UN chief dismisses Israeli demand he retract accusation of excessive force in Jenin

Spokesperson for Antonio Guterres says he ‘stands by’ allegation against IDF, after Israeli envoy decried statement as ‘detached from reality’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the media during a visit to the UN office in Nairobi, Kenya, May 3, 2023. (AP/Khalil Senosi, File)
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the media during a visit to the UN office in Nairobi, Kenya, May 3, 2023. (AP/Khalil Senosi, File)

NEW YORK — UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday dismissed a demand from Israel that he retract his accusation that Israeli forces had “obviously” used excessive force during a counter-terror operation in Jenin earlier this week.

Guterres’s allegation during a Thursday press briefing marked a rare, direct condemnation of Israel from the secretary-general, and sparked an open dispute between the UN chief and Israel’s ambassador to the world body, Gilad Erdan.

After Guterres’s accusation, Erdan condemned the statement as “shameful,” demanded a retraction, and called on Guterres to condemn Palestinian terrorism.

Asked about Erdan’s demands during a Friday press briefing, a spokesperson for Guterres said, “I don’t really have any response.”

Guterres “stands by those views,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson declined to address war crimes allegations against Israel, saying the charges were best “decided upon by competent judicial bodies.” Guterres dodged a question about the war crimes accusations, made by a UN investigator with a history of antisemitism, during the Thursday briefing.

Also Friday, the UN Security Council received an update about the Jenin operation from Lynn Hastings, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinians.

Hastings said the Israeli operation caused “significant infrastructure damage” to the Jenin refugee camp, a densely populated part of the city. Sections of Jenin were without water or sewage services, and humanitarian workers were on the ground providing support, Hastings said, urging UN member states to contribute funding.

Some of the infrastructure damage to Jenin was caused by Israeli forces bulldozing roads to avoid explosives planted beneath them.

Ahead of the briefing, Erdan sent a letter to the Security Council and Guterres, highlighting Palestinian terror attacks against Israel, and stressing that terror groups in Jenin use civilian infrastructure to carry out their operations.

Erdan said troops had exposed a terror tunnel used to store weapons under a mosque in Jenin that was 300 meters long.

“The international community and the Security Council must unconditionally condemn the latest Palestinian terror attacks and hold Palestinian leadership accountable,” the letter said. “Israel will not stand idle while terrorists continue to harm civilians, using Jenin Camp as their hideout.”

Gilad Erdan, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, January 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The two-day Israeli operation in Jenin came in response to a series of deadly terror attacks, many emanating from Jenin and its environs, an area Israeli security forces see as a hotbed of terrorism. The IDF said all of the operation’s 12 Palestinian fatalities were combatants, and most have been claimed by terror groups. Some of the dozens of injured were non-combatants, the IDF said. One Israeli soldier was killed.

Guterres said on Thursday that he had been “deeply disturbed” by news of the Jenin operation and “strongly condemns all acts of violence against civilians.”

Asked if his condemnation applied to both sides of the conflict, Guterres said, “It applies to all use of excessive force and obviously in this situation there was an excessive force used by Israeli forces.”

“Israeli airstrikes and ground operations in a crowded refugee camp were the worst violence in the West Bank in many years, with a significant impact on civilians,” Guterres said, blaming Israel for disruptions to water and electricity services, and blocking people from accessing medical care, a charge that Israel has denied.

“I understand Israel’s legitimate concerns with its security but escalation is not the answer,” he added. “It simply bolsters radicalization and leads to a deepening cycle of violence and bloodshed.”

Palestinian gunmen take up positions during a confrontation with the Israeli army in the West Bank city of Jenin on July 3, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Erdan blasted Guterres’s statements as “shameful, farfetched, and completely detached from reality.”

“Time after time the UN secretary-general disregards brutal Palestinian terror and neglects to condemn the cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians,” Erdan told The Times of Israel. “Yet when discussing defensive IDF actions aimed solely at dismantling terror infrastructure, the secretary-general is quick to issue extensive condemnations of Israel, completely detached from the truth.”

Erdan demanded Guterres retract his comments and “condemn the Palestinian terrorism and incitement.”

On Wednesday, the UN’s special rapporteur for the Palestinians, Francesca Albanese, accused Israel of committing war crimes in Jenin. Albanese has a history of antisemitism and incendiary rhetoric against the Jewish state, and places sole blame for the conflict on Israel.

Albanese’s Thursday statement, issued with two other UN rapporteurs, said there was no legal justification for the Jenin operation. The statement made no mention of Palestinian terrorism, Jenin terror groups, that the fatalities were combatants, or that the IDF recovered large amounts of weaponry in civilian buildings in Jenin.

Israel has long complained that the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have a lopsided focus on Israel, with the Jewish state and the US accusing the world bodies of bias and, in some cases, antisemitism.

Top UN human rights officials involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have made a number of antisemitic statements, and the General Assembly condemned Israel more than all other countries combined last year.

A UN conference meant to address antisemitism was scheduled for last month, but postponed shortly beforehand, and rescheduled for September.

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