Restoring hope to Palestinians will require more than words

James Zogby

The National  /  July 4, 2023

At the UN Security Council session last week, many nations struck common themes in their remarks.

Last week I was afforded the opportunity to address a special United Nations Security Council Session on Palestine. The invitation had been extended by Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN, in her capacity as president of the Security Council.

My briefing, which opened the session, focused on the importance of addressing Palestinian human rights. No concrete action has been taken to restrain Israeli behaviour during the 56 years of the occupation, resulting in tragic deformities that have transformed both the Israeli and Palestinian political cultures. Israel has become increasingly hardline towards Palestine. Palestinians meanwhile are rejecting moderate leadership, despairing of a peaceful resolution, and increasingly supporting violence as the way forward. Urging restraint from all sides, calling for negotiations and reiterating support for a two-state solution is not enough. I then proposed specific actions that can be taken by member states, noting that:

“Actions, not statements, will contribute to restoring Palestinian hope, ending Israel’s sense of impunity, and empowering those Palestinians and Israelis who seek a peaceful future…Israelis need to know that there are red lines which, if crossed, have consequences. And Palestinians need to know that they are not alone, and violence is not the answer…Only after we’ve changed the political dynamic helping to cure the political deformities infecting both societies can a political horizon occur.”

Following my remarks, the UN Special Envoy on the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland spoke, as did ambassadors representing all of the Security Council’s 15 member states.

Several common themes emerged in their remarks: uniform condemnation of Israel’s announcement of massive settlement expansion and the rampaging settler attacks on Palestinian villages, which many called acts of terrorism and incitement. Several envoys also called attention to dire financial shortfall at the UN Relief and Works Agency and appealed for greater funding for Palestinian refugees.

A few of the ambassadorial interventions were especially noteworthy. The remarks by the US ambassador Robert Wood were more direct than expected and were roundly critical of Israel’s recently announced massive settlement expansion and the recent escalation of settler violence.

Instead of beginning the recounting of the current violence with the June 20th Palestinian attack that took the lives of four Israelis, the envoys from France, Switzerland and Mozambique cited the June 19th Israeli raids in Jenin in which seven Palestinians, including two children were killed. They and others noted that this assault violated international law and the principle of proportionality.

By far the most compelling intervention was made by Ms Nusseibeh who directly challenged those Israeli officials who called for more settlements and the killings of Palestinians, referring to these actions and comments as “dangerous and irresponsible incitement to violence.” Then after citing concern with Israel’s incursions into Palestinian cities and the recent aerial bombardment in the West Bank – the first in 20 years – the UAE ambassador stated that “violence begets violence and security is ephemeral in the absence of justice, rule of law, and accountability.”

After the Security Council ambassadors spoke, it was clear that Israel was isolated both for its behaviour and for the actions of its extremist settlers. Undeterred, Israel’s ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan, attempted to mount a defence. Mr Erdan began with a compelling personal story of a young Israeli girl murdered in a recent terrorist attack noting that no one in the chamber had mentioned her, implying that the focus on Palestinians was somehow an insult to Israelis.

The Israeli envoy then challenged the case made by the other ambassadors that settlements are a violation of international law, an obstacle to peace and an incitement to violence. The land, he claimed, is not “occupied territories,” but “disputed,” as there was never Palestinian sovereignty over that land. In any case, the land in question is “Judea and Samaria,” the ancient home of the Jewish people who therefore have a legal and moral right to live there.

Palestinians don’t hate us, he claimed, because we build on this land; they hate us because they are taught to hate us from birth and want to destroy us. The source of the conflict, he insisted, isn’t what Israelis have done to Palestinians – it’s the existential “cancerous hatred which has poisoned their minds that is the root of the conflict.” (This, by the way, was the clearest example of the political deformities of impunity and bigotry I noted in my opening remarks.)

Then, in a last-ditch effort at deflection, the Israeli envoy attempted to pivot the discussion to Iran, arguing that country, not Israel, was what the Council should be discussing as “the most pressing threat to global security”.

The response to the Israeli ambassador is that, of course, the danger that Iran and its allied militias pose to the region is real. But it is not either/or – both countries’ behaviours must be addressed.

The challenge before the UN member states is clear. Their understanding of the illegality of Israeli actions and the danger posed by increasingly extremist settlers must be addressed by more than words. As the UAE ambassador noted, there must be justice, rule of law and accountability. That requires more than statements of concern. It requires action.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National