US blocks China-led Security Council initiative to issue statement on Gaza violence

Biden administration again comes to Israel’s aid at UN after lobbying from Jerusalem, which expressed fear that missive would draw equivalency between Israel and Islamic Jihad

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The Iron Dome anti-missile system fires to intercept a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, near Ashkelon, May 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
The Iron Dome anti-missile system fires to intercept a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, near Ashkelon, May 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The United States blocked an effort led by China for the United Nations Security Council to issue a joint statement expressing alarm over the ongoing Gaza escalation, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

China sought to lobby support for the communique, which would have condemned both the rocket fire from Gaza directed at Israeli civilians and the Israeli airstrikes across the coastal enclave that began Tuesday morning, as the IDF launched Operation Shield and Arrow against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, the senior official said.

China aimed for the joint statement — a symbolic step that holds less weight than a binding resolution but that still requires unanimous support of all 15 members — to be issued upon conclusion of an emergency meeting that it called on Wednesday to discuss the latest round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

While Beijing won the support of Russia along with France and the United Arab Emirates, which had also requested Wednesday’s closed-door meeting, the US informed members that it would not back the measure, effectively burying it.

Israel had lobbied the US and other Security Council members to block the move, fearing that the joint statement would draw an equivalency between Israel and PIJ, the senior official explained.

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan told Army Radio on Thursday, “We succeeded in blocking condemnation of Israel with the help of the US, with whom we worked in conjunction.”

A general view of a United Nations security council meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on March 20, 2023. (Ed Jones/AFP)

“The US, together with the UK, conveyed [to us] that they would not allow a statement,” he added.

The Biden administration has consistently come to Israel’s defense at the Security Council, blocking the panel from issuing statements or passing resolutions on Israeli-Palestinian flareups in over half a dozen instances, including several times during the May 2021 Gaza war. Washington has argued that the UN is not the proper body to adjudicate the conflict.

One apparent exception to that stance came in February when the US helped the Security Council adopt a joint statement blasting the Israeli government for a decision to legalize nine West Bank outposts and advance plans for nearly 10,000 new settlement homes. Still, this move came after the US blocked the top UN panel from passing a binding resolution against Israel.

As in previous rounds of violence between Israel and terror groups in Gaza, the Biden administration has worked quietly to restore calm.

During the 11-day war in May 2021, initial statements from the Biden administration focused solely on expressing backing for Israel’s right to self-defense, giving Jerusalem cover to continue striking targets in Gaza. It took several days before US statements began including more overt calls for de-escalation and a ceasefire.

This time though, such rhetoric was employed after just one day of fighting.

Palestinians carry the bodies of Islamic Jihad commander Ali Ghali, left, and his brother, Mohammed Ghali, both killed in an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, May 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

In the White House readout from US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s call with his Israeli counterpart Tzachi Hanegbi, the former “reaffirmed the administration’s ironclad support for Israel’s security, as well as its right to defend its people from indiscriminate rocket attacks.

“Sullivan also noted continued regional efforts to broker a ceasefire, and emphasized the need to deescalate tensions and prevent further loss of life,” the statement said.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides echoed the sentiment on Thursday, tweeting that he was “concerned about the continuing rocket launches today. We stand by Israel’s right to defend itself. Working towards a quick de-escalation.”

Wednesday was the fourth time the Security Council convened an emergency session to discuss the escalations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the establishment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government on December 29. During that period, the UN panel has also held four of its mandated monthly meetings on the conflict, which both Jerusalem and Washington have argued demonstrates the council’s disproportionate focus on Israel.

In light of the decision by the US to block a joint statement, Security Council members at the Wednesday meeting sufficed with receiving a briefing on the developments in Gaza from the UN’s Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland before ambassadors had the opportunity to present the positions of their respective capitals on the violence. Envoys were unanimous in their calls for the parties to de-escalate, while most were particularly critical of the civilian casualties caused by the Israeli airstrikes on PIJ operatives, a UN diplomat for a country at the meeting told The Times of Israel.

Also on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement expressing his “deep concern” over the Gaza developments.

Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system fires interceptors at rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, southern Israel. Thursday, May 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

“The Secretary-General condemns the civilian loss of life, including that of children and women, which he views as unacceptable and must stop immediately,” said a statement on Guterres’s behalf. “Israel must abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law, including the proportional use of force and taking all feasible precautions to spare civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of military operations.

“The Secretary-General also condemns the indiscriminate launching of rockets from Gaza into Israel, which violates international humanitarian law and puts at risk both Palestinian and Israeli civilians,” the statement added, calling on both parties to “exercise maximum restraint and to work to stop hostilities immediately.”

On Thursday, the UN’s Human Rights Office issued its own statement expressing “alarm” over the Gaza fighting.

“We are concerned about whether the IDF took sufficient precautions to avoid, and in any event to minimize, loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects,” the statement said, also condemning “indiscriminate” Palestinian rocket fire at Israel.

Operation Shield and Arrow commenced with a series of near-simultaneous IDF airstrikes that eliminated three of PIJ’s most senior commanders in response to the terror group’s launching of over 100 rockets at Israel last week. Ten Palestinian civilians were killed in those initial Tuesday strikes, including four children.

Islamic Jihad has since fired over 800 projectiles at Israel, including one rocket that struck an apartment building in the central town of Rehovot on Thursday, killing one and injuring five others.

Police and rescue forces at the scene where a rocket fired from Gaza hit and damaged a house in Rehovot on May 11, 2023. Photo by (Flash90)

The IDF in response has struck 191 PIJ targets throughout the Strip, intentionally avoiding sites belonging to the Gaza-ruling Hamas, which it says has thus far avoided actively joining the fighting.

The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip said Thursday night that the death toll from the latest round of fighting stood at 29, with roughly half believed to have been civilians. Israel says some civilians died as a result of Palestinian rocket misfires.

At least 93 were wounded in the three days of fighting, the ministry said. Although its figures did not differentiate between those injured or killed by Israeli airstrikes and those injured or killed by Islamic Jihad rocket misfires.

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