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Kenneth Roth: Only Joe Biden Has Power to Stop “Massive Bloodshed” of a Rafah Invasion

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South Africa has urgently requested the International Court of Justice to intervene if Israel proceeds with its planned ground invasion of Rafah. The South African government says Israel’s actions in Rafah could lead to significant loss of life, harm and destruction, potentially violating international law and the top U.N. court’s January order that Israel must take measures to prevent genocide in Gaza. “The person who, frankly, does have the most power to stop all of this bloodshed is Joe Biden,” says Kenneth Roth, the former head of Human Rights Watch, now a visiting professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Roth also discusses Israel’s “ideological vendetta against UNRWA” and possible war crimes charges against top Hamas and Israeli leaders at the International Criminal Court.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: South Africa has urged the International Court of Justice to take action if Israel goes ahead with its planned ground invasion of Rafah. In a statement, the South African government said it’s concerned Israel’s actions in Rafah will result in, quote, “further large-scale killing, harm and destruction” and breach the Genocide Convention. This is South Africa’s International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor speaking Wednesday outside the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

NALEDI PANDOR: South Africa is totally horrified at what is happening, continuing to happen, to the people of Gaza and the West Bank, and now Rafah. We believe this confirms the allegation we’ve tabled before the ICJ that genocide is underway in the Palestinian territories, in the Occupied Territories. And clearly, the actions of the Israeli government prove that what we have said is actually accurate.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Geneva, Switzerland, by Ken Roth, visiting professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, served for nearly three decades as the executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Ken, welcome to Democracy Now! We just heard this devastating report on the ground from a journalist in Rafah, in Gaza, and then we hear the South African foreign affairs minister talking about the renewed appeal they’re making to the International Court of Justice. Can you explain what’s happening and what this imminent ground invasion, if that’s what’s about to happen, in Rafah means, and if you think international law can deal with this?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, Amy, I think, as everybody knows, the Israeli military has gradually been moving from northern to southern Gaza. And the last place left, the supposed safe place, where at this point, as we’ve heard, 1.2 million Palestinians have congregated, is Rafah. There’s no place else to go within Gaza. And, you know, not surprisingly, there undoubtedly are some Hamas people there, too, and so Netanyahu is saying, “We want to invade Rafah.”

Now, there’s this problem: There would be massive bloodshed if that happened. So, even the Biden administration is saying, “Don’t do it, until you evacuate the civilian population.” Now, Netanyahu has said, “Yes, I’ll evacuate,” but there have been no plans whatsoever. And indeed, if you listen to the far-right ministers in his Cabinet, people like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, you know, people whose votes Netanyahu depends on to stay in power and to stay out of prison on corruption charges, they’re saying the only evacuation that they want is into Egypt, out of Gaza — a forced deportation, probably another Nakba, with little prospect that anybody who leaves Gaza would get to come back. And so, that’s the stake. Everybody is telling Netanyahu, “Move people someplace else within Gaza,” but there’s no place else that’s safe. Netanyahu is determined to move forward, because he needs to keep this war going. Once the war ends, his political reckoning for the intelligence failure of October 7th starts, and he’s likely to be out of a job. And we’re sort of in this dilemma.

Now, the International Court of Justice could intervene. The order that it issued last month had basically three elements to it. One was, you know, take far greater care not to kill civilians. Two was to allow in humanitarian aid. And three was for Israeli government officials to stop their incitement of genocide. And as far as we can tell, it was only the statements that have stopped. The aid has not come in in any greater amount. The killing doesn’t seem to have stopped. And so, in any event, Israel has to report back to the International Court of Justice on February 23rd. I have no idea what they’re going to say, because they basically have just like ignored the order. But now there is a possibility that even before the 23rd, the court will hear this emergency application from South Africa.

