The US and Israel are playing a dangerous game

US reluctance to pressure Israel into accepting the ceasefire deal will have grave consequences, and not just for the Palestinians.

Israeli military vehicles operate in the Gazan side of the Rafah Crossing, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the southern Gaza Strip, in this handout image released on May 7, 2024. Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Israeli military vehicles are seen on the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing in the southern Gaza Strip on May 7, 2024 [Handout by the Israeli army via Reuters]

On May 5, the breaking news that Hamas had accepted a ceasefire deal spread like wildfire across Gaza, sending people to the streets celebrating. Their joy was short-lived, however, as Israel pressed forward with a deadly ground assault on Rafah.

After weeks of facing accusations from Israel and the US that its stance was impeding progress in ceasefire negotiations, Hamas made a strategic decision with which it effectively outmanoeuvred its enemy. The ball is now in Israel’s court and by extension, the court of its main backer, the United States.

If a deal for a lasting ceasefire is not concluded, Israel will be exposed as the true spoiler of peace, and US as a dishonest broker.

There are already indications that the two are playing a game, trying to sell to the global public unconvincing narratives that Israel was not aware of the deal that was proposed to Hamas and that the US opposes an Israeli operation of Rafah.

Despite the appearance of public surprise and puzzlement by both, it may well be that they knew and expected what would happen next.

Israel has claimed that it is rejecting the deal because it was not aware of new provisions included in it, and yet there are reports that CIA chief Bill Burns who is involved in the negotiations has been briefing the Israeli side. And given President Joe Biden’s “ironclad” support for Israel, it seems highly unlikely his administration would negotiate a deal that does not favour its ally’s interests.

The US, for its part, has claimed that it staunchly opposes an Israeli ground offensive on Gaza. And yet, the operation has started and the response from the Biden administration has been to play it down, not to denounce it. US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that supposedly this was not the full invasion everyone expected, but a “limited” operation, thus indirectly indicating that the US was aware of Israeli plans.

In this context, it is important to remember another “limited” operation that the US reportedly opposed, and which turned out to be not so “limited”. At the start of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, then-Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin claimed the Israeli army would enter only 40km (25 miles) into Lebanese territory, to “eliminate” positions of Palestinian armed groups that had bombarded northern Israel.

Unsurprisingly, the Israeli troops did not stop at 40km and advanced all 110km (68 miles) to the capital Beirut and captured it. Trying to cover up its deceit, the Israeli government claimed the full-scale invasion was necessary due to the “situation on the ground” – a weak justification that even then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig repeated. The Israelis did not withdraw from Lebanon until 2000.

Throughout this Israeli war on Gaza, there hasn’t been a warning publicly made by the US that Israel has heeded. It is indeed unclear to what extent such warnings are just optics of putting pressure on the Israeli government while continuing to support its every move. In this sense, one should take with a grain of salt reports that the Biden administration is holding off one shipment of weapons to Israel to pressure it into halting the full-scale invasion of Rafah.

Within the context of this supposedly “limited” operation, it is worrying the US is giving tacit approval for Israeli forces occupying the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt.

The Israeli takeover of the Palestinian crossing point not only caused panic in Gaza, where people are terrified of badly needed aid being completely blocked, but also deeply worried Cairo, which condemned the attack.

Egypt has repeatedly warned in the past that any presence of Israeli military troops on the Palestinian side of the Philadelphi Corridor is a violation of the Camp David Accords and Philadelphi protocol, according to which this area has to be demilitarised.

The Camp David Peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was brokered and guaranteed by the US in 1979. It was later amended with the Philadelphi protocol in 2005 after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Egypt has abided by the provisions of the deal, but now Israel appears not to be.

The Biden administration may be thinking it is successfully deflecting criticism by presenting the Israeli invasion of Rafah as “limited”, but the occupation of the crossing in violation of a US-backed treaty sends a clear message that the US and Israel have no qualms about walking all over agreements they have signed.

This comes on top of Washington going out of its way to shield Israel from legal consequences for the atrocities it is committing in Gaza, thus undermining international law. US officials have called UN Security Council resolutions “not binding”, condemned the International Court of Justice for recognising the situation in Gaza as a “plausible” genocide, and threatened the International Criminal Court with sanctions if it issues arrest warrants for Israeli officials.

As things stand now, Biden is headed towards losing the November election and leaving a dreadful legacy behind: overseeing a genocide in Gaza and undermining the international legal order to pave the way for more atrocities and more impunity.

It is still not too late to change course. Biden must apply real, decisive pressure on Israel to accept a permanent ceasefire deal with Hamas, fully withdraw from Gaza, lift the siege and allow for full humanitarian access and reconstruction to begin.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.