While world leaders are still scrambling to deal with president Donald Trump, they can rest assured that there is one facet of US foreign policy where the new administration has, so far, failed to deviate from the historical norm. While Donald Trump’s recent statement regarding the two-state solution is troublesome to say the least, his pick of Nikki Haley as UN representative doesn’t point to any radical divergence from the foreign policy of past US administrations.
Haley recently gave a press conference in which she stated: “The United States is determined to stand up to the UN’s anti-Israel bias”. Those worried that Trump would send shockwaves across the world stage should, in this regard, be relieved. Change has not come to the UN.
Obama’s last UN representative, Samantha Power, stated that: “member states seek to use the UN Security Council, the General Assembly, and even the most arcane UN …to delegitimize the state of Israel itself.” Bush’s 2005 pick, John Bolton said: “The problem of anti-Israel bias…is endemic to the culture of the United Nations.” Clinton’s last representative, Richard Holbrooke, deemed UN inquiries into potential human rights abuses perpetrated by the Israeli Defense Forces as “biased, one-sided and unhelpful”.
This “bias” comes from the frequency and persistence with which the UN has expressed its condemnation of Israeli human rights abuses. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the US has the right to veto any resolution presented, and since 1965 has been the world leader in issuing such vetoes by a wide margin. Dozens of US-vetoed resolutions which criticize Israel for its ignorance of international law, typically citing the Geneva Convention, the UN Charter, and past UN resolutions which Israel has ignored have been presented at the Security Council.
This pattern largely began with the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in a military occupation of southern Lebanon, the killing of thousands of civilians, and the bulldozing and destruction of numerous homes, camps, and villages. Most of the residents of southern Lebanon (both Lebanese and Palestinian refugees) were either killed, imprisoned, or forced into the northern part of the country, many of them ending up in West Beirut. Beirut was then deprived of food, electricity, and medical supplies by the Israelis, who then proceeded to bombard the city for seven weeks in a military siege which destroyed most of the city. Schools, hospitals, refugee camps, and in one case a school bus carrying 35 young schoolgirls were all struck by the Israelis. By early August, Israel had destroyed eight of the nine orphanages operating in Beirut.
The most notable incident to arise from the invasion were the Sabra and Shatila massacres, in which Israel and the Nazi-inspired Phalangist militia slaughtered over a thousand innocent civilians residing in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. One journalist who was in the camps during the time of the attack writes: “All the Israelis knew what had happened inside the camps. The smell of the corpses was now overpowering”.
On six separate occasions, the United Nations Security Council voted on resolutions condemning the violence, demanding that Israel “desist forthwith from its practices and measures against the civilian population in southern Lebanon” and “to respect strictly the rights of the civilian population in the areas under its occupation”. In every instance, the United States issued a veto and prevented the resolution’s passage.
This pattern has continued in instances that relate more directly to the Palestinians, namely the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. The occasional raids and military excursions into the occupied territories routinely result in Palestinians being shot. Chris Hedges, reporting for Harper’s magazine, wrote during one of his stays in Gaza:
Yesterday at this spot the Israelis shot eight young men, six of whom were under the age of eighteen. One was twelve. This afternoon they kill an eleven-year-old boy, Ali Murad, and seriously wound four more, three of whom are under eighteen.
Twice, in 1989 and 1990, the Security Council called, via resolution, for the creation of a fact-finding mission in the West Bank and Gaza to assess the human rights situation. In both instances, the United States unilaterally vetoed the resolutions. The American UN delegate thought the process of fact-finding was “one-sided” and “divisive”, apparently more divisive than letting the execution of innocent Palestinians go without serious investigation.
On two occasions, both in 2006, the Security Council attempted to pass resolutions that criticized both Israel and Palestine, the latter of which was launching largely ineffective rockets into civilian areas while the former was killing scores of innocents, including Red Crescent workers, ambulance drivers, and children. On November 8th, 2006, in response to rocket attacks supposedly launched by Hamas militants, Israel bombed the town of Beit Hanoun in Gaza killing 18 Palestinian civilians, 13 of which belonged to the same family, none of whom had anything to do with rocket launches. Israel blamed the attack on a “technical malfunction”. This led to harsh criticism of Israel by Amnesty International and a call by the EU for Israel to disengage from Gaza.