And I think it’s worth noting that in the original case, South Africa sought a ceasefire, but I never thought that was in the cards, because only the Israeli government, only states, frankly, are before the International Court of Justice. Hamas wasn’t there. So the court wasn’t going to order a ceasefire of just one side. But Rafah is different, because there’s not a lot of fighting by Hamas from Rafah, but rather this is just a proposed invasion by Israeli forces. And it is conceivable that the International Court of Justice would order a halt to that.

That, of course, begs the question: Who enforces that? The U.N. Security Council has that power, but that requires contending with the U.S. veto, contending with Biden. The person who, frankly, does have the most power to stop all of this bloodshed is Joe Biden. But so far, while he’s been outspoken, he has not been willing to put any teeth in his words. Most significantly, he’s not been willing to stop or even to condition the $3.8 billion in annual U.S. military aid or the massive arms sales to Israel. Those are the kinds of steps that, if taken, Netanyahu would be forced to listen to. But so far, Biden’s words are just empty, and Netanyahu ignores them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ken Roth, if you could say a little bit more about this enforcement or lack of enforcement mechanism of the International Court of Justice? You wrote a “piece”: last month in The Guardian suggesting that the political pressure — despite the lack of an enforcement mechanism, that the political pressure on Israel would be such that they would have to, in some sense, comply. So, a couple of questions. First, what would happen — for instance, February 23rd, as you said, Israel is supposed to report back. Is it possible that they do not report back? And then, the International Criminal Court, which takes, of course, individuals to court — who are the people — you’ve just mentioned senior Israeli officials Ben-Gvir and Smotrich — who are the people that the ICC could prosecute? And your response to what Karim Khan so far has said?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, in terms of, you know, what is the pressure on Israel, I think it can be broken down into three elements. You know, one is just the utter embarrassment of having been found to be plausibly committing genocide — that’s what the court found. Now, most governments, that would be sufficient to force them to step back. But this is Netanyahu. And as I mentioned, Netanyahu’s political future and, frankly, his personal liberty are at stake. And Netanyahu has always prioritized himself. And so, ending the war means, you know, this political reckoning, this investigation into what happened, what intelligence failure allowed October 7th to take place. He doesn’t want that to go forward, so he keeps fighting and fighting, hoping somehow to survive, somehow to stay out of prison. So, the shaming isn’t working.

The economic pressure that Joe Biden could exert on Israel would be very powerful. You know, to stop the billions of U.S. military aid, to stop the arms sales, that would be incredibly powerful as a statement. Joe Biden is nowhere near that. He’s, you know, speaking nice words. He’s saying, “Take greater care for civilians. Let in more humanitarian aid. Don’t invade Rafah without an evacuation plan.” But there’s nothing backing that up. And Netanyahu basically is just, you know, thumbing his nose at Joe Biden, because there’s no clout behind these nice words.

Now, the final source of pressure, which you mention, is the International Criminal Court. And for viewers, just to make clear, there are two tribunals in The Hague, just to confuse people. One is the International Court of Justice, which is a civil tribunal that hears complaints between states. That’s where South Africa brought its genocide case. That’s the court that made the ruling that Israel is plausibly committing genocide, and issued the three basic orders that I outlined. The separate tribunal is the International Criminal Court. This, as the name implies, is a criminal court. It prosecutes individuals, not governments. It tends to focus on the most senior responsible officials. And that means it’s going to look at the chain of command. And it’s quite clear that in this case, the orders with respect to dropping these 2,000-pound bombs that are causing such devastation in Gaza, the orders to allow in only drips and drabs of humanitarian or medical aid, you know, these are orders that are coming from the top. So I think the people who are most vulnerable would be Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and Yoav Gallant, the defense minister.

Now, is Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor, going to act? We don’t know. You know, he has had an open investigation into what’s called the Palestine case since he took office in January 2021. But he has gone very, very slowly. And so far, all we’ve gotten from him is a couple of nice, eloquent statements before the media, one on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border, another from Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. And so, you know, he’s a barrister. He’s very eloquent, and these are nice statements — but nothing else. So, we’re all waiting for the war crimes charges. Clearly, Hamas is going to be charged. You know, what it did on October 7th is horrendous, you know, killing civilians, abducting civilians — blatant war crimes. So Hamas leadership is very vulnerable. I don’t see Karim Khan only charging Hamas, given 28,000 Palestinian deaths in Gaza, given the pervasive starvation in Gaza. So he’s going to have to look at both sides, and he’s not moving quickly. If he were to move quickly, that would wake people up. You know, if Netanyahu suddenly faced war crimes charges, that would be a very different factor in the calculation that leads him to keep killing and besieging Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: In terms of crimes against humanity, the cutting of aid to UNRWA, the U.S. the largest contributor to the U.N. Palestine relief agency, can you talk about the significance of this, and the Senate bill that was passed by Democrats and Republicans, not only giving $14 billion, much of it in military aid, to Israel, but cutting aid to UNRWA, that runs the hospitals, the schools, to millions of Palestinians in Gaza and in other places, as well, Ken, and Israel particularly targeting hospitals?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, Amy, as you note, the treatment of UNRWA has been absolutely despicable. The Israeli government claims — they haven’t put forth evidence, but they claim — that 12 UNRWA employees, out of 12,000 in Gaza, that 12 took part in Hamas’s October 7th attack. We don’t know whether that was true or not, but UNRWA did everything that Israel conceivably could have imagined. It fired the staff members who were still on the staff — a couple of them had apparently died already. It immediately launched an investigation. It did everything you would want.

But Israel’s attack on UNRWA is really not about those 12 staff members. Israel has wanted to get rid of UNRWA forever. Now, this was, I think, accentuated by the fact that the International Court of Justice actually relied repeatedly on descriptions by UNRWA of the awful reality in Gaza — the utter lack of humanitarian aid, the starvation, the attacks on hospitals and the like. But Israel hates UNRWA because it believes that UNRWA is responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem. This is utterly naive. UNRWA is a humanitarian agency. It does, you know, as you noted, run schools and clinics not only in Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but also in Lebanon, in Syria, in Jordan — you know, wherever Palestinian refugees are. And the Israeli government view is, if UNRWA were to disappear tomorrow, Palestinian refugees would somehow forget that they’re Palestinian refugees, and this desire to return to their ancestral homes in Israel would just evaporate. Now, this is a way of just whitewashing history. You know, suddenly we don’t have to talk about 1948. We don’t have to talk about the fact that there were 600,000 Palestinians who were forcibly displaced by Israeli forces and have never been permitted back to Israel. That just disappears. You know, that was the original sin, but we’re going to forget about that. We’re just going to get rid of UNRWA. Now, this is naive, but that is the Israeli government line.

And what’s particularly despicable is that Joe Biden fell for this and suspended aid to UNRWA, followed then by 18, 19 other governments around the world. And, you know, it would be one thing to believe this kind of propaganda in ordinary times, but this is in the middle of a war. This is in the middle of a situation where there is, by all accounts, widespread starvation in Gaza. There is impending famine for a significant part of the population. And UNRWA is the main vehicle to deliver what drips and drabs of aid get into Gaza. You know, now, some of the governments, like Germany, said, “Oh, well, other groups can deliver the aid.” But the other groups got together and issued a collective statement and said, “There is no way we can even come close to replicating UNRWA’s staff. UNRWA alone has this capacity to deliver aid in the midst of this war.” So, if you devastate UNRWA, which is what this funding suspension does — UNRWA has said it will have to shut down by mid-March if the funds are not renewed — to get rid of UNRWA is to condemn the Palestinian population in Gaza to death by starvation. And that — we should be clear: That’s what’s going on right now, because Israel has this ideological vendetta against UNRWA in its hope that it can somehow disappear the Palestinian refugee problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Roth, we’re going to have to leave it there, visiting professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, served for nearly three decades as the executive director of Human Rights Watch, speaking to us from Geneva, Switzerland.

Next up, we go to Bill Hartung, as President Biden urges the House to vote on the Senate’s foreign aid bill that includes $14 billion to Israel. Stay with us. Back in 20 seconds.

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