Gilad Erdan, Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations, briefs reporters after the closed Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras
What to Monitor at the UN as the Crisis in Israel and Gaza Unfolds
With conflict between Israel and Hamas spiraling since the attack on Saturday, top UN officials, including Antonio Guterres, are calling for restraint. “Civilians must be respected and protected in accordance with international humanitarian law at all times,” he said in a statement, adding that “all diplomatic efforts” must be made “to avoid a wider conflagration.”
It is difficult to imagine these calls will be heeded.
Things are now evolving rapidly at the United Nations along three fronts: the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Southern Lebanon, diplomacy at the Security Council, and humanitarian operations by UNRWA in Gaza.
The United Nations has a 10,000 strong peacekeeping force deployed in Southern Lebanon across what is known as the Blue Line. This is a 120 kilometer stretch from which Israeli forces withdrew in 2000 and again in 2006 following incursions targeting Hezbollah. It is unique for UN peacekeeping in that some of its largest troop contributing countries are from Europe— including Italy, France, and Spain. There are over 2000 European troops in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL. Other major troop contributing countries include Indonesia, Ghana, Turkey and China.
“UNIFIL is fully deployed along the Blue Line,” said spokesperson Andrea Tenenti in a Tweet on Saturday. “Our peacekeepers are working throughout the night to defuse tension, maintain stability, and help avoid escalation.”
There have already been hostilities along this front. On Saturday, Hezbollah launched a missile strike “in solidarity” with Hamas. Israel responded in kind. But other than this tit-for-tat, there have not been any major hostilities since Saturday. This could change on a dime, however, should Hezbollah join the fight in earnest. Indeed, Hezbollah has been increasingly assertive in Southern Lebanon, and in April, Hezbollah launched the most sustained rocket attacks against Israel since 2006.
The hope is that UNIFIL’s presence may act a deterrent. To be sure, Hezbollah has been hiding in plain sight in UNIFIL’s area of operations, but they may be loathe to come into direct contact with UN Peacekeepers, particularly those from NATO countries. Should hostilities stay limited on this front, the presence of UN Peacekeepers may be the reason. On the other hand, this situation is so volatile that one cannot rule out the possibility that Hezbollah may try to overrun UNIFIL and establish control in Southern Lebanon, thus opening another front against Israel.
The Security Council
Meanwhile, the Security Council held an emergency closed-door meeting on Sunday, where they heard directly from Tor Wennesland, the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. Under normal circumstances, I would expect the Council to issue what is known as a “Presidential Statement” which expresses the consensus view of all 15 members of the Council. But in this case, consensus may be hard to reach. The Council may find agreement on a narrow statement that condemns the Hamas attack, though Russia and China may inject some quibbles that could delay or upend negotiations. For its part the United States is loathe to endorse a statement that may be interpreted as limiting Israel’s freedom to respond. The Security Council will certainly have many meetings on this crisis in the coming days, but for the moment, outcome of those meetings is hard to predict.
As the conflict evolves, I would expect there to be a hardening of positions, particularly as Netanyahu makes good on his promise on Saturday that Israel would “return fire of a magnitude that the enemy has not known.” If past is precedent, this would mean attacks against civilian targets in Gaza in violation of international humanitarian law. As images of carnage in Gaza spread across social media, whatever fleeting sympathy for Israel that exists at the moment may erode.
Lastly, the United Nations is the key humanitarian operator in Gaza through the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, which is a decades-old UN humanitarian agency. UNRWA runs schools, hospitals, sanitation services and more throughout Gaza.
In the past, Palestinians have sought refuge from Israeli attack in UNRWA facilities. This is happening again. In its latest situation report, UNRWA said it is sheltering 73,538 internally displaced people in 64 of its schools in Gaza. But these schools are no guarantee of safety. Israel has shelled UNRWA schools before. Already, UNRWA says that one school was hit by a missile though no one was killed. Thus far, most of the 22 UNRWA health facilities in Gaza remain operational, but food distribution has stopped, says UNRWA.
Gaza was already a major humanitarian crisis. This conflict has all the potential to upend UNRWA’s ability to provide for basic needs of civilians caught in the crossfire, the consequences of which will be dire for Gaza’s 600,000 residents.
Needless to say, we will be closely following this crisis as it unfolds. The unique value I can add to Global Dispatches newsletter subscribers and podcast listeners has been gleaned from 20 years of reporting on the UN. If I can be of service to you, please reach out to me directly via the contact button or by replying to this email. I’m here to be helpful to you — and our broader community.