Readers of my columns will know that I’ve never been a big fan of the United Nations because of its sheer inability to hold too many of the world’s most prolific human rights offenders to account. At times, its silence on such matters has been deafening.
It was with huge dismay, therefore, that I heard that it was finally about to break cover to “express outrage” only in order to admonish some of the two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who rely on UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees on the very day that Israeli soldiers killed five Palestinians, including two brothers.
The UN outrage erupted after it discovered a “man-made cavity” under one of its schools in Gaza. I’m really not sure what all the fuss is about, because the tunnels have been described by neutral observers as a “lifeline” for the many Palestinians living in the besieged territory, and rightly so, because Gaza is often described as the world’s largest open air prison. Indeed, even Britain’s then Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons on 28 June 2010 that, “…everybody knows that we are not going to sort out the problem of the Middle East while there is, effectively, a giant open prison in Gaza.” A month later he went a small step further and called it a “prison camp”.
While routinely bombing UN schools and hospitals in Gaza, Israel regularly tries to justify its actions by claiming that it targets tunnels hiding Hamas fighters and weapons. The tunnels are hardly a secret, though, so why would Hamas or any other legitimate resistance group hide anything in them? What’s more, many articles have been written explaining why they are needed to provide basic essentials for the besieged Palestinians.
Back in October 2020, Israeli military officials invited members of the press to inspect a tunnel that the occupation forces had stumbled across. Members of the brutal army’s Yahalom (Diamond) unit were astonished to find that the tunnel from the southern part of the Gaza Strip descended 70 metres (230 feet) beneath the surface. However, the tunnel found on Thursday at the UN school was hardly such a great feat of Palestinian engineering. One Israeli military source actually admitted to a French 24 journalist: “Rain likely created a hole in the ground that revealed the structure of a terrorist [sic] tunnel next to an UNRWA school in Gaza.”
However, the emergence of the small cavity was enough to prompt UNWRA to issue this statement to the media: “The agency protested strongly to the relevant authorities in Gaza to express outrage and condemnation of the presence of such a structure underneath one of its installations.” The “cavity,” it said, constituted “a serious violation of the agency’s neutrality and a breach of international law.” UNRWA also noted that it exposed children and UN staff to “significant security and safety risks.”
Which is all well and good, but what a pity that UNWRA or any other part of the UN could find any words to condemn Israel’s killing spree in the occupied West Bank when its trigger happy troops killed five more Palestinians this week, including the two Rimawi brothers Jawad, 22, and Thafer, 21. According to Wafa, they were killed by Israeli fire near the village of Kafr Ein, north west of Ramallah.
In Ramallah itself, people held a general strike to show solidarity with the latest victims, said Al Jazeera. Palestinian Authority civil affairs minister Hussein Al-Sheikh described the killing of the Rimawi brothers as an “execution in cold blood”. We heard nothing from UNRWA or any other UN agency, so I guess that Al-Sheikh’s words will be the only outrage we’ll hear about Israel’s latest killing of Palestinians.
It was interesting to see UNWRA accusing Palestinians of breaching international law. Presumably that’s the same international law that has been ignored or violated by Israel on a daily basis for decades: every time it trashes UN resolutions, for example; builds or expands illegal settlements (a war crime); allows more illegal settlers to live on stolen Palestinian land (also a war crime); imposes an apartheid regime on Palestinians (akin to a crime against humanity); and demolishes Palestinian homes in acts of collective punishment (another war crime). Need I say more?
There is something else that UNWRA might like to consider: Article 51 of the UN Charter gives those living under occupation the right of self-defence. And then, perhaps the most damningly contentious law of all covers refugees’ — not only Palestinian refugees — the right of return to their land. This right achieved customary status in 1948 when the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194(III) affirming the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and to obtain restitution and compensation. Allowing the refugees to return to the land from which they had been ethnically cleansed by Israel was a condition of the occupation state’s membership of the UN. It’s a condition that it has still not fulfilled. Why does UNRWA keep quiet about that?
The UN is an empty vessel that promises much but is devoid of any substance. It is at the mercy of its international donors, and we all know that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Nevertheless, it is probably significant that UNRWA described its discovery as a “cavity” and not a “terrorist tunnel”, which suggests that, at heart, it knows that it is probably entirely innocent. Which is more than we can say about Israel’s brutal military occupation of Palestine. The sooner it is brought to an end, the better.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.