David E. Weisberg

“In a vacuum”

The world we live in is a plenum.  It’s filled with things of every kind and description, and everything stands in some kind of relationship with everything else, whether the relationship be temporal, or spatial, or causal, or whatever.  It is, therefore, a truism to say that nothing happens in a vacuum, and truisms almost always go literally without saying.  But, on October 24, the U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, addressed the Security Council, and he thought it was important and perhaps even necessary to say that the October 7th terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel did not happen in a vacuum.  Why did he say that?  Let’s consider that question.

Guterres began his remarks by saying that, because of the dangers created by the conflict between Hamas and Israel, “it is vital to be clear on principles—starting with the fundamental principle of respecting and protecting civilians.”  No one could disagree with that.  He then went on to assert that he has “condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented 7 October acts of terror by Hamas in Israel.  Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians—or the launching of rockets against civilian targets.”  Again, we can all agree.

But, now comes the puzzling part.  He said:

“It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.

“The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.

“They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished.  Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.

“But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas.  And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

But, if literally nothing can justify the Hamas terrorist attack, why is it “important” to recognize, for example, that the Palestinian people have (according to Guterres) been subjected to years of occupation?  If that is not to be understood as justifying the attack, why mention it at all?

Any reasonable person fluent in English would understand the Secretary-General to be doing just what he said could not be done: justifying Hamas’ murderous slaughter of Israelis.  And his justification selectively marshals only a tiny sliver of the relevant facts.

One would think, reading Guterres’ statement, that the October 7th attack was the very first Palestinian response to “56 years of suffocating occupation.”  Guterres ignores the fact that Palestinians and their Arab supporters have been attacking and killing Israelis since the modern State of Israel was founded in 1948.  These repeated attacks have compelled both Israel and Egypt to control the borders of Gaza so as to prevent the importation of deadly weapons that would arm Islamist terrorists.

The Secretary-General fails to note that there was no Palestinian state from 1948 to 1967, despite the fact that the territories “moderate” Palestinians now claim as their own—Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem—were controlled by the Arab nations of Egypt and Jordan during that period, and the Arab nations did not create a Palestinian state on those territories.  But when Israel conquered those territories in 1967 in a defensive war, they apparently instantaneously became “Palestinian” land.

Guterres also fails to mention that Israel has made numerous offers to agree to a Palestinian state, provided that Israel’s own security could be protected.  The Palestinians responded to those offers with intifadas—sometimes relatively peaceful and sometimes very violent—but Guterres doesn’t think it’s “important to also recognize” those facts.

When he adverts to the supposed “collective punishment” of the Palestinians meted out by Israel, Guterres reveals only his own ignorance of international law.  Attacking Hamas targets in Gaza does not amount to collective punishment of Palestinians.  And cutting off supplies, such as fuel and electricity, to Hamas terrorists is not collective punishment of Palestinians.  The ones violating international law are the Hamas terrorists who intentionally hide among or (in tunnels) beneath the civilian population, thus exposing innocent Palestinians to mortal danger when Israel strikes legitimate military targets.

At the end of World War II, most of the remnants of the German army were hunkered down in Berlin.  The surrounding Allied forces made no effort to ensure that adequate supplies of fuel, electricity, water and food continued to flow into the city.  In fact, they made every effort to cut off those supplies.  And it was permissible for them to do so, because the enemy combatants located in the city would have used those supplies to extend their armed resistance to the Allied troops.  The same applies to the Hamas terrorists hiding in Gaza.

If the Hamas terrorists complied with international laws of war, they would not hide among civilians, but would instead construct in Gaza readily identifiable military bases and other military infrastructure, which would be set apart from civilian areas.  This might place the terrorists in greater danger, but combatants are not permitted under the laws of war to protect themselves by hiding behind civilians.

The Secretary-General says nothing happens in a vacuum.  That’s true, and it follows that his speech to the Security Council also did not happen in a vacuum.  According to Wikipedia, there are 24 countries with Arabic as an official language; all of them are, I believe, members of the U.N.  Again according to Wikipedia, there are some 50 Muslim-majority countries in the world, and all, I believe, are U.N. members.  And there are approximately 1.9 billion Muslims in the world.

There’s only one country with Hebrew as an official language and with a Jewish-majority population.  And there are about 16.1 million Jews in the entire world, so Muslims outnumber Jews by a ratio of more than 100 to 1.

If you’re the head of the U.N., you don’t have to be a genius to figure out the side on which your bread is buttered, so to speak.  Antonio Guterres doesn’t seem to be a genius, but I’m sure he knows how to use a calculator.  And, after he punches in the numbers, it’s not hard for him to figure out, no matter how vital it is “to be clear on principles,” with which side he wants to curry favor.

When Guterres’ immediate predecessor, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was in the very last month of his term in December of 2016, he somehow managed to summon up enough courage to say that the U.N. had passed a “disproportionate” number of resolutions condemning Israel, and he warned that “we cannot have a bias against Israel at the U.N.”  Maybe, when Guterres is in the last month of his own term as Secretary-General, he too will summon up enough courage to condemn the anti-Israel bias at the U.N.  But, then again, maybe not.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at:
Related Topics
Related Posts