Tuesday, January 06, 2009

U.N. Diplomats Frustrated at Gaza Impasse

By Haider Rizvi | Inter Press Service


UNITED NATIONS, Jan 5 (IPS) - Disappointed with the Security Council’s inaction regarding the worsening situation in Gaza, diplomats from numerous nations of the global South are close to taking the case of Israeli aggression to the U.N. General Assembly.

“It seems like they will wait for another day or two about what happens at the Security Council. If the Council does not take any action, they will be going to the General Assembly soon,” a diplomatic source told IPS on condition of anonymity.

U.N. and Gaza health officials have reported more than 550 Palestinian dead and around 2,500 wounded since the offensive began on Dec. 27.

Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran and Venezuela are in favour of asking the 192-member General Assembly to adopt a resolution deploring Israeli killing of civilians and calling for an immediate ceasefire, the source said.

However, the source added that some Arab countries and others are expressing reservations about such a move.

Unlike the Security Council, the U.N. General Assembly does not have the power to implement its resolutions by force. But its verdict on international issues of war and peace is considered as important because it is based on majority vote on an equal basis.

In a statement Monday, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which enjoys a solid majority in the General Assembly, said it was deeply disappointed at the “inability of the Security Council to uphold its responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security.”

The 118-member group of developing nations called for Israel to end the “collective punishment” of the Palestinians, and abide by all its obligations as the occupying power under international law and relevant U.N. resolutions and that it does so “unconditionally”.

That demand is not acceptable to Israel’s closest ally, the United States, which enjoys veto power in the 15-member Security Council. On Saturday, the U.S. blocked a Council presidential statement calling for an immediate ceasefire by both sides.

“We want this thing to end,” argued the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, before informal Security Council consultations started Monday evening. “But [first] practical engagements that are workable and durable have to be made.”

When pressed by a journalist to explain what he really meant by the term “practical arrangements”, the U.S. envoy responded with an air of vagueness: “Ceasefire that deals with both the rockets and [the Israeli military action].”

“We want an arrangement that can endure,” he said, adding that his country was against an unconditional ceasefire because it feared that Hamas would use it to rearm itself as Hezbollah did in Lebanon in 2006.

Conversations with a number of diplomatic observers suggest the U.S. is not going to change its stance before the new administration takes charge in Washington, and that until then, the Israelis would continue their military operation Gaza.

Describing the situation as “alarming”, the U.N. chief for humanitarian operations, John Holmes, said Monday that civilian casualties were steadily rising as Israeli ground operations have now intensified with ongoing aerial bombing.

“We look urgently for a ceasefire,” he told reporters. “We don’t know the exact number of casualties. The reports say they are over 500. The casualties are rising. Hospitals are struggling with growing casualties. Power is lacking.”

The U.N. relief agency UNRWA’s John Ging called the situation in Gaza “a shocking state of affairs”. In a teleconference, Ging, who entered Gaza Monday, said: “The streets are empty. It’s really horrible. People are terrorised and terrified. There is nowhere to flee.”

Holmes said he had repeatedly called for ceasefire on humanitarian grounds but “I don’t see any response to my appeal.” The U.N. official said the aid crisis in Gaza was worsening day by day.

Facing the possibility of a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann has repeatedly called for a ceasefire while terming the deadly Israeli attacks a “monstrosity”.

On Monday, his spokesperson, Enrique Yeves, strongly criticised the Council for its failure to adopt a statement. “This organisation was established to establish peace,” he said, adding that contrary to the hopes of many, it failed to stop “the massacre in Gaza”.

“Why the Council is not making decisions? Why the people are dying every day?” he asked at a briefing.

On Monday, Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the 22-member Arab League, called the Israeli actions in Gaza “naked aggression” and demanded an immediate halt to military operations in the occupied territory.

“We want the Council to act decisively and swiftly,” he told reporters before attending a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and several Arab foreign ministers at U.N. headquarters.

For his part, Ban expressed cautious optimism about the outcome of the meeting.

“We have agreed to work very closely so that the Security Council can take decisive and swift and credible action for a binding resolution,” he said. “We will continue to work closely in the coming days with the Council and other key leaders in the region.”

Ban said he was going to Washington Tuesday to discuss the current phase of the Middle East crisis with President George W. Bush, whose term expires in two weeks. When asked what he was going to tell Bush, Ban said: “I am going to stress that this situation should come to an end and [that] the civilian population should be fully protected.”

While Ban flies to Washington Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is due to arrive at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Experts on conflict resolution and human rights law say it is a must that the Security Council takes a firm and immediate action to stop the killing of civilians in Gaza. In this context, they are recommending a number of practical measures.

“The Council can start by a strong resolution condemning attacks by civilians on both Israel and [the Palestinian militant group] Hamas, demanding that such acts cease immediately,” said the London-based Amnesty International’s Malcolm Smart.

In a statement, Amnesty said it wants the Council to urge Israel to lift restrictions on the passage of humanitarian aid to Gaza and allow aid workers and journalists to have unhindered access to the occupied territories under attack.

Experts at the International Crisis Group (ICG) have also suggested similar measures and more.

“Third parties viewed as credible and trustworthy by both parties must push to end this before the toll escalates or before Israel’s land incursions turn into a venture of uncertain scope, undetermined consequences and all too familiar human cost,” said ICG’s Robert Belcher.

In Belcher’s view, Israel might win militarily and even topple Hamas, “but with clear exit and day-after scenario, a discredited Palestinian Authority and debilitated peace process, it might not be a political win.”

“There are signs important actors — European in particular, the U.S. far less so — have learned from the experience of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war that time is of the essence,” he said. “It’s not clear whether this bitter lesson will translate into quicker action.”

“But,” according to the ICG analyst, “devising a ceasefire acceptable to both sides is not beyond reach.”

At the moment, no one really knows if such suggestions are going to work or not.

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