Gaza’s agony: Ten theses

Helena Cobban
11 min readOct 27, 2023

1. The over-arching priority right now is to get a complete, theater-wide ceasefire between Israel and Gaza

This complete ceasefire is quite distinct from a “humanitarian pause”, such as might be used merely to massage some of the pain the Gaza Palestinian are currently suffering, just a little, at some points, for a limited period of time. No! The ceasefire needs to be complete, reciprocal (as between Israel and Hamas-in-Gaza), and monitored by a trusted international body.

Should we also call for a similar ceasefire in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, along the Lebanon border, and between Israel and Syria? Probably so. But given the extreme situation of the Palestinians in Gaza, a ceasefire on that front should be the priority.

2. The UN’s long-existing body UNTSO should monitor the Gaza ceasefire

Too many Americans and Westerners have become accustomed over the past half-century to the idea that it is somehow “appropriate and natural” for Washington to oversee all conflict-termination or conflict-amelioration moves in the Arab-Israeli theater.

It is not, and this practice absolutely needs to change.

This practice goes back to the 1970s, when Henry Kissinger seized control of the diplomacy conducted after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war from the U.N. and from the informal “condominium” that the Soviet leaders had hoped to exercise alongside him in the post-war diplomacy. Recall that the peacekeeping force that was established as part of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt (which had been brokered by Pres. Carter) was not a U.N. force, but an ad-hoc U.S.-led body called the “Multilateral Force and Observers” (MFO.)

That was in clear contrast to the ceasefire monitoring forces that still exist along Israel’s disengagement line with Syria, which is the UN body UNDOF, and the one along the Israel-Lebanese border, the UN body UNIFIL.

However, alongside those two UN ceasefire monitoring bodies in the region there is also the older body UNTSO, the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization, which was established as part of the string of Armistice Agreements concluded in 1949 between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors. UNTSO is today a small body, headquartered in Jerusalem (where it still has a vestigial role overseeing the situation along the Green Line between Israel and the occupied West Bank.) But it also has some responsibility for the situation along Gaza’s small land boundary with Egypt.

In the context of the U.N. Security Council decreeing a complete ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, UNTSO could and should be the body that supervises that ceasefire along all of Gaza’s borders, including its lengthy ground border with Israel, its short land border with Egypt, and its fairly long coastline onto the Mediterranean Sea.

3. … And the UN should supervise the provision of emergency aid to Gaza

It is wholly appropriate that the United Nations rather than any other body supervise the truly massive project of reconstruction that Gaza’s people will require immediately after, and for many years after, the conclusion of a ceasefire.

On each of the previous occasions in which the Israeli military has undertaken sustained and very destructive assaults against Gaza (2008, 2014, 2021, etc), the provision of desperately-needed reconstruction has been firmly under the control of Israel. Israeli shippers, contractors and sub-contractors made hefty profits off providing the raw materials that, per the Israeli rules, could be trucked into Gaza only via Israeli ports and then via the crossing points (late reduced in number to one: at Kerem Shalom), that were designated by the Israeli military’s “Coordinator of Governmental Affrairs in the territories, (COGAT.) It became a gruesomely Keynesian scheme: (1) the Israeli military would undertaken one of their periodic, very destructive “lawn-mowing” assaults against Gaza; (2) Arab states and other international donors would finance a “rebuilding” project-that would, as noted, deliver very handy profits to the Israeli contractors; (3) wait a while, then rinse and repeat.

The Israelis always insisted they “needed” to control the delivery of all goods into Gaza because of their security concerns. Well, now we can see what a failure that was. (As has been the whole project of maintaining in place the super-broad system of controls over Gaza that Israel has continued to enjoy since 1967 by virtue of being the occupying power there.)

Since the beginning of the crisis, large convoys of emergency humanitarian aid (but no reconstruction aid) have been backing up in Egypt. These convoys have been assembled in Egypt-but the Israelis have still insisted that they need to divert them near the international border and undertaken inspections before they can cross into Rafah. Those inspections may or may not have been the main obstacle slowing down or blocking the flow of the aid that the Gazans so desperately need. But anyway, in the context of a ceasefire, the U.N. should insist that Israel has no right to inspect all the freight going into Gaza.

