Israel-UN relations at historic low as secretary-general invokes rare diplomatic measure

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan wears a yellow Star of David that reads "Never Again" in honor of those killed in the unprecedented attack by Hamas, which triggered an ongoing war, as he addresses members of the U.N. Security Council at United Nations headquarters Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan wears a yellow Star of David that reads “Never Again” in honor of those killed in the Hamas attack as he addresses members of the UN Security Council at United Nations headquarters on October 30.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

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Israel’s relations with the United Nations have sunk to a historic low after a spat between the two escalated this week.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday invoked a rarely used but powerful tool in his determined push for a ceasefire in Gaza, causing outrage among Israeli diplomats.

Article 99 of the UN charter allows the UN chief to raise to the Security Council’s attention “any issue that may aggravate existing threats to the maintenance of international peace and security.” Guterres, in a letter to the 15-member council, used the diplomatic tool and urged for the body to “press to avert a humanitarian catastrophe” and unite in a call for a full humanitarian ceasefire.

This picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 3, 2023, shows smoke billowing over the Palestinian enclave during Israeli bombardment amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. Israel carried out deadly bombardments in Gaza on December 3 as international calls mounted for greater protection of civilians and the renewal of an expired truce with Palestinian militant group Hamas. (Photo by Menahem KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

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The step caused outrage among Israeli diplomats. Israel has strongly opposed calls for a ceasefire, arguing that it needs to press on with its offensive in Gaza to eliminate Hamas after its militants attacked the country. on October 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 240 hostages. Israel’s campaign in Gaza has resulted in the deaths of more than 16,000 people, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah, which compiles its reports with data from medical sources in Hamas-run Gaza.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen lashed out at the secretary-general for his letter, saying the UN chief’s tenure was “a danger to world peace” and that his call for a ceasefire in Gaza amounted to supporting Hamas and the October 7 attack.

Guterres’ letter was the seventh time in the UN’s 78-year history in which Article 99 had been invoked, and the first time it was used since 1989, when then Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar urged the Security Council to call for a ceasefire during the Lebanese civil war, according to Daniel Forti, a senior UN analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

It was a “symbolic punch,” Forti told CNN of Guterres’ move. “An urgent plea for diplomatic action to stop the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza from crossing a point of no return.”

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attend a UN Security Council meeting on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, in New York City, New York, U.S., November 29, 2023. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attend a UN Security Council meeting on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, in New York on November 29.Brendan McDermid/Reuters

“We are at a breaking point,” Guterres told the Council meeting Friday. “There is high risk of the collapse of the humanitarian support system in Gaza, which would have devastating consequences”.

Forti said Guterres’ letter was unlikely to shift political dynamics inside the Security Council, but that it could create more urgency for diplomatic action. “Because this tool is used so rarely, it does have a moral impact,” he said.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan has argued that a ceasefire “cements Hamas’ control of Gaza” and extends “the suffering of all.”

He also criticized Guterres for the rare use of Article 99, noting that recent wars in Ukraine, Yemen, and Syria hadn’t prompted the same response. “Despite the immense global impact of other conflicts and far more pressing threats to international peace and security, Israel’s defensive war against Hamas — a designated terrorist organization — was the catalyst for activating Article 99.

Guterres had already faced intense criticism by Israel, which has long felt the UN is biased against it, and multiple Israeli officials have publicly called for his resignation. The UN chief has repeatedly condemned Hamas’ October 7 attack, including in the letter in which he invoked Article 99.

US vetoes ceasefire resolution

Later in the day, the US vetoed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in war-torn Gaza Friday, amid growing concern about the civilian death toll there. The resolution, which referenced Guterres’ use of Article 99, was drafted by the United Arab Emirates and co-sponsored by at least 97 other countries.

A majority of thirteen of the Security Council’s 15 members voted for the brief resolution, with the UK abstaining from the vote and the US exercising its veto power.

A draft version of the resolution, presented by the United Arab Emirates and seen by CNN, had called for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire,” as well as “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages” and “ensuring humanitarian access.”

But speaking after the vote, US Deputy Ambassador Robert Wood criticized the resolution for failing to mention Hamas’ terror attacks on October 7, among other things.

One of the Council’s five permanent members with veto power, the US has repeatedly resisted calls for “ceasefire,” emphasizing Israel’s right to defend itself. Friday’s vote was the sixth attempt by the council to reach a consensus on the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Only one previous vote was successful, which called last month for “humanitarian pauses and corridors” to be established in Gaza.

The UN Security Council has failed to agree on how to respond to the Hamas attacks and Israel’s subsequent war with the Palestinian militant group, with rival camps within the body, particularly the United States and Russia, clashing.

TOPSHOT - Tents for Palestinians seeking refuge are set up on the grounds of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) centre in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 19, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP) (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

Tents for Palestinians seeking refuge are set up on the grounds of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 19.Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Relations at a historic low

Gabriela Shalev, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN from 2008 to 2010, said Israel-UN relations are at a historic low now, noting that ties had become strained soon after Israel was established following a UN General Assembly resolution in 1947.

“I think it is a very low point in relations between Israel and the UN… a very low point in our relations with the world,” except for the United States, Shalev, who is also an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Law, told CNN. “We have the feeling that organizations of the UN all over the world don’t understand that Israel is now at war for its existence as a Jewish and democratic state, it is (facing) an existential threat from all sides.”

