US stymies Security Council action on Gaza

Representative of Israel Gilad Cohen addresses an urgent meeting of the Security Council on the latest crisis in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, 22 January 2008. (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

UNITED NATIONS, 23 January (IPS) - Despite intensifying calls for international pressure to address the fast deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip, observers and some diplomats say the UN Security Council has proved as ineffective as it has been for many years concerning issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Tuesday, the Council called an emergency meeting during which a vast majority of delegates strongly condemned Israel’s blockade of the occupied Palestinian areas and charged that it was violating international humanitarian law.

Yet at the end of the day, the Council failed to adopt a draft presidential statement calling for Israel “to ensure unhindered access for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people and to open the border crossings to facilitate the passage of exports and imports to the Gaza Strip.”

Why? Because it was not acceptable to the US delegation, a diplomat present at the meeting told IPS. The US rejected the first draft statement because it did not cover Israeli concerns about rocket fire by Palestinian militants into its territory.

The Council called another meeting Wednesday, but failed to issue a presidential statement based on the third draft, which, according to the source, was prepared by the diplomats representing the European Union.

“We were hoping … but unfortunately we have not agreed,” South African ambassador Dumisani Kumalo told reporters about the outcome of the Wednesday’s meeting, adding that “everybody [in the Council] said they wanted the Security Council to speak out.”

Asked why the Council is discussing a presidential draft statement instead of a resolution, the South African envoy told IPS: “We thought we would be able to speak quickly, but it’s not so quick.”

A presidential statement is usually non-binding and not enforceable, but it requires the consensus of all 15 members of the Council. A resolution, which requires a majority of votes and can be sunk by a veto from one of the five permanent members, is often legally binding and enforceable.

A European diplomat said the US objected to the latest draft, even though it addresses concerns about rocket fire by the Palestinians into southern Israel. According to him, without explaining the sticking points, the US delegates said they needed more time to consult with Washington.

On Tuesday, US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Council that Washington was equally concerned about the situation in Gaza and that the US would continue to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. But at the same time, he fully supported the Israeli view that it was the Palestinian militants who are responsible for the misery of their people.

“We believe the current situation is a direct result of Hamas’s policies and actions,” he said, adding that the United States “condemns in the strongest terms the ongoing firing of rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel by terror groups.”

In defending the virtual siege imposed on Gaza, the Israeli diplomat Gilad Cohen said the current situation is the “consequence of many choices, repeatedly the wrong choices, made by the Palestinians, to adopt terrorism and violence over peace and negotiations with Israel.”

Except for the European Union, Israel’s contention that the Palestinian militancy is responsible for the blockade and power shutdown in Gaza is being forcefully rejected by all the major political blocs within the UN system, including the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Arab League and the African Union.

“The violent military escalation by Israel constitutes a grave breach of international law, including humanitarian and human rights law,” said Cuban envoy Rodrigo Malmierca Diaz in speaking before the Council on behalf of the 118-member NAM.

Like other regional groups, NAM wants the Council to take immediate action to ensure the supply of food, medicines and fuel to the Gaza Strip and to ask Israel to stop using its military might against Palestinian civilians.

While critical of the Palestinian rocket attacks, the EU has described the continued Israeli incursions into the occupied areas as “collective punishment” of 1.5 million Gaza residents. Various UN agencies responsible for delivering humanitarian aid and Western rights advocacy groups have also raised grave concerns about the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, about 80 percent of Palestinians in Gaza live in extreme poverty and depend on aid agencies for food and other essential items.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said Tuesday it was worried about the functioning of intensive care units, operating theaters and emergency rooms in Gaza as a result of frequent power outages and border restrictions.

The WHO estimates that only 50 percent of basic commercial food imports were met during the past two months. On Wednesday, thousands of Gazans streamed through a breach in the border wall with Egypt to buy food and medicines.

The Gaza strip along the Mediterranean shoreline is only nine kilometers wide and forty kilometers long, with its borders sealed on all sides. Israel cut off fuel shipments to the main power plant in Gaza last week, but has since allowed a very limited amount of diesel and medical supplies across the border.

On Tuesday, speaking in Geneva about the situation in Gaza, the UN’s top human rights official Louise Arbour urged the international community to meet its due responsibility to protect civilians “in particular where and when the authorities concerned are unable or unwilling to do so.”

“The people of Gaza,” she continued, “look legitimately to the international community to respond with urgency and with appropriate measures to their desperate and still worsening situation.”

Some of the world’s leading independent human rights defenders, such as the London-based Amnesty International, have made similar calls about the need to protect the civilian population in Gaza and southern Israel.

It remains unclear, however, whether or not the Council will respond with prompt action. On Thursday, it is due to meet again to see if Washington is willing to accept what the rest of its members are saying. In the past, the US has vetoed more than 40 Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli actions.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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