Building For Sale, All Bids Considered: the UN and the Middle East

It sits on First Avenue, just off of 41st Street, overlooking the East River in New York City. It opened to great applause and expectation. A wishful answer to the madness that had become a world unleashed with the scent of blood and the all too customary wail of mourn.

It was to be our collective hope. A grand oath by which, together, the world could find answers to the greed and arrogance of states long unbound in their historical feed upon those less powerful. It has not worked.

Founded in San Francisco on October 24, 1945, the United Nations opened with endless promise. As proclaimed in its lofty preamble, the original 51 member states committed themselves to saving

succeeding generations from the scourge of war… [reaffirmed]… faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights… of nation’s large and small… to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from… international law [could] be maintained… to ensure… that armed force [would] not be used, save in the common interest.

With all too comfortable ease, 73 years later, these passionate words of humanity have once again proven themselves to be little more than idle gossip in which the powerful not only craft the tone of the debate but set about to ensure its content reflects their unique and predatory vision of the rule of law.

For those who have come of age to the U.N. promise, we’ve long been witness to state terrorism that has become the international norm whether carried out by imperial fiat, proxy march or by the U.N. itself.  After all, was it not the United Nations failure to act decisively against the unlawful U.S. led invasion in Iraq that essentially provided a papal-like blessing to its destruction?

Loud on bark, little on bite, the U.N. has long served as the world’s most impressive moot court… debating whether commas or semi colons should punctuate its impressive pronouncements before the predictable veto sends the Security Council home for dinner and the resolution to the scrap heap of rhetorical history.

In what has become a political art form of pain and punishment, with repeated rerun a handful of powers have used their veto to ensure that the Security Council is long on vent but short on action.

In first place stands Russia/Soviet Union which has used its veto 123 times... more than any other permanent member of the Security Council. Most recently, on April 10,, 2018 Russia blocked a resolution to identify who was responsible for the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma in Syria. This follows a similar veto by Russia on February 28, 2017 regarding sanctions on chemical weapons use in Syria and then another, on November 17, 2017, when it vetoed efforts for a 30-day renewal of a commission investigating chemical weapons attacks within Syria.  To date since the conflict began in 2011 Russiahas used its veto 12 times regarding Syria on issues which include condemnation of the bombing of Aleppo and ceasefires.Earlier it vetoed a Security Council condemnation of its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In second place stands the United States. It has exercised its veto power some 79 times since the U.N. opened its doors to the facade of justice. Since 1972, it has neutered Security Council action more than any other permanent member and, since 1982, the grand protector of Israel has vetoed 32Security Council resolutions critical of it… more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members.

Most recently, it vetoed a resolution proposed by Kuwait condemning Israeli attacks upon thousands of Palestinians during the Great March of Return that called for an independent investigation into mass killings and injuries that have ensued. On December 18, 2017it vetoed a draft resolution approved by 14 of the 15 members of the Security Council urgingcountries to refrain from establishing embassies in Jerusalem. So predictable was this veto, rumor has it the UN press office prepared news of its use long before the actual vote.

In its most basic form, the veto power ensures that permanent members of the Security Council can, as they choose, prevent anycollective UN action whether a diplomatic or armed response to an international crises… thus sacrificing the will of the world community to their own narrow geo-political program.

U.N. inaction, or sanctioned violence, has long betrayed any meaningful effort to serve as the world’s neutral arbiter to ensure equal and just application of international law and the pursuit of world peace.

While examples of meaningless, indeed failed, political debate abound, two in particular … one of recent vintage, the other as old as the body itself… expose the U.N. as little more than an excuse for yearly September get-togethers of world leaders. In between, career politicians, ensconced in Manhattan high rise splendor, debate, ad nauseum, issues of life and death as the refugee and body counts swell.


Recently, the U.N. Security Council issued a stinging rebuke of Houthis, in Yemen, for their alleged launch of a number of missiles fired at the capital city of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. It also chastised those that are apparently ignoring the U.N.’s one sided arms embargo directed only at Houthi leaders.

