Biden’s regime change agenda prolongs Gaza genocide

Palestinians recover the body of a child from the rubble of his family’s home following an Israeli airstrike in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, 7 March.

Omar Ashtawy APA images

During an appearance in Selma, Alabama, on 3 March, US Vice President Kamala Harris called for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza to enthusiastic applause from the audience in the town synonymous with the Civil Rights movement.

But then, after a few seconds, Harris added: “for at least the next six weeks,” qualifying what at first sounded like an unequivocal ceasefire call.

Despite some headlines to the contrary, the vice president wasn’t putting forward a new policy from the Biden administration, which – yet again – vetoed a draft resolution demanding a ceasefire at the UN Security Council on 20 February.

Recent remarks by other Biden administration figures, including from the president himself during his State of the Union address, affirm that Washington is still wholly committed to regime change in Gaza and is pressuring Hamas, which insists on a permanent ceasefire, to accept only a temporary pause to the genocide under a deal mediated by Egypt and Qatar.

US support for the removal of Hamas as the governing power in Gaza is thus prolonging Israel’s genocide and makes the Biden administration complicit in the use of starvation as a weapon of war and humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip – violating both international and domestic law.

The indirect talks between Israel and Hamas, in which the US is a key player, increasingly appear to be a ruse much like the American-brokered Oslo accords: The process allows Israel to negotiate in bad faith as it continues its blatant violations of international law in pursuit of its genocidal aims. And then Israel, along with Washington, gets to blame the inevitable breakdown borne of its intransigence on the Palestinians.

By torpedoing any binding demand for an immediate ceasefire at the Security Council, the US buys Israel time and keeps the subterfuge going while children in Gaza not yet killed by American-sourced weapons starve to death as a result of the famine engineered by Israel to pressure Hamas.

And while the US says that it opposes any mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, its policies are laying the groundwork for exactly that.

Washington’s strategic aims in Gaza

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told The New Yorker in an interview published on 28 February that the purpose of a six-week pause is to get aid into Gaza and to get the remaining captives held by Hamas and other groups out.

It’s a tacit admission that the Biden administration supports Israel’s use of urgently needed humanitarian assistance as a form of leverage in negotiations.

Kirby said that “from a strategic perspective, we want to see that Israel is able to defend itself and that Hamas is no longer in charge of Gaza.”

He added that “we still don’t support a general ceasefire that would leave Hamas in charge.”

This shows that regime change in Gaza remains the top priority, despite the killing of more than 30,000 Palestinians in five months, with many thousands more missing under the rubble, and in addition to people whose deaths as a result of Israel’s siege may never be properly counted.

The statistics from the last five months in Gaza – as horrifying as they are – only provide a glimpse of the holocaust that Palestinians there have endured, and without an immediate ceasefire, the worst may be yet to come.

Israel’s destruction and forced evacuation orders have displaced most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million Palestinians, many of them repeatedly. Some 1.5 million people are now concentrated in Rafah, along Gaza’s boundary with Egypt.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, says the military will invade Rafah regardless of any temporary pause.

The US, meanwhile, has made clear that it will not impose any material consequences on Israel should it invade Rafah without a plan to protect civilians – human rights groups and humanitarian agencies have made clear that such a plan is an impossibility – despite being well aware that such an operation would entail mass casualties and spell the end of already severely restricted humanitarian aid missions in Gaza.

The forcible transfer of Palestinians ever southwards in Gaza has given rise to alarm that Israel intends a mass expulsion of people from the territory to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where there has been recent land clearing and construction to potentially contain a population forced from the Strip.

The Biden administration says it is opposed to this, with Kirby saying that “we don’t want to see Gaza occupied, we don’t want to see any of Gaza’s territory reduced, and we don’t want to see any forced displacement of the Palestinian people.”

But Israel is directly contradicting all three of those principles, with its intelligence ministry recommending the “evacuation of the civilian population from Gaza to Sinai,” a blatantly illegal policy being implemented on the ground by the military, which has destroyed wide swathes of civilian infrastructure for a “buffer zone” on Gaza territory – also a glaring violation of international law. And the Israeli war cabinet’s recently revealed “post-Hamas” plan calls for indefinite direct Israeli military control of the territory.