Also, in the context of a serious U.N. push to reconstruct Gaza, the region’s port needs to be restored and expanded so that aid shipments and very soon normal commerce and passenger traffic can pass through there, and to international markets, under some form of U.N. inspection and protection, not Israel’s.

4. Israel’s 56-year-long military occupation of Gaza will thereby come to an end

International law, and in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention, determine that in the event of armed conflict it may happen that the armed forces of one of the belligerents proceed in the course of the fighting to proceed beyond their own boundaries and they then end up in “military occupation” of land that is not theirs, which may well have some number of civilian residents. Military conquest does not give any country the right to simply annex any part of the occupied land (regardless of what Pres. Trump and Pres. Biden might think, in re East Jerusalem and the Golan.)

Under international law a state of military occupation is considered to be temporary (pending the conclusion of a final peace agreement between the belligerents), and it confers upon the occupying power both rights and responsibilities. Regarding its temporary nature, let’s recall that the US/Allied occupation of (West) Germany lasted four years, and that of Japan seven years.

One of the key responsibilities for an occupying power is for the welfare of the civilian residents of the occupied area. And as part of that, the Fourth Geneva Convention has a strict prohibition against the implantation by the occupying power of any of its own citizens into the occupied area-such as Israel has quite illegally done, in very large numbers, in both the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the Golan.

But the responsibilities of an occupying power toward the residents of the occupied area go considerably beyond simply not implanting settlers. In general, the responsibility is to maintain the normal life and educational and social systems of the members of the “occupied” society intact and thriving as much as possible, pending what Geneva IV envisages as a relatively short period of transition before the military occupation comes to an end in the context of a final peace agreement.

Israel has completely failed to uphold the responsibilities it has had, as an occupying power, to the people of Gaza. Hence, the U.N. should intervene, to strip Israel of all the powers it has exercised by virtue of being the occupying power, which have primarily been its power to control all the borders of the Gaza Strip. In the immediate, short term the United Nations should take over that responsibility.

(I note that several bodies in Israel and elsewhere have started to produce studies along the lines of “Who rules Gaza the day after the defeat of Hamas?”. These include the AIPAC-spinoff think-tank WINEP, the Israeli “BESA” center, and even this really jejune offering from WaPo columnist David Ignatius. All those studies, however, simply assume that the “day after” Hamas falls in Gaza, the Israelis will still be in charge of whatever happens there. To my view, that is both an unproven and increasingly unlikely assumption and a goal that, from the global point of view, is dangerously off-kilter.)

5. The U.N. also urgently needs to take charge of the diplomacy for the whole of the Palestinian-Israeli Question

Gaza, as we know, is only a tiny (though always significant) part of the Palestine Question. Geographically and demographically the Israeli-occupied West Bank is much larger. And then, there’s the matter of the rights of the seven million or so Palestinians forced by Israel to live in exile from their ancestral homeland. These exiles have the rights to their lands and properties within 1948 Israel that have been affirmed and reaffirmed in U.N. resolutions; and their claims to those rights need to be settled, either through actual return or through compensation, per those same resolutions.

The UN resolutions most pertinent to the Palestine Question were Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), which stressed the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force” and called for Israel to withdraw from lands it occupied in 1967 in return for peace; and General Assembly resolution 194 of 1948, which laid out the Palestinians’ right of return.

The aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war provided what could have been an excellent chance for wise global leaders to secure the “land for peace” deal that was enshrined in UNSC resolution 242. For various reasons, it did not. Among those reasons: The Israelis were flush with the victory they had won in that war and reveled in using, and starting to put wide new networks of colonial settlements into, the extensive new areas they captured during the war; the global great powers of that era were preoccupied elsewhere (including, for the Americans, in Vietnam); and the matter of who should represent the Palestinians in any negotiations was very highly contested.

In October 1991, in the aftermath of the speedy success that a U.S.-led coalition had in ending Saddam Hussein’s military occupation of Kuwait, there was another possible chance to pursue a speedy and successful final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians (and also, between Israel and Syria.) At that point, Pres. George H.W. Bush and Pres. Mikhail Gorbachev jointly presided over a broad, authoritative Arab-Israeli peace conference that had that goal. This time, the matter of Palestinian representation had been resolved, in favor of the PLO; and most of the world’s big powers were united in the view that military occupations of other people’s lands should be decisively ended -as had been achieved for Kuwait.

