Deafening silence on Israeli crisis

We have seen how the same international community which responded so decisively in Libya has been reluctant to involve itself in other equally volatile situations of civil upheaval and war.

Cartoon by Thomas Cuschieri
Cartoon by Thomas Cuschieri

In 2011, when Libya’s Gaddafi threatened a massacre in response to an uprising in Benghazi, the United Nations Security Council responded by imposing (among other things) a no-fly zone, and individual countries such as the United Kingdom, France and others provided logistical support (and in some cases weapons and other supplies) to the rebels.

Even Malta, which pursues a policy of neutrality – and which in any case lacks the logistical capabilities for involvement in military engagements – contributed to the civilian evacuation by placing its territory and assets at the disposal of intervening countries.

With the situation in Libya now spiralling towards anarchy, it remains debatable whether the type of intervention that ensued was, in fact, the ideal response at the time. But to be fair, this observation is made with the benefit of hindsight that was lacking in the immediacy of the crisis. On one point, however, all sides (except perhaps the pro-Gaddafi faction) had agreed: there was no doubt that a massacre of civilians had to be averted at all costs.

Fast-forward three years, and we have seen how the same international community which responded so decisively in Libya has been reluctant to involve itself in other equally volatile situations of civil upheaval and war.

More recently, and closer to home, Israel has embarked on a military offensive in Gaza in which the civilian body-count has steadily increased over the past few days. Yet unlike in the Libyan situation, there appears to be no such consensus on the need to protect the life of innocent civilians through such means as UN-imposed no-fly zones.

To quote just one response to the Israeli crisis, the government of the United States has described the woefully disproportionate loss of Palestinian life as ‘tragic’, yet reiterated that Israel has a right to protect itself from Hamas rocket attacks.

One can agree or disagree on the details, but what is entirely absent from President Barack Obama’s declaration is any sense of urgency – so prevalent when discussing Libya in 2011 – that action should be taken to prevent such casualties irrespective of such questions as which side is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Bluntly put, the overwhelming and inescapable impression one gets from this discrepancy is that Palestinian lives are somehow worth less than the lives of other nationalities or ethnicities. Surely, that cannot be an acceptable response.

On another level, there are solid legal arguments to support a UN-imposed ceasefire at this stage. While Western countries have so far tended to overlook this fact for reasons of political allegiance and an unspoken fear of militant Islamism – among other factors unique to this conflict – the fact remains that the Israeli occupation of Gaza is itself a direct violation of international law.

Gaza came into Israeli possession following the six-day war of 1967. In November that year, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 242, which emphasised the international law principle of “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and which affirmed that peace in the Middle East should be based on the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”

Yet the Palestinian territories remain under Israeli occupation, and to date there has been no international drive to enforce resolution 242. Faced with this situation, one struggles to comprehend how UN Security Council Resolutions can carry so much weight in some scenarios, but no weight at all in others.

The government of Malta, too, seems to have washed its hands of the unfolding crisis.  Admittedly there is little such a small country can do to make a real difference in direct terms; yet there are still diplomatic cards that can be played to considerable effect.

Even the smallest contribution can be instrumental in saving lives at this stage. Departing from the premise that peaceful solutions – even if unlikely or difficult to achieve in practice – must be pursued at all costs, it is simply outrageous that so few voices in the international community have been heard demanding a UN ceasefire in response to bloodshed in the Palestinian territories, in the same way as so much of the world had done with Libya in 2011.

One must question, for instance, why Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has so far not even commented at all. Not only has the Maltese government been ambiguous on the recent aggression and mounting civilian body-count, but on a recent visit to Israel, Muscat stopped short of pronouncing any concern with the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestine and corresponding human rights issues.

More worryingly, Malta still supports Israel’s bid for a place on the UN Security Council: a position that was questionable to begin with, but which, in the wake of recent events, comes across as starkly dissonant with Malta’s own Constitutional aims of pursuing world peace through diplomatic means.

From this perspective, the continued silence of the Maltese government is almost deafening.

More in Editorial