Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 17 July 2006

Mid-East crisis going out of control

Last week’s escalation of military actions from Gaza to Lebanon shows a crisis in the Middle East spiraling out of control.  Even as there is wide condemnation of Israel’s attacks as a “disproportionate response” to the capture of its soldiers, the public is frustrated by the lack of action by the Quartet or the UN.  Analysts point to the failure of all the “peace plans” on the table.


The situation in the Middle East seems to be spiraling out of control as Israel last week widened its military actions from Gaza by laying a siege on Lebanon and bombing Beirut and many other parts of that country.

The Israeli attacks on Gaza had been sparked by the capture by Hamas-related personnel of an Israeli soldier.  Its counter actions have been condemned by many as being out of all proportions. 

These actions include the bombing of infrastructure, destruction of the offices of the Palestinian Prime Minister, the Foreign Ministry and Economy Ministry and parliament, the killing of many civilians, assassinations and the detention of many people, including Palestinian Ministers and parliamentarians.

Last week, Hezbollah, operating from its base in Southern Lebanon, crossed into Israel, captured two Israeli soldiers and killed several more, and launched rocket attacks on some northern Israeli cities.

Israel’s counter actions, including many days of bombardment on Lebanese cities and infrastructure including Beirut airport, killing over 70 people by Saturday, were also attacked widely as being disproportionate.

“We fear a downward spiral to a totally uncontrollable situation,” said Jan Egeland, the coordinator of United Nations Emergency Relief, adding that the Gaza and Lebanon situation “has never been worse in this past decade as it has been in the past few days.”

Speaking in Geneva on 14 July, Egeland said that Israel’s disproportionate response had led to the evolving Gaza crisis. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour reiterated Secretary General Kofi Annan’s condemnation of all actions that target civilians or which endanger them due to their disproportionate or indiscriminate character.

She noted that while Israel has legitimate security concerns, international humanitarian law requires that parties to a conflict refrain from attacks directed against civilians.  They have an obligation to exercise precaution and respect the proportionality principle in all military operations so as to prevent civilian suffering.

The UN official also called on those detaining the Israeli soldiers to release them, and for rocket attacks on Israel to stop.

At the UN Security Council in New York, the Lebanese Foreign Minister called for international action to end the Israeli aggression against it.  “I need not tell you who the aggressor and who the victim is.” 

But Israel’s ambassador actually said that its military actions were for the good of Lebanon, and that the Lebanese Minister would in his heart admit it!

With only meetings and words but no international action, the civilians in Gaza and in parts of Lebanon continue to endure days of bombardment, with loss of lives, houses and electricity, and increasing scarcity of food and water.

There is a deafening silence and loud inaction from the Quartet – comprising the United States, European Union, Russia and the UN – although this is the body that is supposed to be oversee a Road Map for peace.

Instead, it was an international women’s commission for a just and sustainable Palestinian-Israeli peace, comprising Palestinian, Israeli and other women, that held an emergency meeting and called on the Quartet to act.

The commission, set up in 2005 under the auspices of the UNIFEM (a UN agency)  Development Fund for Women, urged the Quartet to “dispatch high-level special envoys to mediate a truce and exchange of prisoners, and to lead the parties back to political negotiations that address the root issues of the conflict.”

It said:  “Civilians, mainly women and children, are paying the price daily for this vicious cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation,” said the Commission in a statement.  “If no action is taken today, tomorrow will be too late.

According to Phyllis Bennis, an expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, the Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip constitute collective punishment of the entire Gazan population, and they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits an occupying power from collective punishments, targeted assassinations and infrastructure destruction in an occupied territory.

The silence from the Bush administration has been key, according to Bennis, who cites a July 12 Israeli government communiqué saying that the low-key international response is “allowing Israel military freedom of action.” 

Concludes Bennis:  “The escalation in Gaza reflects the failure of Israeli unilateralism, the failure of the Quartet’s “roadmap”, the failure of US-orchestrated exclusion of the UN, the failure of the international community to end the occupation, and the failure of the UN to intervene and provide international protection in the meanwhile.”