Israel and the loss of collective hope, part 2

For decades, Israel has been committing war crimes and the UN has done nothing to stop them.

Sabra and Shatila
Palestinian women carry pictures of their relatives who were killed during Sabra and Shatila massacre at the mass graves in Beirut on September 18, 2009 [Ahmad Omar/AP Photo]

This is the part two of the article. Click here to read part one.

Throughout its 70 years of existence, Israel has not sought to limit its breach of international law and the law of war to Palestine. In fact, it has a long and well-documented history of human rights violations and war crimes in Lebanon.

Here, too, the United Nations has watched largely in silence as Israel has targeted civilian communities and UN facilities, made use of prohibited weapons of war and participated in massacres against defenceless women and children.

The 1982 invasion

In 1982, the Israeli army invaded Lebanon under the pretext of responding to attacks by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), which at the time, was headquartered in West Beirut. The Lebanese civil war provided convenient cover for Israeli violence directed at Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, alike.

In order to drive out the PLO, Israel unleashed a barbaric assault on Beirut by air and sea while cutting off food, water supply and electricity. During the two-month siege, Israel hit “five UN buildings, 134 embassies or diplomatic residences, six hospitals or clinics, one mental institute, the Central Bank, five hotels, the Red Cross, Lebanese and foreign media outlets, and innumerable private homes”.

It is estimated that between June 6 and August 25 that year, the Israeli onslaught killed more than 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, most of them civilians. At the end of the month, the US President Ronald Reagan called the killings a “holocaust” in an angry phone call to the Israeli prime minister.

While much of the world watched the mass killing with horror, little action was undertaken to intervene. That encouraged the Israelis to go even further. A month after the evacuation of thousands of PLO fighters from Lebanon, the Israeli army occupied Beirut, encircling the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. On September 16, Christian Phalangists fighters, encouraged by the Israelis, descended on the camps torturing, raping, mutilating and murdering more than 3,000 Palestinian civilians, many of them women, children and elderly. 

Late in 1982, the UN General Assembly declared the carnage an act of genocide, condemning Israel in the “strongest terms for the large-scale massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.” However, neither the UN nor any other international body ever took action against Israel or its proxies for the massacre. 

The Qana massacre

In 1985, Israel withdrew its forces to the so-called “security zone” in southern Lebanon, extending its military presence until 2000. For those 15 years, it continued launching deadly attacks on Lebanon and Lebanese civilians.

On April 18, 1996, the Israeli army targeted a UN compound in the village of Qana where some 800 civilians had sought shelter from Israeli bombardments during a battle with Hezbollah. More than a 100 civilians died and another 116 were injured in the assault on the clearly marked compound.

The UN expressed its condolences for civilian losses, took no further steps against Israel. Amnesty International described the attack in a report as a “callous disregard for civilian lives and a breach of the laws of war on directly or indiscriminately targeting civilians”.

This is not to suggest that the United Nations was completely indifferent to the shelling of its compound as the General Assembly, by a vote of 66 to two with 59 abstentions, passed a resolution demanding that Israel reimburse it to the tune of $1.7m for the cost of repairs to its compound.

Predictably, the United States and Israel voted against the resolution and not surprisingly, the latter ignored the bill. The UN took no subsequent steps against Israel for its refusal.

The 2006 war 

Ten years later, on July 12, 2006, Israel launched another devastating assault on southern Lebanon.

Israeli media reported that the Israeli military had used large numbers of banned weapons. One officer who participated in the war described the wholesale use of such weapons against civilians as “insane and monstrous”.


According to him, the Israeli army fired around 1,800 cluster bombs containing over 1.2 million bomblets. Other soldiers described the wholesale use of banned phosphorous weapons as primary weapons of war.

On July 30, the Israeli army targeting a house in the village of Qana whether two extended families had sought shelter. The attack killed 54 civilians, 37 of them children.

While the Security Council expressed “extreme shock and distress” at the bombing and offered its condolences for the deaths, it took no further action against Israel for this atrocity.

On August 7, two missiles fired by an Israeli warplane destroyed and damaged apartment buildings in the Shiyyah suburb of Beirut. At least 60 people died. Later that same day, the Israeli army struck another building in the city of Ghaziyeh, killing 16 civilians.

The following day, Israel once again struck civilian buildings in Ghaziyeh, killing 13 people. As with the attacks in Qana and Shiyyah, the UN expressed its condolences but did little else.

A UN shared by the world

None of these atrocities is isolated in time and place, neither are they an historical anomaly. It is very much who we are and what we have become.

Long before the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Israel drove upwards of a million Palestinians from their ancestral homeland through conscious and determined ethnic cleansing, accompanied by rape, murder and arson. The history of Deir Yassin, Ramleh and Lydda is well known and documented.

Not much has changed in the decades since, as Israeli regulars have added Qibya, Rafah, Jenin, Beit Hanoun and other Palestinian communities to the ranks of those etched among the annals of uncharged and unprosecuted war crimes. 

Elsewhere, today, in Myanmar, Syria, Kashmir and other warzones, rape, torture, forced displacement, carpet bombing, and prohibited chemicals continue to be the preferred weapons of war with civilians the prime targets.

It wasn’t always that civilians were so systematically targeted. As a blog on the International Committee of the Red Cross website notes, the 1859 Battle of Solferino during the Second Italian War of Independence caused the death of 6,000 soldiers and only one civilian.

Since that time, we have seen the expansion of the law of war and the passage of the Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Time of War which serves as the precursor to the Geneva Conventions.

Both hallmarks of international law were designed to safeguard people and property that did not contribute to warfare and to protect civilians and civilian communities from unnecessary destruction and hardship. Yet, despite evolving principles and efforts to insulate non-combatants from the horrors of war, now more than ever, they have become the prime victims of its intended death and destruction.


Indeed, according to UNICEF, during the 20th century, the proportion of civilian to military casualties has increased from 15 percent in World War I to 65 percent in World War II to 90 percent in the conflicts over the last few decades. Most civilian casualties are children and women. 

Can it be mere coincidence that the dramatic increase in violence and civilian casualties parallel the establishment and growth of the United Nations?

Does the fact that five permanent members of the Security Council ultimately dictate where and when the UN acts with independence and certainty all but guarantee that it will never be more than a political playground dominated by the few as they pursue their own unique partisan agenda?

In 2018, it is simply not enough to issue press releases or pound the speaker’s podium, exalting lofty UN ideals to those foolish enough to buy the sale. Toothless resolutions condemning war crimes, crimes against humanity or violations of any of the other hundreds of UN covenants and prohibitions remain but a tease unless and until that world body acts with resolve to ensure international promise and equal application of law become reality.

It is long past time to permit a world body to be shared equally by a world community.

For more than seven decades, the hallways of the UN have served as exciting field trips for young students and world visitors. I know – I was one.

Awed by the majesty of the General Assembly, with its impressive French murals, green marble desks, matching lecterns and UN emblem on a gold backdrop, tourists escape the reality of the moment with an inspiring recorded narrative of its accomplishments.

Yet, in real time, in real places, hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest, most frail, and vulnerable pay the price daily for the hollow promise that is the UN.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.