Israeli diplomats have used their platforms at the UN to denounce the world body since the war began. Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, and his staff have been wearing yellow Stars of David to protest the UN’s alleged inaction on the Hamas attack, evoking memories of Nazi-era persecution of Jews.

He and Cohen, the foreign minister, have been at the center of Israel’s attempts to discredit the UN and its chief.

On October 24, Guterres delivered an address to the Security Council in which he “unequivocally” condemned Hamas’ attack but said that it didn’t happen “in a vacuum,” and that the Palestinians had been “subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation” by Israel.

RE'IM, ISRAEL - OCTOBER 13: Destroyed cars and personal effects are still left scattered around the Supernova Music Festival site, where hundreds were killed and dozens taken by Hamas militants near the border with Gaza, on October 13, 2023 in Kibbutz Re'im, Israel. Israel has sealed off Gaza and launched sustained retaliatory air strikes, which have killed at least 1,400 people with more than 400,000 displaced, after a large-scale attack by Hamas. On October 7, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza by land, sea, and air, killing over 1,300 people and wounding around 2,800. Israeli soldiers and civilians have also been taken hostage by Hamas and moved into Gaza. The attack prompted a declaration of war by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the announcement of an emergency wartime government. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

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That caused fury among Israeli diplomats. In response, Erdan called on the secretary-general to resign and said his country would block visas for UN officials to “teach them a lesson.” He noted that Hamas officials were citing his address as justification for their attack, and accused the UN of antisemitism, calling for its funding to be stopped.

Cohen has refused to meet Guterres since then, saying there is “no place for a balanced approach” to the October 7 attack, and has repeatedly called on him to resign.

Shalev, the former Israeli ambassador, said the way Israeli diplomats have been addressing the conflict with the UN is “not the right way,” particularly calls for the secretary-general’s resignation. Disregarding the opinions of the UN or leaving the organization wouldn’t help Israel, she added.

“The Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly and the only body that can fire him or force him to retire is the General Assembly,” she said.

Quarrel goes beyond the secretary-general

Israel’s quarrel with the UN has gone beyond the secretary-general. Israeli officials have also criticized the World Health OrganizationUN Women and the UN’s Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Francesca Albanese.

Meanwhile, more than 100 UN staffers have been killed in Gaza since the conflict began, the largest loss in the world body’s history. UNRWA employs more than 10,000 people in Gaza. UN offices across the world observed a minute of silence and flew their flags at half-staff last month to pay tribute to them. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) last month said it had recorded collateral and direct damage to more than 60 of its facilities, most of which were schools sheltering thousands of civilians.

UNRWA has been a major target of Israeli criticism. The organization was founded by the UN a year after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, to provide relief to displaced Palestinians. It defines Palestinian refugees as those who were dispossessed from their homes during Israel’s creation in 1948 as well as their descendants, which qualifies them to return to their ancestral homes in what is now Israel. Those who fit that definition now number 5.9 million. Israel has rejected the notion that they could return, arguing that the move would nullify its Jewish character.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gabriela Shalev addresses a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the crisis in Gaza at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, January 6, 2009.   REUTERS/Mike Segar  (UNITED STATES)

Then-Israeli ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shalev addresses a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the crisis in Gaza at the UN headquarters in New York, on January 6, 2009.Mike Segar/Reuters

Israel has long accused UNRWA of anti-Israeli incitement, which UNRWA has repeatedly denied, and in 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to dismantle the UN body, saying it should be merged with the main UN refugee agency.

Since the October 7 attack, Israeli journalists and news outlets have refocused their attention on UNRWA and have amplified stories questioning its role in the war.

Last month, an Israeli journalist claimed on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that one of the hostage takers in Gaza was a teacher at an UNRWA-run school. That report was picked up by Israeli news outlets, prompting the UN agency to issue a statement calling for an “immediate stop” to the spreading of “unsubstantiated claims” about the organization, saying they amounted to “misinformation.”

Another story widely picked up by Israeli media claimed that the Israeli military found weapons in Gaza stored below UNRWA boxes, suggesting that the UN agency could be complicit in Hamas’ militancy. Erdan, Israel’s UN ambassador, said the video proved that the UN had become an “accomplice to terror.”

Albanese has been the subject of a fierce campaign of Israeli criticism. The official was recently accused by an Israel government spokesman of being “a shameless Hamas-complicit official” who exercises “disgusting Holocaust inversion.”

In this November 14 photo, people attend the March for Israel on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

House passes resolution condemning antisemitism

The next day, Albanese wrote that anyone working on Israel or the Palestinian territories is accused of “supporting terror” or “being antisemitic.”

“The most shameful attacks directed at the UN are the ones against UNRWA, which represents the UN at critical times of war, including with lifeline support,” Albanese added.

Articles in the Israeli media have also questioned UNRWA’s credibility and called for a “rethink” of the organization.

Shalev said there was little Israeli trust in UNRWA.

“Where does the humanitarian help that goes to Gaza go to? Does it go to the population or to Hamas?”

UNRWA has repeatedly denied allegations that its aid is being diverted and that it teaches hatred in its schools, and has questioned “the motivation of those who make such claims, through large advocacy campaigns.” It has condemned the Hamas attack as “abhorrent.”

Despite the longstanding distrust, Shalev said that anti-UN rhetoric was not the best way for Israelis to respond.

“We have to show the world… what really happened on October 7,” she said, adding that Israel doesn’t have to “act emotionally” or “make all these empty declarations” to pursue that goal.

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