Reassessing the United Nations Response to Israel's Genocide

It has been more than seven months since Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October 2023, resulting in the murder of at least 1,139 Israelis. This was by no means the beginning, but the Israeli government justified the ongoing attacks on Palestinians and blockade of Gaza in the name of self-defence against Hamas, which has long descended into acts of collective punishment, war crimes, and genocide. The death toll in Gaza has reportedly surpassed more than 35,000, with over one in three of those killed children. Reports indicate that children, despite being identified as non-combatants, are allegedly being directly targeted by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Tragically, among the casualties are children who have lost their lives due to starvation resulting from the ongoing blockade of food and humanitarian assistance by Israel.

While there may be understandable caution surrounding the word ‘genocide,’ given its weighty legal and emotional implications, it’s crucial to consider a framework like Gregory Stanton’s ‘The Ten Stages of Genocide.’ This process offers a lens through which to access ongoing situations. In the case of Israel’s action in Gaza, evidence of several of these stages, such as classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, preparation, persecution, and extermination, was apparent within weeks. Despite these alarming indicators, there persists reluctance to label the situation as genocide. Yet, internationally, media outlets continue to instruct their journalists not to use the term ‘genocide,’ Palestinian witnesses to the atrocities are barred entry to countries to share their first-hand experiences, and academics are fired for expressing condemnation of Israel. Jake Sullivan, the US national security advisor, made a recent statement asserting that the Joe Biden administration does not categorise the killing of Palestinians in Gaza by Israel during the conflict with Hamas as genocide, reflecting a broader trend of denial and complicity.

Israel’s executive and military leadership, as well as soldiers, have distorted international law to legitimise genocidal violence against the Palestinian people.

However, accusations that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza have increased. Francesca Albanese, the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in occupied Palestinian territories, delivered a report titled ‘Anatomy of a Genocide’ to the Human Rights Council. Her primary observation was that Israel’s executive and military leadership, as well as soldiers, have distorted international law to legitimise genocidal violence against the Palestinian people. In so doing, Israel has a ‘state policy of genocidal violence against Palestinians,’ and thus, the grounds for the commission of genocide against the Palestinians by Israel have been met.

Following South Africa’s initiation of the proceeding against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 29 December 2023 over its obligations under the Genocide Convention, stating that it is violating said obligations due to acts and omissions that are ‘genocidal in character’ with the intent to ‘destroy Palestinians in Gaza as a part of the broader Palestinian, racial and ethnical group.’ South Africa requested provisional measures to protect this group from further harm. A final decision on whether Israel has violated its obligations under the Genocide Convention will likely take years.

On 26 January 2024, the ICJ issued an interim order acknowledging that provincial measures were warranted. These measures, with a binding effect, create an international legal obligation. Firstly, Israel is directed to take all measures to prevent the commission of genocide in relation to Palestinians in Gaza. Secondly, Israel must prevent and punish direct and public incitement to commit genocide. Thirdly, Israel is obligated to take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza. Moreover, Israel must complete and submit a report on the implementation of these measures within one month, by 26 February 2024.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that a ‘vile attempt’ to deny Israel it’s right to self-defence had been ‘justly rejected,’ which he described as ‘blatant discrimination against the Jewish state.’ The Israeli Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, similarly referred to South Africa’s request to discuss the claim of genocide in Gaza as antisemitic bias. The National Security Minister also registered his dismissal of the order on X, writing ‘Hague schmague.’ While supporters of the South African case decried the lack of a call for an immediate ceasefire by the ICJ, the South African Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, said that for Israel to meet, the provisional measures required them to end its fighting in Gaza.

Despite this valid interpretation, the Israeli government has continued its military operations in Gaza. Over the past week, Israel initiated a long-anticipated invasion of Rafah that had been delayed following Iran’s launching of missiles and drones at Israel in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on an Iranian consulate in Syria. A month after the ICJ’s order, human rights organisations found that Israel was failing to comply with the order due to the obstruction of basic services and aid, fewer aid trucks entering Gaza, and acts of collective punishment against the civilian population. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees said that the amount of humanitarian aid entering Gaza has undergone ‘no significant change.’ Egypt has announced its intention to officially support South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at ICJ.

The ICJ, as a judicial organ of the United Nations (UN), is not the only body of the UN that has demanded Israel meet certain obligations, along with all other involved parties. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has adopted two resolutions towards the end of 2023 (ES-10/21 and ES-10/22), which relate to protecting civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations. They called for, among other things, a sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities, compliance with international law and the unconditional release of all hostages.

Since the Hamas attack on 7 October 2023, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has passed three resolutions. Resolution 2712 (15 November 2023) demanded compliance with international law, the release of hostages, and an end to service deprivation in Gaza. Resolution 2720 (22 December 2023) obligated humanitarian assistance provision, appointed a coordinator, and protected civilians and UN personnel. Resolution 2728 (25 March 2024) called for a Ramadan ceasefire and expanded humanitarian flow. US leadership abstained from all three and has since reaffirmed the US’s ‘ironclad’ commitment to Israel’s security amidst the escalation in its conflict with Iran. The US has also vetoed three UNSC resolutions, one in October 2023 calling for ‘humanitarian pauses’ and two further resolutions in December 2023 and February 2024 for a humanitarian ceasefire.

The US is also Israel’s biggest supplier of arms. Some countries have already stopped selling weapons to Israel, and more pressure on others to follow suit seems to have largely been affected by Israel’s disproportionate and illegal strike on a convoy of World Central Kitchen aid workers. President Joe Biden’s stance shifted on 4 April, emphasising the need for a ceasefire and linking the US policy on Gaza to Israel’s handling of the humanitarian crisis.

While the United Kingdom (UK) is a much smaller supplier of weapons to Israel than the US, its Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, said that the UK won’t suspend its arms exports to Israel. Regardless of whether countries are small suppliers or whether the arms they supply are being used to violate international law, countries like the US, UK, and Germany must consider how their continued exports embolden the sense of the Israeli executive and military leadership that it can behave as it pleases with the continuing support of these powerful countries. International pressure to reconsider supplying Israel has mounted further since the UN Human Rights Council adopted five resolutions on 5 April, one of which called upon all of its member states to cease the sale and transfer of arms and military equipment to Israel.

As Israel continues with its military operations, some argue that the orders and resolutions of UN bodies have no effect. However, this mounting pressure and the shocking nature of these operations likely have caused the US and the UK  politicians to dissent and challenge their leaders over their approach to the situation. Yet, given that the gravity of the situation has been apparent for months, these reactions feel too little, too late.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, researching the Islamisation of Pakistan. She is also a freelance writer on issues relating to Islamophobia, Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK.

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