational shift is mainly confined to governments in the Global South. In this respect, the Gaza operation from its outset in October 2023 can already be treated as the costliest error ever made by Israel and, specifically, by Netanyahu. Yet as it plays out in the U.S. and some European countries, governments refuse to break with Israel and Israeli diaspora support groups use their donor leverage to take punitive action against those who exhibit strong pro-Palestinian sentiments. Overall, even in the U.S. and Western Europe, there has been a populist backlash against Israel since it launched its genocidal assault on Gaza but counteracted to some extent by repressive and punitive governmental responses.

Yet this assessment needs to be balanced against the uncertain outcome of the Israeli policies for various constituencies around the world. If indeed Rafah completes Israel’s declared aims of eliminating Palestinian resistance in Gaza, thereby facilitating “the Greater Israel” undertaking throughout occupied Palestine, it might be Netanyahu’s greatest success in the eyes of a large part of Israeli society, especially if it does not lead to a serious undermining of support for Israel in the Global West, does not radicalize anti-Israeli sentiments among Arab governments or produce a wave of worldwide antisemitism.

Law alone cannot regulate behavior of lawless and rogue states. There must be an accompanying political will and capability to implement.

There is little doubt that for a long time to come, Israel will be treated as a pariah state by many governments and by important segments of public opinion, even in the United States and most of Europe. If the Rafah phase culminates in starvation and disease combined with pressures to seek sanctuaries in bordering Egypt, the negativity associated with Israel, and with Jews generally, is likely to become a global reality in which anti-Israeli attitudes merge with real antisemitism (as distinct from the Zionist instrumental use of antisemitism to discredit critics of Israel). One sign that Rafah may be a prelude to a mass exodus of Gazans to Egypt is signified by the reported construction of a massive refugee camp in a walled buffer zone in the Sinai Peninsula with the express purpose of accommodating an influx of Palestinians. Already there are calls for boycotts, including banning Israel’s participation in the Olympics.

To a greater extent than even the global solidarity movement’s struggle to overcome the geopolitical ties of the South African apartheid regime’s strategic ties to the Global West, would be the tensions between anti-Israeli populism and partisans of an extension of the kind of Western hegemonic control of the regional and global management that emerged after the end of the Cold War. This global structure of control was being challenged politically and economically before October 7 by China and Russia, and by the formation of the BRICS. If this becomes a central theme of global politics in the years ahead, it could lead to Western pressure to abandon or weaken close positive ties with Israel, and this would indeed make the Gaza genocide “a costly mistake” for Israel. So far, in the U.S. and other Global West complicit governments, there has been a surge of populist opposition to unconditional support for Israel without any tangible adverse consequences. Governments by silent or active shows of support do not reflect this change in their societal views, nor does the media. This is so despite increased reporting on the humanitarian catastrophe being wrought by this most one-sided of wars, as made concretely evident by the comparative casualty figures.

At which point do you suppose international norms, law and U.S. policy could turn the tide to stop the incredible levels of disproportionate bloodshed as well as the social, human and physical costs to Gaza and the Palestinian people? Is there a “boiling point” for Biden?

International law and the UN have been unable to stop, or even impede, this most transparent genocide of all time, and the first to be exposed to the eyes and ears of the world as it daily unfolds. Tolerance of such behavior, or even its endorsement, highlights the fact that the impacts of law and morality are greatly subordinated to the primacy of geopolitics when strategic interests are at stake. Despite appearances to the contrary, the UN was designed to ensure this subordination despite its feeble efforts to impose more humane standards of conduct in the face of the developments in Gaza. This intention to privilege strategy of the powerful over the rights of the weak is not only apparent by conferring a right of veto to the five permanent members of the Security Council, but in making the International Court of Justice dependent for enforcement of its decisions on Security Council actions in the event of noncompliance by states.

Yet it would be a further mistake to consider international law and recourse to the ICJ as a fruitless waste of time. The importance of South Africa’s recourse to the ICJ and its belittlement by the U.S., and defiance by Israel, exposed the geopolitical disregard of minimal respect for international law and morality, and strengthened the argument that for justice to prevail in such situations depends on the activism of people, not the actions of government. The levers of power are ultimately invested in the peoples of the world, and collectively express the potential leverage of civil society if mobilized to achieve ends in accord with law and justice. Law alone cannot regulate behavior of lawless and rogue states. There must be an accompanying political will and capability to implement. Palestine has suffered all these years because there was an insufficient will and capabilities to organize an effective pushback against the Israeli dispossession of Palestinians in their own homeland. What has been happening in Gaza for more than four months, unfolding before the eyes and ears of the world, seems to be arousing as never before civil society to act on behalf of Palestinian rights, including the right of self-determination. Is this a temporary reaction to the humanitarian horrors yet unfolding in Gaza, and to some extent in the West Bank, or is a global solidarity commitment to the Palestinian struggle the greatest moral cause of the peoples of the world? When this question has been answered, we will know whether the forces for law and justice are once more in their ascendancy or whether the geopolitical oligarchs remain the guardians of the future.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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