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Sarah Leah Whitson: U.S. Ceasefire Push in Gaza Is Welcome, But “40,000 Dead Palestinians Too Late”

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A pair of new United Nations reports has accused Israel, as well as Hamas, of committing war crimes in Gaza. The damning documents come as Israel and Hamas are being urged to accept the three-phase ceasefire and hostage deal outlined by President Biden and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. “Israel has no interest in international law, and the United States has no interest in demanding that Israel actually comply with international law besides rhetorical flourishes,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN. “It will come to haunt and hurt America for decades to come.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: An independent United Nations panel has concluded Israel and Hamas have committed war crimes since October 7th. In a new report, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry outlined a number of war crimes committed by Israel, including using starvation as a method of warfare and intentionally directing attacks against civilians. Part of the report details how Israel has also committed crimes against humanity for its, quote, “widespread or systematic attack directed against the civilian population in Gaza.” The report goes on to accuse Israel of committing numerous crimes against humanity, including, quote, “extermination; murder; gender persecution targeting Palestinian men and boys; forcible transfer; and torture,” unquote.

The U.N. commission accused Hamas of also committing numerous war crimes, including “intentionally directing attacks against civilians,” as well as torture and, quote, “indiscriminately firing projectiles towards populated areas in Israel,” unquote. The U.N. accused both sides of committing sexual violence.

The United Nations’ top human rights office also accused Israel of committing war crimes on Saturday, when Israeli forces killed at least 274 Palestinians in the Nuseirat refugee camp during an operation to free four Israeli hostages. This is Jeremy Laurence, spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

JEREMY LAURENCE: We are profoundly shocked at the impact on civilians of the Israeli forces’ operation in al-Nuseirat at the weekend to secure the release of four hostages. Hundreds of Palestinians, many of them civilians, were reportedly killed and injured. The manner in which the raid was conducted in such a densely populated area seriously calls into question whether the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, as set out under the laws of war, were respected by the Israeli forces.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N.’s top human rights office also accused Palestinian armed groups of committing war crimes for holding hostages in densely populated areas.

This comes as Israel and Hamas are being urged to accept the three-phase ceasefire and hostage deal outlined by President Biden, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. On Tuesday, Hamas submitted its response to mediators from Qatar. The U.S. claims Israel has already agreed to the plan, but numerous Israeli officials have publicly attacked the deal.

Israel is continuing to bombard Gaza, where the official death toll is 37,100, but that’s believed to be an undercount since thousands of bodies remain under the rubble.

We’re joined right now by Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN, a group working to reform U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Sarah, welcome back to Democracy Now! Sarah Leah, start off by responding to the ceasefire deal and where you think it stands. This is the one proposed by President Biden almost two weeks ago, the first time the U.S. didn’t veto a ceasefire deal at the U.N. Security Council but actually sponsored it.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Yeah, I mean, it’s a welcome proposal, if only eight months and 40,000 dead Palestinians too late. Absolutely nothing of value has been achieved in this eight months of carnage in Gaza. And the Biden administration is basically trying to pressure Israel into accepting a ceasefire proposal by pretending it’s an Israeli ceasefire proposal. While Hamas has accepted this, Israel has not yet accepted this ceasefire proposal, and, in fact, has communicated its unwillingness to abide by a ceasefire by continuing its heinous military incursions into Gaza.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and this specific issue of whether Israel supported it or not, we’ve heard Secretary of State Blinken repeatedly say that they were just waiting for Hamas to respond. What do you sense is the situation here between the U.S. government and Israel on the ceasefire?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: I think that the United States is trying to — has been trying to push Israel to halt its operations, begged Israel for several months not to make an incursion into Rafah, all of which Israel has repeatedly ignored. I don’t know whether the attack on the Nuseirat refugee camp, that was part of a so-called rescue operation, is something that the United States offered up its acquiescence and participation in, in exchange for Israel agreeing to a ceasefire. I imagine that the timing of this raid, certainly after the ceasefire proposal had been made, raises questions about that. But what we repeatedly hear from Israeli officials — not American officials purporting to speak on their behalf — is that they will not accept a ceasefire proposal until they achieve their mission of destroying all of Hamas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in relationship to this weekend raid, your perspective on the reports that the United States provided intelligence and logistics support to the operation?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, it has been widely reported, and confirmed by a number of U.S. government sources, that the United States has been involved in the planning of this raid for several months and specifically provided intelligence as well as logistical support for this operation, which, of course, resulted in the murder of over 270 Palestinians — entirely predictable, when you randomly drop bombs all over a refugee camp, that many, many people will die.

Not only is it a grotesque, indiscriminate attack on civilians, the Israelis deployed perfidy to carry it out. They dressed themselves up as civilians, in a broad daylight attack. They used an aid truck, that was videotaped approaching the area, as well as a civilian vehicle, pretending to be refugees fleeing with a mattress on their car, in order to trick Hamas forces and to allow the operation to go forward.

