Global security involves managing a complex combination of law, ethics and politics. No situation exemplifies this more than what is happening now in Israel and Gaza.
When United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres coupled an unequivocal condemnation of the October 7 Hamas terror attacks with the observation that they “did not happen in a vacuum”, Israel was quick to react.
The country’s representative to the UN claimed Guterres’ words amounted to “tolerating terrorism” and demanded he resign.
Guterres was alluding to the Palestinian desire for political self-determination after more than 50 years of Israeli occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
But the fact such a statement can be so controversial is a sign of just how fraught the situation is now – and how limited New Zealand’s options are when it comes to influencing events.
Western leadership failing
After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the horrendous attacks by pledging a total war to eradicate Hamas in Gaza, and to do so “without political considerations”, the United States and European Union expressed unconditional support for Israel’s right to defend itself.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council has again been hamstrung. Unable to reach a clear position on the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, the council is now struggling to agree on a resolution to end the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Last week, the US vetoed a draft resolution calling for a “humanitarian pause” to the fighting on the grounds it did not mention Israel’s right to self-defence, and that US diplomacy needed more time.
But as the humanitarian toll of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza became plain, the damage to Western leadership has been substantial. China and Russia, backed by many states in the developing world, were able to take the diplomatic initiative, demanding an immediate ceasefire.
Simultaneously, Iran’s repressive clerical regime and its militant ally, Hezbollah, took the chance to project themselves as defenders of the Palestinians. The risk of conflict in the Middle East widening has only increased.
Risks of escalation
For New Zealand and other liberal democracies that depend on an international rules-based order, the situation is very troubling.
The government has provided NZ$5 million in humanitarian aid to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. It has also indicated its support for a “humanitarian pause” in Gaza.
Carolyn Schwalger, New Zealand’s permanent representative at the UN called “for the immediate and unconditional release of all [Israeli] hostages”. She pledged support for “Israel’s right to defend itself, in full compliance with international law, including in respect of actions taken in Gaza”, and said “New Zealand remains committed to a two-state solution.”
These are welcome steps. But in the weeks and months ahead, New Zealand will need to be clear that unlimited military force, without a long-term vision for peace, cannot satisfy either Israel’s desire for security or the Palestinian quest for statehood.
We fear that recent positive developments – the release of some Israeli hostages and the trickle of humanitarian aid into Gaza from Egypt – will soon be overwhelmed as the death toll of innocent victims rapidly escalates.
The Netanyahu government’s utter determination to liquidate Hamas, even if it costs the lives of thousands of innocent Palestinians in Gaza, is at odds with Israel’s long-term need for regional peace.
Fundamentally, the right of self-defence is not limitless. Israel’s iron grip on the provision of food, electricity and water to some 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza goes against the basic tenets of international law.
Collective punishment of civilians for the crimes of Hamas is not acceptable. Nor are indiscriminate, disproportionate or inhumane military actions. If they continue, the war will spread.
It may have no immediate or direct bearing on the current crisis, but New Zealand’s goal must be to work with regional powers, engage with Palestinian leadership that supports a peaceful path to statehood, and work towards stability in the region.
The long cycles of unwanted occupation, blockade, provocation, vendetta, violence and counter-violence, must eventually be broken. For now, though, New Zealand must reassert its support for the laws of war as well as a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and actively work with others towards those ends.