Eau Clare, Wi. (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – We are in an age of firsts. The October 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel set off a conflict in which non-state actors have played an unprecedented role. In the aftermath, Israel replied with massively disproportionate force, such that its actions have been found plausibly to constitute genocide by the International Court of Justice. In further response, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemeni’s Houthi military, supporting the Palestinian cause, engaged Israel and its allies. The Iranian direct military assault on Israel for the first time came in response to another first; the Israeli attack on Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1, 2024. Iran has already claimed it was reacting in self-defense, riposting to an attack that killed seven Iranian officials, including two top commanders responsible for Iran’s Syria and Lebanon operations coordination. Iran’s massive aerial attack marks the first direct strike by Iran on Israeli territory from Iranian soil. The cost of Israel’s total war on Gaza — and Washington’s unstinting support for it — can be counted in dollars, but must also be counted in the loss of credibility for key pillars of the post-WW II international order.

Defending itself from Iran’s drones and missiles cost the Israelis alone an estimated 4-5 billion shekels ($1.08-1.35billion). This does not include the cost to US citizens of $1 billion in countering Houthi and Iranian missiles and drones targeted at Israel. Israel’s initial limited response on April 19 through a drone attack on a military base in Isfahan leaves room for de-escalation of tension over a full-scale war.

Iran’s first direct attack on Israel hit the Nevatim airbase, a mere 40 miles south of Jerusalem, practically implying an Iranian credible deterrence capability if the potency of the deterrence is questioned. Prospects for a wider conflict in the region involving Russia and China remain, risking an ultimate nuclear exchange that should remain ‘unthinkable.’ Strategic partners Russia and China have Tehran’s back, and their role in West Asia’s conflict will only grow if the US doesn’t keep Israel in check. Whilst the war in Gaza and the Lebanon-Israel border continues. Israel’s unrelenting assault on Gaza, killing over 34000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, with the vast majority women and children, has turned public opinion against Israel. And, Israel’s attempts to destroy UNRWA — the backbone of relief efforts in Gaza — with its slow, meticulous, and often arbitrary inspection of trucks have further complicated aid delivery.

What indelibly marks these events, aside from the military and political calculations and implications for the region, is that they have occurred in violation of provisions of international law, including, but not exclusively, the breach of sovereignty, international humanitarian laws, laws of war,  crimes against humanity, wars of aggression, and according to a preliminary ICJ ruling, possibly the articles of 1948 genocide convention. Israel’s ‘ironclad’ supporter, the United States, is construed, therefore, as an accomplice in the crime of genocide through its arms transfers to Israel, and vetoes in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to end Israel’s almost seven-month-old military operation in Gaza. 

Al Jazeera English Video: “Nearly 200 bodies found in mass grave at hospital in Gaza’s Khan Younis”

A closer look at the post-Cold war period since 1990 reveals persistent US violations of international law, generally related to the 75-year-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The United States has paid a heavy financial and political, and now explicit moral, price for its protection of the state of Israel. But the biggest victim of this ‘special relation’ has been the very foundation of the liberal international order. The United States’ (along with its Western allies in NATO) double-standard views and application of provisions of international law have been detrimental to an orderly global governance, A major culprit for such liberal/illiberal dichotomy in rhetoric and practice is the US blind commitment to the state of Israel.  

The end of the Cold War promised the End of History and the beginning of a ‘New World Order.’ It promised that globalization of trade and finance and the technological revolution in information technology, transportation, and communication means the falsity of a looming ‘Clash of Civilizations.’ 

The United States experienced almost unprecedented economic prosperity in the 1990s and the European allies celebrated the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. The Eastern European countries abandoned communism and joined the ranks of capitalist countries and the European Union. China continued with its miraculous economic performance welcomed Western investments and traded and cooperated in the Security Council curtailing the Iranian nuclear program. Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation similarly welcomed privatization. But,   structural adjustment policies resulted in a defunct privatization of state-owned properties, and with inadequate legal and institutional mechanisms to prevent the rise of the new oligarchs and ‘parasitic capitalism.’ 

Ironically, the new world order was to emerge on the ruins of Iraq after the 1990-91 first Persian Gulf war. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 on 29 November 1990 authorized the first UNSC collective security action against an aggressor since the 1950-53 Korean War. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 triggered the first Persian Gulf war, but we also witnessed 30 scud missiles hitting Israel as Saddam Hussein attempted to expand the war and turn it into another Arab-Palestinian-Israeli war. The Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) was a bloody confrontation between two Muslim countries with opposing views on Islam, power politics, and what constitutes national interest. Yet, the revolutionary state in Iran saw the liberation of al-Quds (Jerusalem) to follow the liberation of Shia holy sites in Kerbala and Najaf in Iraq. Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric and actions have remained steadfast since the advent of the revolution. 

The US Mideast policy immediately after WWII focused primarily on countering communism and securing the flow of cheap oil from the region which demanded dealing with authoritarian Arab regimes fearful of both the threat of communism and radical ideas that may threaten the status quo on the resource power parameters in the state-society relations. Still, the thorny Palestinian issue was two-pronged, and the Arab states fought against and cooperated with Israel to contain Palestinian nationalism. The Arab Israeli wars have always involved competing Arab, Israeli, and Palestinian nationalisms, compounded with inter-Arab states’ political rivalries, sectarianism, and US (and Israeli) interventions during and after the Cold War. Recall, the Arab-Israel-Palestinian wars with such hallmarks, including 1948, 1956, 1967-70, 1973, and 1982-85 (Lebanon) wars.

