by Gianna Pontecorboli (from New York)
The situation that has exposed the tensions between the Jewish State and the international community in recent days is certainly not new. Since its creation in 1948, Israel has often been the victim of the divergent interests of the international community in times of crisis and of the political weight of the surrounding Arab Countries. For those who have been following the work of the Glass Palace for years, Israel’s isolation has often seemed obvious, even if in recent years peace agreements with several Arab Countries seemed to have softened it. It is also true that the Jewish State has consistently ignored UN resolutions on the occupied territories and the status of Jerusalem. Now, with the tragic invasion of Gaza, an old rift has been dramatically reopened.
On the one hand, Netanyahu weakened by the criticism of a deeply divided public opinion, which holds him responsible for his lack of preparation in the face of the brutal Hamas attack and the settlers’ violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories, is trying to regain the lost consensus. In order to reassure a population shocked by the tragedy of 7 October and anxious about its future, he has chosen to show a heavy hand militarily and in words, ignoring the tragedy of Palestinian civilians and the harsh judgment of international public opinion.
On the other hand, a UN that is afraid of a possible escalation of the conflict and alarmed by its dramatic consequences for the civilian population does not hesitate to remind Israel of all its responsibilities. Thus, when Antonio Guterres told the Security Council on 24 October that “it is important to recognise that Hamas attacks did not come out of nowhere. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation,” the reaction was immediate. “A UN chief sympathetic to the campaign of mass murder of children, women and the elderly is unfit to lead the UN. I call on him to resign immediately,” shot back Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan, while the Government announced it would cancel visas for officials of the international organisation.
A few days later, when the General Assembly voted by a majority of 120 votes to 14 with 45 abstentions on Jordan’s draft resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire, a resolution that is not legally binding but has moral significance, the response was again dry. Israel’s national unity Government did not hesitate to reject the vote, fearing that Hamas would be given the opportunity to regroup and rearm. “The UN no longer has a shred of legitimacy or importance,” Erdan hastened to explain.
In the face of Israel’s refusal, much of the international community present at UN Headquarters, as well as representatives of the various UN humanitarian agencies, were openly critical. While acknowledging the tragedy of the hostages and the cruelty of the 7 October massacre by Hamas, Guterres himself has often denounced the closure of the borders, the invasion of Gaza and the dramatic price imposed on the civilian population by the indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and residential areas. “Thousands and thousands of children have been killed in Gaza in just a few days, which means that something is clearly wrong with the way the military operations are being conducted,” he said a few days ago.
In fact, beyond the harsh words, contacts between UN and Israeli Government officials have continued, perhaps a little quietly, to allow humanitarian agencies to intervene more, though still much less than would be necessary and at the very high cost of 99 deaths among UNRWA workers, to help the population of Gaza. At the same time, pressure from international public opinion and the American ally convinced Netanyahu to order a daily pause in the fighting to allow the safe evacuation of the population to southern Gaza. Small steps, still far from what is needed, but significant nonetheless, and have probably reopened a glimmer of hope for discreet UN involvement in negotiations for the release of the Israeli hostages.
However, with the various agencies rightly concerned about the situation in Gaza, the timeframe for a possible reconciliation between Israel and the United Nations will certainly be long and arduous. What Antonio Guterres has called ‘the children’s graveyard’ will continue to weigh on the international community’s judgement. And few at UN headquarters have pointed out that Hamas shares responsibility for the massacre. Meanwhile, even the Israeli citizens most critical of the current Prime Minister will resent what they often see as a system of “double standards”.
On Thursday, for instance, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States, and the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, presented a chilling overview of the economic impact of the war on the people of Gaza. The dramatic picture they presented, made up of cold figures, showed very clearly the price that an innocent population has paid and will continue to pay. But they made no mention of the economic consequences of the conflict for the equally innocent Israeli civilian population. Just as no one in Turtle Bay spoke in recent weeks of the 400,000 or so Israelis who have been forced to leave their kibbutzim destroyed by Hamas’s fury and their homes in northern Israel targeted by rockets.
To learn more, read our Israel/Palestine conflict factsheet
On the cover photo, The Secretary-General Antonio Guterres meets with Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu at UN Headquarters in New York on September 20, 2023 © lev radin/Shutterstock.com