You are here

Israel’s Shield

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has appealed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to remove Israel from a draft U.N. rogues list of government forces, rebel movements, and terrorist organizations accused of violating children’s rights in the midst of conflict, according to officials familiar with the U.S. envoy’s confidential discussions with the U.N. leader. Power’s outreach is intended to prevent a crucial ally of the United States from being included on a U.N. list of shame reserved for pariah states like Syria and Sudan as well as rebel and terrorist organizations, including Boko Haram, the Islamic State, and the Taliban.

But it places one of the most prominent human rights proponents of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration at odds with leading advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch, which has argued that Israel and Hamas should both be included on the list for their conduct during last summer’s conflict in Gaza. The six weeks of fighting killed one Israeli child and up to 500 Palestinian children, according to the United Nations.
The American effort underscores the degree to which the United States continues to defend Israel at the United Nations despite the highly public rift between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Just two months ago, the White House warned Netanyahu that there would be consequences for the Israeli leader’s pre-election pledge that no Palestinian state would come into being under his watch. Obama and his top aides also blasted Netanyahu for what were widely interpreted to be anti-Arab comments on election day. Despite Netanyahu’s effort to walk back his remarks, Obama said he would have to reassess Washington’s diplomatic posture toward Israel.

But in recent weeks, the United States has shown few signs of softening its support for Israel at the U.N. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu reportedly thanked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for opposing an Egyptian initiative to apply pressure on Jerusalem to dismantle Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons program. And Washington has repeatedly pushed to delay any U.N. Security Council action that would press Israel to accept a two-state solution.

This show of U.S. support for Israel at the United Nations is partially colored by the Obama administration’s desire to avoid a confrontation with Congress before it concludes the final delicate phase of its nuclear diplomacy with Iran, according to observers. The Obama administration’s protection of Israel may be partly related to a feeling that Washington “went too far” in amplifying the diplomatic divisions between the two governments, according to a U.N.-based official. But it also appears calculated to reduce as much as possible the ability of those who hate the Iran negotiations to say “the White House is anti-Israel,” according to the U.N.-based official.

The U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment for this article.

Ilan Goldenberg, a former member of the Obama administration’s Middle East team, said the administration’s efforts to shield Israel are intended to shore up support on Capitol Hill. “The target audience is Congress,” he said. “The Obama administration is not going to do anything to risk making members of Congress uncomfortable before a tough Iran vote.”

Goldenberg said there have always been limits to how far the United States would allow its broader support for Israel to fall, even when the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu was at its lowest point. For instance, he said, the United States “will never back away” from defending Jerusalem in cases where Israel is condemned “for purely political reasons” while “more egregious violators of human rights” are let off the hook. He cited the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council, where Israel is routinely censured even though countries with abysmal human rights records that serve on the council, like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, escape public criticism.

But he said the United States might be willing to allow the U.N. Security Council to apply some pressure on Israel to return to peace talks with the Palestinians or to halt the construction of new settlements on Palestinian lands.

The latest flare-up at the U.N. has roots in the 2001 adoption of Security Council Resolution 1379, which instructed the U.N. secretary-general to issue an annual report detailing abuses against children caught up in the middle of war. The latest draft report, which was written primarily by Leila Zerrougui, the U.N. chief’s special representative for children and armed conflict, includes an annex with a list of countries and nonstate armed groups that have recruited, killed, maimed, or sexually abused children, or that have launched attacks on schools or hospitals.

While Israel and Hamas have long come under scrutiny for their treatment of children, they have not made their way onto the annex. Last year, the annex listed 59 armed groups, including several ethnic militias and terrorist organizations, as well as eight government forces: the Afghan police and the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Zerrougui, an Algerian lawyer, used a statement last fall to sharply criticize Israel’s intervention in Gaza last summer, saying that as many as 500 Palestinian children had been killed and more than 3,100 injured or maimed. She said she was “equally disheartened by the killing of one Israeli child and the injury of six others” as a result of “indiscriminate” rocket fire by Hamas.

Last month, Zerrougui included Israel and Hamas in her draft report, according to two senior officials. Zerrougui based her decision on the findings of a U.N. monitoring group, composed of local representatives of U.N. agencies, and relied on information from private nongovernmental organizations, which feed information on violations to her office.

A separate U.N. headquarters task force, which includes representatives from UNICEF and other key U.N. agencies, is said to have supported Zerrougui’s recommendation to include Israel and Hamas. That decision has sparked strenuous opposition from U.S. and Israeli officials, according to diplomatic sources in New York.

The controversy over Israel’s inclusion began in March when the Guardian reported that Israel was applying pressure on U.N. agencies based in Jerusalem not to recommend that the Israel Defense Forces be listed. A U.N. official confirmed to Foreign Policy that Ban’s chief of staff, Susana Malcorra, subsequently told Israeli diplomats in New York that the U.N. was concerned about what it viewed as undue Israeli pressure on U.N. civil servants. “Israel was putting pressure at all levels to make sure not to be listed in this report,” the official said.

The final report is due to be published on June 18, according to U.N. officials, but the U.N. chief has yet to decide whether to include Israel. Ban’s chief spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, declined to discuss the substance of the report. “The secretary-general has truly not decided what to do,” said a U.N.-based official. “It is a really sensitive issue.” A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Emmanuel Nahshon, declined to comment on the deliberations over Israel’s possible listing in the U.N. report. “We will give no comment or response before the SG’s decision on the matter,” Emmanuel wrote to Foreign Policy, referring to the secretary-general.

Last week, Reuters reported that the U.N. chief was leaning in the direction of removing Israel from the list. Nahshon, though, told the news agency that “there is absolutely no Israeli pressure on the U.N. secretary-general.” “The pressure comes from those countries who want to include Israel in the worst possible list,” he said. “This is a heinous and hypocritical attempt to besmirch the image of Israel, and it is doomed to fail.”

Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch’s director for crisis advocacy, told the U.N. leader in an April 27 letter that the listing of Israeli and Palestinian forces is “overdue.” “Violations by parties in Israel and Palestine have been referenced in the body of every report since 2005,” he wrote in the letter to the U.N. secretary-general. “We are particularly concerned by recent media reports alleging that Israeli officials have pressured UNICEF officials in Jerusalem not to consult local organizations about including Israel in the annexes.”

Human Rights Watch cited multiple accounts of Palestinian minors killed by Israel Defense Forces during Operation Protective Edge, including “unlawful attacks on or near three schools in Gaza housing displaced people that in total killed 46 civilians, including 17 children.” The rights group also cited the “unlawful killings” of four boys on July 16 near the Gaza City port, as well as the killing of two 15-year-old boys at a cafe near Khan Yunis on July 9. And it documented the deaths of two children killed, along with many relatives, when witnesses said Israeli missiles hit their home in the densely populated Khan Yunis refugee camp.

Human Rights Watch also documented abuses by Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas. It cited indiscriminate rocket and mortar fire at one Israeli population center that killed five civilians, one of them a 4-year-old child. The rocket attacks, they added, forced children to flee their communities and seek safety in bomb shelters. Armed Palestinian groups also put Palestinian children in harm’s way by storing weapons in at least three schools and launching rockets from populated areas, according to Human Rights Watch.

Bolopion urged Ban to “resist undue political pressure to keep certain parties off the list” and “apply consistent criteria” in listing armed groups and nonstate armed groups when “there is a credible evidence of a pattern of violations.”

Colum Lynch