By Girish Linganna
As Israel ratcheted up its ground offensive on Saturday (October 28, 2023), relentlessly pounding Gaza with airstrikes to back up a night of intense bombing, the north of the Gaza Strip was assailed “on a magnitude never witnessed before” and there was “total chaos” in the region. Although there are no specific casualty figures from the overnight bombing blitz, the number of Palestinians killed—mainly civilians, including children—by the Israeli military is estimated to surpass 8,000. Communication networks have been down since Friday night and information going out of Gaza is not even a trickle.
The 193-member UN General Assembly session in New York approved a non-binding resolution on Friday afternoon by a vote of 120-14 with 45 abstentions, calling for a “humanitarian truce” in Gaza leading to cessation of hostilities between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers. This was the UN’s first response to the war. The resolution stressed the importance of upholding international humanitarian law and called for the unconditional release of all civilian captives, besides unrestricted delivery of vital supplies to Gaza.
Only 14 countries—including Israel and its closest ally, the United States, five Pacific island nations and four European countries—Austria, Croatia, Czechia and Hungary, all European Union members, voted against the resolution. Eight EU members voted for it.
India was one of the 45 nations that chose to abstain from voting in the UN resolution. In doing so, India not only refrained from supporting the international community’s call for an immediate end to the violence, but was also the sole exception in South Asia, as all the other seven nations in the region voted in favour of the resolution. India also joined the group of countries that supported a Western-backed draft amendment, aiming to explicitly condemn Hamas by name.
Another important abstention was that of Australia which argued that the resolution was “incomplete” as it did not mention Hamas as the perpetrator of the October 7 attacks, but repeated Australia’s calls for a humanitarian pause to allow food, water and medicines to pass through to Gaza. Australia also explicitly called for the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages.”
The UN adopted the resolution after it rejected a Canadian amendment, backed by the United States and several Western nations, which had proposed include language that unequivocally condemned the October 7 “terrorist attacks” by Hamas and demanded the immediate release of hostages taken by Hamas, a clause that found no mention in the resolution moved by Jordan. The resolution had sponsorship from a coalition of Arab and Islamic nations, which included such significant countries as Egypt, Oman and the UAE, and was also sponsored by Russia.
The Canadian-proposed amendment received 88 votes in favour and 55 against, with 23 abstentions. However, it did not pass because it failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority of votes from the members “present and voting”. It is important to note that nations that abstained are counted as not voting in this context. India supported the Canadian amendment and it faced opposition from all Arab nations, with the exception of Tunisia.
Shortly before the vote, Jordan’s permanent representative to the UN, Mahmoud Daifallah Hamoud, characterized Canada’s amendment to the draft resolution concerning a humanitarian crisis as an effort to gloss over Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people. He pointed out to the UNGA that they were currently observing an Israeli ground invasion.
Canadian Permanent Representative Bob Rae argued that explicitly mentioning Hamas in the resolution would be just and accurate. He asserted that the amendment was a straightforward acknowledgment of the relevant facts.
But Pakistan’s representative, Munir Akram, however, emphasised that the Canadian amendment should also include a mention of Israel in relation to the retaliatory airstrikes. He argued that, to be truly fair, balanced and just, both sides should be named. Akram suggested that it might be more appropriate not to single out any specific parties in a resolution aimed at drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis.
Israeli Ambassador, Gilad Erdan, declared that the UN lacked any legitimacy. He argued that the only way to eliminate Hamas was by uprooting them and questioned why Hamas was not being held accountable. Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by several countries, including the US, Canada, the EU and Israel. It is important to note that different countries and organizations may have varying designations and opinions regarding Hamas.
The UNGA resolution—titled ‘Safeguarding Civilians and Adhering to Legal and Humanitarian Duties’—denounced “any forms of violence targeting Palestinian and Israeli civilians, including acts of terrorism and unselective assaults”. It called on all parties to promptly and completely adhere to their responsibilities under international humanitarian and human rights laws, especially concerning the safeguarding of civilians and civilian assets.
The resolution also stressed the importance of safeguarding humanitarian workers, those injured and humanitarian facilities and resources. It called for the facilitation and encouragement of humanitarian access to ensure that crucial supplies and services can reach all Gaza Strip residents who require them. Moreover, the resolution demanded the withdrawal of Israel’s directive, as the “occupying power”, requiring Palestinian civilians, UN personnel and humanitarian workers to vacate regions in the northern Gaza Strip and transfer to the southern areas.
The General Assembly also urged the prompt and unconditional liberation of all unlawfully detained civilians, insisting on their safety, welfare and humane treatment in accordance with international law. It also reiterated that a peaceful approach, in alignment with the applicable UN resolutions, international law and the two-state solution, was the sole means to attain a fair and enduring resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In the “explanation of vote” on the main resolution, India’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Yojna Patel, acknowledged the serious and ongoing concern regarding casualties in the Gaza conflict, particularly among civilians, including women and children. However, she did not explicitly state the reason for India’s abstention.
The emergency session was convened using the ‘Uniting for Peace’ mandate, which empowers the 193-member General Assembly to act when the UN Security Council faces a deadlock because of the veto power wielded by its permanent members. UN General Assembly resolutions, Unlike Security Council resolutions, are not legally binding, but carry tremendous weight and moral authority.
In the past two weeks, the US, China and Russia have used their veto power to block the approval of any resolution aimed at addressing the ongoing crisis in West Asia. On October 18, the US exercised its veto power to reject a draft resolution, proposed by Brazil and the UAE, in the Security Council. This resolution had called for a “humanitarian pause”. A previous Russian draft had also fallen short of garnering the necessary nine votes for adoption.
The crisis in the West Asian region intensified when Hamas initiated an incursion from Gaza into southern Israel, resulting in over 1,200 casualties, including hundreds of civilians. In addition to capturing an unspecified number of Israeli soldiers, Hamas also kidnapped more than 220 Israeli and foreign nationals and took them into Gaza, which is a violation of international humanitarian law.
Since then, Israel has been carrying out widespread airstrikes in Gaza, resulting in 7,326 casualties (as of October 27), as reported by the Palestinian health ministry. Israel has additionally implemented a blockade, restricting the flow of essential supplies, including food, fuel, electricity, medical provisions and water. Only a limited quantity of food and medical aid is making its way into Gaza through a small number of trucks allowed in via the Rafah crossing along the border with Egypt.
Although US President Joe Biden has expressed doubts about the accuracy of civilian casualty figures in Gaza, the UN has previously validated the reliability of the death toll reported by the Palestinian authorities in Gaza. On Thursday, the Gaza Palestinian health ministry released a list of names and information about 6,747 Palestinians who had lost their lives in Gaza since the Israeli airstrikes began on October 7, with 2,655 of them being children.
This week, Prime Minister Modi engaged in a conversation with King Abdullah of Jordan, marking the first instance when India mentioned the necessity for a prompt resolution of the humanitarian and security concerns. India, as one of the most prominent developing countries, had not previously advocated for a “ceasefire” or any cessation of hostilities in this volatile region. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)