International community has gone AWOL when it is needed most
In times like these, when violence breaks out between Israelis and Palestinians, the international community is tested as to whether notions such as maintaining peace, collective responsibility and the responsibility to protect mean anything beyond mere rhetoric. Thus far, the very people who need these concepts to be translated into policies and proactive involvement to save their lives and those of their loved ones are discovering that the world is very slow to act and appears almost uninterested.
For now, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are launching thousands of rockets into Israel’s heartland and the latter is pounding Gaza with its superior firepower, mainly from the air. In this asymmetric conflict, the death and suffering caused by the Israeli military is immeasurably greater than that inflicted on Israel by the fundamentalist movements in Gaza. However, none of the combatants should be condoned or enjoy the support of the international community for committing these atrocities. Targeting civilians or treating their deaths with the deplorable euphemisms of “collateral damage” or “human shields” should prompt those who care for standards of human behavior, especially in times of war, to raise their voices and lean on the warring sides to lay down their arms with immediate effect.
In delving into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the one with Hamas, it is imperative not to lose sight of the bigger picture, even during the sheer madness that periodically engulfs the place. The collective failure — as epitomized by the UN Security Council’s inability to pass a resolution demanding a ceasefire, America’s feeble call to stop the hostilities, and the EU’s procrastination over even calling a meeting to discuss the issue more than a week after the destruction commenced — ranges from the pathetic to the criminal. However, such unwillingness to deal with the underlying issues that have fueled this conflict for more than a century is doubly telling of the helplessness expressed and the neglect by external powers, some of it deliberate, of this obviously explosive situation.
While a ceasefire is desperately necessary, it is how the conflict is handled in the aftermath of the fighting by those powers that have influence over it, including regional ones, that can make a difference. Regrettably, history tells us that, whenever a ceasefire is reached, for various reasons the international community as a whole goes AWOL, laying the ground for the next cycle of violence. This means that the conditions that make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intractable are never addressed.
It is not as if there is any member of the international community that does not understand the correlation between Israel’s inhuman blockade of Gaza, its occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of its settlements there and the anger among Palestinians that leads to either radicalization or at least a tacit acquiescence or apathy toward it. But Hamas, which is oppressive at home and deplorably targets Israeli civilians, is not, however, the cause of the conflict — it is the result of it never being resolved in a satisfactory manner. This is why the international community must shoulder some of the blame, along with the combatants themselves, for having learned so little from earlier and similar cycles of bloodshed between Hamas and Israel.
One disturbing aspect of the international community’s current approach and its designated main arm for maintaining and restoring peace and security — the UN Security Council — is that it is not geared toward conflict prevention, resolution or peace-building, but is rather fixated on conflict management. It is this poverty of aspiration and imagination that allows the existing international divisions and big power rivalries to dictate this low bar of ambition. On this occasion, it is the US that is delaying a Security Council resolution, mainly to allow Israel to “complete” its military targets, but there are also other members that cannot bring themselves to support a resolution that would mention the rocket barrage against Israel’s civilian population centers by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
In what is already the second week of fighting, there have been encouraging signs in the US that increasing numbers of members of Congress, mainly Democrats, are pushing the Biden administration to act swiftly to bring about a ceasefire. There has been more than a hint of criticism of the excessive force used by Israel, which has already resulted in many civilians being killed, including children, and caused widespread devastation, not necessarily limited to areas where there was clear evidence of a Hamas presence.
President Joe Biden and other American officials are using the cliche that Israel has the right to defend itself. It is a truism that it is not only the right of a government to defend its citizens, but an essential obligation and duty. However, doing this in a manner that might land Israel, as much as Hamas, in another International Criminal Court investigation is empowering all the wrong elements involved, losing its humanity in the process and, by the end of it, merely exposing its inability to defeat Hamas and Islamic Jihad militarily, regardless of how hard it hits both organizations.
The global system is not geared toward conflict prevention, resolution or peace-building, but is rather fixated on conflict management.
This sequence of events serves the right, and especially the far right, in Israel and on this occasion might end up saving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the one and only eviction that should be taking place right now in Jerusalem: That of himself and his family from the prime minister’s official residence. Surely the international community would not like to strengthen the most extreme elements in both societies; those with a vested interest in prolonging the conflict to justify their existence as defenders of their people against what they perceive as a cruel and absolute enemy.
It is the international community’s duty and responsibility to learn from its past mistakes and bring about an immediate halt to the violence. It must then move swiftly and resolutely to defuse the triggers of the recent outbreak of violence, including the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and the prohibition of East Jerusalemites from voting in Palestinian elections. However, international organizations should also move on from being satisfied with merely managing the conflict and act with a sense of urgency and purpose to bring the sides together to break the impasse in the peace process. This and only this can defeat the ethno-religious extremists in a way that military power or rockets never could.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg