On Thursday, I was one of a handful of activists who attended an “informal conversation” of 1300 people with Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, hosted by the World Affairs Council of Northern California at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.
We had prepared a banner demanding the enforcement of UN Resolutions 194 and 242. Under UN General Assembly Resolution 194, Palestinians have the right to choose to return to the homes they were expelled from or to seek compensation for their losses. UN Security Council Resolution 242 calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territories occupied during the 1967 war (including Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights). s Ban Ki-moon began to speak, we stood silently with the banner until security forces came and told us to sit down. We complied, and waited to hear what the Secretary General had to say about the situation in Palestine.
Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that the UN has a “humanitarian responsibility” in Palestine, in particular regarding the Palestinians in Gaza. He insisted that there be cooperation from the international community in terms of economic assistance and by “letting Palestinians engage in economic activities.” He stated that the borders of Gaza must be opened and that Palestinians are suffering from a lack of freedom of movement, although he did not mention that it is Israel which is keeping the borders sealed and starving 1.4 million Palestinians. Ban Ki-moon believes there are “signs of optimism” in the Middle East today. His optimism lies with the Quartet, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and US-Israeli puppet Abbas. He did not insist that the international community engage with Hamas, a legitimately democratically elected body. For Ban Ki-moon, the main thing standing in the way of a resolution to this conflict is “the division in Palestine” and the lack of “unity of the Palestinian people.” Sure, there’s division in Palestine. There’s division in any country. But as Ali Abunimah recently pointed out, “the split among Palestinians today is not between Hamas and Fatah, nor between “extremist” or “moderate,” or “Islamist” or “secular,” but between the minority who have cast their lot in with the enemy as collaborators on the one hand, and those who uphold the right and duty to resist on the other.” (July 18, “Overcoming the Conspiracy Against Palestine“)
Not once did Ban Ki-moon mention the word “occupation.” Not once did he acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who are still refugees after almost 60 years. The organization he heads, the United Nations, has clear resolutions dealing with these issues – and yet there is a complete lack of will to enforce them, primarily due to the role the US plays in the organization. Israel is the target of sixty-five UN Resolutions, Palestine is the target of zero. And yet somehow Ban Ki-moon manages to see the major problem in the ongoing conflict as having to do with the Palestinians. Not once did he mention any responsibility on the part of Israel for the past and present suffering of the Palestinian people.
So I asked him directly, “Will you enforce UN Resolutions 194 and 242?” Instead of receiving an answer to my question, however, I learned that it is illegal to ask one! A half dozen security personnel escorted me and the other two activists who had earlier been involved in the silent banner action out of the room. We were told freedom of speech does not apply on private property, even if you are asking a question that is on-topic. We were also informed that we were being detained and that to avoid arrest, we must answer all questions asked to us by the man who would only identify himself as being with the State Department.
Ban Ki-moon, however, has a whole cadre of people shielding him from having to answer pointed questions. The entire structure of the event was set up to achieve precisely this purpose. One could only ask a question by submitting it on a card. Our friends who were able to remain in the room informed us that there were twenty minutes allotted at the end of the event to answer questions from the audience. “How do I get your job when I grow up?” and “Will there ever be a female Secretary General of the UN?” were deemed higher priorities than, “Will the UN hold Israel and the United States accountable for their violations of international law?”
Our friends also informed us that in a subsequent conversation regarding Iraq, the Secretary General offered a similar analysis to his reading of the situation in Palestine. The problem in Iraq is apparently also simply due to the lack of unity of the Iraqi people. Yes, there is sectarian fighting going on in Palestine and in Iraq. But what Ban Ki-moon failed to mention are the major parts played by Israel and the US in the creation and exacerbation of those tensions. (For a detailed analysis on US responsibility for sectarian violence in Iraq as well as on US and Israeli responsibility for Hamas/Fatah fighting in Palestine, see Jonathan Cook’s June 26 article, “Divide and Rule, Israeli Style“)
There are a number of UN programs that have done important life-saving work on the ground in many places. And yet the UN, contrary to its name, is designed to primarily serve the interests of the powerful nations that enjoy permanent membership and veto power on the Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China. Until this is changed, those nations will bloc any enforcement of UN resolutions that are not in their interests. In the meantime, hopefully activists around the world will continue placing pressure on the UN to cease applying double standards in the enforcement of international law, in particular in regards to the United States and Israel. The tragedies in Iraq and Palestine are but two ongoing crises where the people of these nations have been failed by the UN because of the undemocratic power the US holds over that organization.