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U.S. allows United Nations ceasefire vote, but it comes late for Gazans

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In a surprise move Monday, the United States abstained during a United Nations Security Council vote calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. The American abstention allowed the resolution to pass 14-0, marking the first successful measure to proceed in the U.N.’s top decision-making body in more than five months of punishing Israeli air and ground offensives against militant group Hamas. It also underscored the widening rift between the Biden administration and Israel’s wartime government, led by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Unlike a U.S.-backed resolution that failed to pass last week, this one — supported by Russia and China — did not link a call for a cease-fire with the release of hostages in Hamas captivity. Instead, it articulated them as separate, independent provisions to take place during the holy month of Ramadan. And it hoped that an immediate truce would lead to “a sustainable lasting ceasefire.”

As it has for decades at the Security Council, the United States wielded its veto as diplomatic cover for Israel three times since Hamas’s Oct. 7 deadly attack on southern Israel sparked the full-scale war. That it did not exercise that prerogative Monday was a sign of the White House’s frustrations with Israeli actions during the war, which includes the devastation of much of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, attacks on hospitals and restricting the flow of international humanitarian aid into the enclave. Top U.S. officials have also spoken against Netanyahu’s plans to launch a ground offensive on Rafah, the southern Gaza town where more than a million displaced Palestinians are seeking shelter.

News of the U.S. abstention triggered an angry reaction from Netanyahu and his allies. The embattled Israeli leader canceled the visit of a delegation of his advisers to Washington, slated this week. Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant was already in town. The U.S. decision to not veto the U.N. resolution “hurts both the war effort and the effort to release the hostages, because it gives Hamas hope that international pressure will allow them to accept a cease-fire without the release of our abductees,” noted Netanyahu’s office in a statement.

U.S. officials batted away such claims, insisting their abstention did not signal a shift in course. “There is no reason for this to be seen as some sort of escalation,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “Nothing has changed about our policy. We still want to see a ceasefire. We still want to get all hostages out. And we still want to see more humanitarian assistance get in to the people of Gaza.”

The U.N. Security Council on March 25 demanded an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and the release of all hostages. The U.S. abstained from voting. (Video: Reuters)

For many people in Gaza, the passage of the Security Council comes far too late. We are already halfway through Ramadan, a month-long holy period marked by pronounced grief and suffering in the Palestinian territories. The Israeli campaign in Gaza has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, including many women and children, forced the overwhelming majority of people in Gaza to flee their homes and plunged more than half of Gaza’s population into a de facto famine. Small children are dying of malnutrition in what U.N. officials describe to be the broadest and most severe food crisis in the world.

U.S. officials briefing reporters cast Netanyahu’s reaction to their abstention as part of the prime minister’s posturing in his battles for political survival at home. Netanyahu has also delved into Washington’s partisan fissures, appearing virtually in a briefing with Republican senators while publicly squabbling with Democratic lawmakers and the Biden administration. But his domestic rivals similarly dismissed the impact of the resolution, which U.S. officials deemed “nonbinding.”

“The State of Israel has a moral obligation to continue fighting until the hostages are returned and the threat of Hamas is removed and that is what we will do,” said Benny Gantz, an erstwhile Netanyahu foe who is a minister in the current wartime cabinet. “The Security Council’s decision has no operational significance for us.”

On Monday, Israeli forces continued their week-long raid of al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City amid Israeli claims of a Hamas presence in the facility. Israel also said it would cease cooperation with UNRWA, the U.N. agency that distributes most aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and what U.N. Secretary General António Guterres describes as “the one ray of light for millions of people” subsisting of its support.

Through all this, the United States has operated hand-in-glove with Israel, greenlighting a surge in arms transfers to reinforce the Israeli military’s relentless bombing campaigns. Veteran watchers of U.S.-Israel ties argue that Biden was too reluctant to wield the considerable leverage Washington has over the Jewish state, including withholding or conditioning military aid.

That’s something even Republican administrations in the 20th century did, though recent U.S. governments have been far more keen to hold Israel close. “In recent years, the willingness to use the aid relationship for leverage has dramatically diminished,” Martin Indyk, a special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the Obama administration, told the New York Times. “The relationship of dependence is there, just waiting to be used.”

Palestinian critics of the U.S. approach find little cause for optimism in the minor ruptures between Biden and Netanyahu. What efforts the White House claims it’s pursuing in restraining Israel and rushing aid to Gaza, wrote Tariq Kenney-Shawa of Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank, is “buying Israel time by distracting the public with lofty rhetoric about human rights and concerns for Palestinian civilians while doing everything in its power to ensure that the flow of weapons to Israel continues uninterrupted.”

And analysts are growing more skeptical about what may follow a cessation in hostilities, whenever that may be and no matter U.N. resolutions. Beyond Netanyahu’s right-wing nationalist camp, there’s little appetite among the Israeli public for a discussion about a “two-state solution” or a political process to address Palestinian demands for equal rights or statehood. The costs for reconstruction in Gaza will be astronomical and it may take decades — the territory was still arguably recovering from the impact of a much smaller-scale Israeli campaign in 2014.

Arab governments are floating vague, tenuous plans for the administration of Gaza, dependent on an Israeli political acquiescence that’s yet to materialize, on the neutralizing of Hamas that may yet be impossible, and on international funds that have yet to be raised.

“Few believe that any kind of multinational peacekeeping force can be set up, or that the Gulf states will put up the vast sums necessary for reconstruction,” wrote the Guardian’s Jason Burke in a pessimistic piece on the lack of any clarity on Gaza’s postwar future. “The result is a slow slide to the default option, where the men who can muster the most coercive force take control.”

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