UN Security Council approves first Gaza ceasefire resolution after six months of war

After the vote, in which the U.S. abstained, Israel canceled a planned visit to Washington by a high-level delegation

Guerra entre Israel y Gaza
The U.N. Security Council, meeting this Monday to vote on the ceasefire resolution in Gaza.Andrew Kelly (REUTERS)

Following the veto by Russia and China on Friday of a draft ceasefire resolution linked to the release of the hostages which the United States had put forth after a month of negotiations, no one expected the non-permanent countries of the United Nations Security Council to be the ones to finally end the six-month impasse over a resolution for a cessation of hostilities in Gaza. But that same day, the 10 non-permanent member countries of the Council (Algeria, Ecuador, Guyana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, South Korea, Sierra Leone, Slovenia and Switzerland), which have no veto power, responded with their own proposal: a resolution for a ceasefire during the month of Ramadan. On Monday, that resolution passed unanimously, with the abstention of the U.S.

The resolution, like all those issued by the U.N. body responsible for world peace and security, is binding, which theoretically obliges the parties — Israel and Hamas — to abide by it. Its passage is a small milestone: countless resolutions failed over the course of the last six months due to the veto of three of the Council’s five permanent members. The United States had previously vetoed three attempts, arguing, as Israel does, that a ceasefire would allow Hamas to regroup and hinder Egyptian- and Qatari-led negotiations. Russia and China, for their part, vetoed the only ceasefire proposal submitted by the U.S. to the Council last Friday, just as they had vetoed another one in October that was less far-reaching and did not even consider the possibility of a cessation of hostilities.

The approved resolution calls for “an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan respected by all parties leading to a permanent sustainable ceasefire,” “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, as well as ensuring humanitarian access to address their medical and other humanitarian needs” and “that the parties comply with their obligations under international law in relation to all persons they detain.”

The text also emphasizes “the urgent need to expand the flow of humanitarian assistance to and reinforce the protection of civilians in the entire Gaza Strip” and reiterates the Council’s demand for the lifting of all barriers to the provision of humanitarian assistance at scale. The resolution comes at a time when the Palestinian enclave is on the brink of famine due to the Israeli blockade of humanitarian aid convoys. Israel is also preparing to invade Rafah, in southern Gaza on the border with Egypt, where more than half of the Strip’s total population (some 2.3 million) is concentrated after fleeing Israeli bombardments everywhere else in the territory. The U.S. categorically rejects a ground offensive in Rafah, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated that he plans to go ahead with it.

The U.S. abstention this Monday signals President Joe Biden’s administration change in attitude towards the Israeli offensive in Gaza, with the White House and Democratic lawmakers growing critical of Netanyahu’s government. Two weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish, called for new elections in Israel, going so far as to say that the Israeli prime minister has “lost his way.” More recently, New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called Israel’s military campaign in Gaza a genocide, something she had avoided doing. The conflict between Israel and Hamas has become yet another election issue in the U.S. with only seven months to go before the presidential election. President Biden has received serious warnings from young voters and Arab communities in the U.S. who are critical of his support for Israel.

Netanyahu reacts

Upon the resolution’s passage, Netanyahu made good on his threat — delivered ahead of the vote — and cancelled a high-level trip to Washington by a delegation that was going to listen to the Biden administration’s alternatives to an all-out invasion of Rafah. Netanyahu called the U.S. abstention on Monday a “clear retreat” from its previous position.

After the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant spoke on the phone almost daily for weeks. Austin met with Gallant in Tel Aviv the week after the attack with a strong message of support. He visited Israel again in December, stressing at that point the need to reduce the intensity of the offensive, protect the civilian population and facilitate access to humanitarian aid. Austin had been expecting to receive Gallant at the Pentagon on Tuesday in an almost desperate attempt to dissuade Israel from carrying out a ground offensive in the Rafah area. But on Monday Israel announced that the high-level trip was being cancelled to protest Monday’s U.N. Security Council decision calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

On Sunday, Gallant had declared that he would focus his visit, among other things, on “the ability to obtain systems and ammunition” and on “the preservation of the qualitative military advantage,” the expression for Washington’s decades-long commitment to always provide Israel with the best weapons and technology in the Middle East. That same day, Vice President Kamala Harris was asked in an interview on ABC if she was ruling out that an invasion of Rafah by Israel would trigger consequences from the United States, to which she replied, “I am ruling out nothing.”

The cancellation of the visit by Gallant and other senior Israeli officials comes at the moment of greatest distance between both nations’ leaders. Besides his personal conviction that the offensive is not a good idea, President Biden is aware of the cost in popularity and votes entailed by his support for Israel in the first stages of the war — a cost that is rising as the situation of Gaza’s civilian population becomes increasingly critical. A Gallup poll published last week showed that only 27% of Americans approve of the way Biden is handling the situation in the Middle East.

Washington does not want another operation in Rafah like the ones that took place in Gaza City and Khan Younis. There are an estimated 1.4 million Palestinians in Rafa, including many who fled there from other parts of the Strip following Israel’s instructions. The Netanyahu government has suggested the idea of creating “humanitarian islands” where the population can go, something that seems unfeasible to Washington. “Let me tell you something: I have studied the maps. There’s nowhere for those folks to go,” Harris said in the interview, in which she also said that “we have been clear in multiple conversations and in every way that any major military operation in Rafah would be a huge mistake.”

Viable plan for Rafah

The Biden administration believes that Israel has not presented a viable plan for how or where to move civilians safely, how to feed and house them, and ensure access to basic things like sanitation, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan explained last week at a press conference.

Washington assures that the key objectives that Israel wants to achieve in Rafah can be reached by other means. This is the reason why Biden had asked Netanyahu to send a high-level delegation to Washington made up of military, intelligence services and humanitarian personnel. The idea was not only for them to listen to U.S. concerns about Israel’s plans in the southern Strip, but also to present an alternative approach that targets key Hamas elements in Rafah and secures the Egyptian-Egyptian border and Gaza without a major ground invasion.

The Israeli Defense Minister wants to ensure that American weapons will continue to flow despite the differences of opinion. Last December, in a private meeting with local representatives that was reported on by the newspaper Israel Hayom, Netanyahu said: “We need three things from the United States: ammunition, ammunition and ammunition.”

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