On February 9 of this year, a Qassam rocket launched from Gaza landed at the home of eight year-old Osher Tuito in the southern Israeli city of Sderot. He was rushed to the hospital where doctors were forced to amputate his left leg.
Less than one month later on March 6, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution “calling for urgent international action to put an immediate end to the grave violations committed by the occupying power, Israel.” The vote was 33-1, with Canada opposing and 13 abstentions. No mention of Hamas or Qassams was made.
Thirty years earlier, Israeli civilians in the northern towns of Yiron and Nahariya were forced to run for cover from Palestinian rocket attacks. Back then, the rockets were not called Qassams and they were not launched from Gaza. They were Katyushas, and it was Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) lobbing them from Lebanon.
Different rockets from different terrorists, targeting different parts of Israel. What has remained constant over three decades? The response of the United Nations.
The Waldheim Years
Thirty years ago, Kurt Waldheim, an Austrian national later accused of involvement in Nazi war crimes, was Secretary General of the U.N. By all accounts, he presided over what might be called the Golden Age for the Palestinian cause at the United Nations. During his tenure, in 1974, Arafat was invited to address the General Assembly, gun holster visible to all. Arafat’s visit was followed by U.N. General Assembly Resolution 3379, commonly referred to as the “Zionism is Racism” resolution. All the while, PLO rockets kept hitting Israel. Despite the civilian casualties, Israel was under constant attack from Waldheim and other U.N. leaders for Israeli military responses to the aggression from Lebanon.
While in office, Secretary General Waldheim was continually at odds with Israel over everything from reprisals to terrorism to the status of Jerusalem. One week he was showing displeasure with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, the next he was publicly criticizing Prime Minister Begin. Yet through it all, no substantive actions were taken by the U.N. vis-a-vis the rocket attacks from Lebanon. So while the anemic response of the United Nations to the current attacks on Sderot is troubling, it is certainly nothing new.
A Tale of Two Rockets
How closely does Gaza in 2008 resemble the scenario that Israel faced in Lebanon thirty years ago?
“The situation is exactly similar today as it was in the late 1970s and early 80s,” says Uzi Rubin, a respected Israeli expert on rocket technology and former official for the Arrow missile defense system. The PLO unleashed a campaign of terrorist attacks and rocket barrages that forced thousands of residents to flee their homes or to spend large amounts of time in bomb shelters.
Rubin sees both rocket campaigns against Israel as “provoked” only by the very existence of the Jewish state. Hamas refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, as did the PLO. Consequently, both the north and south of Israel have had to endure thirty years of intermittent low-level rocketing into Israeli civilian populations.
In a recent study completed for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Rubin, an active member of the Israel Missile Defense Association, points out that, throughout the history of Israel, the rocketing stops only after one of two things occurs: a large-scale ground invasion by Israel, or a political arrangement, the latter of which is almost always seen as a victory for the Palestinians.
Katyusha rockets, the rockets most commonly used by the PLO in the 1970s and 1980s, were first manufactured during World War II by the Soviet Union. Russian for the name “Katie”, these rockets are inexpensive, easy to produce and highly mobile. Katyushas are often launched from the back of a truck, making their early detection extremely difficult. During the Second Lebanon War, they were often fired off of balconies in apartment buildings.
Fifty years ago, the Katyusha had a range of only about four miles. Today, the most common type (122mm) can travel close to twenty miles in a matter of seconds. It was this kind of rocket that caused eight Israeli deaths in one day during the Second Lebanon War with Hezbollah in 2006.
The Qassam is a homegrown Palestinian phenomenon. Built for and by Hamas, its name is derived from Izz ad-Din al Qassam, a Syrian born Sunni Muslim religious figure who created an organization known as “The Black Hand,” which attacked British and Zionist groups in the 1930’s. First fired on the Israeli city of Sderot in March of 2002, it is a much more crude creation than the Katyusha, requiring only steel casing and easily accessible materials to make the explosive component, such as sugar and fertilizer. While its average range is only six miles, Hamas is constantly improving its distance and payload. Recent Qassams fired from Gaza prior to the current ceasefire reached the Israeli city of Ashkelon – a distance of nine miles.
Rubin likens Qassams to sausages, in that “they can be made easily and at home.” However, this does not mean they are not deadly. The newer generation could reach as far south as Beersheba and as far north as Ashdod.
A New Secretary General
Last year, Ban Ki-Moon was elected to succeed Kofi Annan, another controversial U.N. Secretary General who was criticized for his embrace of the Lebanese/Iranian Shiite group Hezbollah. Ban is a career diplomat, having served South Korea in various diplomatic posts over a career that spanned nearly 25 years. By all accounts, his colleagues in the diplomatic world viewed him as a capable and likable professional. In Israel, the media referred to him as ” a friend.” An October 2007 article in the Jerusalem Post quoted an Israeli diplomat as describing Ban as a “statesman and a gentleman.” The article pointed out that he had been the first Foreign Minister of South Korea to visit Israel.
While the tone at the top may have improved, how has the bureaucracy and infrastructure of the United Nations dealt with Israel under Mr. Ban?
“The Secretary General has zero ability to do anything that the member states don’t want him to do,” says Charles Hill, Diplomat-in-Residence at Yale University, who has written extensively about the U.N. and served as political counselor for the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv.
“Regardless of his own beliefs or desires,” Hill says, “the Secretary General has responsibility without any authority to make changes.”
John Bolton agrees. The former United States ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush says that the Secretary General is not nearly as important as the public is lead to believe. “This is more a question of how the anti-Israel forces in the U.N. are able to use the Security Council to beat up on Israel when it responds in self-defense to rocket attacks.”
In other words, no matter how much of an improvement Ban Ki-Moon appears to be over his predecessors, there would be little he could do to prompt member states to support Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks. All one needs to do is take a close look at the U.N. inaction over seven years of rocket fire leading up to the recent, tenuous calm.
According to Gilad Cohen, Political Counselor at the Israeli Mission to the UN, “from Disengagement in the summer of 2005, there have been more than 7,000 Qassam rockets fired. No kind of condemnation has come from the Security Council on this phenomenon.”
A History of Bias
The U.N.’s policy of indifference to Qassam rockets undermines the very charter the U.N. seeks to fulfill. Indeed, according to its charter, the United Nations exists so that member nations may “practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.” Yet the indiscriminate rocketing of civilian Israeli populations has never been an issue that the U.N. has sought to address.
Scholars have argued for decades about the origins of the U.N.’s anti-Israel bias. Some believe it began after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Cold War alliances led countries to choose sides between American and Soviet spheres of influence. Others point out that those countries not directly involved in the Middle East Conflict have sided with the oil-rich Muslim states simply out of economic self-interest. Accordingly, ignoring terrorism and rocket attacks does not mean that all U.N. members condone the Palestinian acts of violence. Rather, they are simply acting in what they perceive to be in their own interest.
In the final analysis, meaningful U.N. action against Hamas and its rocketing is unlikely. Indeed, looking at the numbers, the odds are not in Israel’s favor. The Arab League, which has 22 member states at the United Nations, traditionally votes as a bloc. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, a 57-nation group that includes Iran, also has a permanent delegation at the U.N. that consistently votes against Israel.
When the current ceasefire ends and the rocketing resumes out of Gaza, the U.N.’s pattern of inaction and anti-Israel bias observed over the past thirty years can be expected to carry forth into the future.
Despite clear violations of international law, the U.N. can be expected to be of little or no help.
Robert Ivker , a former journalist at the United Nations, is author of One Town’s Terror: 9/11, Iraq and Burlington, Vermont (2006).