Girls at a gated UN school in Gaza being used as a shelter amid the bombing by Israel in its fight against Hamas’s rocket fire. Thousands of families in Gaza have fled their homes since the conflict began on May 10, and dozens of children, mostly Palestinian, have been killed. A cease-fire between the factions became effective May 21. EYAD AL BABA/UNRWA
A cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, effective May 21; Myanmar civilians’ high death toll; the uphill climb for German women in politics.
You are reading This Week @UN, summarizing the most pressing issues facing the organization. The information is gathered from UN press briefings, PassBlue reporting and other sources. This week, the concentration of daily news on the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas and the role of the UN is laid out as a cease-fire was announced on May 20.
A Security Council press statement drafted by Norway, Tunisia and China on the matter was released on May 22, welcoming the May 21 Gaza cease-fire and noting at the top the “important” role “Egypt, other regional countries, the UN, the Midde East Quartet and other international partners played in this regard.”
China is midway through its presidency of the Security Council in May. You’re just two clicks from our latest UN-Scripted podcast episode on the topic; an article accompanying the audio report explains how China, a veto holder, plans to avoid discussion of Myanmar this month in the Council.
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Sunday, May 16
• “UN Security Council Members Say to Israel and Hamas: Stop Killing Children”: The reactions of UN Security Council members to the weeklong burst of violence between Israel and Hamas, including dozens of murdered children, were finally aired in public at a meeting on Sunday, May 16, after two closed Council sessions were held since the fighting began on May 10. But there was no solution in sight to the spiraling warfare. (Video below.)
Monday, May 17
• “Despite Merkel’s Endurance as Chancellor, German Women Still Fight for Parity in Politics”: Mikaela Conley, an American reporting from Berlin, writes that Germany, the most powerful country in Europe, may have been led by a woman since 2005, but women still struggle to achieve fair representation in politics countrywide, reflecting a trend in many other countries — rich, poor and in between. The story was distributed internationally by the Women’s UN Report Network, or WUNRN.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Israeli airstrikes on Gaza continued as the UN received ongoing reports of displaced Palestinians seeking shelter in schools run by Unrwa (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) across Gaza. (Update: The UN reported that the fighting in Palestine and Israel has killed more than 200 civilians.)
• A new analysis by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization shows that long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and heart disease in 2016, a 29 percent increase since 2000. The study finds that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35 percent higher risk of a stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared to working 35 to 40 hours a week.
• “Washington, a close ally of Israel, has reportedly blocked UNSC statements that condemned Israel’s military response and called for a ceasefire,” according to Al Jazeera, referring to the UN Security Council.
Tuesday, May 18
• Spokesperson’s briefing: In Chile, citizens elected their representatives for the Constitutional Convention, mayors and municipal councils and, for the first time, regional governments. This represents “an opportunity to reaffirm Chile’s human rights commitments to accelerate the achievements towards sustainable and inclusive development,” the UN said.
• A press briefing was held at the UN with Ambassador Sofiane Mimouni of Algeria and current chair of the Arab Group; Karim Soumana, a diplomat from Niger, chair of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for May; and Ambassador Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN. The message: As the Security Council stalls on releasing a statement calling for an immediate cease-fire on the Israeli-Hamas conflict, the Arab Group and the OIC representatives have requested an urgent meeting of the 193-member General Assembly. The session, arranged by Volkan Bozkir, the Assembly president, will be held on Thursday, May 20, as a debate.
• France 24 reported that as the fighting continued for more than a week, approximately 52,000 Palestinians have been displaced by Israeli airstrikes that have destroyed or badly damaged nearly 450 buildings in the Gaza strip, per the UN. The media report added that Amnesty International said Israel airstrikes on residential buildings might amount to war crimes and that Israel says it hits only legitimate military targets and “that it does all it can to avoid civilian casualties.”
• About 47,000 of the displaced people in Gaza, which has two million people, have sought shelter in 58 UN-run schools in Gaza, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva updated reporters.
• The Security Council held another closed meeting, in the morning, on the Gaza/Israel fighting, the third private session since May 10, the same day that France, a veto holder, introduced a draft Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire, protection of civilians and other priorities. The text was apparently first sent to the US mission to the UN, then to the British delegation, a source told PassBlue. (The draft was sent to all 15 members by Wednesday evening, May 19.) The French could use the draft resolution to get the US to exert more pressure on Israel to stop its military operation, Axios reported.
Axios added that France’s draft resolution was “using similar language that the US has been saying publicly.” The French move surprised the Biden administration, which has blocked a Security Council press statement proposed by China, Norway and Tunisia on the fighting.
• Reuters’ report on the French proposal said that diplomats at the UN said the US told the Security Council a “public pronouncement right now” would not help end the crisis.
• US Secretary of State Blinken’s media briefing in Iceland, where he was traveling for an Arctic Council meeting, included discussions with reporters on the Mideast conflict.
He was asked: “This administration has repeatedly said America is back, reflecting the desire to restore U.S. leadership in the world, and promised to revitalize multilateralism. And yet, in one of the first serious crisis it’s facing in the Middle East, the U.S. has singlehandedly blocked efforts in the United Nations to issue a statement on a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. How do you justify that?”
Response: “First, I think it’s important to note that we are engaged in quiet but very intensive diplomacy in an effort to de-escalate and end violence and then hopefully move on to build something more positive in its wake. That’s involved and continues to involve dozens and dozens of phone calls and engagements with Israelis, with Palestinians, with virtually every partner country in the region as well as the work that’s being done on the ground by our Senior Envoy for Israel and Palestine Hady Amr.
“With regard to the United Nations, we’re not standing in the way of diplomacy. On the contrary, as I said, we’re exercising it virtually non-stop. The question is: Would any given action or any given statement actually advance the goal of ending the violence and moving to a better place? And that’s the judgment that we bring to bear each time we’re considering what action to take, what initiative to follow. If we thought and if we think going forward that there’s something, including at the United Nations, that would actually effectively advance the objective, we would be for it. But right now, we are very focused on this intensive diplomacy with the objective of bringing violence to an end and, as I said, trying to build something positive in its wake.”
• As bloodshed continued in Palestine and Israel, numerous US Democratic Congressional representatives introduced a resolution to block a $735 million sale of precision-guided weapons to Israel. The Biden administration approved the potential sale of $735 million in weapons to Israel earlier this year and sent it to Congress for formal review on May 5, giving lawmakers 15 days to object under laws governing foreign weapons sales.
• A Politico report said that “American officials have privately urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides to wind down his country’s operations against the Gaza Strip, which have included airstrikes and killed more than 200 Palestinians, a person familiar with the situation told POLITICO on Tuesday.” Netanyahu responded by saying that a “few days” of fighting lay ahead.
Politico noted: “Also Monday, in a call with Netanyahu, Biden expressed ‘support’ for a cease-fire. While it was not a demand, the mere mention of it in the public readout of the call signaled a growing U.S. impatience.” Politico added: “The U.S. calculus from the start was designed to keep the conflict as short as possible. But, amid conversations with counterparts in the region, senior Biden administration officials determined that the best way to tighten the time frame was to push Israel from behind the scenes, not publicly demand a cease-fire or support a U.N. Security Council resolution doing so.”
• The European Union called for an immediate cease-fire, with only Hungary opting out.
• A nugget that may shed light on President Biden’s attitude toward Israel: At a 2013 Aipac conference, he explained how he aquired his affection for Israel as a child: “We gathered at my dinner table to have conversation,” he said. “It was at that table I first heard the phrase that is overused sometimes today, but in a sense not used meaningfully enough — first I heard the phrase, ‘Never again.'” He said he also “learned that the only way to ensure that it could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure, Jewish state of Israel.”
• Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, spoke at a State Department Africa regional media event, on topics ranging from Covid-19 to climate change to Ethiopia.
• The Security Council also met in the afternoon with UN Secretary-General António Guterres to hear him vocalize his “vision” amid the near certainty that he will be reappointed for another five years. The only clue of the meeting was a standard sign outside the chamber where the members gathered. The final recommendation by the Council will likely occur in June, when Estonia holds the monthly Council presidency. That step will be followed by a vote in the General Assembly. The Council’s press remarks on the meeting with Guterres.
Wednesday, May 19
• “Who Is Behind the High Civilian Death Toll Since Myanmar’s Coup? Its Own Security Forces”: Damian Lilly, a humanitarian-aid specialist, writes in his op-ed: Since the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup in Myanmar, 802 civilians have been killed, most of them peaceful protesters shot by state security forces. The number of recorded civlian deaths in Myanmar is higher than all other conflicts in the world this year so far, except for Ethiopia and Nigeria.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Unrwa seeks $38 million for a 30-day emergency response in Gaza to assist up to 50,000 people seeking safety in 50 official shelters. The UN hopes to release $14 million from its humanitarian fund for Palestine as well. (The UN now reports that at least 60 children have been killed in Gaza and another 444 have been injured in less than 10 days of conflict.)
• The Washington Post reported how “President Biden‘s unusually blunt demand Wednesday that Israel de-escalate its military attack on Gaza is creating a rare rift between the two countries and dismaying some of Israel’s supporters in the United States, while heartening Democrats who have increasingly pushed for a tougher U.S. stance toward Israel.”
• “U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a longtime Africa specialist, laid out the Biden administration’s policies on Africa,” VOA News reports.
