Phyllis Bennis: UN Security Council’s Gaza Ceasefire Resolution Is Not Enough—But It’s a Start

Analysis of the UN Security Council’s belated support for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and serves on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace. Her most recent book is the 7th updated edition of “Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer” (2018). 

Cross-posted from Common Dreams

Picture by Matt Kowalczyk

Five and half months into Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza with more than 32,000 Palestinians already killed, six weeks after the International Court of Justice found Israel plausibly committing genocide and ordered it to stop, and after four earlier tries, the UN Security Council on Monday finally passed a resolution submitted by all ten elected members aiming to stop the slaughter. The resolution has lots of weaknesses and shows the effects of U.S. pressure—but it demands an end to the bombing and a massive influx of food and medicine. And that means the possibility of saving lives.

The resolution demanded an immediate ceasefire leading to a lasting and sustainable ceasefire, the release of all hostages, and compliance with international law in treatment of all those detained. The Council also demanded “the lifting of all barriers to the provision of humanitarian assistance at scale,” reminding the world of the need for massive expansion of that aid and for protection of Palestinian civilians across the entire Gaza Strip. 

The resolution’s passage was uncertain until the very last moment. An hour before the vote, U.S. diplomats won a final concession—replacing the original demand for a “permanent” ceasefire” to the squishier, less clear “lasting.” And there are significant other weaknesses in the resolution.

The most important flaw in the Council’s text is that it calls for a ceasefire only “for the month of Ramadan.” This most important of Muslim holidays began on March 11, so the demand for a ceasefire is only for about two weeks. And while it does demand that the immediate halt lead to a lasting ceasefire, two weeks is still a much too-short time. 

Other problems reflect deliberate obfuscation of language. The demand that all parties treat “all persons they detain” in compliance with international law clearly refers to the thousands of Palestinian detainees Israel is holding, many in administration detention without even the pretense of legitimate legal procedures, whom international law requires to be immediately released. Their detention violates a host of those laws, but by not naming them directly, diplomatic wrangling always threatens to deny them their rights. 

And in the paragraph focusing on the catastrophic humanitarian situation across Gaza, the Council’s demand for “lifting all barriers to provision of humanitarian aid at scale” should be a clear and straightforward message to Israel that it must open the gates, end its rejection of goods on the spurious grounds of potential “dual use,” replace its deliberately complex and time-consuming inspection processes and more. But that reference to “lifting all barriers” is hidden in a long sentence within a reference to an earlier resolution. The first part of the sentence merely “emphasizes” the need for more humanitarian aid and protection for Palestinian civilians. And in UN diplo-speak, especially in the Security Council that actually has the right to enforce its resolutions, “emphasizing” something ain’t even close to “demanding” that it happen.

Israel was still not pleased, of course. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately announced his delegation, expected in Washington tomorrow to discuss Tel Aviv’s planned escalation against Rafah, will stay home instead.

But even if the resolution is not all it should be, its passage (14 in favor, the U.S. abstained) still represents a powerful global rejection of the U.S.-backed Israeli assault against Palestinians in Gaza, and an important expression of support for the South African-led intervention at the International Court of Justice designed to prevent or stop Israeli genocide and to hold Israel accountable for its crimes. Importantly, and despite U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s false claim following the vote, all decisions of the Council, as stated in Article 25 of the UN Charter, are binding on Member States. 

That puts a big obligation on the U.S. and global movements for ceasefire, massive escalation of humanitarian aid, and resumption of funding UNRWA. Left to its own devices, the Council will almost never move to enforce its own decisions. That responsibility, that obligation, lies with our movements—and, in the UN context, with the General Assembly. The legacy of the South Africa anti-apartheid movement, especially through the 1970s and 80s, and into the early 1990s, shows that model. The U.S. and Britain over and over again vetoed resolutions in the Security Council for sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Over and over again the General Assembly passed the resolutions—for banking, trade, and other sanctions, for arms embargoes and much more. Eventually, public pressure against Washington and London forced a pull-back, and eventually, reluctantly and grudgingly, those governments gave in, stopped vetoing the Council resolutions and started abiding by the calls of the Assembly. It all played a huge role in ending South African apartheid.

When U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield claimed that the Council vote was “nonbinding,” she was setting the stage for the U.S. government to violate the UN Charter by refusing to be bound by the resolution’s terms. But enforcement of Council decisions can take shape in many forms—protest movements around the world can demand their governments move to pressure Israel to abide by the Council’s demands. The General Assembly can urge Member States to impose some of those same sanctions it used so successfully against apartheid South Africa. Maybe the Assembly and global movements together can escalate the call urging boycotts of Israeli products, divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation or apartheid, and sanctions on banking transactions or trade, and the imposition of arms embargoes. 

First thing, of course, is an immediate ceasefire, release of hostages and Palestinian detainees, and a flood of emergency humanitarian aid. Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll see this Security Council resolution lead to the United Nations joining the global BDS movement. It’s never too late.

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