UN chief doubles down on Hamas remarks, decries ‘misrepresentations’

Guterres stresses Palestinian grievances don’t justify October 7 massacre, a day after saying it didn’t take place in ‘vacuum’; Israel’s UN envoy rejects clarification

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, October 24, 2023. (Seth Wenig/AP)
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, October 24, 2023. (Seth Wenig/AP)

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday rejected “misrepresentations” of his remarks a day earlier that Hamas’s October 7 massacre “didn’t happen in a vacuum,” decried by Israel as justifying terror.

“I am shocked by misrepresentations by some of my statement yesterday in the Security Council — as if I was justifying acts of terror by Hamas,” Guterres told reporters, without naming Israel.

Addressing a Security Council session on Tuesday, the UN chief, again without naming Israel, had denounced “the clear violations of international humanitarian law that we are witnessing in Gaza.”

In remarks that especially outraged Israel, he had said it was important to “recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum” as the Palestinians have been “subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.”

Guterres said Wednesday it was “necessary to set the record straight, especially out of respect for the victims and their families.”

“I spoke of the grievances of the Palestinian people. And in doing so, I also clearly stated, and I quote: ‘But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas.'”

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan speaks about Israeli hostages being held by Hamas in front of United Nations headquarters in New York, Tuesday, October 24, 2023. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan rejected the explanation and reiterated his call for Guterres to resign.

“The secretary-general once again distorts and twists reality. He clearly said yesterday that the massacre and murder spree by Hamas ‘did not happen in a vacuum.’ Every person understands and understood very well that the meaning of his words is: That Israel is guilty for the actions of Hamas or, at the very least, a demonstration of understanding and justification by the secretary-general for the massacre,” Erdan said in a statement.

“A secretary-general who does not understand that the murder of innocents can have no justification and no ‘background’ cannot be secretary-general,” he added.

Earlier in the day, an Israeli official confirmed to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity that the country had ceased issuing visas to UN officials as a punitive measure.

“Due to [Guterres’s]  remarks we will refuse to issue visas to UN representatives,” Erdan told Army Radio. “We have already refused a visa for Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths. The time has come to teach them a lesson.”

Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza began after thousands of terrorists burst through the border and rampaged through more than 20 communities. The terrorists killed some 1,400 people, the vast majority of them civilians, massacring them at their homes and at a music festival. They also abducted at least 224 people to the Strip as hostages.

Israel evacuated all settlements and military forces from the Gaza Strip under its 2005 Disengagement. Since then it has faced years of rocket attacks from Hamas, which rules the Strip, and from other terror groups there, as well as multiple rounds of intense combat.

It has maintained a tight blockade of the territory since Hamas took control in 2007, as has Egypt, with Jerusalem saying it must do so to limit the terror group’s ability to arm itself. In the West Bank, settlements have expanded under consecutive governments, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly arguing the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority is not a partner for peace, having rejected several offers in the past.

Guterres’s comments drew outrage in Israel. On Tuesday evening, Erdan called them “shocking” and demanded that the secretary-general resign, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen canceled a meeting with Guterres, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz labeled the UN chief a “terror apologist.”

The strongly worded reactions continued on Wednesday morning.

The Foreign Ministry tweeted that Guterres’s remarks “provoke anger and astonishment and tarnish both him and the organization he heads,” reflecting “a biased and distorted attitude towards Israel on the part of the UN and especially on the part of the secretary-general himself.”

“The UN secretary-general must retract his words, engage in deep personal soul-searching and apologize for his statement, which distressed millions of Israelis who are still experiencing the consequences of the murderous terrorist attack of October 7,” the ministry added.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein, the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affair and Defense Committee, sent an English-language public letter addressed to Guterres expressing “a profound sense of shock” and saying it would have been “best had you said nothing at all.”

“Mr. Secretary-General, you opened by saying that ‘nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians.’ However, you then [made] an about-face and added that the ‘attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.’ Statements of this kind legitimize murderers, rapists and terrorists around the world — rendering your condemnations null and void,” Edelstein charged.

Edelstein tweeted a photo of the letter, adding in a Hebrew-language post that Guterres’s remarks were “truly insane” and that “against the backdrop of surging antisemitism around the world, his grave remarks are fueling a giant fire [of hate].”

Israeli leaders and US President Joe Biden have noted that the October 7 atrocities were the single worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust.

Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan, who met with Guterres earlier this year at a Holocaust-related exhibit at the UN headquarters in New York, said the UN chief had “failed the test” when it came to ensuring atrocities against Jews don’t repeat.

“The slaughter of Jews by Hamas on October 7th was genocidal in its intents and immeasurably brutal in its form. Part of why it differs from the Holocaust is because Jews have today a state and an army. We are not defenseless and at the mercy of others,” a statement from Dayan said.

“However, it puts to test the sincerity of world leaders, intellectuals and influencers that come to Yad Vashem and pledge ‘Never Again,'” he continued. “Those who seek to ‘understand,’ look for a justifying context, do not condemn the perpetrators, and do not call for the unconditional and immediate release of the abducted – fail the test.

“UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres failed the test.”

Israel has responded to the Hamas assault by vowing to destroy the terror group and launching intensive strikes in Gaza, saying it is hitting terror targets while trying to avoid civilian casualties. It has told over one million Gaza residents to evacuate the northern part of the Strip ahead of an expected ground incursion.

The Hamas-controlled health ministry says the strikes have killed over 6,500 Palestinians so far. Those numbers cannot be independently verified and are believed to include Hamas’s own members, as well as civilians killed by hundreds of misfired Palestinian rockets.

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