There’s also been a report by Hamas, which has not been verified, that the operation also resulted in Israel killing three other hostages, including a U.S. citizen, but we’ve not yet been able to confirm that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip of Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. He was on CNN, and he was being questioned by Dana Bash about what took place in al-Nuseirat. He was being questioned while in Paris.

JAKE SULLIVAN: The United States has been providing support to Israel for several months in its efforts to help identify the locations of hostages in Gaza and to support efforts to try to secure their rescue or recovery. I’m not going to get into the specific operational or intelligence-related matters associated with that, because we need to protect those. I can only just say that we have generally provided support to the IDF so that we can try to get all of the hostages home, including the American hostages who are still being held.

DANA BASH:* So, I understand that intelligence, U.S. intelligence, assisted. But will you say anything about U.S. personnel, U.S. weapons?

JAKE SULLIVAN: Well, the one thing I can say is that there were no U.S. forces, no U.S. boots on the ground involved in this operation. We did not participate militarily in this operation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about that distinction that he’s making, and then go on, Sarah Leah Whitson, to respond to these two U.N. reports?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, as I’m sure Jake Sullivan actually knows, military participation is not defined by boots on the ground. And his rebutting or refuting that there were American boots on the ground, and therefore America was not militarily participating in the attack, is absolutely false and wrong under international law. During the Yemen war, for example — and this is why Mr. Sullivan should know this — U.S. lawyers advised the White House that American intelligence and logistical support for the Saudi war in Yemen would make the United States and makes the United States a party to that war. Similarly, American logistical and intelligence support for an active military operation means that the United States has actively participated in the conflict and is a party to the war.

Why this is particularly bad, bad policymaking, is that not only does it make the United States liable and complicit for prosecution for war crimes, including the war crimes that took place in the attack on the refugee camp, but also opens up U.S. forces to reprisal attacks and counterattacks as a party to the conflict, as a legitimate military target. If the Biden administration has not sought a war powers resolution to enter the United States into such active participation in military operations, that is obviously a violation of our own Constitution and yet another example of the Biden administration entangling us in military conflicts in the Middle East without congressional approval and ratification.

With respect to the U.N. reports that have just been issued, they conclude what everybody else who is an expert in law and has observed, which is that the — number one, the attack on Nuseirat refugee camp was itself a war crime, and it involved deliberate targeting of civilians, as well as indiscriminate targeting of civilians. Sadly, this is just piling up on top of ceaseless, relentless war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been underway in Gaza for the past eight months. And that is the conclusion that the Commission of Inquiry’s report released today reveals. We now have mountains of U.N. reports, U.N. experts, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court shouting from the rafters that Israel is carrying out war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza, and yet all of this is showing us, sadly, that Israel has no interest in international law, and the United States has no interest in demanding that Israel actually comply with the international law, besides rhetorical flourishes added in statements to the press in the United States. The continued military support to Israel is really not just a savage attack on the Palestinian people, it is a savage attack on international law itself. And it will come to haunt and hurt America for decades to come.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you, Sarah Leah Whitson, in a related issue in terms of the attacks on Gaza — on May 15th, your organization DAWN sent the State Department a dossier documenting how a group has been attempting to disrupt and prevent aid reaching the people of Palestine, the Palestinians in Gaza. Could you talk about that group and others that support it?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: That’s right. The Israeli group — I don’t to mangle the pronunciation — Tzav 9 is an organized group of settlers in the West Bank that have deliberately and repeatedly attacked humanitarian aid convoys headed to Gaza. This has been an organized effort, coordinated on WhatsApp and other social media, to announce exactly when and where the attacks would take place.

We are urging the Biden administration to sanction this group, but not only to sanction this group, but to sanction the Israeli companies and NGOs, nonprofit organizations, that have been actively fundraising to pay for these attacks on humanitarian aid convoys. I mean, it just boggles the mind that we have vigilante groups who are deliberately attacking food and medicine trucks meant for civilians. I think it raises a tremendous concern and question about the psychology of Israelis who would do such a thing. But more significantly, we want the Biden administration to exercise its sanctions, that it has announced for violence in the West Bank, not only against these individuals, not only against this group. They are not just rogue, lone-wolf operators. They are supported by an infrastructure and network of companies and businesses and nonprofit organizations that are funding their efforts. It’s particularly appalling that an American NGO has been involved, as well, in fundraising for these really disgusting attacks on humanitarian aid convoys. And we think that the IRS should closely examine whether these contributions violate their rules under the IRS as charitable donations.

AMY GOODMAN: We spoke to an Israeli human rights lawyer who tried to interrupt the settlers who were trying to stop the aid convoys, that group, Tsav 9. “Tsav” in Hebrew means “command.” Sarah Leah Whitson, we want to thank you so much for being with us, executive director of DAWN, an organization working to reform U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Next up, we turn to the conviction of President Biden’s son Hunter Biden on all three felonies in that gun trial for buying a gun at a time when he was using illegal drugs. Stay with us.

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