Last week, when assessing the legal status of Israel’s operations in Gaza, I noted two things. First, that the international law governing sieges et al was much less clear than some of Tel Aviv’s more strident critics have suggested. Second, that a dry legal argument might only get Israel so far, because much of international law is about who has the better PR.
One could make a similar argument about the current row between Israel and the United Nations.
It isn’t hard to see why the former was so outraged by the speech given by António Guterres, the Secretary General of the latter. Yes, he used the right form of words about how “nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians, or the launching of rockets against civilian targets.”
But in and of itself, that rubric does not characterise the speech. Not only did Guterres insist that the atrocities of October 7 had to be seen in the “context” of “56 years of suffocating occupation”, he also added this:
“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.
Even if one is minded to accept the point about occupation, equating Israel’s military response with Hamas’ deliberate massacre of civilians crosses a line. Guterres’ logic also seems to ignore the reality of the military situation. War does have rules, but Hamas is not a regular army – it is a terrorist militia which deliberately employs human shields and operates from (or beneath) civilian targets.
As Daniel Hannan wrote for us yesterday, it isn’t obvious what response Israel can make to last month’s events; certainly, none of the options are good. But were it to do as Guterres (and others) wish, it isn’t obvious that it could mount any response at all.
Yet once again, there is the PR angle. The UN runs humanitarian operations in Gaza, and carries a lot of moral authority with some people. A direct confrontation with it is, to use perhaps the worst phrase in British journalism, not a good look.
If one considers the reality of the UN, however, this is slightly absurd. It might have been founded with noble intentions (a common theme in international law and institutions), but the reality of it is hardly compelling, morally speaking. No organisation comprised of every sovereign nation on earth (bar the Holy See) could possibly be so.
In recent years, that has been best illustrated by the absurd spectacle of serial human rights abusers such as Iran and Zimbabwe getting seats on its human rights committee. During the Cold War, it was divided between the American, Soviet, and non-aligned blocs. It’s staff, meanwhile, is drawn from the global NGO class, who may well have views but do not possess any mandate to impose them on sovereign governments.
This divided character is perhaps reflected in the way the UN’s capacity has waned in the decades since it was founded. It is impossible now to imagine it embarking upon anything as ambitious as Operation Morthor, it’s 1961 “peace enforcement” operation in which it mounted a full-blown military invasion to crush the Katangan independence movement – especially without the support of the United States.
Whatever the grubby reality, however, the UN still represents an ideal to an important section of Western opinion, and Israel’s position remains hugely dependent on Western support. This is especially so if the situation in Gaza ignites a broader conflict; Israel might have fought of all its neighbours in the past, but war with Egypt and Jordan remains a potentially lethal prospect for Tel Aviv if the United States doesn’t back it up.
So does that mean Israel should reconsider its ban on UN passports? Perhaps. But the broader problem of aid to Gaza remains. Hamas is the government in the Strip; even if it didn’t play a formal role in distributing material aid, some or even much of it would almost certainly end up in its hands, either directly supporting its military operations or helping it cement its grip on the region.
Yet whatever the legal arguments about a short, sharp embargo, there seems little doubt that an extended blockade of Gaza would bleed dry Israel’s reservoir of international support. Which is why some sort of ground invasion, however hideous the prospect, seems imminent.