The United Nations — "Uncomfortable Witness" To Occupation, Virtual Enemy In Israel
The growing rift between Israel and the United Nations, since Secretary-General António Guterres' statement that the Oct. 7 Hamas attack did not happen in a "vacuum."
UN Secretary-General António Guterres is known for having an amicable and non-controversial personality. But by Wednesday, the Israeli government was calling for his resignation and taking retaliatory measures against the the United Nations.
This unlikely frontal clash reflects the current atmosphere in the war-torn Middle East.
The spark for the ongoing dispute was Guterres' statement before the UN Security Council on Tuesday, when he argued that the Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7 did not occur in a "vacuum" but within the context of a "suffocating occupation" that has lasted for 56 years.
He took great care to add that "the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the horrific attacks by Hamas." He also noted that "these terrible attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people."
Israel's strong response
Every word was carefully chosen, and in no way did the UN Secretary-General excuse the actions of Hamas, as Israel has accused him of doing. A reminder of context is different from a justification.
But it's clear that Guterres, speaking on behalf of the international organization rather than a Western country, expressed himself more candidly than all the European or American leaders, who have been more reserved in their statements since Oct. 7.
Even war has rules.
The severe response from Israel, which is demanding the Secretary-General's resignation, is of course explained by the magnitude of the trauma Israeli society suffered on Oct. 7. Israelis are still in shock, and not ready to hear criticisms perceived as justifications for terrorism.
But that's not the only explanation. The UN Secretary-General did not stop at analyzing the past; he denounced the present, namely the way Israel is conducting its war in Gaza.
"Even war has rules," he said, demanding that all parties, especially Israel, adhere to international humanitarian law.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres
The limits of the United Nations
Though politically powerless, the United Nations is particularly well-placed to assess the humanitarian impact: their specialized agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), has been providing vital assistance to around 5 million Palestinians, including those in neighboring countries since 1948.
In Gaza, 600,000 displaced civilians are under UNRWA protection, and 35 of its staff members have died during airstrikes in the past two weeks.
The UN is largely out of the picture in the search for solutions in the Middle East.
Yesterday, Israel announced that it had refused to grant a visa to the head of the UN's humanitarian branch, Martin Griffith. "It's time to teach them a lesson," said Israel's ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan.
Again, this crisis does not happen out of the blue. Relations between the UNRWA and Israel have been dismal for years. The UN is an uncomfortable witness to the accelerated occupation of the West Bank. At Israel's request, the Trump administration decided in 2018 to cut funding to the UNRWA, a total of $200 million per year, endangering schools, hospitals, and social services.
The UN is largely out of the picture in the search for solutions in the Middle East, but they still have a role in calling for the adherence to international law. This is of crucial importance if the worldwide organization wants to maintain its standing, and if we want to retain some hope amidst these horrors.
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