Even calling Netanyahu’s document a “plan” is a stretch, with Haaretz writer Alon Pinkas describing it as an unserious “negation of the Biden plan, a list of statements that constitute open-ended Israeli control of Gaza with no political silver lining.”

The Netanyahu plan calls for civil governance in Gaza to be handled by “local elements with management experience” who are independent from “countries or entities that support terrorism” – seemingly an attempted revival of the Village Leagues that were intended to counter the revolutionary influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s and ’80s. It also includes an Israeli-controlled buffer zone in Rafah along the border with Egypt.

Biden’s plan, by contrast, envisions an international force in Gaza and extension of governance by a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority to the territory, which Netanyahu and members of his far-right government reject.

What the Netanyahu and Biden plans have in common is a presumption that Israel will in fact remove Hamas as a governing entity in Gaza – hardly a foregone conclusion, as US intelligence officials told members of Congress in February.

Netanyahu and the Biden administration also share a total disinterest in how Palestinians wish to organize and govern themselves – more of the same denial of self-determination that is at the heart of the Palestinian national liberation struggle.

Flour Massacre

Kirby told The New Yorker that “calling for a general ceasefire right now, with no preconditions, benefits Hamas and leaves them in charge, and they don’t have to pay any price for what they did on October 7th.”

What Kirby described as one of Washington’s strategic goals in Gaza has left a security vacuum in the territory that has made it impossible to effectively deliver life-saving assistance, compounding the acute food insecurity endured by Palestinians in all areas of the Strip.

This disastrous policy created the conditions for what has become known as the Flour Massacre – the killing of at least 118 Palestinians and the injury of several hundred others after Israeli forces opened fire at people who had gathered to receive food aid in Gaza City on 29 February.

The appalling incident should also be understood as an indication of how dangerous prolonged Israeli direct control as proscribed by Netanyahu will be for Palestinians in Gaza.

Israel reportedly initiated the convoy of aid trucks carrying flour and other food items and supplies and had tapped Palestinian businessmen to deliver it, with three such deliveries occurring in the days leading up to the deadly incident.

During the 29 February delivery, troops opened fire on the crowd in what Al Jazeera reported as “two bursts, the first as people seized the goods and the second when the crowd returned to the trucks.”

The broadcaster, citing reporter Ismail al-Ghoul, who was present, said that “after opening fire, Israeli tanks advanced and ran over many of the dead and injured bodies.”

Israel reportedly organized the aid convoy in an attempt to fill a void after the United Nations was forced to suspend aid missions to northern Gaza due to a lack of security – a situation resulting from Israel’s own actions.

“Humanitarian partners have been unable to reach northern Gaza and increasingly parts of southern Gaza safely, as aid convoys have come under fire and are systematically denied access to people in need,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said.

Aid convoys have not only come under Israeli fire and been denied access, they have also been intercepted by crowds of desperate people and criminal elements who seek to exploit the situation before the cargo, which is transferred into Gaza in the south, reaches the north, where the need is most pressing.

Israel has fostered an environment of insecurity by targeting and killing nearly a dozen Palestinian police officers guarding border crossings and aid convoys, forcing police to quit escorting aid trucks, while blaming humanitarian agencies for their inability to effectively distribute aid.

Two of the officers killed were responsible for the Palestinian side of Gaza’s principal crossings.

Bassem Ghaben, the director of the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom/Karem Abu Salem commercial crossing, was killed along with three other people on 21 December in what Palestinians said was an Israeli air raid [targeting the crossing]…), which had reopened days earlier.

Weeks later, on 7 February, senior officer Majdi Abd al-Aal, the head of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, was assassinated in an Israeli attack along with several other police officers. Palestinian officials said that Abd al-Aal, a member of Hamas, was killed while securing aid trucks.

The Biden administration implicitly endorsed the targeting of officers securing aid as a form of accountability for the 7 October military operation led by Hamas, even while US officials say they oppose the targeting of civilian police in Gaza and have reportedly told their Israeli counterparts that there is no one else able to provide security to aid convoys.