Meanwhile, for more than three years, the United States, the UK and other U.N. power brokers have provided military advisors, weapons, training and intelligence to Saudi Arabia in its cruel and indiscriminate attacks upon a largely civilian population constituting the most impoverished state in the Arab world.

With more than a thousand such documented air raids, Saudi Arabia has apparently looked to Israel for moral inspiration as it has unleashed a relentless campaign to destroy Yemen’s essential infrastructure leveling more than 70 health facilities. Many of these have been public health hospitals staffed by Doctors Without Borders (MSF).  These attacks on medical facilities constitute a clear violation of internationally recognized Rules of Law.

In one such attack, on the Abs Hospital in Northern Yemen, 19 were killed and dozens injured. At the time the Saudi bomb exploded in the hospital compound, its maternity ward was filled with 25 women there to give birth.

Just this past week the Saudi-led coalition carried out multiple airstrikes on a wedding in Northwest Yemen. It has been reported that at least 33 were killed and 55 injured by an American made bomb including the bride. Most of the victims were women and children.

In a country heavily dependent on its fishing industry, hundreds of fishing boats have been destroyed, and fishermen killed, by warships and helicopters in the Red Sea… manned by Saudi coalition partners. As of September 2017, the Yemen Data Project has recorded 356 air raids targeting farms, 174 targeting market places and 61 air raids targeting food storage sites.

Like the “security” embargo in Gaza, a blockade of Yemen’s ports ensures that millions of Yemenis live under threat of mass starvation and disease… denied the most basic foodstuffs and medical supplies. Under international law these steps constitute a war crime or crime against humanity.

Since Saudi Arabia began its military intervention in Yemen, in March of 2015, more than 10,000 civilians have died and three million others have been displaced.

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It has been estimated that 19.3 million Yemenis… more than two-thirds of the population … do not have access to clean water and sanitation.

The charity, Save the Children, estimated hunger and disease would kill at least 50,000 Yemeni children in 2017, alone.

The World Health Organization has reported more than 815,000 suspected cases of cholera in Yemen and, so far, approximately 2,500 deaths. About 4,000 suspected cases are being reported daily… more than half of which are among children under 18. Children under five account for a quarter of all such cases.

Described by U.N. officials as the world’s “largest man-made crises”, the international body dedicated to stave off the scourge of war and to ensure human and equal rights for all, has done nothing of consequence to end the suffering, indeed, full on genocide now underway in Yemen.

Despite its grand rhetorical preach, the United Nations has imposed no sanctions on any of its architects nor has it passed any measures against those supplying arms or other material aid or consult to the Saudi-led coalition.


Stolen from age-old Palestinian villages, no state has offended, with such brazen regularity and uniform betrayal, the core principles of the United Nations than has Israel. Since literally its first day, when the U.N. announced to the world that Palestine was relegated to history and Israel crafted as a Middle East extension of Europe, Israel has flaunted international law in its march of ethnic cleanse.

With mayhem its mantra even before its artificial declaration of statehood, Israel’s Zionist framers never blinked at the use of unbridled terror to obtain their goal. The bombing of the King David Hotel, in 1946, by the Irgun… a UK designated terrorist organization… took the life of 91 mostly civilians. While this massacre and the assassination of UN mediator Folke Bernadotte,in Jerusalem in 1948, by the group Lehi, momentarily captured the eye of the world, for well over a decade Palestinians and British, alike, were victimized by the horror of a non-stop drive by Zionists in their chase of statehood.

During this period, hundreds of British police and military personal were injured or assassinated by explosives, snipers or lynching. Jewish terrorists attacked the British and Palestinian infrastructure, en masse, as they robbed banks and bombed military and police installations, government offices, and ships. They sabotaged railways, bridges, and oil installations using booby traps, ambushes and vehicle blasts with the kind of cold detached execution that the world would once again see just this past week… not from the Irgun, but by its heirs in the Israeli military.

