Inside Story

A turning point for Gaza?

This week’s vote could be one of the General Assembly’s more momentous

Tony Walker 13 December 2023 1112 words

Monitors showing the result of Tuesday’s vote in the UN General Assembly. Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

As a general rule, not too much should be read into one non-binding UN General Assembly vote, albeit on a contentious issue. But this week’s call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza Strip is unusually significant, and possibly a watershed moment.

Most tellingly, the vote demonstrates a fracturing in what has been a fairly solid wall of support for Israel’s war against Hamas among its allies, led by the United States.

Given the tormenting scenes emanating from Gaza of civilian casualties pulled from the rubble of destroyed buildings it is surprising, even unconscionable, it has taken countries like Australia as long as it has to say “enough.” Prime minister Anthony Albanese has been under considerable pressure from within his own party to detach Australia from the United States and Israel on this issue. That he managed to do so in partnership with two of Australia’s close allies — Canada and New Zealand — gave him the diplomatic cover he no doubt wanted.

In effect, Australia averted its eyes for too long from Israel’s slaughter of civilians in response to the pogrom conducted by Hamas against Israelis on 7 October. No reasonable argument can be advanced to deny Israel the right to wreak vengeance on those responsible for that heinous crime. However, what are the limits on Israel’s war against Hamas? How many non-combatant Palestinians, including children, need to die to satisfy Israel’s declared aim of “eradicating” the terrorist group?

In other words, how much longer will Israel persist in its efforts to eliminate Hamas, and at what cost to a civilian population that has been displaced in its tens of thousands, and traumatised? And is it even possible to kill off a movement and an ideology, however repugnant?

After weeks of some of the most intense bombing of civilian areas since the second world war, another question presses in: where lies the exit strategy for Israel once the guns fall silent?

Unless they are inhabitants of another planet, members of Israel’s war cabinet can’t be unaware of Washington’s increasing uneasiness over Gaza’s civilian casualties, made more pressing by the horrendous images playing out on the nightly television news.

At a 2024 election fundraiser this week president Joe Biden voiced some of his strongest criticism of Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza. He warned that Israel was beginning to alienate Europe and the rest of the international community. Although his remarks were made at a private function, they have been reliably reported. He is also quoted as saying that Israel can’t continue to say no to a Palestinian state.

Biden’s intervention on the twin issues of Israel’s disproportionate use of force and its reluctance to embrace a Palestinian state will be troubling for Israel and its supporters globally. While the United States voted against this week’s General Assembly resolution on grounds it didn’t condemn Hamas, its diplomatic support is weakening. Whatever might be said by Israeli hardliners and their friends in the West, Israel can’t afford to alienate Washington, which provides both diplomatic cover and armaments.

In all of this a reasonable question arises: could Biden and his national security team have done a better job managing a highly combustible situation? The answer is not simple, and comes in two parts. Biden responded well to the risks of a wider conflagration by quickly bolstering a US naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf to deter a regional spillover. But his embrace of Israel’s strategy — literally, for he travelled to Tel Aviv in October and hugged Israel’s prime minister on arrival — relayed a message to the region that Washington would indulge Netanyahu’s war aims and practices.

That this was a mistake has become increasingly obvious in recent days as Israel continues a merciless bombing campaign that has reportedly killed more than 15,000 Gazans, including thousands of children. Casualty numbers are imprecise, but may well exceed 20,000, including those buried in rubble and not recovered.

Having given Netanyahu the impression that the United States was offering virtual carte blanche to Israel, Biden is now trying to rein in the Israeli leader. This will not necessarily end well.

Of course, Israel will be hoping it can capture key Hamas leaders, including political supremo Yahya Sinwar and military commander Mohammed Deif, either dead or alive, to parade before the international media as evidence of the success of its mission.

All of this leaves unresolved the fundamental conundrum: what happens once the guns fall silent and the bombing campaign and other offensive measures have run their course?

No one, not the American president, nor the United Nations, nor Arab states, nor the international community more generally, and certainly not Israel itself, has come up with a realistic way forward. The reason is simple: no clear-cut avenues exist for resolving an Israel–Palestine dispute vastly complicated by the devastation wrought on the people of Gaza.

Central is the question of who will take responsibility for managing Gaza in the war’s aftermath, assuming Hamas has been disabled. Would it be a UN trusteeship using the organisation’s humanitarian resources? Would it be the Palestinian authority, currently governing the West Bank? Would Arab states fill a vacuum until the devastated Strip could be rebuilt? Or will Israel remain in Gaza as a garrison occupier much as it did in South Lebanon after its invasion in 1982 to rid that country of the Palestine Liberation Organisation?

On the face of it, none of these options seems particularly attractive, or even plausible. Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, have warned Netanyahu that they won’t tolerate an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza or Gazans being forced to leave. They have also made clear that Israel needs to engage meaningfully with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s response has been to say he won’t deal with the Palestinian Authority in a Gaza context and that he is against a two-state solution in any case. This is hardly encouraging. But if there is a glimmer of hope in all of this, it is that Netanyahu himself will not be a spoiling factor.

Israel’s leader is living on borrowed time, and will almost certainly be pushed aside after the war ends. This is not the least of the reasons why it remains in his interests to continue to prosecute a war that is proving devasting for Israel’s support among its close friends and allies, including Australia.

Israel and its supporters would be unwise to misread the message emanating from the UN General Assembly this week. Global patience, including that of the United States, is wearing awfully thin. •