Why no international protection?

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The United States decided to use its 73rd veto on 27 March to block a UN Security Council Resolution which would have called for an unarmed UN observer force. The seven non-aligned members of the Council proposed the resolution, and the European countries including Britain abstained. France was clearly close to voting in favour – its ambassador referred to the “great merits” of the resolution. The US successfully blocked a UN call for such a force based entirely on an Israeli refusal to accept this. This was the fifth veto since May 1990 that the US has used against Resolutions critical of Israel, and in addition to preventing several others from getting to a vote. But five days of intense diplomacy failed. The question of sending observers in some form is still not out of the question but seems a more distant prospect.

That there is any debate on the need for an international protection force in the Occupied Territories indicates one of the farcical points of the entire conflict. So far over 400 people have died, mostly Palestinians in addition to over ten thousand wounded. The spiral of violence has barely slowed down, and many Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are facing starvation. There cannot be a winner in this phase, only losers, and as ever the Palestinians will bear the brunt of this onslaught.

The insertion of an international protection force would separate the Israeli military and settlers from Palestinian civilians, thereby taking the heat of the situation and perhaps allowing the leaders on both sides to restart talks. For example, such a force would ensure that Palestinians needing hospital treatment would receive proper medical assistance. So far some seven Palestinians have probably died as a result of the Israeli obstruction.

Such a force would not resolve the situation but could at least provide a platform for negotiation. The Palestinians have consistently called for such a force ever since the Intifada began. A force would have a role in highlighting transgressions on either side.

Israel may continue to refuse. No doubt it will, as it has never liked outsiders interfering with its freedom to maintain a tight, often brutal grip on the Occupied Territories. Both Barak and Sharon resented the intervention of the CIA, which monitored security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and as a result the CIA has withdrawn.

But the international community, in this case represented by the UN Security Council, should not allow Israel to escape so lightly. Israel has been protesting its innocence ever since September, so what has it to lose? It is the legal duty of the international community to protect people living in occupied territory. Israeli acceptance is not required legally as it is not Israeli sovereign territory. Given that Ariel Sharon, who has such a bloody track record, now leads Israel the urgency of protecting Palestinians is clear. Even the US has admitted that Israeli security forces have “committed numerous serious human rights abuses during the year.”

Yet sadly the UK is incapable of criticising Israel and lags behind European partners in articulating a constructive position. There are complaints that Britain is holding up serious European initiatives with the peace process. This is entirely unjustifiable given the seriousness of the situation and that the US has yet again so palpably failed. Britain refers to a “growing humanitarian emergency in the Occupied Territories” but it is a political crisis which has dramatic humanitarian consequences. A political decision is needed to end the emergency. The policy of blockade, siege and curfew adopted by Israel should be ended. It does not provide additional security for Israel – the closures can be bypassed, whilst it massively undermines Palestinian security.