The United Nations Equals Zero

For C. M. Naim.

UN-Shmum ([Israeli slang] United Nations =Zero).

Israeli contempt for the United Nations begins in the 1940s and continues to this day. On March 29, 1955, the Israeli cabinet sat for six hours, debating whether to invade the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian control) to curtail cross-border attacks. Prime Minister Moshe Sharett pointed out that the United Nations resolution 181 (1947) created Israel. David Ben-Gurion, who had recently returned to the Cabinet as Defense Minister, interrupted him, “No, no, no. Only the daring of the Jews created the state, and not any oom-shmoom resolution.” Most of Israel’s leadership (Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Golda Meir, Yigal Allon, and even Abba Eban) accepted Ben-Gurion’s position; all this long before the 1975 UN General Assembly resolution which equated Zionism with racism. That simply provided more fodder for a well-established contempt for the United Nations within Israel’s ruling circles. When Likud won the elections in 1977, it made hay of the UN resolution on Zionism. Responding to the first invasion of Lebanon (1978), the UN created the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) through resolution 425. The Israeli government brushed this aside, invading the country once more in 1982, remaining south of the Litani River for the next eighteen years – in contempt of resolution 509 (1982) which demanded that Israeli forces “forthwith and unconditionally” withdraw. Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Israeli press that the United Nations “cannot be objective” because “the majority of the UN General Assembly is definitely anti-Israel, and the majority of the members of the Security Council do not even maintain diplomatic relations with Israel.” The United Nations, oom-shmoom, does not matter.

The Forgotten Staff.

On July 25, 2006, the Israeli air force struck a UN observation post in Khiyam, Lebanon. The UN workers at the post called their Israeli contact number ten times over fourteen bombardments to tell them about the attack. This went on for six hours. The UN later recovered the bodies of four peacekeepers from UNTSO (United Nations Truce Supervision Organization). UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called the attack “apparently deliberate” which raised the goat of Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s Ambassador to the US, who said Annan was being “outrageous.” This was not the only incident. Two other UNIFIL personnel were killed in an IAF airstrike on Tyre on July 26, and a total of twelve other UN officials were wounded in other incidents, some having to do with attacks by Hezbollah. Israel’s investigation whitewashed the incident, even as it was admitted that the aircraft fired precision bombs at the UN post.

Between 2006 and the current assault on Gaza there have been other incidents of Israeli attack on UN personnel. On May 7, 2008, for instance, the Israeli military entered the town of New Abasan, east of Khan Yunis, in Gaza. They blasted their way into a house, killing Wafa Shaker el-Daghma, a thirty-three year old school teacher who worked with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Her three children (one, age two) were with her at the time. The doctrine of excessive force is so normal in the Israeli armed forces that this death brought hardly a rebuke. The UN made its noises, and the human rights groups complained about the violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (against collective punishment) – but Tel Aviv smirked. Oom-shmoom.

The current war takes the contempt to another level. The general violations against the civilian population are so great that the UN Special Reapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, pointed out that the Israeli regime has seriously violated international law through its action of collective punishment, its targeting of civilians and its disproportionate military response. This is a “humanitarian catastrophe,” said Falk on December 27. Things have got worse since then. On January 8, an Israeli tank fired at a UN convoy, killing one driver. The convoy’s route had been coordinated with the Israeli military to prevent this kind of attack. This came two days after Israeli armed forces shelled a UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp. John Ging, the UNRWA head in Gaza, said, “If [the Israeli government] give us the clearance to move, it is wholly and totally unacceptable that their soldiers on the ground are firing on our aid workers.” The Red Cross also pulled out, finding it impossible to get to civilians in need (in the village of Zeitoun they found four children alive, crawling over dead bodies of civilians).

On January 14, the Israeli armed forces intensely bombed the UN compound in Gaza, injuring three and destroying emergency food and medical supplies. John Ging of UNRWA angrily told the press, “We had a first-hand experience today in this UN compound of what the poor people of Gaza have been living with on a daily basis for the last twenty days and nights.” The buildings in the compound caught on fire almost immediately after being hit, and the fire released a white smoke. “It looked like phosphorous,” said Ging. “It smelled like phosphorus and it burned like phosphorus.” The use of white phosphorus is not technically banned by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (1980) or the Chemical Weapons Convention (1997), but many still consider the use of this inflammatory weapon (like napalm) to be immoral. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak apologized to UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, saying that the attack was a “grave mistake.” But hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insinuated that Hamas had attacked from within the compound and that the strike was deliberate. Ging said that there were no militants inside the compound, and that UNRWA’s liaison with the Israeli army failed to respond to the several messages sent during the attack.

Palestine is not the only place where UN peace-keepers and civilian staff get killed. Each year, the UN reports on the loss of life of its personnel who bravely work in conflict zones. Scholars from the Center for Refugee and Disaster Studies (Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health) studied the UN records held by the UN Security Coordinator, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations as well as other humanitarian agencies, and found that more than two thirds of the workers were killed in acts of “intentional violence” (this was published in BMJ, July 2000). During the 1990s, most of the killings took place in Rwanda, Somalia, Burundi and Afghanistan – places where the “host government” no longer functions effectively, where extreme chaos means that the rule of law is no longer operational. The Israeli attacks are of a different order. Here we have a member of the UN, who armies are under civilian control, nevertheless quite flagrantly assaulting UN positions. It is not one incident or another, but a pattern of disregard for the UN and for its employees, whom Kofi Annan called “the forgotten staff.”