There is no need to recast, in full, the nightmare that has befallen tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators over the last several weeks in Gaza…leaving 39 dead and at least 2900 wounded… many critical. By now, the massacre has been well recorded.

Suffice it to say, Israel, ever-more the victim, would have us believe it has acted in self defense against a horde of dangerous activists including women and children flag bearers and those engaged in prayer.  Rampaging protestors who inexplicably threw themselves into harm’s way and thousands of rounds of incoming Israeli sniper fire… just because.

Not surprisingly, most killed or injured suffered gunshot wounds to the rear of their heads or backs. In the parlance of forensic science, these entry wounds are consistent not with attack but flight.

Civilian massacres are, of course, very much an essential part of the Israeli historical narrative. A walk down its memory lane shows an unbroken pattern of carnage perpetrated upon the most vulnerable of its enemies… real or imagined.

 “Operation Protective Edge”

In 2014, Israel undertook a cruel assault on Gaza as it once again targeted its two millions civilians with massive disproportionate force. According to a United Nations report “the scale of the devastation was unprecedented… tallying more than 6,000 airstrikes, 14,500 tank shells and 45,000 artillery shells unleashed between July 7 and Aug. 26.”

Many of these explosive devices, in particular artillery and mortars, were used in densely populated areas and designed to have a “wide-area” impact to ensure that anyone or anything within the contact area would likely be killed, injured or damaged due to their explosive power and imprecision.

One non-governmental organization reported a 533% increase in the use of highly explosive artillery shells in comparison to those used in Israel’s earlier attacks on Gaza in 2008 and 2009.

As noted by the U. N., haphazard strikes in densely populated neighborhoods, on residential buildings, the use of explosives with wide-area affects and the destruction of entire neighborhoods in Gaza likely constituted a violation of the prohibitions of indiscriminate attacks against civilians and was therefore a war crime.

When Israel’s thirst for retribution was at last satisfied, 2310 Palestinians were killed… the majority of them civilians. Among them, 551 children and 299 women lay dead. More than 11,000 others were wounded, a third of them children, with over 1,000 left permanently disabled.

Many of those killed or maimed were targeted while seeking refuge in various shelters including U.N. schools. Twenty civilians lost their lives and dozens more injured in an overnight attack on the Jabaliya elementary school where more than 3,000 displaced civilians had sought refuge.

In another such attack, 16 people were killed and more than 200 wounded when a U.N. shelter in northern Gaza was bombed. These strikes were but two of six upon U.N.-run schools or shelters during Operation “Protective Edge.” Of significance, the coordinates of the U.N. sites had been provided to Israel, some repeatedly, well in advance of their attack.

Criminal not just for the loss of life, the concentrated Israeli onslaught was designed to cause lasting devastation on a community already overwhelmed by poverty and still reeling from the last major assault on its infrastructure just a few years earlier.

Among the infrastructure leveled were hundreds of factories, dairy farms with livestock and orange groves. 138 schools and 26 health facilities were damaged and thousands of homes totally destroyed or severely damaged. The lone power station and major sewage pipe in Gaza, serving 500,000 inhabitants, were destroyed. 10 out of 26 hospitals were damaged or destroyed. 203 mosques were damaged, 73 destroyed… along with two of Gaza’s three Christian churches.

Approximately six weeks after it began, the Human Rights Council of the U.N. held an emergency session regarding the bloodbath in Gaza.

In the strongest of terms, a resolution was passed which, in relevant part, condemned “the widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from… the latest Israeli military assault on the occupied Gaza Strip, by air, land and sea, which has involved disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks, including aerial bombardment of civilian areas, the targeting of civilians and civilian properties in collective punishment contrary to international law and other actions, including the targeting of medical and humanitarian personnel, that may amount to international crimes.”

Though the resolution called for an immediate ceasefire, predictably, it was ignored by Israel. Only one country voted against the resolution… the United States.

