UNITED NATIONS - After an emergency closed-door session Sunday night, the 15-member Security Council issued a politically bland statement expressing "serious concern" over the devastating Israeli air strikes on Gaza and calling for an "immediate halt to all violence."
The statement was predictable because the United States, a traditionally loyal Israeli ally, would never agree to anything smacking of a "censure" or "condemnation" of Israel -- even as the death toll rose to more than 300 Palestinians, mostly civilians. A single Israeli was killed during the three-day attacks.
Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, points out that the Security Council "reflected the strategic goals and alliances of the most powerful veto- wielding countries, particularly that of the United States."
"But other elected members of the Council, including sometimes principled non-aligned governments in South Africa, Indonesia, Libya and elsewhere, surrendered to U.S. pressure," Bennis told IPS.
Besides the five veto-wielding permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. -- the non-permanent members also include Belgium, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Croatia, Italy, Panama and Vietnam.
"Clearly the Security Council has abdicated its responsibility; its statement rejected any acknowledgement of Israeli violations of international law, let alone anything to hold Israel accountable for those violations," said Bennis, author of several publications, including ‘Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN.'
At the time of going to press, there were no further scheduled meetings of the Security Council even though Israel continued air strikes, with a possible ground attack in the works.
The President of the General Assembly Father Miguel d'Escoto, however, was consulting with member states over possible diplomatic action by the 192- member Assembly.
With the Security Council deadlocked, Bennis said the General Assembly, the most representative and most democratic organ of the United Nations, must now take the lead in responding to the latest crisis in Gaza.
She said the Assembly should meet in emergency session -- and should remain in session until a clear plan is devised and approved -- to determine how to implement the U.N.'s responsibility to protect occupied peoples facing military aggression and to hold the Occupying Power -- Israel -- accountable for its violations of international law.
"There are no vetoes in the General Assembly; U.S. diplomats maintain the power of economic, political and diplomatic threats and bribes, but they have no legal way to stop a determined majority from acting."
She also said that important U.N. officials -- including d'Escoto Brockmann and the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories Prof. Richard Falk -- have issued statements making clear both Israel's violations and U.N. obligations to respond and to hold Israel accountable.
With the Security Council paralysed by U.S. veto threats and other Council members' fear of the U.S., the General Assembly must assert its pre- eminence in the U.N. system, relying if necessary on the ‘Uniting for Peace' precedent, to take real responsibility as required by the U.N. Charter, to stop the Israeli assault and protect the Palestinian people, Bennis added.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, trying to be even-handed in his statement, "condemned" the rocket attacks by the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which prompted the Israeli military onslaught, and called on both Israel and Hamas to "halt their acts of violence."
"A cease-fire must be declared immediately. They must also curb their inflammatory rhetoric," Ban told reporters Monday.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay not only condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas but also criticised "Israel's disproportionate use of force."
Asked if the secretary-general should have made a stronger statement, Ambassador Riyad Mansour of the Palestine Observer Mission told reporters Monday: "We are satisfied with some of the language he used -- specifically when he referred to Israel complying with its obligations under international humanitarian law."
"Yes, if it is up to us, we would like to see the secretary-general use different language with regard to certain issues," he said. Nevertheless, "all in all, we believe that the position of the secretary-general is reflecting closer to the consensus [in the Security Council]".
D'Escoto, on the other hand, has been harshly critical of the actions of Israel.
The Israeli air strikes, he said, represent severe and massive violations of international humanitarian law as defined in the Geneva Conventions -- both in regard to the obligations of an Occupying Power and in the requirements of the laws of war.
Those violations include: collective punishment, targeting civilians, and disproportionate military response.
D'Escoto said that the 1.5 million people who live in the crowded Gaza Strip are being punished for the actions of a few militants.
He also pointed out that the air strikes have not only destroyed every police and security office of Gaza's elected government, but also killed and injured hundreds of civilians. At least one strike reportedly hit groups of students attempting to find transportation home from the university.
"I remind all member states of the United Nations," D'Escoto said, "that the U.N. continues to be bound to an independent obligation to protect any civilian population facing massive violations of international humanitarian law regardless of what country may be responsible for those violations."
"I call on all Member States, as well as officials and every relevant organ of the U.N. system, to move expeditiously not only to condemn Israel's serious violations, but to develop new approaches to providing real protection for the Palestinian people," he said in a statement released Sunday.
Asked if the situation would change when the new Barack Obama administration takes office January 22, Bennis said that Israeli military strategists clearly believed they were safer launching the Gaza assault while [U.S. President George W.] Bush, and not Obama, was in the White House.
‘It is unclear whether President Obama will have a different policy for the Palestinian-Israeli issue than his predecessor."
"What is clear is that if critics of Washington's business-as-usual uncritical military, economic and political support for Israel remain silent, hoping for a serious change, there will be no change," she predicted.