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Israel-UN spat intensifies after Secretary General says Hamas attacks ‘did not happen in a vacuum’

A furious diplomatic spat between Israel and the United Nations has broken out, with Israeli officials calling for the resignation of Secretary General Antonio Guterres after he said Hamas’ October 7 attacks on the country “did not happen in a vacuum.”

At a Security Council meeting, Guterres called for a humanitarian ceasefire on Tuesday amid the deepening crisis in Gaza, and told the Security Council that “clear violations of international humanitarian law” are being witnessed.

He called Hamas’ October 7 murder and kidnap rampage “appalling,” and said “nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians, or the launching of rockets against civilian targets.”

“It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum,” Guterres said. “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished.”

“But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people. Excellencies, even war has rules,” he added.

His comments angered Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who was in the chamber as Guterres spoke. “In what world do you live?” said Cohen. “Definitely, this is not our world.”

Writing on social media later, Cohen said that “after the October 7th massacre, there is no place for a balanced approach. Hamas must be erased off the face of the planet!”

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, called on Guterres to resign, saying he had “expressed an understanding for terrorism and murder.”

Then, on Wednesday, Erdan said his country will block visas for United Nations officials. It had already rejected an application by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, Erdan told the Israeli Army Radio channel.

“It’s time we teach them a lesson,” added Erdan.

The deepening spat exposes tensions around the calls from some international observers for a ceasefire, amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In an effort to “set the record straight,” Guterres said Wednesday he was “shocked by misinterpretations by some of my statement yesterday in the Security Council – as if I was was justifying acts of terror by Hamas.”

“This is false. It was the opposite,” he told reporters, restating his condemnation of the October 7 attacks.

But Guterres did not back away from his Tuesday call for a ceasefire, or from his nod towards the historical treatment of Palestinians.

Erdan responded to Guterres’ comments later Wednesday, doubling down on his earlier criticism of the Secretary General. Erdan called it a “disgrace” that Guterres did not retract or apologize for his comments.

“A Secretary-General who does not understand that the murder of innocents can never be understood by any ‘background’ cannot be Secretary-General,” Erdan wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

The main United Nations agency working in Gaza said it would be forced to halt its operations by Wednesday evening due to a lack of fuel, with the territory having faced days of airstrikes and near-total blockade following the Hamas attacks.

Efforts in the UN to endorse a ceasefire have so far been scuppered, with the US vetoing a draft resolution raised by Brazil last week.

Nearly three weeks since the outbreak of fighting, the UN’s Security Council remains divided on how to proceed with the crisis.

Two differing resolutions on the matter, introduced by the US and Russia, both failed to pass on Wednesday.

The draft resolution from the US called for “humanitarian pauses,” not a ceasefire, to allow for aid to reach Gazan civilians. The US previously vetoed a Brazilian draft calling for a humanitarian pause.

But Russia and China vetoed the US resolution – a move US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield described as “deeply” disappointing.

Following her comments, China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun said “what we oppose is that the draft text does not call on the parties concerned to stop the indiscriminate and asymmetrical use of force.”

The Russian resolution proposed Wednesday also failed to gain the Council’s approval.

The Israeli government has said there are more than 200 hostages being held in Gaza by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In an update posted Wednesday, it said 135 of the hostages hold foreign passports from 25 countries. Thailand, with 54, had the most nationals held of any country, followed by Argentina with 15 nationals, then Germany and the US with 12 each.

The World Health Organization meanwhile reiterated calls on Tuesday for a ceasefire, saying it is “unable to distribute fuel and essential, life-saving health supplies to major hospitals in northern Gaza due to lack of security guarantees.” Six hospitals in Gaza have been forced to shut due to a lack of fuel, WHO added.

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