By Marino de Medici
At long last, a spokesman of the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Assistance said what his boss, U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, found so difficult to utter: "There is literally no safe place for civilians (in Gaza)". More than 600 have been killed by the relentless Israeli bombardment from air, land and sea. Five hundred homes have been destroyed, many of them with entire families inside them.
While the U.N. Security Council did get around to issuing a call for a cease fire, no commanding appeals or action came from the secretary general. In other times, the secretary general would have been actively and vigorously engaged in trying to stop the massacre of civilians. Most certainly, Dag Hammarskjold would not have stood still. In fact, he lost his life on a peace mission in 1961 when his plane went down in what was then Rhodesia as he was trying to negotiate a cease fire.
Nowadays, the U.N. secretary general is more likely to fly to various capitals in search of mediators to the conflict. A statesman such as Hammarskjold would have flown right into the warzone to bring some sense to the Israeli commanders and to talk to the Hamas people, no matter how these terrorists may relish martyrdom in their hatred of Israel.
Lacking a strong statement from the head of the U.N. diplomacy, it was up to his subalterns to articulate the view that the violence had reached a point that wounded the collective consciousness of the world. U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay put it in strong terms on Wednesday: "There seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes." He went on to reiterate the obvious, that civilians should not be targeted, but while calling it "imperative" that Hamas and all Palestinian armed groups abide by applicable norms of international humanitarian law, he addressed an open dramatic appeal to Israel to apply the principles of distinction between civilians and combatants.
The U.N. spokesperson was aiming at the most glaring and morally unacceptable feature of the conflict in Gaza, the lack of "proportionality" and "precaution in attack."
The U.N. commissioner could not be more specific: the right to life of civilians, including children, should be a foremost consideration.
"Not abiding by these principles may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity." These are strong words that would have carried much more weight if they were pronounced by the highest authority of the United Nations rather than a commissioner. The Israeli government lost no time in calling the U.N. statement "embarrassingly shallow."
While the meek secretary general goes through the motions, the man caught in the middle is American Secretary of State Kerry, who was given the mandate by President Obama to "force" a ceasefire. The situation is dire indeed to justify a forceful intervention. As the head of the U.N. Children's Fund, Julietta Touma reported 121 Gaza children under age 18 make up one-third of total civilian casualties. Over 900 children have been injured. The television footage aired by the BBC and some American broadcast stations of children brought into a hospital is simply horrific.
The absence of "proportionality" is visible even now on programs of U.S. networks. A social media report by FAIR focused on a recent interview by Bob Schiefer of CBS who kept talking about Tel Aviv being under an alert and the sirens going off. Not a word about the scores of Palestinian civilians who were getting killed by the constant bombing of Gaza. There is no place for them to hide even though Israel keeps repeating that Hamas makes use of civilians as cover. Even hospitals in Gaza cannot be considered safe heavens. The World Health Organization announced that 18 health facilities in Gaza have been severely damaged, including three hospitals. In addition, hospital supplies have just about run out.
The question is: where is a Dag Hammarskjold today, intervening with the moral authority, the personal courage and the international support to force a cease fire? Who will protect the Gaza population that has no place to go to escape the bombs raining down on civilians? True, they voted for Hamas but do they need to be punished so harshly?
In the meanwhile, the U.S. Congress makes sure that the Israelis are protected. A Senate Defense Subcommitee has just allocated $351 million to finance the Israeli anti-missile system Iron Dome
for the fiscal year 2015, compared to $235 million in 2014. In total, the U.S. has agreed to spend $30 billion on military aid to Israel between 2009 and 2018. And here is the final word on "proportionality:" Secretary of State Kerry announced that the U.S. is providing $47 million to address the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.
Marino de Medici is a Winchester resident and formerly the dean of foreign correspondents in the United States.