The lack of police escorts has made it “virtually impossible for the UN or anyone else … to safely move assistance in Gaza because of criminal gangs,” US ambassador David Satterfield said in February.

The absence of police has also made the situation more insecure for Palestinians and now armed and masked men are patrolling Rafah to crack down on price gouging.

Convoys allow Israel to “continue the war”

Despite worldwide condemnation of the Flour Massacre, including by some of Israel’s staunchest allies, the military has since then opened fire again on Palestinians gathered to receive assistance in northern Gaza, as it did on at least 14 occasions between mid-January and the end of February.

On 5 March, the World Food Programme said a new attempt to resume deliveries to Gaza’s north was unsuccessful. A 14-truck food convoy was turned away at an Israeli checkpoint after an hours-long wait, and after rerouting, “a large crowd of desperate people … looted the food, taking around 200 tons,” according to the UN agency.

Senior Israeli military officers “believe if the Israeli government does not decide on who is responsible for the distribution of humanitarian aid within the Gaza Strip, there will be more disasters like last week’s incident in northern Gaza,” according to Yaniv Kubovich writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

According to Kubovich, the Israeli military “has repeatedly warned the government that a failure to decide on a method for the distribution of aid to the northern Gaza Strip may compromise the international and US support for the continuation of the war.”

Zvi Bar’el, another Haaretz journalist, writes that “Israel understands that the food and medicine convoys, and supplies of water and fuel are what allow it to continue the war.”

“The paradox is that aid intended to save human life is critical for Israel to continue to kill people, enemies and ‘non-combatants,’” Bar’el adds.

“But Israel didn’t invent the wheel, the US government is the one that has dictated the rules.”

The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor said it has testimonies from Palestinians in Gaza’s north who received phone calls from the Israeli military ahead of the Flour Massacre during which they were told “clearly and explicitly to move to the central and southern sections of the Strip in order to obtain food and water and avoid death from starvation.”

Three prominent Palestinian human rights groups – Al-Haq, Al Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – say that “thousands of Palestinians risk their lives every day in pursuit of essential food supplies, such as flour, near Israeli checkpoints where aid trucks are expected to arrive.”

Despite the Israeli military’s “full awareness of the circumstances imposed by them, they target the individuals waiting for hours to secure food supplies for their starving families.”

Israel’s starvation policy is designed to compel Palestinians in Gaza’s north to “leave southward,” the rights groups add, and “potentially forcibly expel” them to Egypt.

“Starvation as a negotiating strategy”

Not only does the Israeli military view humanitarian aid as a key aspect of its war strategy, it has viewed the famine that it engineered in northern Gaza “as a bargaining chip in the talks with Hamas on a hostage release deal,” Kubovich writes.

A proposal reviewed by Hamas in recent days includes a commitment of 500 trucks per day of humanitarian aid, the provision of 200,000 tents and 60,000 caravans and to allow for the restoration of hospitals and bakeries in Gaza.

Amal Saad, an expert on Hizballah and the resistance axis, said that the proposal shows that “Israel is using starvation as a negotiating strategy.”

“Its proposal for a 40 day truce stipulates that it will allow 500 trucks of humanitarian aid into Gaza daily but contains no mention of a permanent ceasefire, a full withdrawal of its troops, a lifting of its siege, or a return of all civilians to the north, as demanded by Hamas,” she added.

The deliberate starvation of Palestinians allowed Israel “to create new facts on the ground” and lowered the ceiling of negotiations “to merely slowing down starvation, which it can now claim as a major ‘concession.’”

Saad added that a social breakdown would serve Israel’s narrative for its imagined post-war scenario in Gaza in which Hamas is removed, and it “would be the only party able to restore law and order.”

She said that “this would give Israel full control, whether direct or indirect, over an ‘unruly’ Gaza that requires colonial administration.”

Gaza aid halved after ICJ ruling

Sven Koopmans, the European Union’s Middle East peace envoy, told The Times of Israel that “humanitarian assistance, which is saving the lives of innocent civilians, cannot be made subject to political negotiations.”

