The United Nations Security Council has held its first open debate on the Israel-Gaza war, with most members calling for an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to reach Palestinians under relentless Israeli bombardment in Gaza.
The 15-member council, where the five permanent members including the United States and Russia have a veto, has so far failed to deliver a resolution that would end the violence.
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The US, Israel’s staunchest ally, last week vetoed a resolution backed by 12 other members of the council, which would have called for a pause in fighting, because it did not do enough to stress Israel’s right to self-defence.
An earlier Russian-drafted resolution was also rejected.
Nearly 90 countries were on the speakers’ list for Tuesday’s debate including about 30 foreign ministers and deputy ministers, with many echoing calls for a ceasefire and a halt to attacks on Palestinian civilians amid widespread destruction in Gaza and the mounting death toll.
“We followed with regret the inability of this council twice to adopt a resolution or even to call for a ceasefire to end this war,” said Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, speaking on behalf of the 22-member Arab Group at the UN, accused Israel of “razing Gaza to the ground” and lamented the Security Council’s failure to call an immediate ceasefire.
He urged diplomats to adopt a resolution to stop the war, condemn the killing of civilians on both sides and prevent the starvation as well as collective punishment of the Palestinians.
“The Security Council must take a clear stance to reassure 2 billion Arabs and Muslims that international law will be applied,” Safadi said.
Washington, however, has said it favours a humanitarian pause, which is considered less formal and shorter than a ceasefire.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked the council to back a new US-led resolution that “incorporates substantive feedback”.
The draft, according to the AFP news agency, would defend the “inherent right of all states” to self-defence while calling for compliance with international law. It would back “humanitarian pauses” to let in aid but not a full ceasefire.
The US’s top diplomat also stressed the need to protect Palestinian civilians.
“Israel must take all possible precautions to avoid harm to civilians,” he said, and “humanitarian pauses” must be considered to get aid flowing into Gaza and enable civilians “to get out of harm’s way”.
Russia, meanwhile, has put forward its own counter resolution. A vote could take place later this week.
“The whole world is expecting from the Security Council a call for a swift and unconditional ceasefire,” said Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia.
Amid the deadlock at the council, Jordan and Russia are among nations that have requested a meeting on Thursday of the UN General Assembly. Resolutions there are non-binding but hugely symbolic.
Inaction is ‘inexcusable’
The war in Gaza erupted nearly three weeks ago after the armed Hamas group attacked several southern Israeli towns killing at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and taking more than 200 people back to Gaza as captives.
Israel has since cut off supplies of water, food, fuel and electricity to Gaza, subjecting the territory of 2.3 million people to relentless bombardment. At least 5,791 people have been killed, according to authorities in Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated his call for an immediate ceasefire.
The grievances of the Palestinian people could not justify “the horrifying and unprecedented October 7 acts of terror” by Hamas in Israel, he told the council, calling on the group to immediately release all those being held captive.
But Guterres also stressed that “those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people”.
He expressed deep concern at “the clear violations of international humanitarian law”, calling Israel’s constant bombardment of Gaza and the level of destruction and civilian casualties “alarming”.
Without naming Hamas, the UN chief also stressed that “protecting civilians can never mean using them as human shields”.
Guterres also criticised Israel without naming it, saying “protecting civilians does not mean ordering more than 1 million people to evacuate to the south, where there is no shelter, no food, no water, no medicine and no fuel, and then continuing to bomb the south itself”.
And then, in comments that angered Israel, he said that this month’s events could not be seen in isolation.
“It is important to recognise that the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum,” Guterres said. “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 50 years of suffering.”
The remarks triggered fury among the Israeli delegation with Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan calling for the UN chief’s resignation.
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen also criticised the comments. “There is no cause for this, and shame on him,” he said.
Cohen had earlier sought to defend Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, arguing the only proportionate response to the October 7 Hamas attacks was the “total destruction” of the group.
“It is not only Israel’s right to destroy Hamas,” Cohen said. “It’s our duty.”
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, meanwhile, said that only peace could make Israel safer.
“We are here today to stop the killing, to stop … the ongoing massacres being deliberately and systematically and savagely perpetrated by Israel, the occupying power, against the Palestinian civilian population,” he said.
Under international law, he said, “it is our collective human duty to stop them”.
Al-Maliki, who is from the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s rivals, said the inaction by the Security Council was “inexcusable”.
Amid the deteriorating humanitarian situation, a limited amount of humanitarian assistance has been allowed into Gaza, with an additional eight trucks carrying water, food and medicine entering the enclave from Egypt late on Tuesday.
UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, warned in a post on the messaging platform X that it would have to halt operations in Gaza on Wednesday night because of the lack of fuel.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said more than a third of hospitals in Gaza and nearly two-thirds of primary health care clinics had shut due to damage or lack of fuel.