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The UN’s Struggle to Say the Right Words on Gaza Slights Palestinians

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Boy in Gaza
The aftermath of an attack by Israel on Khan Younis, a city in Gaza’s south, Dec. 5, 2023. The United Nations has been tiptoeing around words that might infuriate Israel and its allies while trying to push Israel to stop its bombardment on the enclave. Since the humanitarian pause ended on Dec. 1, at least 1,200 Palestinians have been killed, mostly women and children, the UN says. 

As in all conflicts, language has been a big tool in the Israel-Hamas war. In this context, the United Nations has been tiptoeing around words that might infuriate Israel and its allies while trying to get the country to do the right thing: stop its carnage against civilians in the Gaza strip, where the Hamas terrorists are embedded.

At the beginning of the war, on Oct. 7, journalists were asking the UN spokespeople why the word “ceasefire” was being avoided in their daily briefings at UN headquarters. Draft resolutions presented to the Security Council in October failed partly because some members would not endorse any document that included or omitted certain words or phrasing.

“I think that since 7th of October, all the statements made by Western leaders have been on the line of Israel has the right to defend itself,” said Anis Nacrour, a retired French diplomat who served in the Mideast as well as in Britain and  the United States. The US was especially adamant that any Council resolution on the conflict say directly that Hamas is a terrorist organization. The United Arab Emirates, an elected member, would not go that far.

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“When you say defending itself, it is justifying killings implicitly,” Nacrour said. “Being diplomats and having been there, I know how you can twist the meaning of the language and the versatility of the way you present issues.”

Yet as humanitarian needs in Gaza edge into the abyss, on Dec. 6, UN Secretary-General António Guterres shed his normal caution by invoking Article 99 of the UN Charter, the first time he has done so since he became secretary-general in 2017, signaling that the “matter” of Gaza “may aggravate existing threats to the maintenance of international peace and security.”

“We are facing a severe risk of collapse of the humanitarian system,” he noted in his letter to the president of the Security Council, calling for another ceasefire, after the short pause just ended and fighting resumed. Amid the Israel Defense Forces’ “bombardment,” Guterres also noted, “and without shelter or the essentials to survive, I expect public order to break down soon due to the desperate conditions. . . .”

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By invoking Article 99, the secretary-general will “push” the Security Council and the international community for another “humanitarian ceasefire,” Guterres’s spokesperson told reporters.

Security Council briefings on the war have been relatively tepid, without much rancor or tirades and plenty of euphemisms, such as “lives lost,” despite thousands of children being killed by Israel Defense Forces.

On Nov. 22, Unicef said to Council members that it was “concerned about the toll of children killed and maimed, which continues to rise, including Gaza.” Yet it failed to name who was doing the killing. The sentence is phrased as though Gaza is merely one of many areas contending with violent conflict and not the hotspot of humanitarian catastrophe in the globe right now.

Janet Randall, a professor of linguistics at Northeastern University, in Boston, said the structure of the Unicef statement, delivered  by Catherine Russell, the agency’s boss and an American, suggests that the killing is happening far from Gaza.

“This would mean that most of the killed and maimed children are elsewhere,” Randall said. “And that’s false. It almost sounds like the default is not Gaza, and then the speaker added ‘Including [in] Gaza’ as an afterthought.”

The language used by the UN and many Western powers do not reflect the imbalance in the war, experts who spoke with PassBlue said. Kola Tubosun, a Nigerian linguist expert in digital rights activism and documentation, faulted coverage of the war by Western media. He said the American reporting is slanted in favor of Israel despite peaceful protests by pro-peace Jewish-Americans in many parts of the country, including large rallies in New York City.

“I don’t believe that the Palestinian casualties have been humanized enough,” he told PassBlue. “Innocent Israeli casualties brutally victimized by Hamas are featured more prominently than innocent Palestinian children who have been killed in a larger number and continue to suffer under both Hamas and Israeli violence.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US envoy to the UN, has made countless calls to her colleagues in the Security Council to condemn Hamas and its Oct. 7 terrorism on Israel. The call has been direct, forceful and unmistaken. It was her reason for voting against numerous resolutions that could have kick-started the process of delivering lifesaving humanitarian aid to Gaza just weeks into the war. A Malta-led resolution was approved in November focusing on aid to the enclave, at least for children’s sake.

“What are they afraid of?” Thomas-Greenfield asked her colleagues in the third person while reiterating her disappointment after the Malta-led resolution calling for a humanitarian pause and corridor was authorized. (The US abstained, along with Russia and Britain.).

“What is stopping them from unequivocally condemning the actions of a terrorist organization that is determined to kill Jews and that gunned down civilians, burned families alive, and executed children?” Thomas-Greenfield went on. “A group that killed and took hostages including children from over a dozen countries, including the United States. There is no excuse for failing to condemn these acts of terror.”

Almost identically, Barbara Woodward, the British ambassador to the UN, said the “barbarity  of those attacks should be clear to us all” and that it was regrettable that the first resolution aimed at delivering aid to Gaza did not condemn Hamas’s “terrorist attacks.”

Most briefers at the Nov. 22 Council meeting followed similar patterns of speech: they condemned Hamas, agreed that there was a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza and called for the protection of civilians. Yet they never made a direct call to Israel to stop the protracted killing of women and children in the Palestinian enclave.

The US and other allies of Israel continue to humanize victims of Hamas’s brutal murder spree on Oct. 7 while acknowledging, as if it’s an afterthought, the great “loss” Palestinians continue to suffer from as Israel hammers them with the full force of its military powers. “It’s subjective to deal with the situation on October 7 as though nothing happened before,” Nacrour said.

The overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most complex, enduring battles in the world, with children, especially Palestinians, exposed to violence and human rights abuses constantly. Israel has long occupied Gaza and parts of the West Bank, the main territories of Palestinians. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Israel killed at least 40 children between December 2022 and January 2023 alone. The killings were not a response to Hamas’s action but a pattern of Israel’s decades-long oppression of Palestinians.

Defense for Children International released a report revealing that Israel has launched four wars on the occupied Palestinian territory since 2008, resulting in the deaths of almost 4,000 people, a quarter of whom were children. The report also highlighted that more than 2,200 children have been killed by Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers in occupied Palestine. On Dec. 11, 2022, 16-year-old Jana Zakarneh was shot in the head by Israeli forces during a military operation.

Tor Wennesland, the UN’s special envoy for the Mideast peace process, said in May that Israeli authorities demolished a European Union-funded Palestinian primary school for the children of Jubbet adh Dhib village, east of Bethlehem, in Area C of the West Bank, directly affecting the education of at least 40 children.

At the time, months before Hamas drove into Israel on Oct. 7, at least 58 schools, serving 6,500 children, faced the threat of demolition due to a lack of building permits that are almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain.

Thomas-Greenfield asked in the Security Council on Nov. 22 that Palestinians be allowed time to move to safer locations in Gaza, from the north to the south to avoid Israel Defense Forces’ bombings, but the UN has repeatedly said forceful movement of people is against international law. Moreover, the bombardments are now concentrated in the south, aiming to wipe out Hamas.

“Doesn’t make any sense,” Nacrour said. “Where do you want them to go? Even if they go to the south, they are going to get stuck there. They are surviving more than living there with all the drones and helicopters.”

This article was updated to better reflect a portion of a quote from Janet Randall. 


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Guterres's invoking Article 99 of the UN Charter?

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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The UN’s Struggle to Say the Right Words on Gaza Slights Palestinians
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