Although an investigation into the massacre of 2014 is currently underway at the International Criminal Court, to date, the United Nations itself has undertaken no affirmative steps nor imposed any sanctions against Israel for its 50 day slaughter in Gaza.

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“Operation Cast Lead”

In 2008-2009, during “Operation Cast Lead”, Israel dropped more than 100 tons of explosives on Gaza during its first 9 hours. In the days to come, tens of thousands of  its civilians were exposed to white phosphorous shells fired into crowded residential areas… not as incidental cover to otherwise legitimate use of force, but rather as a primary weapon of war in violation of international law.  Almost a dozen such shells struck the main Gaza City compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) where some 700 civilians had taken shelter, causing numerous deaths and injuries. {pg 93}

On the day before the hostilities ended, three phosphorous shells landed in another clearly marked U.N. facility. One landed in a classroom setting it on fire and killing two brothers as they slept, severely injuring their mother and a cousin, and wounding a dozen others who had sought refuge there. As with all other U.N. facilities, Israel had advance notice of its coordinates.

Burning white phosphorus produces a hot, dense, white smoke consisting mostly of phosphorus pentoxide which produces horrific burns. It sticks to the skin of its victims, penetrating their bodies… resulting in liver, heart and kidney damage and, in some cases, multiple organ failure… thus creating a greater risk of death than other burns. These weapons are particularly dangerous because white phosphorus burns unless deprived of oxygen or until it is completely exhausted.

Throughout the attack, Israel made broad use of a dual-purpose improved “conventional” artillery shell designed to avoid international prohibitions against the use of traditional cluster bombs.

Intended as an anti-armor and antipersonnel weapon, each artillery shell separates into 24 sub-munitions, containing more than 1,200 fragments that explode to create a wide and dense area of coverage within a 350-foot radius killing and wounding indiscriminately. One example of their destructive potential was an attack on an UNRWA school being used as a shelter in Jabaliya, on 6 January, which killed 43 Palestinians. On that occasion, Israel acknowledged the use of the shells.

Defense News estimates that Israel fired 7,000 artillery rounds of this type during its attack on Gaza in 2008-2009.

The United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict ruled that these attacks constituted violations of international human rights and humanitarian law as well as possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. 1394 Palestinian men and women were killed, including 345 children.

South African Jurist Richard Goldstone, a former international war crimes prosecutor and member of the U.N. team that issued the report, described the Israeli conduct as “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”

With the Obama administration taking the lead in defense of Israel, the U. N. took no steps to hold it accountable for repeated violations of international law during the massacre.


Not one to limit its breach of international law and the law of war to its attacks in Gaza and the West Bank alone, Israel has a long and well documented history of human rights violations and war crimes during its not infrequent assaults on Lebanon.

Here, too, the United Nations has watched largely in silence as Israel has targeted civilian communities and U.N. facilities, made us of prohibited weapons of war and participated in massacres against defenseless women and children.

In July of 2006, the Israeli Air Force (IAF), some ten to fifteen minutes apart, dropped two bombs, at least one of which was precision guided, on a private three story residence in the small South Lebanese village of Qana. 28 civilians were killed. 16 were children.

Video broadcast by Arab TV showed the bloodied bodies of women and children, recovered from the rubble, who appeared to be wearing nightclothes. The dead, who ranged in age from nine months to 75 years, had sought refuge in the building during a period of conflict with Hezbollah.

While the Security Council expressed the United Nations’ “extreme shock and distress” at the bombing and offered its condolences for the deaths, it took no further action against Israel for this atrocity.

On August 7, 2006, two missiles fired by an Israeli jet destroyed three apartment buildings in the Chiyah suburb in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. At least 50 corpses were recovered from the rubble. Later that same day, the IAF struck another building in the Lebanese city of Ghaziyeh. 16 civilians lost their lives in this attack.