• The US still refused to consider voting on a draft resolution proposed by France in the Security Council calling for an immediate cease-fire, many media reported. An account (in French) by AFP’s reporter based at the UN described a “standoff” between the approach by France and the US at the UN over the Israeli-Hamas conflict as “the first open crisis between the two allies since the coming to power of Joe Biden who had promised an American re-engagement in multilateral diplomacy and with its traditional partners.”
Thursday, May 20
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres this morning told the General Assembly emergency debate on the “situation in the Middle East and Palestine” (the speeches focused heavily on the Israeli-Hamas flareup) that the past 10 days “have witnessed a dangerous and horrific surge in deadly violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly Gaza, and in Israel.” (Technically, the debate was convened, a UN press release said, by the president of the General Assembly, upon request from the representatives of Niger and Algeria, in their roles as chairs of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab Group, respectively, “in response to more than 10 days of deadly fighting in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”)
• The daylong debate on the current conflict in the General Assembly, which included high-level ministers from Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kuwait, Palestine, Turkey, Qatar, Algeria, Maldives and elsewhere, representing the first high-level, in-person meeting of the Assembly since the Covid-19 pandemic began in March 2020. Of the debate’s 103 speakers on the list, 22 were unable to be heard, so another meeting is scheduled for May 25.
•Assembly President Bozkir opened the session’s remarks.
• The US speech, by Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, in which she said of the US, “We have not been silent.”
• The speech by Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki of Palestine.
• Israel ambassador to the UN’s speech.
• In the midafternoon during the Assembly debate, word spread fast at the UN that a cease-fire had been agreed on by Israel and Hamas, in negotiations largely brokered by Egypt and Qatar with the US, the UN and others working behind the scenes. (A diplomat told PassBlue that Egypt’s intelligence officials did the negotiations with Hamas directly. The US, which deems Hamas a terrorist organization, has no official relationship with it.) The cease-fire started at 2 A.M. on May 21 local time and has reportedly been holding, with both sides claiming they won.
• The UN reported that at least 222 people, including 63 children, were killed in Gaza and 12 people died in Israel from the fighting. More than 450 buildings in the Gaza strip were fully destroyed or damaged by missiles, including six hospitals, nine health care centers and a water desalination plant as well as a tower housing media offices such as Al Jazeera and Associated Press.
The news of a cease-fire was announced at the UN during a debate in the General Assembly on the conflict. Twelve foreign ministers, including Riyad al-Maliki of Palestine, right, gave remarks among nearly 100 speakers.
• Biden’s speech on the cease-fire, saying, “Prime Minister Netanyahu informed me that Israel has agreed to a mutual, unconditional ceasefire to begin in less than two hours. The Egyptians have now informed us that Hamas and the other groups in Gaza have also agreed.”
• Thomas-Greenfied’s remarks on the news (video below); she noted, “As President Biden said tonight, we will be working with the UN and UN bodies to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to the people of the region, and we will be asking for other nations to step up their contributions, as well.”
• Guterres’s remarks on the cease-fire: “I extend my deepest condolences to the victims of the violence and their loved ones. . . .”
• Bozkir credited his Assembly debate for directly affecting the agreement on a cease-fire, below, saying, in part, “The Security Council has yet to even speak with a unified voice about the tragedy unfolding before us; to say that this is disappointing is an understatement.”
Friday, May 21
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres asked the world to work with the UN “on developing an integrated, robust package of support for a swift, sustainable reconstruction and recovery that supports the Palestinian people and strengthens their institutions.” He stressed that Israeli and Palestinian leaders “have a responsibility beyond the restoration of calm to start a serious dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict.”
• Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee of Ghana is the new assistant secretary-general for Africa in the UN Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations.
• A study by an MIT student examines by data how The New York Times “distorts” its reporting on the “Palestinian struggle.”
• In addition to recently announced financial cuts by the British government to Unaids, Unfpa and Unicef, it has reduced its contributions to UN Women by 60 percent, from $15.9 million to $6.9 million for 2021. In addition, the term of the UN Women’s director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, is up this year, and she may be leaving as soon as late July. The rumor mill is churning with names of candidates, including South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and a UN Women deputy, Anita Bhatia of India. The UN has officially advertised for the job.
• An excerpt, brought to you by the Georgetown Institute of Women, Peace and Security, of Monica McWilliams’s testimony to the US House Sub-Committee on Europe, Energy, The Environment & Cyber hearing on Reaffirming the Good Friday Agreement on May 5, 2021. McWilliams was one of the two women peace negotiators to participate in the Northern Ireland peace talks that resulted in the agreement, which was ratified in May 1998.
Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this summary.
This article was updated to include the May 22 press statement from the UN Security Council on the Gaza cease-fire and the speech by Palestine’s foreign minister at the May 21 General Assembly debate.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Ivana Ramirez is from South Carolina. She will begin matriculating as an undergraduate student at Yale University in 2021. She writes PassBlue’s This Week @UN news summary and is the researcher for PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series.