On 12 May, the United States blocked the release of what otherwise would have been a unanimous statement of the UN Security Council criticizing the latest round of violence in Israel and occupied Palestine. This was followed by US rejection on Thursday of a request to urgently hold an open meeting of the Council the following day on the claim that such public measures would be “unhelpful” in de-escalating the situation. With Israel preparing to launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip while continuing to pummel it from land, sea and air, news emerged that the United States finally reversed course by agreeing to allow an open meeting of the Council – but only on Sunday 16 May. In addition to providing billions of dollars in annual military aid to Israel, it is clear that Washington is once again providing Israel with diplomatic cover and time for its latest aggression on the Palestinian people.
In situations such as this, where the Security Council fails to discharge its mandate to maintain international peace and security, the General Assembly can invoke the “Uniting for Peace” resolution. This allows the Assembly to consider a situation immediately and issue recommendations to UN member states for collective measures, including a range of sanctions and the use of armed force if necessary. Although such recommendations are necessarily circumscribed by the Assembly’s limited power to bind member states, they can and have been very important in helping shape discourse on what the international community regards as legitimate.
The escalating numbers of those being killed in the current violence are overwhelmingly Palestinian. Given the broader context that gave rise to this latest round of fighting, this is a crisis that begs for the General Assembly to invoke its authority for the maintenance of international peace and security immediately.
The Uniting for Peace resolution 377(V) was passed in 1950 by the Assembly as an alternative avenue for the United Nations to act where “lack of unanimity of the permanent members” of the Council – Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States – impedes it from exercising its “primary responsibility” for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression. This resolution was initially proposed by the United States because of repeated vetoes by the Soviet Union during the 1950-53 Korean War.
The Uniting for Peace resolution has been invoked twelve times in UN history. For example, it was invoked in response to the 1956 Suez Crisis where two permanent members, Britain and France, together with Israel, invaded Egypt and blocked votes for a ceasefire and a UN peacekeeping mission. Likewise, it was relied upon in 1981 in support of the freedom of Namibia when Britain, France, and the United States vetoed resolutions condemning Apartheid South Africa’s prolonged illegal occupation of that country.
The situation of the Palestinian people has been the subject of two Uniting for Peace resolutions in the past. In 1980, a special session of the General Assembly passed eight resolutions following a request from Senegal calling for the unconditional and total withdrawal of Israel from the territories occupied in 1967. In 1997, General Assembly resolution ES-10/1 was passed upon a request from Qatar, which eventually facilitated the passage, inter alia, of resolution ES-10/14 in 2003 through which the Assembly sought an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice in 2004 on the legality of Israel’s construction of its wall in occupied Palestine. Crucially, this emergency special session of the Assembly remains officially in session and could be reconvened.
Over the past few weeks, Israel has escalated illegal policies and practices targeting the Palestinian people; these amount to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression sufficient to trigger Security Council action and, failing that, the Assembly’s uniting for peace authority. As one of us has recently written, these acts constitute: (1) Israel’s illegal annexation, de facto and de jure, of the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT); (2) Israel’s prolonged violation of the erga omnes right of the Palestinian people to self-determination in the whole of the OPT; and (3) Israel’s imposition of a regime of alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation inimical to humankind, specifically crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution as recently affirmed by Human Rights Watch and Israel’s own B’Tselem.
In practical terms, these prolonged threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression have imposed conditions of life on the Palestinian people designed to frustrate their full range of political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights. The latest example of this—which triggered the present fighting—was when Israeli border and civilian police stormed the Haram al-Sharif and the Al-Aqsa mosque last week in an ostensible and brazen display of Israeli “sovereignty” over occupied East Jerusalem. Israeli forces used rubber bullets, tear gas, and smoke grenades against thousands of peaceful Muslim Palestinian worshippers, injuring and hospitalizing hundreds during the holy month of Ramadan. This was preceded by Israel’s violent eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem, itself a manifestation of Israel’s illegal settlement of some 750,000 of its nationals in the occupied territories since 1967. These Sheikh Jarrah Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their original homes in 1948 in what is now Israel, and now they are at risk of losing their homes again to Israeli settlers with support of the Israeli courts, police, and lawmakers. In line with Israel’s apartheid regime, these Palestinians are barred by these same courts, police, and lawmakers from returning to their original homes in Israel.
These actions in East Jerusalem, undergirded by decades of structural violence and violations of international law by Israel, ignited the indignation of Palestinians everywhere. Palestinian citizens protesting against Israel’s actions in Jerusalem have also experienced brutal policing tactics, showing that Israeli “citizenship” for non-Jews does not ensure protection from state repression. And it should come as no surprise that Palestinian paramilitary groups in Gaza, faced with Israeli breaches of the peace in occupied East Jerusalem, retaliated by launching rockets into Israel, resulting in Israel’s recent round of devastating and disproportionate bombardment. Fatalities so far stand at 136 Palestinians in Gaza and 11 in the West Bank, and eight Israelis. These numbers no doubt will rise over the coming days. The use of heavy artillery and tank fire from Israeli troops massing on the outskirts of Gaza, as well as the nightly bombing raids, are provoking painful memories of 2014 when Israel last launched a major ground offensive into this besieged and overcrowded enclave, now the subject of an investigation by the International Criminal Court.
The Biden administration came into the White House affirming that its foreign policy will be based on values, including being rooted in the multilateral rules-based international order. But with the delay and diplomatic support the United States is providing Israel at this most pivotal time, the question remains whether other states within the United Nations can step in as an alternative to the blockage in the Security Council. As the morgues in Gaza continue to fill with Palestinians, immediate international action is imperative.