In November 11th, the Security Council drew up a resolution that condemned the “military operations being carried out by Israel, the occupying Power, in the Gaza Strip, in particular the attack that took place in Beit Hanoun” as well as for “the Palestinian Authority to take immediate and sustained action to bring an end to violence”. It again reiterated the need for a fact-finding mission. The United States, again, vetoed the resolution with no other member state voting against it. John Bolton said the resolution was “biased against Israel” and that a fact-finding mission was “unnecessary and will do nothing to improve the situation”.
In recent years, the number of attempted Security Council interventions against Israel has declined. During the brutal 2008-09 Gaza war, there was only one Security Council resolution brought up regarding the conflict (passed with a US abstention) which called for an end to hostilities. During the war, Israel dropped white phosphorous gas (a chemical agent which burns away flesh) on the Gaza headquarters of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the aid organization which most Gazans depend on to live. Gaza City and the Jabalia refugee camp were also attacked with the gas, leading to numerous Palestinians experiencing either third degree burns or death. No resolution was drawn up to criticize these actions.
In 2014, UNRWA was again bombed by Israel. Multiple schools run by the Refugee agency were attacked, resulting at least 44 Palestinian deaths, 10 UN staff member deaths, and 227 injuries. Over the course of the conflict, many Palestinians were told to leave their homes if they lived in villages that were being bombed. UNRWA schools were often the only place for them to go since refugee camps were being bombed alongside villages. The incident is reminiscent of Israel’s demolition of a World Food Programme facility in 2002 which destroyed 537 metric tons of Palestinian food aid, criticism of which was blocked at the Security Council by the US. While the UN criticized the UNRWA bombings, it too received no official condemnation by the Security Council.
While Obama’s recent abstention of a resolution critical of Israeli settlements is unusual, an abstention is not a “yes” vote and doesn’t change much of anything in the larger picture. While the resolution passed, the US hadn’t changed its tone or objectives. Even if the US had voted in favor, the Trump administration won’t be any more critical of Israel than any past US president.
There is a possibility that Trump could change the US position, but not for the better. When recently asked whether he supported a two-state solution or a one-state solution to the conflict, he said that he would be “fine with either”. Such blatant indifference is worrying to many Palestinians who understand that a one-state solution may include the total annexation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel and the exodus of many Palestinians from the area. Such a process has been slowly and persistently taking place as the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank continues to grow; today there are over 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, nearly 150,000 of them being built in the last 15 years. These actions fly in the face of the long-established two-state plan, which relies largely on total Palestinian autonomy over the West Bank.
Israel’s ultranationalists, who support the land theft, take credit for this change in tone by the United States. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the far-right Jewish Home party said “What we did…definitely helped change the picture”. While peaceful one-state alternatives have been proposed, it’s safe to say that Shaked’s optimism doesn’t come from a desire for a peaceful conflict resolution. She previously said of Palestinians: “They have to die and their houses should be demolished…they are all our enemies and their blood should be on our hands”.
This shift by the US has allowed Israel to announce the construction of thousands of additional settlements since Trump’s election without fear of reprimand from the US or any serious threat from the UN. These settlements were probably going to get built anyway, but the speed with which Israel has increased construction is concerning. We can also be lead to believe that any inhibitions Israel had about launching another war on Gaza have all but disappeared with the election of Trump; official US and Security Council criticism will be all but nonexistent.
While history has shown that Israel has little reason to fear the US turning its back on the Israelis completely, there has been something of an informal understanding that the US has some degree of leverage over Israel given the massive amount of unnecessary military and economic aid given to them by the United States. With Trump’s ignorance of that leverage, or his unwillingness to see any change in how Israel conducts itself, the Israeli government has been given free reign. Nikki Haley won’t change how the US operates at the UN, but Trump’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have a detrimental impact on the dynamic of the conflict for years to come.
Image: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons