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Israel’s Ultimate Goal Is to Make Gaza Unfit for Human Habitation: Middle East Analyst Mouin Rabbani

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President Biden called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies in Gaza a “mistake” and urged Israel to call for a temporary ceasefire to allow in more aid in a televised interview on Tuesday. While Israel has pledged to open new aid crossings, the U.N. said on Tuesday that there has been “no significant change in the volume of humanitarian supplies entering Gaza,” and the Biden administration has not actually changed its policies or withheld any arms transfers to Israel. “Words are cheap, and statements are a dime a dozen,” says Middle East analyst Mouin Rabbani, who explains Israel can safely ignore statements if policy remains unchanged. “What really matters is not what these people say, but what they do.” Rabbani also speaks about the United Nations considering Palestinian statehood, ongoing negotiations over a Gaza ceasefire, and Israel attacking the Iranian Consulate in Syria.

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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 in New York, with Juan González in Chicago.

President Biden called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies in Gaza a “mistake” and urged Israel to call for a temporary ceasefire to allow in more aid. Biden’s comments came in an interview that aired Tuesday on the Spanish-language TV network Univision. In his remarks, Biden highlighted the Israeli airstrike last week on an aid convoy that killed seven workers with the food charity World Central Kitchen, six of those aid workers international.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I think what he’s doing is a mistake. I don’t agree with his approach. I think it’s outrageous that those four — or, three vehicles were hit by drones and taken out on a highway, where it wasn’t like it was along the shore. It wasn’t like it was a convoy moving there, etc. So, what I’m calling for is for the Israelis to just call for a ceasefire, allow for the next six, eight weeks a total access to all food and medicine going into the country. I’ve spoken with everyone, from the Saudis to the Jordanians to the Egyptians. They’re prepared to move in. They’re prepared to move this food in. And I think there’s no excuse to not provide for the medical and the food needs of those people. And it should be done now.

AMY GOODMAN: Following the airstrike on the World Central Kitchen convoy last week, Biden called Netanyahu and warned for the first time the U.S. would be forced to change its policy if Israel did not change its policies on Gaza. Israel responded by pledging to open new aid crossings. However, the U.N. said Tuesday there’s been, quote, “no significant change in the volume of humanitarian supplies entering Gaza,” unquote, and the Biden administration has not actually changed its policies or withheld any arms transfers to Israel.

This comes as Human Rights Watch is calling on governments to impose targeted sanctions on Israel and suspend arms transfers, to press the Israeli government to ensure access to humanitarian aid. The rights group has accused the Israeli government of using starvation as a weapon of war. At least 32 people, including 28 children, have died of malnutrition and dehydration in northern Gaza, where famine is setting in. In the south, at least 5% of children under age 2 were found to be acutely malnourished.

Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes continue across Gaza, including dozens of strikes in Gaza City, as well as in central Gaza, where an airstrike hit a home in the Nuseirat refugee camp today, killing at least 14 people, including five children.

For more, we’re joined by Middle East analyst Mouin Rabbani. He’s an editor of Jadaliyya and host of the Connections podcast. He’s a contributor to the new book, Deluge: Gaza and Israel from Crisis to Cataclysm. He was previously a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us —

MOUIN RABBANI: Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: — here in studio in New York. I wanted to start off with a clip yesterday. Foreign minister — British Foreign Minister David Cameron stood with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a news conference. They were at the State Department. Cameron said Britain’s position on arms sales to Israel was unchanged.

DAVID CAMERON: The latest assessment leaves our position on export licenses unchanged. This is consistent with the advice that I and other ministers have received. And as ever, we will keep the position under review. Let me be clear, though: We continue to have grave concerns around the humanitarian access issue in Gaza, both for the period that was assessed and subsequently.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have Blinken and Cameron shaking hands. Can you talk about what President Biden is saying, what’s happening on the ground in Gaza, and why what the U.S. does matters, not to mention Britain saying they’re continuing arms sales?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, President Biden referred to Israeli policy towards the Gaza Strip as a “mistake.” I mean, a mistake is when you take a wrong turn at a traffic light or perhaps when a surgeon removes the wrong kidney. But when over the course of six months, half a year, you kill tens of thousands of people, with perhaps additional tens of thousands buried under the rubble and decomposing, that’s not a mistake. That’s a deliberate policy. And that’s why Israel has been hauled in front of the International Court of Justice on charges of genocide.