By 1991, however, the “Soviet Union” that Gorbachev headed was rapidly headed toward dissolution, and the United States was already entering what would become a 30-year period of largely unchallenged hegemony over global politics…. Which also included hegemony over all aspects of Israeli-Arab peacemaking.

As we’ve seen above, Washington had already, in 1979, succeeded in elbowing the U.N. out of any role in monitoring compliance with the arms-control provisions of the Israel-Egypt final peace agreement. From 1991 on, it just seized control of all the remaining strands of Israeli-Arab negotiations. Regarding the Palestinians, it grossly abused that position by trapping the PLO in the endless tiny partial measures and institutionalized time-wasting of the the “Oslo” process.

In 2002, Washington was even able to subordinate the United Nations-along with the European Union and Russia-to its own continuing “leadership” of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking via a new (U.S.-led) ad-hoc body called the “Middle Mast Quartet.” The Quartet has done remarkably little in recent years, and probably should be swiftly euthanized.

But it is now 30 years-a complete generation!-since the Oslo process started, and it has still produced zero progress toward a final Israeli-Palestinian peace. Meantime, during these decades, Israel has planted hundreds of thousands of additional settlers into the West Bank (and Golan.)

The evidence is thus overwhelming today that the United States has completely disqualified itself in the court of global public opinion from any claim that it might continue to “lead” the negotiations for a final-status peace between Palestinians and Israelis that so very desperately needs to happen. It is time for the grown-ups of the rest of the U.N. Security Council to regain the reins.

6. There is still a problem of Palestinian representation. But it is soluble.

Many of the challenges that the Palestinians face today regarding getting their voices and interests well represented by a credible national leadership are not new. They stem as so often in the whole of the period since the Nakba of 1948 from the geographic fragmentation of the Palestinian national community and its dispersal amongst numerous separate jurisdictions, in each of which Palestinians face different pressures and experience different vulnerabilities.

Today, they also additionally suffer from the failed (though still present) legacy of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), and its parent body, the PLO. The facts that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) the man who has headed both bodies for the past 18 years is now extremely old and decrepit, that he never even had any of the “historical” legitimacy that his predecessor Yasser Arafat had had, and that he is nowadays totally reliant on political and financial life support from the Western powers make it clear that the PA/PLO urgently need to be reinvigorated.

In this short essay that I published last week, I suggested that the PLO, being by far the broader, more historic, and more legitimate body should pull out of the trap it finds itself within the occupied West Bank, dismantle the PA either wholly or substantially, and then hold an urgent conference of its highest policy-making body the Palestine National Council (PNC) somewhere outside the West Bank. (Algiers might once again be a good choice?) The goal should be to generate a new PLO that is deeply reformed and rejuvenated, and that embraces the energies and the strategic smarts developed over the past 30 years by the Hamas leaders. Hamas has accumulated widespread popularity and wide organizing networks in Palestinian communities in many places, inside and outside Palestine. Arab and international negotiators seeking a way to persuade Palestinians that there’s a viable peaceful road to a hopeful future will need to embrace these assets. And the PLO already has a great degree of diplomatic recognition. Hence, bringing Hamas in some way into a unified and reinvigorated PLO fold seems like a good way forward…

7. There are large problems of decisionmaking capability in both Israel and the United States, too

I wrote about the crisis of Israel’s leadership decisionmaking here a couple of days ago, and more evidence has come out about that in the NYT and elsewhere, since then.

I was planning to write more about the many aspects of the decisionmaking crisis in Washington on this issue. These would include:

  • The ineptitude (and decrepitude) of the president, including his unquestioning retailing of Israeli governmental talking-points
  • The massive strength of support that Israel has in Congress and nearly the whole of the rest of the political elite
  • The crazy shortsightedness of the president in having inserted the United States so deeply into the West Asian conflict vortex, not just through military shipments, UNSC veto, and other forms of support for Israel but also by sending additional US troops and military assets to the region which have yet further escalated tensions…

… However, I’ve just been livestreaming yet more extremely disturbing news from Gaza and I just don’t have the energy to finish my last three theses here. Sorry. Anyway, I hope the above provides some good food for constructive thought.

Ceasefire now!

Originally published at https://globalities.org on October 27, 2023.

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Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, w/ some focus on West Asia. Pres., Just World Educational. Writes at Globalities.org.