UN leader reiterates message on Gaza occupation despite Israel’s call for him to step down

Israel blocks visas for UN officials after accusing the secretary-general of justifying Hamas for saying the October 7 attacks ‘did not happen in a vacuum’ but after ‘56 years of suffocating occupation’

António Guterres
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres during the Security Council meeting to address the Middle East conflict in New York on Tuesday.EDUARDO MUNOZ (EFE)

The conflict in Gaza is inflaming relations between the United Nations and Israel. The country’s authorities announced Wednesday that they will refuse visas to representatives of the international organization in retaliation for remarks made the day before by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan, and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen called for Guterres’ resignation after he proclaimed on Tuesday that Hamas attacks did not happen “in a vacuum” but after Palestinians have been “subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.”

Israel’s permanent representative to the organization said that because of these words, his government will not give visas to U.N. representatives. Erdan confirmed that the visa denial has already been put into practice with U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths. “It’s time we teach them a lesson,” the Israeli diplomat said.

Far from retracting his statements, Guterres on Wednesday reaffirmed them in a statement and subsequently in an impromptu appearance before the Security Council. The U.N. chief said he was “shocked” at the “misinterpretations” of his statement on Tuesday, denounced the “clear violations of international law” in Gaza, and reiterated his call for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to remedy epic suffering.” Guterres restated, word for word, the address he gave on Tuesday.

The U.N. secretary general on Tuesday opened a session of the Security Council devoted to the situation in the Middle East, delivering a speech in which he condemned Hamas’ attack on October 7 but also talked about the roots of the conflict: “It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”

The Israeli ambassador posted a message on X (formerly Twitter) asking for Guterres’ resignation. “I call on him to resign immediately. There is no justification or point in talking to those who show compassion for the most terrible atrocities committed against the citizens of Israel and the Jewish people.”

In the communiqué issued minutes before the Council meeting on Wednesday, where Guterres did not mention either Israel’s request for his resignation or its decision to block visas for U.N. staff, the secretary-general expressed his surprise at the Israeli reaction: “I am shocked by the misrepresentations by some of my statement … as if I was justifying acts of terror by Hamas. This is false. It was the opposite.”

Guterres said on Wednesday that in his statement to the Security Council he had “condemned unequivocally” the Hamas attacks that killed 1,400 people: “Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians, or the launching of rockets against civilian targets […] I believe it is necessary to set the record straight — especially out of respect for the victims and their families.”

In his speech on Wednesday, Guterres raised the political stakes, and probably the diplomatic crisis with Israel, by advocating a two-state solution as a possible way out of the war. Far from giving in to the pressure, Guterres insisted on international law as a safeguard and recalled that the first rule of any conflict, the protection of civilians, cannot mean using them as human shields or having more than a million people evacuate to the south, and then continue bombing the south.

The diplomatic spat, which threatens to escalate after Guterres’ show of firmness, could undermine the body’s tenuous credibility as an arbiter of conflicts and guarantor of international legality, since it has not been able to respond to the war in a unified manner.

Israel, created out of a United Nations decision — the partition of Palestine, under British mandate, in 1947 — rarely complies with the resolutions that affect it issued by the Security Council, where the U.S. veto generally protects it from the consequences of almost unanimous international condemnations. Israel’s withering reaction, demanding the resignation of the secretary general and limiting visas to U.N. officials, has galvanized the Israeli political class, accustomed to pointing the finger at the United Nations when it comes to looking for an external culprit.

Gilad Erdan, one of the most extremist leaders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, has often clashed in undiplomatic ways with the U.N.’s decisions, and in particular with those of its secretary general. In addition to Erdan, the Israeli foreign minister refused to meet with him and with families of hostages captured by Hamas. Speaking from Jerusalem, former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a member of the opposition who has joined the national unity government, described Guterres as a “terror apologist.”

In his address, Guterres recalled the “suffocating occupation, for 56 years,” the elephant in the room of the long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Hours later, faced with a growing cascade of invective from Israel, the U.N.’s top representative specified through the social network X that “the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the atrocious attack by Hamas, an attack that also cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people (with the absolute blockade and bombardment of the Gaza Strip).”

António Guterres criticized Hamas’ actions against the civilian population on Tuesday after meeting with relatives of hostages captured by the Islamic group and reiterated his call for their release, in a brief message on his X account: “After meeting with families whose loved ones have been taken hostage, I reaffirm my call for the immediate and unconditional release of all the hostages held in Gaza. Nothing can justify the killing, wounding, and abducting of civilians by Hamas.”

The words by Guterres that bothered Israel in particular were uttered at the beginning of the Security Council session, when he pointed out that the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7 “did not happen in a vacuum” but followed 56 years of occupation. Ambassador Erdan considered these statements a justification for the attacks against Israeli civilians. “His statement that ‘the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum’ expressed an understanding for terrorism and murder. It’s really unfathomable. It’s truly sad that the head of an organization that arose after the Holocaust holds such horrible views. A tragedy!” he said on X.

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