Home > News > What to expect from the UN in the Israel-Hamas war
617 views 12 min 0 Comment

What to expect from the UN in the Israel-Hamas war

The UN will have to overcome deep distrust among Israelis.

- February 1, 2024

Editor’s note: Earlier this week, the United States, Germany, and 10 other donors to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency suspended their support for emergency supplies for Gaza after the Israeli government circulated allegations that a number of UNRWA employees participated in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli settlements. We’re republishing this October 2023 piece by Good Authority editor Erik Voeten, who takes a closer look at Israel’s lack of support within the United Nations – and how past allegations that UNRWA has been collaborating with Hamas may be one reason Israel’s relationship with the U.N. has soured.

In mid-October, some humanitarian aid entered Gaza from Egypt, after the Israeli government delayed and limited the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza from Egypt over concerns that the United Nations (U.N.) cannot ensure that the aid won’t be diverted to Hamas. Distrust towards the U.N. runs deep within Israel and is a major obstacle for the organization’s humanitarian and peace mandates. This is especially unfortunate, given that there are few alternatives. 

Here’s how Israel’s troubled relationship with the U.N. has evolved and how it matters. 

Israel has become lonely in the U.N.

The U.N. played a major role creating the state of Israel. The 1947 U.N. Partition Plan divided Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, with the city of Jerusalem as a separate entity. Following the ensuing 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the U.N. mediated a peace agreement. The key U.N. mediator was Howard University political scientist Ralph Bunche, who won the 1950 Nobel Peace prize for his efforts.

Over time, Israel lost the backing of the majority of U.N. member states. Most former colonies sided with the Palestinian cause. Many European states also gradually became more sympathetic to resolutions that criticized illegal Israeli settlements and demanded firmer progress towards a two-state solution.

In the U.N. Security Council, Israel can usually count on the United States to defend its interests. Just last Wednesday, October 18, the United States was the lone country to veto a Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian pauses in the conflict and for humanitarian aid access to the Gaza Strip. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, explained the vote by expressing that “the United States is disappointed this resolution made no mention of Israel’s right of self-defense.”

Israel does not have U.S. protection in the U.N.’s other political bodies, which make decisions by majority vote. The General Assembly each year adopts a large number of resolutions that criticize Israel for some aspect of the Palestinian conflict. Last year there were 14 such resolutions. This is not a new phenomenon: An article in the Review of International Organizations documents that between 1990 and 2013, 65% of the resolutions that criticized a country focused on Israel. 

Most of these resolutions were adopted with very large majorities. The map below documents this for the 77th session, held in the fall of 2022. Israel voted against all resolutions related to the Palestinian question. Among the countries that voted on all resolutions, only the United States and Canada supported Israel more than 50% of the time. Israel can also typically count on the support of small island nations, like the Marshall islands and Micronesia. A few African countries support Israel on some resolutions, although these countries were absent on many of the votes. 

Perhaps most difficult for Israel is the lukewarm support from European countries. Germany and the United Kingdom each supported the Israeli position 25% of the time. The reasons for this are varied. Many European countries now have large Muslim populations; European publics tend to slightly favor the Palestinian side of the conflict; and European governments may worry about their oil and gas supply from Arab states, especially now that the Russian supply has dried up.

The fact that most states are not favorably disposed towards Israel is also inconvenient for the United States, especially now that China and Russia are recruiting states for their “new world order.” As the map shows, China never votes with Israel. This is an important exception to China’s general policy to not interfere in the domestic affairs of states, but it plays well to China’s strategic objectives to curry favor with U.N. member states. 

The flip side is that, unlike Security Council resolutions, General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding. The most tangible result is probably the 2012 decision to grant Palestine “non-member observer state’ status,” which later allowed Palestine to join the International Criminal Court, as Kelebogile Zvobgo explains in this Good Authority article. Beyond this, there is little evidence that these resolutions have had tangible effects on the lives of Palestinians or that they have affected Israeli policies much. 

Israeli public opinion about the U.N. has turned sour

One plausible effect of the lopsided attention the U.N.’s political organs have afforded Israel is that many Israeli citizens have lost trust in the organization. Even the many Israelis that disagree with government policies that violate U.N. resolutions, such as new settlements in the West Bank, have little faith that the U.N. is an impartial organization when it comes to Israel. A 2023 PEW Global Attitudes Survey finds that 62% of Israelis have an unfavorable opinion of the U.N., which is by far the worst among the 24 countries polled; the median is 24%. 

This skepticism extends to attitudes about international law more generally. Typically when you tell people that a government policy violates international law, people will become more likely to turn against the government or the policy. Not so in Israel. An American Journal of Political Science article by Yonatan Lupu and Geoffrey Wallace shows that Israelis approve of their government slightly more when they are informed that government repression of violent opposition groups violates international law. In other words, pointing out that the Israeli government violates U.N. resolutions or international law may not reduce public support for the government in Israel, although it might affect public support for Israel in the U.S. and especially in Europe. 

The U.N.’s humanitarian relief efforts are caught up in this negative spiral

This Israeli lack of trust complicates the crucial role that the U.N.’s functional agencies play in humanitarian response to the crisis and, potentially, its resolution. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) supports about 5.5 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. Palestinian refugees include people displaced by the 1948 war and subsequent conflicts, including their descendants. Most of these people have been refugees their entire lives. Refugee camps look more like cities than the tent camps that many people might envision when they hear the phrase “refugee camp.”

The UNRWA is of tremendous economic and social importance in Gaza. The fact that Gaza has been closed off from most transnational economic activity has made the area heavily dependent on aid. About 77% of Gazans receive food or cash aid, and most of it comes from the UNRWA. The UNRWA also is a major provider of employment, education, and healthcare.

There are few alternatives to the UNRWA. Both the United States and the European Union have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. So, any humanitarian help to Gaza has to be channeled through other organizations. The UNRWA is by far the largest recipient of foreign donations for Gaza. 

Yet, Israelis and others have long been skeptical that the UNRWA is indeed independent from Hamas. The Israeli government has long accused UNRWA of employing high-ranking Hamas members and collaborating with the group’s military wing. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for UNRWA to be dismantled. The Trump Administration stopped U.S. funding of UNRWA in 2018. The Biden Administration restored this funding, making the U.S. the single largest contributor to the UNRWA budget. The European Union and individual European countries also occasionally withhold funding, as they did, for example, in 2021 over concerns that UNRWA educational materials continued to incite hatred of Israel and Jews. 

A dearth of good solutions

The UNRWA has a nearly impossible job in Gaza. It relies on voluntary contributions that can be taken away at any moment; it has to work in an area ruled by a terrorist organization; and it must support refugees who have little credible hope of return. Yet, there are few good alternatives – and so the U.N. consistently votes to continue its mandate.

Some envision an even larger U.N. role in resolving the conflict. Steven Simon suggests in Foreign Affairs that the U.N. could temporarily administer Gaza after the violence subsides. This makes some sense. The U.N. has run transitional administrations before, as it did, for example, in Kosovo after the Bosnian war. Moreover, the U.N. already has extensive experience providing basic services in Gaza. The big question is whether the U.N. could overcome deep-seated distrust towards the organization in Israel.

Originally published Oct. 23, 2023. Last updated Feb. 1, 2024.