Biden’s Unclear Red Line on Rafah, Gazans Perish, U.S. Credibility Reaches a Nadir


The world watches as Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli military has largely ignored Joe Biden’s red line in Rafah. For months, Biden has stated his opposition to a major Israeli offensive into Rafah, a city of 250,000 where more than a million displaced Gazans, nearly half of them children, have temporarily settled, mostly in tents, as a supposed refuge from Israel’s genocidal campaign. 

However, Biden’s redline has been anything but clear. In February, President Biden said he would not support a major ground invasion into Rafah without an adequate plan to “protect civilians.” All the while, humanitarian organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that a Rafah invasion would lead to a “blood bath.” At times, it seemed the Biden administration opposed a Rafah invasion completely, as seemed to be indicated by Presidenet Biden’s interview on CNN when he said he would withhold weapons “if they go into Rafah.”   

As we write, according to the Israeli military, 300,000 Gazans, many of them displaced multiple times,  have been forced to flee Rafah while Israeli forces expand their operations, bombing residential towers with F-16 fighter jets and drones.  Israeli forces have also taken control of the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, further choking off the entry of life-saving aid into Gaza as famine spreads.  The Biden administration, however, is minimizing the operation, stating that Israel has not yet crossed the “red line,” which it currently defines as an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah’s population centers, which seems an obtuse phrasing given that all of Gaza is a dense population center. As civilians in Rafah have been killed every day over the past several days, and as Rafah has been cut in half by the Israeli military, when will President Biden determine that the Rafah invasion has officially begun? 

Much is being made of the Biden administration’s decision last week to pause a shipment of heavy munitions to Israel, including highly destructive 2,000 pound bombs that leave 40-foot craters and disperse shrapnel over 1,000 feet.  Notably, however, the shipment hasn’t been canceled but only “paused.” This pause does nothing to impact the $26.4 billion in security aid to Israel passed by Congress last month, which included billions for purchasing advanced weapons systems and producing artillery and munitions. Imagine being a Gazan in Rafah, huddled with your family in a tent, knowing death could be imminent. Would the news of a temporary pause in the supply of one shipment of a particular kind of bomb – a pause that Israel has said will not impact its objectives – give you much solace?

President Biden has said that he will not supply weapons – the same weapons he acknowledges have killed thousands of Gazans so far – for Israel to “go into Rafah.” All the while, evacuations of residents and attacks upon the city continue.  We are grateful for the actions President Biden has taken, albeit limited, his pushback against Netanyahu’s destructive intentions, given that Israel has repeatedly refused to heed any warnings from the Biden administration throughout the past 7+ months. Nonetheless, we remain fearful Biden will continue to shift, bend, and blur his unclear red lines to accommodate Netanyahu’s publicly stated desire to invade Rafah and greatly expand the already appalling death toll in Gaza. If Biden does not take serious measures to deter further operations in Rafah, he will have lost whatever remaining credibility he has with Israel’s far right-wing government, and, much worse, his complicity in the worsening Gazan genocide will be etched in history.

Our organization, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), a coalition of 35 national church communities and organizations, demands that the Biden administration immediately takes action to withhold all military aid to Israel until Israel ends its catastrophic campaign in Gaza. Since October 7, CMEP has called consistently for a comprehensive ceasefire, immediate and adequate humanitarian assistance into Gaza, the release of hostages being held in Gaza, the release of Palestinian prisoners held without due process, and that the core causes of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict be addressed. Today, we implore the President to uphold the U.S. law governing military aid shipment to all nations. The “Leahy Laws” prohibit U.S. assistance to foreign security force units when there is credible information that the unit has committed a “gross violation of human rights (GVHR).”  To comply with those laws, the U.S. government must vet potential recipients for information about GVHR involvement before providing assistance. According to reports, five specific Israeli units were under review for violations of the Leahy Law. Still, weapons have not been withheld because “four out of the five have undergone proper remediation steps.” 

In addition, on May 10, 2024, the State Department produced a report stating its position on whether Israel has violated international law in Gaza as a part of its overall reporting in response to the Presidential Security Memorandum 20 guaranteeing that all U.S. weapons be used according to U.S. and international humanitarian law.  Israel’s gross violations have been documented extensively by international humanitarian and human rights organizations. In the May 10th report, the Biden administration acknowledged it was “reasonable to assess” that Israel violated international law with the use of U.S. weapons but that the specific incidents could not be verified. Thus, weapons have continued to be sent from the United States. We call on the Biden administration to enforce the Leahy Laws and cease shipments of weapons of all kinds to Israel.

For over 40 years, CMEP has advocated for justice for Palestinians while advocating for equality and human rights for all people in the Middle East. We support efforts toward a negotiated settlement in Gaza that addresses the core causes of the current crisis and brings an end to the decades-long violations of the rights of the Palestinian people in accordance with international law, including, but not limited to, bringing an end to the military occupation. Any solution must advance security and self-determination for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Since October 7, CMEP has tried two different strategies with the White House and on Capitol Hill to help bring about a permanent ceasefire. First, we used a moral argument. We argued that Israel must end its campaign in Gaza and that adequate humanitarian aid must be provided for all Gazans because we all are created in the image of God. No one deserves to be starved and bombed indiscriminately. We then tried a pragmatic approach as it relates to foreign policy. We argued that with each additional day of bombing and the increase in the civilian death toll in Gaza, Israel is experiencing growing international isolation, and the U.S. is losing international credibility. That argument brought limited changes in Washington, so we are now resorting to living out the example of the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable. In this parable, the widow faces an uphill battle as she seeks justice from an unjust judge. Despite the impossible odds against her, she refuses to give up hope and persistently and repeatedly petitions the judge for a just decision. The widow’s cause is a righteous one. Finally, the judge grants her request simply because of her tenacity and persistence. Following this example, we refuse to lose hope. We will continue petitioning the White House and Washington, especially considering Biden’s ever-bending red line.

In early 2024, we both traveled to the region on separate trips and spent time in the occupied Palestinian territories to show solidarity in the current suffering. Ron Shive traveled with thirty-five Presbyterians and a few ecumenical partners with Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theological Center. One night, when in Bethlehem, the group met with five Palestinian Christians from Gaza who had lost loved ones in the war and still had other family seeking refuge in a Gazan church. During the conversation, a 20-year-old daughter of a Palestinian pastor from Gaza asked a question that haunts and challenges: “How can you Christians in the United States stand by in silence as our people are blown up night after night?”

Hearing the pleas of so many from Palestine, we remain committed, we will not remain silent. We call on the global church to collectively raise our voices and demand a ceasefire, an end to all violence, and that the oppression of the Palestinian people will be brought to an end.  As Americans, we call on President Biden to hear the pleas of Gazans and Israelis and, in this fatal moment, to do all he can to bring about an end to violence and demand peace.

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, Executive Director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) and Rev. Dr. Ronald Shive, CMEP Regional Coordinator for the Carolinas

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