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Beholden To The Big Powers: Israel, Gaza And The UN


On December 27, 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a massive assault on Gaza. 22 days later, around 1,400 Palestinians, including over 300 children, and 13 Israelis were dead; about 5,000 Palestinians were wounded. Israeli forces bombed and shelled schools, medical centres, hospitals, ambulances, United Nations buildings (including UN schools), power plants, sewage plants, roads, bridges and civilian homes. This was described in much of the press as hitting "Hamas targets" (e.g. David Gardner, 'U.S. accused of white phosphorus against Taliban', Daily Mail, May 11, 2009).

Earlier this month, the UN announced the results of an inquiry into attacks on its buildings and personnel in Gaza. It concluded that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were:

"involved in varying degrees of negligence or recklessness with regard to United Nations premises and to the safety of United Nations staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries, and extensive physical damage and loss of property." (Donald Macintyre, 'UN retreats after Israel hits out at Gaza report', Independent, May 6, 2009)

Incidents for which Israel was held responsible by the UN inquiry included:

* The deaths of three young men killed by a single IDF missile strike at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Asma school in Gaza City.

* The firing of heavy mortar rounds into the UNRWA Jabalia school, injuring seven people sheltering in the school, killing up to 40 people in the immediate vicinity and injuring a further 50.

* Aerial bombing of the UNRWA Bureij health centre on the same day, causing the death of a patient, serious injuries to two other patients and injuries to nine of the health centre's employees.

* Artillery firing by the IDF into the UNRWA field office compound in Gaza city, combined with the use of white phosphorus, causing injuries and considerable damage to it and the surrounding buildings, and leading to the disruption of the UN's humanitarian operations in Gaza.

* Artillery firing by the IDF into the UNRWA Beit Lahia school, again with the use of white phosphorus, causing the deaths of two children, aged 5 and 7, and injuries to 13 others.

Contrary to Israeli claims, the UN inquiry found no evidence that "Hamas militants" had used UN property to attack Israel or Israeli forces. Indeed, the report demanded that the UN urge Israel to retract its allegations to that effect.

The inquiry's narrow remit was restricted to UN property and personnel; a key recommendation was that $11m compensation should be sought from Israel for damage to UN property in Gaza. But the final recommendation was that +all+ killings, injuries and damages in Gaza "should be investigated as part of an impartial inquiry mandated, and adequately resourced, to investigate allegations of violations of international humanitarian law." (Julian Borger, 'UN chief rejects further inquiry', Guardian, May 6, 2009)

Shamefully, however, when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presented the inquiry results, he rejected its authors' call for such an investigation. He even decided not to release the full 184-page report. According to a brief item on the BBC Arabic news website, the BBC was informed by "a diplomatic source" that the United States "informed Ban's office that the report should not be published in full due to the damage that that could cause to the Middle East peace talks." (Cited in Hasan Abu Nimah, 'Ban Ki-moon's moral failure', The Electronic Intifada, May 6, 2009;  http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10511.shtml)

The sophistry of these words – "the damage that that could cause to the Middle East peace talks" – is newspeak for "dangerous truths that would further damage the reputations of Israel and the United States."

Ban, no doubt aware of these dangers, conveniently produced his own 27-page summary. Inter Press Service reported that the original report was thus "meticulously stripped down . mostly due to [alleged] political sensitivities and on security grounds." (Thalif Deen, 'UN chief defends "watered down" Gaza report', Inter Press Service, May 5, 2009; http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=46733) The report supposedly contained "secret information supplied by Israel" about its attacks on Gaza. (Abu Nimah, 'Ban Ki-moon's moral failure', op. cit.)

Ban then issued this summary together with a covering letter to the UN Security Council. In the letter, Ban said he was "carefully considering" what actions, "if any", to take on the 11 recommendations by his own inquiry team. But he had already appeased both Israel and its powerful backers in the UN Security Council, notably the United States, by stating that he "did not plan any further inquiry."

True to form, the Israelis had called the report "tendentious, patently biased" even before the summary was published. ('UN rejects UN probe under Israeli pressure', Palestine Chronicle, May 6, 2009; http://www.palestinechronicle.com/news.php?id=897c5f65b4ad8fdde3f03527039af4e0=details) Ban took his cue adroitly. While noting the Israeli government's "significant reservations and objections", he bent over backwards to praise them for their cooperation. He also spoke out, reportedly urged by Israeli ministers and officials, against "continued and indiscriminate" attacks by Hamas.

Of Circus Dogs And Whips

In effect, then, the UN Secretary General rejected his own inquiry which had been lead by Ian Martin, a former head of Amnesty International. Moreover, Ban's effective suppression of the full report was doubtless an attempt to draw a line under the inquiry, minimising damage to Israel and the United States.

Noam Chomsky commented on the possible role of US-Israeli "diplomacy" in the Secretary-General's decision not to publish the full report or to proceed with a wide-ranging inquiry:

"as far as I know there's no direct evidence about what happened [behind the scenes], though it's not hard to guess. Ban knows as well as any other Sec'y-General that criticism of the US (hence its offshoots [such as Israel]) will undermine what little there is of a UN." (Email to Media Lens, May 13, 2009)

In other words, direct pressure is not always required. Indeed, it is often more efficient to have an amenable person in place who will do the master's bidding without being told what to do. As George Orwell once observed:

"Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip. But the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip." (Orwell, 'As I Please', Tribune, 1944)

Ban Ki-moon has already demonstrated his gymnastic prowess. When he visited Gaza in January 2009, he was justifiably "appalled" at Israel's "outrageous and totally unacceptable attack." But his critical remarks were restricted to the attack on UN installations and personnel; not Gaza as a whole.

