45 burned alive by Israel, Biden says ‘red line’ still not crossed
Amid still smouldering rubble on Monday, Palestinians in Rafah search for the remains of loved ones burned alive after an Israeli airstrike engulfed a tent encampment of refugees in flames Sunday night. | Jahad Alshrafi / AP

At least 45 Palestinians were burned alive in Rafah Sunday after bombs dropped from Israeli jets turned a tent encampment into a blazing inferno. On social media—and on television, at least outside the United States and Israel—videos circulating show Gazans carrying the charred remains of victims from the blackened rubble.

One woman interviewed by the international media Monday as she and others scoured the ashes for the bodies of the dead described the situation: “All the people fled from the tents running. The sound was horrifying and deafening. This place is full of innocent people and children, and they are all martyred.”

Another man, searching for his loved ones’ remains, said, “My entire family were wiped off the record. No one is left.”

The tent encampment burns in Rafah Sunday night after an Israeli airstrike. AP

It’s a story that has been repeated thousands of times during the last several months. Along with the Palestinians killed in other Israeli attacks this weekend and into Monday, the human beings incinerated in Rafah pushed the Gaza death toll to just over 36,000.

In Washington, meanwhile, the White House declared that this latest atrocity still doesn’t cross the “red line” that Biden announced in early May. With that warning, Biden had threatened to suspend delivery of some classes of U.S.-made weapons to Israel if it attacked Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have been herded by Israeli troops.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby moved the goalposts again Tuesday, inserting more technicalities as to why the massacre of Palestinians huddled in tents was not a reason to halt arms shipments. “We have not seen them go in with large units, large numbers of troops, in columns and formations in some sort of coordinated maneuver against multiple targets on the ground,” Kirby said.

On May 8, Biden did issue a “pause” on a single shipment of 1,800 of the 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 of the 500-pound bombs that Israel used to flatten Gaza and kill tens of thousands in the earlier months of the war. He announced that if Israel went into Rafah, “I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically.”

Despite that declaration, Israel’s troops have been attacking Rafah for weeks, and its bombers have been carrying out airstrikes regularly—with essentially no consequences. Aside from the two categories of bombs, all other scheduled weapons shipments have continued unabated. Even as this article goes to press, it is being reported that Israeli tanks are rolling through the center of Rafah.

Before making any moves in response to Sunday’s mass murder, the Biden administration initially seemed to be awaiting the results of an inquiry by the Israeli Defense Forces, which was tasked with investigating its own crimes. As Kirby’s Tuesday announcement made clear, the administration also clings to the claim by Netanyahu that the burning of 45 people was a “tragic mishap” resulting from an effort to use “precision munitions” to target Hamas fighters.

Using language that’s become all too familiar, another White House official had said Monday that the images coming from Rafah were “devastating” and “heartbreaking.” There was still no signal that the president has any intention of changing his approach to the war. In the next breath, the same spokesperson said, “Israel has a right to go after Hamas.”

Now held prisoner by Biden’s own red line declaration, the administration and its PR spin doctors continue to engage in a game of words, contorting to explain away each new atrocity committed by Israel as not yet sufficiently horrible enough to justify cutting off Israel’s endless U.S. arms supply.

When Israel attacked Gaza earlier this month, for instance, it was deemed “not a major military operation.” Therefore, it did not qualify as crossing the red line and thus failed to trigger any further weapons pauses.

Then, when a pre-scheduled State Department statement on how Israel was using the weapons supplied by the U.S. had to be issued in mid-May, it reported that it “may be reasonable to assess” Israel has violated international law. But despite the supposed reasonableness, the Biden administration declined to make such an assessment.

Several days ago, even as Israel maintained its total blockade on food, water, fuel, and medical supplies crossing any of Gaza’s borders, the existence of a (now disabled) floating platform letting a handful of ships unload a miniscule amount of supplies was deemed sufficient for the U.S. to conclude Israel was not “prohibiting or otherwise restricting the transport or delivery of…humanitarian assistance.”

To top it all off, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spent the last several days huddling with Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv to strategize a way that Israel might ravage Rafah in a way that would supposedly “prevent mass civilian casualties.” And that brings us to now.

Palestinians mourn relatives burned alive in Israel’s bombardment of Rafah on Sunday night. | Jehad Alshrafi / AP

Will the White House decide that the 45 Palestinians burned alive Sunday night constitute mass civilian casualties? Given what has been seen so far, there’s little reason to hope.

The level of verbal obfuscation by the administration when it comes to Israel’s war crimes, along with Sullivan’s active collaboration in the scheme to attack Rafah in a manner meeting some politically acceptable standard, suggest Biden’s “red line” was never real.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put the issue squarely Monday: “It is long past time for the president to live up to his word and suspend military aid.” Rep. Ayanna Pressley asked, “How much longer will the U.S. stand by while the Israeli military slaughters and mutilates Palestinian babies?”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American in Congress, called Netanyahu a “genocidal maniac.” And as always, Rep. Cori Bush didn’t mince words: “Babies burned alive. Palestinians massacred overnight. End the genocide. Ceasefire now.”

But what will it take to make Biden change course? How many more war crimes must be committed before he orders a real halt in arms shipments? In the wake of the Rafah blaze, will he keep repeating the obvious falsehood that “what’s happening in Gaza is not genocide,” as he did last week?

The longer the president sticks to his disastrous approach, isolating increasing an number of voters, the greater becomes the risk of U.S. politics shifting even further to the right in November. The return of Trump would likely mean even more death and destruction for Palestine, along with creeping fascism here at home.

Only 34% of U.S. voters say they approve of Biden’s handling of the war. As one Reuters pollster put it, “This issue is a stone-cold loser for Biden; he’s losing votes from the left, right, and center.” Among Democrats, young people, voters of color, and others, the numbers are even worse.

The university encampments must remain steadfast. The ceasefire resolutions from labor unions, city councils, and other bodies have to continue piling up. Protests, petitions, and phone calls to the White House are needed in even greater numbers.

What other tactics can be employed, though? How can the political influence of the weapons makers, Netanyahu’s right-wing U.S. allies, and the neocon foreign policy establishment be combatted?

These are questions that the evolving ceasefire movement must collectively tackle. The survival of Gaza and U.S. democracy are on the line.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the views of its author.

Note: This story was initially published under the headline: “45 burned alive by Israel, Biden still unsure whether ‘red line’ is crossed.” It was updated to its current headline and supplemented with additional information after a statement from National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby was issued which made clear that the “red line” has no real meaning.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.