By Mayank Chhaya –
Sharp diplomatic tensions have erupted between Israel and the United Nations, more specifically between U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan.
The trigger is the Israel-Hamas war but in particular Guterres’s comments yesterday that the October 7 attacks by Hamas “did not happen in a vacuum.”
Erdan today called for Guterres to resign, a suggestion that the latter bristled at in an official statement this morning.
Yesterday, during his opening statement at the meeting of the U.N. Security Council Guterres took a perfectly reasonable and balanced position on both the Hamas killings and the subsequent brutal response by Israel.
Guterres said, “I have condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented 7th October acts of terror by Hamas in Israel. Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians, or the launching of rockets against civilian targets.”
He then broadened the context and sharpened the nuance saying, “It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum,” Guterres said. “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished.”
“But 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. Excellencies, even war has rules,” Guterres said.
He was speaking as the head of a world organization representing 193 countries and not a partisan Israeli official. It was expected of him to take a balanced view, which he did, even while unequivocally condemning Hamas.
However, the fact that Guterres took a balanced view with a historic context was offensive to Erdan and even Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who was in the chamber when Guterres made those remarks yesterday.
“In what world do you live?” Cohen said, adding, “Definitely, this is not our world.”
He later said on social media that “after the October 7th massacre, there is no place for a balanced approach. Hamas must be erased off the face of the planet!”
Erdan went a step further and called on Guterres to resign, saying he had “expressed an understanding for terrorism and murder.” He also said today that Israel will block visas for United Nations officials.
The extraordinarily unvarnished Israeli responses prompted Guterres to make a statement to the media today where he said he was “shocked by misinterpretations by some of my statement yesterday in the Security Council – as if I was justifying acts of terror by Hamas.”
“This is false. It was the opposite,” he told reporters and reiterated the position he took yesterday. Significantly, he did not budge from his demand for a humanitarian ceasefire.
Tensions between Israel and the U.N. have a history since the very inception of Israel as a Jewish state. The U.N. was barely two years old and not fully equipped to deal with the problem even as violence raged on in Palestine in the run-up to the unilateral founding of Israel.
After the failure of the British Mandate, the U.N. examined several alternatives and finally concluded that the only possible way out was the partitioning of Palestine into two independent States, “one Palestinian Arab and the other Jewish, with Jerusalem internationalized.”
The partition plan did not work and failed to bring peace to Palestine. Violence spread into a Middle East war. In the midst of this unfolding crisis, on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. U.S. President Harry S. Truman recognized the new nation on the same day, becoming the first country to do so. Seventy-five years hence Washington remains its staunchest supporter as once again evident in the just concluded visit of President Joe Biden to Israel.
“The Palestinian Arab State envisaged in the partition plan never appeared on the world’s map and, over the following 30 years, the Palestinian people have struggled for their lost rights,” the U.N. has maintained.
Seventy-five years after Israel’s founding its tensions with the U.N. remain as raw. For Israel, the October 7 attack is both fundamentally defining and wrenching one that ought to be avenged. However, for Guterres and the U.N., as the overarching global organization, it comes with a long history and deep nuance.