Across seven straight days of sudden, staggering violence between Israel and Hamas and rising death tolls of civilians, all 15 members of the Security Council aired their views publicly at the United Nations on Sunday, after the Council held two closed meetings last week on the continuing destruction in Israel and Palestine.
Officials from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and the Arab League also spoke at the three-hour session on the turmoil, some harsher than others. No immediate solution to the warfare appeared in sight.
Among the first speeches, read by Gilad Erdan, Israel’s UN envoy, and Riyad al-Maliki, Palestine’s foreign minister, chances for a quick détente seemed remote, despite emergency diplomacy by the United States, Egypt, Qatar and others to arrange a cease-fire. That has yet to materialize — a fact overlooked in the Council speechmaking.
Erdan told the body that the current assault on Israel “was completely premeditated by Hamas in order to gain political power” and that it was “all a part of their vicious plan.”
“While Hamas seeks the destruction of the State of Israel, it’s also vying to take power in the West Bank, and to replace the Palestinian Authority,” he said.
Al-Maliki of Palestine said, “Israel is killing families in Gaza one family at a time” and called Israel’s bombardment “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” He added, directly to the Council: “Israel keeps telling you, put yourselves in our shoes. But Israel is not wearing shoes. It is wearing military boots.”
Most of the Council members repeated the need for a fresh cease-fire in Israel and Gaza as soon as possible. Indeed, some Council members had sought a meeting on Friday, May 14, as Israeli bombs have been crushing parts of the Palestine territory, and as Hamas, the militant group that dominates the coastal strip of Gaza, has been unleashing rockets into Israel since May 10. But the US had suggested a Council meeting be held on Tuesday, May 18, saying that its diplomacy “at the highest levels” needed more time to produce results.
The Americans didn’t get their way. As an historical reference reflecting the urgency of the current troubles in Israel and Palestine, the last time the Council held a public meeting on a Sunday was Sept. 25, 2016, which also focused on war in the Middle East — Syria. Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said to the Council on May 16 that his country has “spared no effort” to broker a cease-fire between the Israelis and Hamas.
For humanitarian agencies, the fighting has been marked by its intensity. Robert Mardini, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s director-general, called the conflict “something we have not seen before, with non-stop airstrikes in densely populated Gaza and rockets reaching big cities in Israel.” The Swiss agency has been operating in Israel and Palestine since 1967.
On May 15, Unicef said that eight Palestinian children were reported killed north of Gaza overnight, bringing to at least 40 the number of children killed there since May 10. Nearly 200 people have been killed overall in Gaza and more than 1,000 people have been reported injured. In Israel, 10 people have been reported killed, including two children, since the escalation began. The UN also reported that more than 38,000 displaced people have sought refuge in 48 schools run by its Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (Unrwa) across Gaza. Also in Gaza, more than 2,500 people have lost their homes because of the fighting; and power supply across the strip has been averaging six to eight hours a day, disrupting health care and other services, including water, hygiene and sanitation.
The virtual session on May 16 in the Council, proposed by China, Norway and Tunisia, was webcast live. The range of positions from the members and other speakers was fairly narrow, with most countries not only calling for ending the violence immediately but also repeating that the killing of innocent people has included dozens of children.
At the same time, many countries noted what some analysts and journalists also contend is the root of the latest cycle of hatred: trouble simmering in Jerusalem this month, starting with the threat of evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, to be supplanted by Jewish families.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US envoy to the UN, read a statement that seemed more humane — concentrating on the death of children — than remarks from President Biden’s office on May 15. On the White House Twitter feed, it said that his call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “reaffirmed” Biden’s “strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza, and condemned these indiscriminate attacks against Israel.”
The White House tweeted as well: “The President also spoke with Palestinian Authority President Abbas and conveyed a commitment to strengthening the U.S.-Palestinian partnership. They discussed a shared desire for Jerusalem to be a place of peaceful coexistence for all faiths and backgrounds.”
The US is Israel’s closest ally internationally, with Israel benefiting from billions of taxpayer-financed aid from the US for decades. From 2019 to 2028, it pledged to provide $38 billion in military aid to Israel.
“The human toll of this past week has been devastating,” Thomas-Greenfield continued in the Council. “Hundreds have been killed and injured by rockets and airstrikes — including children.”
“The United States calls on all parties to ensure the protection of civilians and to respect international humanitarian law. We also urge all parties to protect medical and other humanitarian facilities, as well as journalists and media organizations. We are particularly concerned about protecting UN facilities as civilians seek shelter in about two dozen of them,” she went on, concluding, “. . . we need to do everything we can to move closer to a day when both Israeli and Palestinian children wake up every morning without fearing for their lives.”
Tor Wennesland, the UN’s coordinator for the Mideast peace process, told the Council that since May 10, according to Israeli official sources, Hamas and other militants have launched more than 2,900 rockets from Gaza toward Israel, and that nine Israelis, including five women and two children, were killed and hundreds injured.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking from Lisbon, said: “I am appalled by the increasingly large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties, including many women and children, from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. I also deplore Israeli fatalities from rockets launched from Gaza.”
The “only way forward,” he added, is to “return to negotiations with the goal of two States, living side-by-side in peace, security and mutual recognition, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states, based on relevant UN resolutions, international law and prior agreements.”
Earlier in the week, the Europeans in the Council — Estonia, France and Ireland — plus Norway, released a statement in which they “urgently” called on “all actors to deescalate tensions, end violence and show the utmost restraint.” They also condemned the firing of rockets from Gaza against civilian areas in Israel and cited the large numbers of civilian casualties, including children, from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.
The remarks were a reaction to the US’ blocking a statement from the Council last week, again referencing the need for diplomacy to work. Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs and defense, Simon Coveney, put it precisely, saying on Sunday: “We have already waited too long to express ourselves in an open meeting of this Council — the world is watching and listening to what we say.”
Yet no unified statement emerged from the session, and what’s next remains unclear.
May 17: This article was updated with new UN information on living conditions in Gaza in the warfare.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.