“It’s not just a matter of humanity and values, even though these are very important,” Koopmans said. “It’s also a matter of international law.”

In late January, the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel was plausibly committing a genocide in Gaza and ordered it to allow the immediate and effective delivery of basic services and humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the territory.

“In January, before the court’s decision, an average of 147 trucks entered Gaza every day,” according to independent UN experts. “Since the ruling was issued, only 57 trucks have entered Gaza between 9 and 21 February 2024.”

The experts added that the “provision of humanitarian aid is the minimum basic humanitarian obligation that Israel must provide unconditionally.”

And since the ICJ ruling, Israel’s allies led by the US suspended funding to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, after unverified allegations that some of its staff were involved in the 7 October attacks – thereby dealing a potential death blow to the largest provider of humanitarian aid in Gaza.

The US has seemingly admitted to being complicit in and endorsing the use of starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza.

When asked in late February about whether the administration was considering airdropping aid in Gaza, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “this is again why it’s so important to get to this hostage deal, why it’s so important to get to this temporary ceasefire.”

Washington also acknowledges that Israeli ministers are blocking the delivery of aid, including humanitarian assistance provided by the US, and that its obstruction is a matter of deliberate policy rather resulting from a technical problem or logistical challenges that might be expected when distributing assistance in a warzone.

“You have seen ministers in the Israeli government block the release of flour from the port at Ashdod,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said during a press briefing on 5 March.

“You have seen ministers in the Israeli government supporting protests that blocked aid from going into Kerem Shalom [crossing], so all of those things are obstacles coming from ministers inside the Israeli government.”

American law bans assistance to countries that prohibit or restrict the delivery of humanitarian assistance provided by the US. But the Biden administration will not say whether it is formally assessing whether Israel is in compliance with US law.

The protests that Miller referred to, by which Israeli citizens have blocked the transfer of aid at the Kerem Shalom/Karem Abu Salem crossing for more than a month, are reportedly being organized by Andy Green (also known as Baruch Ben Yosef), a US citizen who is a suspect in the 1985 assassination of Alex Odeh, a Palestinian American civil rights leader.

Washington refuses to use real leverage on Israel to open the crossings, remove the administrative red tape and ensure the protection of aid convoys – steps urgently required to meet the basic needs of Palestinians in Gaza who have survived five months of constant attacks with US-sourced weapons.

Instead, the Biden administration is now participating in theatrical airdrops of aid to Gaza and has announced it will build a temporary port on its coast, even though the UN says what is needed are more aid deliveries via land and in greater volume.

Throughout the genocide in Gaza, the US has used humanitarian aid as a fig leaf in an unconvincing attempt to cover up its complicity. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller claimed that “it is the United States of America, not any other country, that was able to secure an agreement to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza,” omitting mention that it is the US which has afforded Israel the arms and impunity that enable it to carry out a genocide.

The Biden administration has said that “far too many innocent Palestinians have been killed” in Gaza and has called on Israel to allow more aid in “through as many points of access as possible, and to enable safe and secure distribution of that aid throughout Gaza.”

But Israeli leaders made clear at the outset of the offensive that it would be using food and water as weapons of war against the entire population of Gaza. Five months later, its “choices of methods and means of warfare have caused a humanitarian catastrophe,” according to the UN human rights office.

Aid agencies say with unanimity that only a ceasefire will allow for the massive relief operation needed to prevent famine in Gaza, where “all the lifelines … have more or less been cut,” as the World Health Organization spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told reporters in early March.

“The food supplies have been cut off deliberately. Let’s not forget that,” Lindmeier added.

According to Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Palestinians in Gaza “now make up 80 percent of all people facing famine or catastrophic hunger worldwide.”

“Since the Second World War, we have never seen an entire civilian population made to go hungry this completely and quickly,” Fakhri adds.

Starvation may turn out to be the deadliest weapon in Israel’s war of annihilation against the Palestinian people in Gaza, the destruction of their lives aided, abetted and prolonged by the US.

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.