UNITED NATIONS — In the midst of Israel’s battle with militants in Gaza over the past three weeks, skirmishes opened on a second front in recent days: Its strikes on United Nations facilities and the steep civilian casualties brought a barrage of rebukes and warnings from senior United Nations officials around the world, reaching a fever pitch just before the announcement of a cease-fire late Thursday.
Behind the scenes, diplomats here were on the phone incessantly with Israelis, Palestinians and representatives of countries in the region that have influence over Israel’s principal nemesis, Hamas. The efforts led to a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire announced late Thursday by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman and by Secretary of State John Kerry, who was traveling in New Delhi.
In public, the war of words intensified this week, with the United Nations blaming Israel for an attack that killed at least 19 people who were taking refuge at a United Nations school early Wednesday and Israel, in turn, accusing the world body of helping Hamas.
The United Nations has been dragged into the conflict: Eight of its staff members have been killed in the past 24 days, and more than 100 of its facilities have come under fire, including the school. United Nations officials said they had repeatedly told Israel of its exact location.
The deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, a former Swedish diplomat, was visibly riled on Wednesday when he publicly reminded Israel of the Geneva Conventions, which established international law governing warfare. In Geneva, the United Nations’ top human rights official, Navi Pillay, raised the prospect of war crimes.
Christopher Gunness, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesman in Gaza, broke down at the end of an interview with Al Jazeera, which promptly went viral. And Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner general of Unrwa, the agency responsible for aiding Palestinians, told the Security Council on Thursday that military operations had been “waged with excessive — and at times disproportionate — force in densely populated urban settings.”
Israel has rarely regarded the United Nations as a reliable ally. But the tensions are so acute now that the two are divided even over who has died. The United Nations maintains that 75 to 80 percent of the dead are civilians. Israel angrily rebuts that assertion. Its ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, said as recently as last week that his government had established that about half the dead were combatants.
He mocked United Nations officials who rue the Israeli blockade of Gaza, pointing out that Hamas was using concrete to build “terror tunnels” with construction materials. He has repeatedly taken United Nations officials to task for the discovery of rockets at its schools. On Thursday, speaking to reporters after a Security Council briefing, Mr. Prosor chided the body’s humanitarian relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, for acknowledging that Israel had faced rocket fire, but declining to blame Hamas for it.
Graphic | In Gaza, a Pattern of Conflict Similarities and differences in the last three major conflicts between Israel and Hamas.
“I had problems hearing ‘Hamas,’ ” he said. “I had problems hearing ‘Hamas’ in any briefings from the secretary general downward.” He said the “international community” had been one-sided — in favor of Israel’s enemies. “I feel the international community should be very vocal in standing with Israel fighting terrorism today, because if not you will see it on your doorstep tomorrow,” Mr. Prosor said.
(Ms. Amos did mention Hamas in her briefing to the Council, saying, “Under international humanitarian law, the government of Israel, Hamas and other militant groups must distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects and between combatants and civilians.”)
On the issue of rockets, United Nations officials have taken pains to say that they had been found in buildings they had abandoned for safety, and that it was their staff who had found the weapons and condemned those who stashed them on United Nations premises, which is illegal under international law.
As for the death toll, the United Nations said it collected figures from the Gaza health ministry along with its own staff. Mr. Krähenbühl, who before taking over Unrwa had spent 12 years with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said his own visits to Gaza hospitals this week had convinced him that the vast majority of the dead were civilians: More than 250 of the estimated 1,400 Palestinian dead have been children. He invited skeptics to tour Gaza’s hospitals with him.
Graphic | The Toll in Gaza and Israel, Day by Day The daily tally of rocket attacks, airstrikes and deaths in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Unrwa provides food to about 800,000 Palestinians in Gaza, a sharp increase, it says, since the 2007 blockade, in addition to running schools and clinics. More than 240,000 Gazans are seeking shelter in its buildings.
“We are not an agency with a cause,” Mr. Krähenbühl said. “We are an agency within the U.N. system.”
In addition to his eight colleagues killed in Gaza in the past three weeks, Mr. Krähenbühl said the agency had also lost 12 colleagues in Syria in that country’s three-year war.
In such a polarized part of the world, he said, it was difficult to be “seen as evenhanded.”
It did not start out this way.
When Israel’s military incursion in Gaza began, Mr. Ban made statements condemning Hamas rockets, urging Israel to halt its bombings, and calling on both sides to address what he repeatedly called the “root causes” of their enmity. Even after the bombing of a United Nations school last week, while Mr. Ban was in the region, the United Nations refrained from casting blame. And even now, its officials are careful to call on Israel and Hamas to comply with international laws and, as Mr. Krähenbühl put it Thursday, “to respect the sanctity of U.N. premises.”
Regardless of the verbal volleys, there is little that United Nations officials can do without instructions from the Security Council. The Council met Thursday for more than three hours behind closed doors, but failed to reach consensus on a proposed statement that would have condemned attacks on United Nations installations. Diplomats said they were stuck on language that would have also condemned the use of its facilities to store rockets.
In the past, the United Nations has been useful in supporting political deals and keeping warring parties at bay in the Middle East: One of its first peacekeeping missions was in the Golan Heights. The tensions now may make it far more difficult for the United Nations to play that role.
As the Security Council met behind closed doors, the Palestinian envoy, Riyad Mansour, shoulders hunched, rued that it had not taken any legally binding steps to end the fighting. “There’s a big test for the 15 members in the chamber as they are deliberating right now — I think tests to their hearts, tests to their conscience, tests to their brains — whether they’ll condemn these crimes,” Mr. Mansour said.
Like his Israeli counterpart, he was not too bullish on the international community. He said the people of Gaza “feel the international community is failing them.”
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(via NY Times)