The next day, Israel once again struck Ghaziyeh firing 5 missiles into three buildings… killing up to 14 civilians and wounding 33 others. As with the attacks in Qana and Chiyah, the U.N. expressed its condolences but did little else.

Ten years earlier, on April 18, 1996, the IAF targeted a U.N. compound in Qana where some 800 civilians had sought shelter from Israeli bombardments during its sixteen day battle with Hezbollah.  Suddenly, with no warning, Israel began to attack the clearly marked compound with a mix of high-explosive artillery rounds that included deadly anti-personnel shells. When the massacre ended, 106 civilians had been killed and another 116 injured.

Like the attack on Qana a decade later, the U.N. expressed its condolences for civilian losses. However, it took no further steps against Israel despite a finding that the attack reflected a “callous disregard for civilian lives and a breach of the laws of war on directly or indiscriminately targeting civilians.”

This is not to suggest that the United Nations was completely indifferent to the shelling of its compound as the General Assembly, by a vote of 66 to 2 with 59 abstentions, passed a resolution demanding that Israel reimburse it to the tune of 1.7 million dollars for the cost of repairs to its compound.

Predictably, the United States and Israel voted against the resolution. Not surprisingly, Israel ignored the bill. The U.N. took no subsequent steps against Israel for its refusal.

The Invasion of 1982

In 1982, the Israeli army invaded Lebanon to stop attacks from the PLO that, at the time, was using South Lebanon as a home base.  Already deep in the midst of a civil war, internal Lebanese fighting provided convenient cover for Israeli violence often directed at Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, alike. For three years, Israel occupied Beirut unleashing massive and indiscriminate attacks on communities it identified as home to Palestinian and Lebanese enemies.

While the full scope of Israeli violence will never be known, some of its own soldiers described the wholesale use of prohibited weapons of war against civilian populations as “… insane and monstrous, we covered entire towns in cluster bombs.”

According to a rocket unit commander during one period, they fired around 1,800 cluster bombs containing over 1.2 million bomblets. When Israel ran out of cluster bombs, it asked the United States for an emergency shipment of 1,200 replacements. Surprisingly, it refused. Other soldiers described the wholesale use of long prohibited phosphorous weapons as primary weapons of war.

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During its 10 week siege on the PLO, Israel hit five U.N. buildings, 134 embassies or diplomatic residences, six hospitals or clinics, one mental institute, the Central Bank, five hotels, the Red Cross, Lebanese and foreign media outlets, and countless private residences.

It is estimated by some that during the Israeli onslaught,  about seventeen thousand Lebanese and Palestinians diedOther estimates are much higher… most were civilians. Tens of thousands of others were wounded. Lebanese officials claimed that a quarter of them were under fifteen years of age.

While much of the world watched the Israeli use of weapons of mass destruction with horror, little action was undertaken to intervene. When one commanding officer was asked how Israel could have consciously inflicted such widespread pain and suffering directed at a largely civilian population he tersely replied “We’re a special case, as is commonly known. We’re allowed to do anything. Why? Because we can.”

It was this arrogance of power… a sermon of almost divine designation… which led Israel to participate in one of the most appalling massacres of the day. Yet as history has proven, time and time again, it stands not alone.


Located in West Beirut, today, the refugee camps of Sabra-Shatila remain home to tens of thousands of Palestinians. While some were driven out of Palestine as youngsters in 1948, most are direct descendants of those who fled the first wave of full-on Israeli ethnic cleansing to seek safe-harbor in Lebanon.

While the full extent of the carnage remains little more than dark chronicle, between September 16-18 of 1982, some 3,500 Palestinian civilians, mostly women, children and elderly were raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered, in Sabra-Shatila, by Israel’s allies… Christian Phalangists.

During the coordinated bloodbath, Israeli troops surrounded camp perimeters preventing anyone from escaping the slaughter or moving to intervene. Against the echo of repeated gunshots and endless shrieks, Israeli soldiers did nothing but wait their turn.

