To Stop the Fighting in Gaza, the Street Maybe the Only Place Left to Go

Horrors in Gaza continue. Hospitals are attacked; food, fuel, and basic medical needs are still not reaching the civilian population. Forced displacement goes on with no safe haven for the displaced in sight. Negotiations among different parties drag on. Who can stop the fighting? One imagines the United Nations, as the highest form of multilateral governance, being in the forefront. But the U.N., its Secretary-General and related specialized agencies seem powerless to stop the carnage. Why? And if not the U.N., who else?

The simple answer to the first question, and the ongoing refrain from all members of the international community, is that there is no political will. By that, it is meant that the major states involved are not willing to use their influence. The United States continues to block U.N. resolutions condemning Israel. Russia and China use their vetoes in the Security Council to block any consensus on the issue.

So the Security Council, the primary organ of the of the United Nations responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security, is reduced to “performative diplomacy,” in the words of Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group. And the Secretary-General? It is one thing for Antonio Guterres to appeal, in his words, to end the “vicious cycle of bloodshed, hatred and polarization,” it is another for his appeal to have an impact on the ground.

What about the United States? Couldn’t President Biden just tell Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop or else the U.S. will cease sending arms and money? Isn’t the United States becoming complicit in eventual war crimes if it continues supporting Israel materially? That’s what State Department official Josh Paul’s resignation was about. And it is significant that 500 U.S. officials have signed a letter protesting the president’s continuing support of Israel’s aggressive military campaign in Gaza. For the moment, neither the resignation nor the letter have had any effect.

In addition, the Swiss foreign ministry invoked a funding freeze on six Palestinian and five Israeli NGOs active in the region, a move described as “more than wrong,” by the former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss.

You might be thinking that if the head of the major public organization like the U.N. seems helpless to stop the fighting, if the United States and a country like Switzerland are unwilling to step forward, what about the private sector? Where are people like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg? For all the talk of private/public partnerships and building bridges between the private and public sectors, we have not seen great private sector initiatives in stopping the violence, except, perhaps, when the private sector drools to rebuild Ukraine and eventually Gaza.

So if there appears that no leadership is capable or willing to stop the killing and destruction, perhaps a more general observation is helpful. We seem to be at a historical moment of anti-leadership. Where are Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, and Martin Luther King Jr.? Where are leaders who have the moral power to stop violence? Think of Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis in April 1968, climbing on the back of a pickup truck to announce the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to a mostly African-American crowd.  His presence and words were reassuring and calming. His charisma stopped an eventual riot.

Today’s buzzwords are “diversity” and “inclusion.” There is no denying the importance of diversity and inclusion for democracies. More people, different types of citizens should be involved in political processes and elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the United States significantly enlarged inclusion and diversity. So much the better.

But at the same time, we include and diversify, we are paradoxically weakening the role of the leader. While we condemn autocracies in Hungary, Russia, North Korea or China, we are also frustrated that in situations such as today’s Gaza, we see power devolved with no one person or organization in charge. While we decry strong leaders like Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping, we would not complain if one individual could stop the fighting. (I refuse to refer to Henry Kissinger and his shuttle diplomacy. Sorry, I just did.)

There seems to be one factor we have left out of potential means to stop the fighting. The street may be the place to go. Hundreds of thousands marched in London calling for a cease-fire. Time magazine headlined: “Protest Marches Across the Globe Call for Immediate Halt to Israeli Bombing of Gaza.”

In 1969, a series of mass demonstrations throughout the United States – The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam – influenced President Lyndon Johnson to stop the Vietnam War as well as leading to his decision not to run for re-election. The moment has now come for larger and larger demonstrations. In Israel, there have been calls for mass uprisings to force Netanyahu and his government to resign. If we assume the U.S. has the most leverage on Netanyahu, we could imagine mass demonstrations in the United States large enough to make Biden understand that he will lose in 2024 if he doesn’t stop Netanyahu. (Biden’s not running in 2024 like Johnson in 1968 could follow.)

So while we look in vain for some organization, individual or country to stop the fighting, it may be that street demonstrations are the only answer left. What would they be like? If you are worried that demonstrations might degenerate between Israeli and Palestinian supporters, note the wise words of the American philosopher Susan Neiman: “I hate the words pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. I’m pro-peace.”

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.