Obscuring Israel’s responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Palestinians appears to be official UN policy.
Statement after statement from the organization’s agencies and leaders express horror over specific attacks in Gaza and the mounting death toll, but do not mention Israel.
UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, says it is “beyond devastated” that scores of its employees in Gaza have been killed and injured. But it cannot bring itself to say who harmed them.The UN undermining justice by tiptoeing around Israel is hardly new. But the stakes in terms of Palestinian lives have never been higher.
António Guterres, the UN secretary general, parroted Israeli government propaganda on Monday by calling for “the end of the use of civilians as human shields.”Guterres appears to be giving Israel a pretext to deliberately target civilians and civilian objects by blurring the distinction between civilian and military targets.
By doing so, Guterres is endangering the lives of countless Palestinians in Gaza being treated and sheltering at hospitals threatened by Israel in the northern half of Gaza.
Late last month, hours before communication networks went down for the first time during the current war and Israel intensified its strikes, the Israeli military and Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of using al-Shifa hospital – Gaza’s largest – as a command center.
Hamas has repeatedly and categorically denied that accusation and Israel has not credibly substantiated its claims. On 5 November, Hamas invited Guterres to form an international delegation to visit hospitals in Gaza and refute what it said was Israel’s “lies and blatant fabrications” to justify targeting civilians.
Israel has long accused Hamas of using hospitals in Gaza as human shields in order to sow doubt about the protected status of its civilian targets.
Deliberately targeting civilian objects and inflicting high numbers of civilian casualties through the use of overwhelmingly disproportionate force has been Israeli military doctrine in Gaza and Lebanon since 2006.
The failure of international institutions and powerful states to hold Israel accountable for that past practice has emboldened Israel to to scale up that violence to an unimaginable level in Gaza today.
It is unthinkably irresponsible for the UN secretary-general to legitimize Israel’s deliberate attacks on civilians.
If Israel makes good on its threats to bomb al-Shifa hospital, it could easily double the current appalling death toll in Gaza.
Justifying the unjustifiable
There is no justification for such a strike under international law.
As Human Rights Watch says, direct attacks against civilian objects such as residential buildings, houses of worship, hospitals and other medical facilities and schools are prohibited by the laws of war.
The presence of armed groups or military forces at what would normally be a civilian object could render it “subject to legitimate attack.” But “where there is doubt about the nature of an object, it must be presumed to be civilian,” according to the rights group.
“The laws of war prohibit indiscriminate attacks” in which military targets and civilians or civilian objects are hit “without distinction.”
Human Rights Watch adds that “prohibited indiscriminate attacks include area bombardment, which are attacks by artillery or other means that treat as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in an area containing a concentration of civilians and civilian objects.”
“An attack on an otherwise legitimate military target is prohibited if it would violate the principle of proportionality,” the group adds.
“Disproportionate attacks are those that may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.”
So far, Israel’s attacks in Gaza over the past month can be characterized as both indiscriminate and disproportionate.
Israel’s president Isaac Herzog said that “it is an entire nation out there that is responsible” for the 7 October attack led by Hamas, implying that everyone in Gaza is a legitimate target.
“It is not true, this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved,” Herzog added. “It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up.”
The actions of the Israeli military and statements by its leaders – Netanyahu invoked biblical scripture to justify killing even infants – make clear that Israel has little regard to the protection afforded to civilians under international law.
That makes it all the more appalling that the UN should echo Israel’s rationale for blatant breaches of international law.
But the world body’s leaders appear intent to bend over backwards to please Israel and its powerful protectors.
On Monday, Guterres reiterated his “utter condemnation of the abhorrent acts of terror perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October.”
He said that “nothing can justify the deliberate torture, killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians.”
Hamas denies that its operation was aimed at targeting civilians and the primary tactical goal appears to have been the capture of military bases around Gaza and the seizure of soldiers to extract a prisoner exchange with Israel.
Guterrres should be calling on Israel to allow an independent UN investigation of those events, given that Israel is engaging in atrocity propaganda to justify its campaign of extermination against Palestinians in Gaza. Meanwhile, evidence has emerged indicating that some if not many of the civilians who died that day were killed not by Palestinians, but by Israeli security forces.
Guterres should be saying that there is no justification for Israel’s targeting of civilians in Gaza, rather than deferring to claims made by Israel, which has no credibility when it comes to justifying the use of force against Palestinians.
Undoubtedly, Guterres is under a lot of pressure behind the scenes from Israel’s most powerful friends.
Two weeks ago, the UN head said – rightly so – that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum” and that “the Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.”
Guterres added that “the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”
Israel’s diplomats to the UN and its politicians threw a temper tantrum after Guterres’ remarks as they seek to obscure the 7 October attack’s obvious context of decades of occupation, settler colonization of Palestinian land and 16 years of devastating blockade on Gaza.
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, called on Guterres to resign.
Late last month, Craig Mokhiber, the director of the New York office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, resigned from his post over the world body’s failure to adequately respond to the “textbook case of genocide” in Gaza.
In his resignation letter, Mokhiber states that “key parts of the UN have surrendered to the power of the US, and to fear of the Israel lobby.”
By doing so, the UN had abandoned its principles and integrity, he said, at the Palestinians’ expense.
Guterrres’ capitulation to genocidal Israel is a stunning example of that shameful abandonment of principle.