The Gaza Strip and past United Nations (UN) peacekeeping efforts highlight the lack of power the agency has been given. There seems to be little that the UN can do as Hamas and Israel continue the battle to protect the sovereignty of their state. Having its shelters hit by Israeli rockets, the UN has itself become a victim in this dispute. While calling for peace and a cessation of violence on the diplomatic front, most of the efforts to bring about that peace are taking place in Egypt under U.S. leadership.
According to the UN Charter, its role is to monitor and observe the peace process after the fighting has stopped. Assistance comes in several forms, including power sharing arrangements, electoral support, and economic and social development and supporting the rule of law. This assistance can take several forms, including civilian personnel, police officers and soldiers. Troops, while serving under the UN umbrella, remain as members of their respective armed forces and they are placed under the operational command of the UN.
The Security Council has the authority to take collective action to maintain the peace and security. It does require a unanimous vote of the four permanent members. That unanimity is often difficult to obtain. In the case of the Hamas and Israeli conflict where the fighting has escalated to war-like levels, the UN has found itself as a military bystander offering humanitarian assistance.
The Gaza Strip conflict mirrors past UN peacekeeping efforts in that the international body is relegated to providing for refugees. In this conflict, the UN has been placed in a reactionary rather than a proactive position. While it is providing shelter for refugees caught in the middle of the fighting, thought to be safe zones, 20 people were killed when Israeli shells hit one of the U.N.’s facilities. Although the UN protested the attack, it helplessly stood by as Israel maintained that the facility was not targeted, but that Hamas was guilty of using such facilities as shields to protect their armaments from destruction. The U.S. condemned both the attack and those hiding weapons in and around such facilities.
The UN has denied that munitions are stored at any of their shelters and they are being used strictly to house more than 200,000 Palestinian refugees. According to the UN, facilities where weapons had been found have been abandoned and those who used the facilities for the storage of weapons have been publicly condemned. The UN Gaza-based director, Robert Turner, claims that as many as seven of its facilities have been targeted since Israel began ground operations on July 17.
Events such as these are not unprecedented. UN peacekeepers in Rwanda were unable to prevent the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsi. In Bosnia, the UN declared safe areas for Muslims but were unable to secure such areas while Serbs attacked and killed thousands in Srebrenica. To further exacerbate the problem, UN troops were used for hostages as a deterrent to military responses.
The Gaza Strip is similar to past UN peacekeeping efforts. The agency sees itself in the midst of a war zone only to find that it is powerless to orchestrate peace.
By Hans Benes