Hasan Abu Nimah, Jordan's former UN ambassador, noted astutely that Ban's "courage only went so far":

"[His] flash of anger was limited however only to UN facilities. He spoke as if the rest of Gaza — where more than 7,000 people lay dead or injured, and thousands of homes, schools, mosques, universities, police stations and government buildings were destroyed — did not exist, or were not of UN concern." (Abu Nimah, 'Ban Ki-moon's moral failure', op. cit.)

He continued:

"Whisked around in his convoy, he did not bother to stop and talk to any of Israel's victims — the families who had just dug the remains of their loved ones from the rubble or those with horrific injuries in Gaza's overstretched hospitals. These are the very people, the Palestinian refugees, that the UN is in Gaza to help, but there was it seems no time for them."

Ban did condemn "the excessive use of force" by the Israelis in its massive assault on Gaza. As Abu Nimah noted, presumably the UN Secretary-General "found Israel's attack on Gaza perfectly acceptable, but he disagreed only with the tonnage of high explosives that should be dropped by Israeli planes." While correctly condemning Hamas rocket attacks on Israel as "violations of basic humanitarian law", Ban neglected to say the same of Israel's ongoing massive violations.

Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, said Ban's response to the new UN report was "disappointing". He was clear that the inquiry had produced a "very serious and very scrupulously argued report that's based on very careful analysis of the available evidence." (Al Jazeera, May 5, 2009; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oORAuHY1y-Y)

Yvonne Terlingen, Amnesty International representative at the United Nations, also expressed her concern at Ban Ki-moon's stance. She told Inter Press Service [IPS]: "We are very disappointed with the Secretary-General's reaction to what we have come to know [from the report]."

Terlingen called for a broader inquiry into the Israeli attacks by the 15-member UN Security Council. But one unnamed Arab diplomat told IPS he did not expect any investigation by the Security Council because three of the permanent members, the US, Britain and France, are "far too protective" of Israel. The secretary-general, he said, "will not pursue a broader inquiry because he is under pressure and beholden to the big powers in the Security Council."

"It's a lost cause," he added, pointing out that "Israel knows that it can get away with murder." (Deen, 'UN chief defends "watered down" Gaza report', op. cit.)

Although the UN Secretary General refused to launch a full, wide-ranging investigation under his direct mandate, Israel's leaders have not entirely evaded scrutiny. A four-person team lead by Justice Richard Goldstone has already been appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate alleged breaches of international law, and possible war crimes, in Gaza. But this will not have the same stamp of authority as a full-ranging, impartial investigation carried out by direct authority of the UN Secretary-General himself.

Moreover, the Goldstone investigation is likely to be severely hobbled by Israel's refusal to cooperate and the time that has already elapsed since the assault on Gaza. Falk believes Israel is taking an obstructive stance "because it knows deep down that it made serious human rights violations." He refutes Israel's assertions that efforts to establish the truth are "one-sided attempts to demonize Israel" and "tarnish its reputation":

"The real reason [for Israel's non-cooperation] is that the facts overwhelmingly support allegations that Israel is understandably concerned that any objective inquiry would indeed confirm the allegations and create a situation in which the international community would be obliged to seek some kind of procedure for accountability." (Press TV, 'Falk tells why Israel stonewalls Gaza probe', April 30, 2009; http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=93136&sectionid=351020202)

The Media's Shrug Of Indifference

While some elements of the above account could be pieced together from a handful of media reports in the corporate press, the coverage was largely fragmented, often confusing and the tone muted. Significantly, we could not find a single editorial in the British press expressing outrage, or even discomfort, at the subversion of the UN, and the evident contempt for the organisation, by Israel and the US

The most extensive coverage was in the Guardian with two articles totalling under 1200 words. (Rory McCarthy and Ed Pilkington, 'UN report accuses Israel military of negligence and urges reparations for Gaza deaths'; Julian Borger, 'UN chief rejects further inquiry', both on May 6, 2009)

An Independent article devoted just 654 words to the report and Ban Ki-moon's rejection of it. (Donald Macintyre, 'UN retreats after Israel hits out at Gaza report', Independent, May 6, 2009)

Meanwhile, the Times exerted itself by expending all of 99 words on the story. (James Bone, 'UN condemns Israel over phosphorus', Times, May 6, 2009)

And nobody could accuse the Daily Telegraph of avoiding the matter. It granted the story two lines; a total of 47 words. (Alex Spillius, Daily Telegraph, 'You must accept the goal of a Palestinian state, Biden tells Israel', May 6, 2009)

In the days since Ban Ki-moon came to the defence of Israel and its powerful backers in the UN Security Council, the British news media has shrugged off any disquiet it might have had.

While there have been UN investigations of war crimes committed in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia, somehow war crimes committed in Gaza do not deserve the same scrutiny and accountability. The omission is not unique, of course. There has never been a UN inquiry into war crimes committed by the United States in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The UN would surely be destroyed if such a move were ever seriously contemplated.

For the corporate media, then, there is no need for forensic analysis of this latest cynical sidelining of the UN, a body set up to promote world peace after all. There has been no rottweiler unearthing of this UN capitulation which, once again, effectively covers up major atrocities committed by Israel with heavy backing from its allies in the UN Security Council. But then, they are 'our' allies and, by definition, 'the good guys'. The media instinctively know this is the script they must follow.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Richard Beeston, foreign editor at the Times
Email: [email protected]

Ian Black, Middle East editor at the Guardian
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Katharine Butler, foreign editor at the Independent
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Will Kinnaird, foreign editor at the Daily Telegraph
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