Bunche’s Peace Army.

On June 14, 1947, Ralph Bunche arrived in Palestine. Born into an African American family of great talents, Bunche went to UCLA and Harvard, did innovative research on French colonialism and African anti-colonialism. A job at Howard did not detain him, as he was quickly taken into the United Nations, where the Secretary General hastened to send him to help the Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) figure out what to do with the British (who governed the mandate), the Jews (whose numbers had begun to increase through migration from Europe and elsewhere) and the Palestinians (who had begun to be displaced from their ancestral homelands). Bunche was startled by the atmosphere of Jerusalem, “British are everywhere and they all carry guns. As you go thru the streets you’re constantly stopped by sentries and control centers and required to show your pass. Buildings are surrounded by barbed wire, pillboxes and road-blocks are abundant.” Bunche and UNSCOP had to navigate between the divergent opinions of the centrist Chaim Weizmann and the terrorists such as Menachem Begin, between the British and the Palestinians. Things were not easy. Two weeks into the work, Bunche wrote in his diary, “One thing seems sure, this problem can’t be solved on the basis of abstract justice, historical or otherwise. Reality is that both Arabs and Jews are here and intend to stay. Therefore, in any ‘solution’ some group, or at least its claim, is bound to get hurt. Danger in any arrangement is that a caste system will develop with backward Arabs as the lower caste.”

UNSCOP played an important role in moving the British out of the equation, a fact that Ben Gurion disputed in later years. The British left in May 1948, and civil war greeted the creation of the state of Israel. The UN’s main person, Count Folke Bernadotte moved swiftly to negotiate a cease-fire. The UN Security Council passed a resolution to this effect. Ben Gurion and his cabinet averred. They wanted the military advantage. But Bernadotte was firm. The cease-fire came into effect on June 11, and Bunche and his team or UN irregulars created a rag-tag group of peace-keepers (they hastily painted their cars white, with UN written in large black letters – this has been the custom since). Bunche and Bernadotte pulled teeth to keep the cease-fire in operation. Bernadotte wrote a report on the situation, challenging the international community to see whether it “is willing to tolerate resort to armed force as the means for settlement of the Palestine issue.” Driving in Jerusalem on September 17, Count Bernadotte, the UN’s man in Palestine, was assassinated by members of the Stern Gang. Bernadotte’s assassination was authorized by the troika that ran the Stern Gang: Yitzhak Yernitsky, who was later known as Yitzhak Shamir, later prime minister of Israel, 1983-84; Nathan Friedman-Yellin, who was later known as Nathan Yellin-Mor, became a pacifist in his last years; Israel Sheib, who was later known as Israel Eldad, remained a committed right-wing nationalist, whose funeral in 1996 was attended by prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Shamir, and Knesset Speaker Dov Shilansky. The stick man was Yehoshua Cohen, who later became a close friend of Ben Gurion. Cohen is a celebrated figure in many quarters (he has his hagiography, The Prince of Jerusalem, published in 2006, written by Ofer Regev). Bunche took charge, and forced a cease-fire by early 1949. The next year, Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize, the first person of African descent to be so honored.

In Oslo, in his talk, Bunche offered a vision for the United Nations, “In the final analysis, the acid test of a genuine will to peace is the willingness of disputing parties to expose their differences to the peaceful processes of the United Nations and to the bar of international public opinion which the United Nations reflects. It is only in this way that truth, reason, and justice may come to prevail over the shrill and blatant voice of propaganda; that a wholesome international morality can be cultivated.” This was a view disregarded by Tel Aviv, who, in 1967 involved itself in hostilities to Bunche’s distress. He worried then that “Israel’s great military success is bound to reinforce the traditional position of that country that the relations between Israel and her Arab neighbors should be left to direct negotiations and arrangements without any third party (i. e. the UN) intervention.” This was prescient, as we see after the entry of Likud into 3, Kaplan Street in Jerusalem.

In 1951, Bunche gave a lecture at the National War College entitled “Review and Appraisal of Israeli-Arab Relations.” It is a conscientious lecture, with Bunche’s emotions leaking in only once: “The real victims of this whole conflict — and they have been successively at each stage more victimized — have been the Arabs of Palestine. They are the ones who have suffered. The Jews have not greatly suffered as a result of the conflict. In fact, they are better off today than they were before it began. The peoples of the surrounding Arab states have not suffered from the conflict. It has all been taken out of the hides of the Arabs of Palestine.” And it continues to be so. A thousand dead does not arose the vocal cords of the new president, the first person of African descent to this job, whose commitment to Israel’s security over all else once more undermines any UN resolution.

On January 15, 2009, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon met with Israel’s Foreign Minister, and aspirant to the Prime Minister’s office, Tzipi Livni. Ban Ki-Moon almost begged Israel to abide by the milquetoast UN resolution 1860, drafted by the United Kingdom and passed by the Security Council 14-0 (with the U. S. abstaining). Livni disregarded his plea. “In Israel, we are doing our own assessment on a daily basis,” she said, “and we will decide when to stop based on this assessment.” Oom-shmoom

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:




Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).