I think the second issue here is that words are cheap, and statements are a dime a dozen. And Israel, over the decades, has learned that it can safely ignore statements, whether by U.S. or European decision-makers, that are essentially playing to the gallery. Because what really matters is not what these people say, but what they do. And when the United States, United Kingdom, the European Union indicate that there is not going to be any consequences, that Israel will continue to be allowed to act with impunity, that there will be no consequences for Israel’s actions, then Israel’s leaders, whether Netanyahu or any of his predecessors, know that they can safely ignore statements such as the ones we’ve been hearing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mouin Rabbani, I wanted to ask you — the U.N. Security Council is going to make a formal decision on Palestine’s bid for full U.N. membership this month. But the U.S. will likely veto this if it is approved, and the U.S. is saying that Palestine needs to negotiate statehood with Israel before it is granted statehood by the U.N. Your response to this, since, obviously, when Israel was admitted into the U.N., the Palestinians were not asked to first negotiate Israel’s statehood?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, I think the U.S., despite several statements over the years to the contrary, has had a consistent position against Palestinian self-determination, against Palestinian statehood. It has recently voted against several resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly reaffirming the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination. And essentially, what the U.S. government is saying is that it will not support Palestinian statehood unless Israel does so. And Israel’s position is crystal clear on this matter. It rejects Palestinian statehood. So, in other words, the U.S. is subcontracting its position on Palestinian statehood to Israel and adopting it as its own.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I also wanted to ask you about Prime Minister Netanyahu claiming that the date is set for the attack on Rafah, but at the same time Palestinians are being allowed to return to Khan Younis after Israel basically destroyed that city. Your response to that?

MOUIN RABBANI: I think that’s a situation that is a little unclear, because both the United States and the Europeans have come out against an Israeli ground operation in Rafah. Netanyahu has claimed the date for that operation has already been set. His defense minister, Yoav Gallant, has said that no such date has been set. Netanyahu has also been saying that if Israel does not enter Rafah, it will not be able to win this war. And this may be a maneuver by Netanyahu to essentially claim that it is because of the United States and it is because of the Europeans and their opposition to an operation in Rafah that Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip has failed, and then also to use these differences with the U.S. for domestic political reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: Mouin Rabbani, can you talk about what’s going on in Cairo right now, the negotiations between Hamas and Israel? Can you talk about the prisoners and the hostages? I know that’s being debated. I mean, I think in the West Bank it’s something like 8,000 people have been taken prisoner, many of them children, since October 7th. And you have something like 130 hostages, Israeli and other foreign nationals, taken by Hamas and other groups on October 7th. And then the whole issue of a ceasefire and letting aid in?

MOUIN RABBANI: Yes, there are a number of issues that are being negotiated. One of them is an exchange of captives. Another is — and for that, formulas are being discussed about how many captives, how many Palestinian captives Israel will release in exchange for the Palestinians releasing the Israeli and other captives in the Gaza Strip.

A second concerns a ceasefire, whether it will be temporary or permanent. And Hamas and Palestinians are, of course, insisting that a temporary pause in fighting, during which there’s an exchange of captives, and then this genocidal assault resumes, doesn’t really make sense.

A third issue is an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

And a fourth, and apparently the most important sticking point, is whether or not Palestinians who have been displaced, primarily from the northern Gaza Strip, many of whom are now in the Rafah region, will be allowed to return to whatever is left of their former homes. And, in fact, it is on this issue that, according to reports, Israel is proving the most obstinate. It has stated that it would allow women and children, but not military-aged men, to return to the northern Gaza Strip. The Palestinians are insisting that such return be unrestricted. And there’s apparently now a proposal where Israel would withdraw from this barrier that it established to bisect the Gaza Strip and that it would be manned by Egyptian forces to ensure that no armed men would go from the southern to the northern Gaza Strip. Whether this is something that will be accepted by both parties remains to be seen. But it’s interesting that of all these issues we’ve been hearing about, it is actually Israeli opposition to the return of displaced refugees to the northern Gaza Strip that is proving to be the main sticking point.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s Israel’s goal in all of this?

MOUIN RABBANI: I believe it’s to make the Gaza Strip unfit for human habitation. Of course, Israel entered this war hoping and intending to eradicate and eliminate Hamas as a government that is an armed force, and thought it could do so within a matter of weeks, if not a few months. That has proven to be an abject failure. But I think there’s a wider objective here, that it had an almost insatiable lust for revenge after October 7th. It wanted to make an example out of the Gaza Strip in order to deter Palestinians or any of its surrounding adversaries from ever considering an attack on Israel like this again. And I think it also has a long-standing issue with the presence of so many Palestinians, particularly Palestinian refugees from 1948, on its border — this is a policy that goes back to the 1950s — and has seen in this crisis, and, more importantly, in the unconditional Western support it has received since October 7th, to resolve its Gaza problem, if you will, to either displace the Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip or to make it unfit for human habitation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mouin, I wanted to ask you — there’s a lead story in today’s New York Times that’s claiming that Iran has been flooding the West Bank with weapons in an effort to basically stoke an uprising of Palestinians on the West Bank. I’m wondering your sense of that, because the report doesn’t talk much about all of the repression and attacks and killings of Palestinians that have been occurring in the West Bank, especially since the October 7th attack by Hamas.