After the butchery concluded and Israeli troops withdrew, journalists and observers from the Multinational Peacekeeping Force entered Sabra-Shatila.

In a letter to her husband, Janet Lee Stevens, an American journalist wrote,

I saw dead women in their houses with their skirts up to their waists and their legs spread apart; dozens of young men shot after being lined up against an alley wall; children with their throats slit; a pregnant woman with her stomach chopped open, her eyes still wide open, her blackened face silently screaming in horror; countless babies and toddlers who had been stabbed or ripped apart and who had been thrown into garbage piles.

Late in 1982, the U.N. General Assembly declared the carnage an act of genocide… condemning Israel in the “strongest terms for the large-scale massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.” However, neither the U.N nor any other international body ever took action against Israel or its proxies for the massacre.


This travel has been a painful journey. Perhaps most difficult of all is the certainty that none of these atrocities are isolated in time and place as so much an historical anomaly. It is very much who we are and what we have become.

Long before Sabra-Shatila, Israel drove a million Palestinians from their ancestral homeland through a conscious determined ransack fueled by rape, murder and arson.  The history of Deir Yassin, Ramleh and Lydda is well known and documented. These villages were a small but deadly part of the ethnic cleansing begun by Zionist para-military forces in the days leading up to the declaration of Israeli statehood.

Not much has changed in the decades since, as Israeli regulars have added Qibya, Rafah, Jenin, Beit Hanoun and other Palestinian communities to the ranks of those etched among the annals of uncharged and unprosecuted war crimes.

Elsewhere, today, in Rohingya, Syria, Kashmir and other war zones throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, rape, torture, forced displacement, carpet bombing, and prohibited chemicals continue to be the preferred weapons of war… with civilians the prime targets.

The International Committee of the Red Cross notes that, in 1859, one protracted war caused 40,000 military casualties but only one civilian death.

Since that time, we have seen the expansion of the Law of War and the passage of the Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Time of War which serves as the precursor to the Geneva Conventions.

Both hallmarks of international law were designed to safeguard people and property that did not contribute to warfare… and to protect civilians and civilian communities from unnecessary destruction and hardship.  Yet, despite evolving principles and efforts to insulate non-combatants from the horrors of war, now more than ever, they have become the prime victims of its intended death and destruction.

“At one time wars were fought by armies” said a U.N. report entitled “The State of the World’s Children.” Today, however, civilians bear the brunt of modern conflict.

Indeed, according to UNICEF, during this century, the proportion of civilian to military casualties has increased from 5 percent in World War I to 50 percent in World War II to 90 percent in the conflicts over the last few decades. Most civilian casualties are children and women.

Can it be mere coincidence that the dramatic increase in violence and civilian casualties parallel the establishment and growth of the United Nations as constituted?

Does the fact that 5 permanent members of the Security Council ultimately dictate where and when the U.N. acts with independence and certainty all but guarantee that it will never be more than a political playground dominated by the few as they pursue their own unique partisan agenda?

In 2018, it is simply not enough to issue press releases or pound the speaker’s podium from on high exalting lofty U.N. ideals to those foolish enough to buy the sale.  Toothless resolutions condemning war crimes, crimes against humanity or violations of any of the other hundreds of UN covenants and prohibitions remain but a tease unless and until that world body acts with resolve to ensure international promise and equal application of law becomes reality.

It is long past time to permit a world body to be shared equally by a world community.

For more than seven decades, the hallways of the United Nations have served as exciting field trips for young students and world visitors. I know… I was one.

Awed by the majesty of the General Assembly, with its impressive French murals, green marble desks, matching lecterns and UN emblem on gold backdrop, tourists escape the reality of the moment with an inspiring recorded narrative of its accomplishments.

Yet, in real time, in real places, hundreds of millions of the worlds poorest, most frail, and vulnerable pay the price daily for the hollow promise that is the UN.

* Stanley L. Cohen is lawyer and activist in New York City.