Regional wars bearing similar traits and related to the wider Palestinian nationalism include the first Persian Gulf War (1990-91), Intifada I (1987-1990), Intifada II (2000-2005), Lebanon (2006), and 15 wars involving Gaza alone since 1948, including the Gazan wars of 2008-09, 2014, 2018-19, and now the ongoing 2023-24 war. No wonder, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the mother of all wars in the region. The conflict over the years has fed the radicalization of politics in the region. The Islamic movements have rallied around the issue of the liberation of Palestine and al-Quds (Jerusalem) to mobilize popular support in advancing political and religious legitimacy in the absence of a viable democratic rule. The 22 authoritarian Arab states, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Türkiye have also been intimately involved with the Palestinian issue.   

The United States has relied on its hard and soft power to lead a liberal global order since World War II. The Cold War preoccupation with polarity and deterrence based on a doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) complicated the plans for a liberal international system, beginning with the creation of the Bretton-Woods gold-based, fixed-rate exchange system and its institutions—the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). The principle behind the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) eventually developed into the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1993, as the Europeans’ attempts at integration since 1951 progressed into the creation of the European Union in 1993. Other rule-based regional economic integration also appeared in Asia, Africa, South and North America. Contrary to the unstable interwar period that saw the rise of Nazism and Fascism, the post-WWII ‘peaceful’ international system witnessed 51 founding members of the UN in 1945 increase to 193 countries today. 

The United States’ commitment to the security of the state of Israel has been a dominant theme in its Middle Eastern policy since its creation in 1948 but also at the expense of its advocacy for a liberal-based international law and order. The US has over decades dispensed billions of dollars in economic and military aid premising it on Israel as a strategic ally in countering communism, helping the flow of oil, and keeping Arab radicalism at bay. Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since its founding, collecting about $300 billion (adjusted for inflation) in total economic and military assistance. The US diplomatic coverage of Israel also is unconstructive; the UN data shows it has vetoed dozens of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions critical of Israel, including at least 53 since 1972.

A review of debates in Congress and data analysis also shows, “Members of Congress have consistently debated and passed resolutions in support of Israel and in repudiation of its foes, showing strong bipartisan support for Israel.” The US’s unequivocal support of Israel has seen it prevent resolutions condemning, among others, violence against protesters, illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank built since 1967. The US meanwhile has obliged its NATO allies, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, and Jordan in its quest to protect Israel and in support of authoritarian Arab states!

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the ‘mother of all conflicts’ in the MENA region that has intimately influenced or been influenced by Arab nationalism, the Islamic movements, the radicalization of politics, and overall governance in the region. To the neglect of elsewhere in Africa, the Sahel region has experienced five military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, and Gabon. Whilst, Tunisia, Chad, and Sudan have experienced constitutional coups and widespread violence in the case of Sudan. The US Africa Command since 2008  has been involved in military training of African states to counter the Russian and Chinese military and economic inroads in the Continent.  

The restoration of a global liberal order necessitates a uniform and unbiased application of the expectations, norms, and laws of international law. Since Hamas’s October 7, 2023, attack on Israel from Gaza, the world has witnessed the continuing degradation of the norms and laws and the expectations of behavior in the so-called international liberal order. The Israeli overreaction to the Hamas attack resembles the United States’ initial response to the terrorist attack on its soil on September 11, 2001. In that instance, the United States, for the sake of revenge, self-defense, or the restoration of international order, took measures that violated the very norms, laws, and expectations of the international system which Washington had championed for decades. The United States in less than a month began bombing Afghanistan and quickly overthrew the ruling Taliban regime and chased al Qaeda fighters across the border into Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond. This story, however, did not end there. The US declared a ‘War on Terror’ resulting in a policy of regime change beginning with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Moammar Qaddafi in Libya, and unsuccessful attempts in Syria and Yemen.  

Estimates of direct civilians killed due to American military intervention totals stand at least 400,000 since 9/11. The number of people killed indirectly in post-9/11 war zones, including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, is estimated at 3.6-3.8 million, though the precise figure remains unknown. This brings the estimated total of direct and indirect deaths to 4.5-4.7 million. Similarly, the Israeli overreaction after the tragic events of October 7, 2023, resulting in 1200 Israelis killed, has already led to 34,000 Palestinian dead, with women and children accounting for the majority, not accounting for thousands injured, maimed, traumatized, and remain unaccounted for. The deadly Israeli assault on Gaza has also led to the death of many journalists, members of the NGOs, and the destruction of hospitals and mosques. 

International law today remains incomplete and in need of drastic structural changes, e.g., a reform of the UNSC membership and power structure, a revisiting of the adjudication power of the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) and its ‘compulsory’ jurisdiction, the World Trade’s provisions for labor and environmental protection, and a serious re-commitment to empower UN and its functional agencies with necessary resources. The United States unconditional support for Israel and its lack of attention to the welfare of peoples in the MENA region, as well as elsewhere in the developing world, in pursuit of peace, human security, and good governance, is detrimental to the universal compliance and voluntary adherence to the norms and rules of international law.