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, there’s a reason people refer to The New York Times as American Pravda. I mean, in this particular report, there’s virtually no evidence of any significant Iranian arms deliveries to the West Bank. And when you consider how limited Iranian arms deliveries to the Gaza Strip have been, it doesn’t really make sense to believe that there are significantly more weapons being delivered to a territory that is under much more intensive Israeli control.

And again, you know, there’s been this decadeslong attempt to seek to show the Palestinians as somehow not having any legitimate grievances of their own, as always acting on behalf of someone else’s agenda rather than on behalf of their own rights and interests. You know, it used to be they used to be Soviet proxies. Then they became jihadists. Now they’re Iranian proxies. Who knows what they’ll be tomorrow? But even if Iran didn’t exist, this conflict and this Palestinian struggle for freedom and liberation would essentially be undiminished. And, you know, this particular article makes a lot of claims, but provides virtually no evidence to substantiate those claims.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what Israel did in Damascus, bombing the Iranian Consulate. Now they’ve reopened one there.


AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly is going on? We’re hearing all kinds of reports that Iran and the U.S. have made a deal, that if the U.S. gets its ceasefire in Gaza, that Iran won’t attack U.S., which is arming Israel. We hear GPS is turned off in Israel so that Iran can’t attack Israel.

MOUIN RABBANI: Yes. Well, in contrast to many previous Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, this one targeted the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, which is sovereign Iranian territory. And the Iranians have indicated that, from their point of view, the response would need to be direct, rather than through, for example, allied militias, and that, from their point of view, they would launch an attack directly from Iranian territory onto Israeli territory.

Apparently, according to news reports, the Iranians have made an offer to the Americans, which is that if the Americans impose a permanent ceasefire and put an end to this genocidal Israeli assault of the Gaza Strip, that will be considered a closure of the file, also because I think the Iranians and many others, for that matter, believe that it’s an Israeli ambition to further escalate this war regionally and seek to draw the Americans into a direct confrontation with Iran. It’s a little unclear. I mean, we’ve seen indications from the Americans that this is something they’re considering. But thus far, at least, we haven’t seen confirmation that they are actually going to act on this proposal and impose a ceasefire.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to get back for a moment to the negotiations over a ceasefire. We keep hearing in the U.S. press that the holdup is Hamas not agreeing to the conditions of a deal that’s already on the table. I’m wondering your thoughts about this, because it seems to me that it’s much more in the interest of Israel to continue not having a ceasefire while it continues to conduct its operations, rather than Hamas.

MOUIN RABBANI: That’s correct. And I think we also need to recognize that when we hear the term “American proposal,” what we’re really talking about is an American proposal that has been closely coordinated and approved by Israel, so it’s essentially an American-communicated Israeli proposal.

And as we were discussing previously, there are fundamental elements of this proposal that are unacceptable, not only to Hamas, but to Palestinians generally. The idea that you would have a six-to-eight-week pause in fighting, and then this genocidal assault would resume in full force, is, I think, completely nonsensical. The idea of Palestinian men not being allowed to return to their former homes in the Gaza Strip, that Israel would still continue to have control over the delivery of aid to the Gaza Strip. And so, these are all issues that are under discussion.

But as we’ve seen in the aftermath of the Israeli killings of the World Central Kitchen staff, it literally takes only a phone call from the White House to resolve these issues. And so, I think it’s fair to assume that if the United States really wanted a ceasefire, it would only take another phone call. And the absence of that phone call, I think, is also a policy statement from Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to that Lloyd Austin hearing in the Senate —


AMY GOODMAN: — where the conservative Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton was questioning the U.S. defense secretary, this as protesters were being taken out of the room, calling for ceasefire. I think something like 50 people were arrested in the Senate cafeteria calling for a ceasefire. This is Cotton questioning Austin.

SEN. TOM COTTON: I want to address what the protesters raised earlier. Is Israel committing genocide in Gaza?

DEFENSE SECRETARY LLOYD AUSTIN: Senator Cotton, we don’t have any evidence of genocide being created.

SEN. TOM COTTON: So, that’s a — that’s a “no,” Israel is not committing genocide in Gaza?

DEFENSE SECRETARY LLOYD AUSTIN: We don’t have evidence of that, to my knowledge, yeah.

SEN. TOM COTTON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: “We don’t have evidence of” Israel committing genocide in Gaza. Your final response, as we begin to wrap up?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, Cotton had a similar incident with CIA Director William Burns a few weeks ago, and he failed to get a clear response from Burns. Here, of course, you have secretary of defense essentially not wanting to implicate himself and his department, so it was kind of an obvious answer for Lloyd Austin to give.

AMY GOODMAN: Mouin Rabbani, we want to thank you so much for being with us —


AMY GOODMAN: — Middle East analyst, co-editor of Jadaliyya, host of the Connections podcast, contributor to the new book, Deluge: Gaza and Israel from Crisis to Cataclysm. Mouin Rabbani was previously senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Coming up, we’ll be joined by two former Israeli soldiers, members of Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation group led by veterans of the Israeli army. Stay with us.

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