By Vjay Prashad. This article was first published in The Hindu.
Despite the massacres of entire families, U.S. President Obama has made no major public address to caution Israel
Sixteen days into the Israeli offensive on Gaza, on July 23, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva held a hearing. Pressure from the League of Arab States has been severe. A few days before, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held an emergency session on Gaza. The Jordanian delegation, on behalf of the Arabs, carried a resolution for a ceasefire around the United Nations building to no avail. It had two points that Israel would not accept — it did not sanction Hamas by name, and it called for the end to the stranglehold on Gaza. Israel, which continues to occupy Gaza despite the withdrawal of its troops in 2005, has obligations as an occupying power. In 2005, it signed an Agreement on Movement and Access, but has never allowed this to come into effect. Israel controls the borders of Gaza, sealing in the almost two million people on to 140 square miles of land. With absent movement on the Jordanian resolution in the UNSC, the momentum shifted to the Human Rights Council.
The debate in Geneva was very emotional. The U.N. agencies in Gaza have been deeply impacted by the Israeli war, with their buildings taking fire and their personnel in grave danger (with three U.N. teachers killed). Kyung-wha Kang of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs suggested that the attack on hospitals and school was “a flagrant violation of international law,” while the mechanism to warn civilians of bombardment creates “terror and trauma” in an occupied territory where there is no safe haven. Civilian homes are not a target, said the U.N. High Commissioner Navi Pillay, also pointing out that the entire situation was “dreadful and interminable.” The most telling moment in Commissioner Pillay’s statement came when she said this was the “third serious escalation of hostilities” in her six years on the job. As in 2009 and 2012, she said, “it is innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip, including children, women, the elderly and persons with disabilities, who are suffering the most.”
In Gaza, meanwhile, the sounds of bombardment continue. Negotiations persist in Cairo and Doha to create a pathway to a ceasefire, while Israel, obdurate, continues to pound the Gaza Strip. In an unguarded moment on Fox News, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his frustration with Israel. He hastily caught himself. The U.S. has no appetite to force Israel to silence its guns. Hamas’ Khaled Meshaal, speaking from Doha, said that he would accept a ceasefire only if it came alongside an end to the embargo. This is the pillar of the Jordanian resolution, which, it is clear, the Israelis will not tolerate. The Palestinians do not want a ceasefire without some improvement of their situation. Fatah, the other major faction of the Palestinians, takes the same position as Hamas. Yasser Abed Rabbo, the likely successor to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, said, “Gaza’s demand to lift the siege is the demand of the entire Palestinian people and not just one particular faction.” This is a position with which the government of India concurs. All factions in Palestine and the Arab League agree that the blockade must be lifted for a genuine ceasefire. If this is their minimum requirement, it is unlikely that there will be a ceasefire deal. No amount of U.S. pressure can convince Israel to the rationality of that demand.
Indications of any U.S. pressure are not evident. Despite the massacres of entire families, U.S. President Obama has made no major public address to caution Israel. Instead, the White House tells the press that Mr. Obama continues to talk to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer U.S. support, as the U.S. Congress voted unanimously to fully back the Israeli war effort.
Ms Pillay asked the Council, “What must we finally do to move beyond a ceasefire that will inevitably be broken again in two or three years?” A first step, she noted, is accountability — “ensuring that the cycle of human rights violations and impunity is brought to an end.” To that end the Human Rights Council called for the creation of an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate “all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law” in all of Occupied Palestine “particularly in the Gaza Strip.” After Operation Cast Lead (2009), the U.N. empanelled the Goldstone Commission, whose report castigated Israel for the use of dangerous weapons (such as white phosphorus) and for targeting Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. Under intense U.S. pressure, including on India, the Goldstone Commission’s report went into cold storage.
Out of the 47 members in the Council, 29 voted to create a Commission, 17 abstained and one voted against it. The sole ‘No vote’ came from the U.S., showing how little appetite there is in Washington to pressure Israel not only to a ceasefire but to be held accountable for its methods of war. The members of the European Union abstained, as did several African states. The ‘Yes’ countries included members of the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, South American states, some African countries, and the entire BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). India’s Ambassador to the U.N. Asoke Mukerji said that India is “deeply concerned” about the civilian casualties — over 700 Palestinians dead, several thousand of them injured (as opposed to one Israeli civilian dead). Dilip Sinha, India’s ambassador to the Human Rights Council, was more graphic, bemoaning the “heavy air-strikes in Gaza and the disproportionate use of force resulting in the tragic loss of civilian lives.”
The Indian government’s reticence to hold a debate in Parliament and its refusal to put any pressure on Israel for its war with a statement is now of no consequence. The U.N. vote shows two things. First, that India’s drift into the U.S. orbit is not complete. It has commitments to the BRICS states. South Africa — with vivid memories of apartheid — would be unwilling to soft-pedal on the issue of Palestinian rights. Nor would Russia, which sees this as an easy way to pressure the U.S. The BRICS, therefore, will retain India in the pro-Palestine camp. Second, despite the desire of the Indian establishment to create an enduring relationship with Israel, the grotesque actions of Tel Aviv are a constraint. India continues to believe in the possibility of the creation of Palestine with stable borders, including Jerusalem as its capital.
None of this is accepted by Israel, whose own policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians is incoherent. Fifty thousand Palestinians went on the streets of the West Bank through the night of July 24, signalling to the Israelis that they are ready for a third ‘Intifada’. Israel is in no mood for concessions. The only outcome is more terrible violence.
“All these dead and maimed civilians should weigh heavily on all our consciences,” said Ms Pillay. They certainly did not seem to bother the U.S.’ Ambassador Samantha Power, who is otherwise the champion of humanitarian intervention. Her preferred cocktail of Responsibility to Protect (R2) and “no fly zones” was not in evidence.
Nor did it bother the U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Keith Harper — a Native American lawyer who knows a great deal about the occupation of a people. The U.S. sat silent and pushed the red button. This is not a red light of caution to Israel. For Tel Aviv, this is a green light.
(Vijay Prashad is Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.)