Three options for the UN to lead in Gaza

Demands for a ceasefire should continue, but the organisation is capable of much more

Getty, Reuters, Nick Donaldson
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This week, a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza was passed by an overwhelming majority: 153 in favour and only 10 against. The Gaza resolution garnered 10 more votes than the March 2022 resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In strictly numerical terms, the US is now more isolated internationally than Russia. This clearly has US President Joe Biden worried. He has issued increasingly blunt warnings to Israel about dwindling international support for its military operation in Gaza.

But a ceasefire, on its own, appears to be unacceptable to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said he would see any pause in the fighting as giving Hamas time to regroup. A standalone ceasefire also would do little to shape a much-needed intra-Palestinian process to determine new leadership in Gaza, or to contribute to a withdrawal of Israeli troops. This is a moment for the UN to offer a vision for Gaza that goes beyond a humanitarian pause in the fighting. There are three options that could be added to demands for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The most expansive one would be for the UN to offer to deploy a transitional administration in Gaza. There are precedents for this, including in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, and both Kosovo and East Timor in 1999. There are also early precedents in Palestine itself, going back to the 1947 General Assembly decision to partition portions of Palestine under UN control. In 2014, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas requested that the UN place Gaza and the West Bank under international protection, though no action was taken by the Security Council. While UN Secretary-General Guterres ruled out a UN protectorate for Gaza, he also indicated that the international community needed to move into a “transition period”.

Could some combination of international and regional powers come together to co-lead a transitional administration in Gaza? Such a “neotrusteeship” might help allay Israeli concerns about security passing too quickly into Palestinian hands, while giving cover for an intra-Palestinian leadership process. And the involvement of Arab neighbours could help put the Arab Peace Initiative back on the table as a longer-term solution.

The second option is a peacekeeping mission. This week’s General Assembly resolution on Gaza was one of the rare examples where resolution 377a (“Uniting for Peace”) was invoked, permitting the GA to act when the Security Council is failing in its duties. The same resolution was the basis for the 1956 deployment of the UN Emergency Force to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egypt. It could be used again to create a peace operation to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Such a mission would need to draw on regional neighbours and could be co-led by the UN Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace and the League of Arab States. It could draw from existing troops deployed in the area, such as the UN Truce Supervision Organization or the UN Disengagement Observer Force. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has proposed that Nato troops could be deployed – could the UN deploy a joint mission with them (or would Turkey block such an action)?

While there are no easy solutions, it is vital that the UN offer visible leadership and alternatives at a time when the US, Israel and Palestine are failing

The advantage of such a mission is that it could contain important observation and monitoring functions, ensuring that all parties were meeting the conditions of a ceasefire. Of course, its mandate would need to be tied to a clear exit strategy, probably involving the election of Palestinian leadership and benchmarks around security. Without a viable exit plan, the UN could easily become caught in what International Crisis Group’s UN Director Richard Gowan has called the “peacekeeping quagmire”. But it should not be ruled out.

Third, at the bare minimum, any ceasefire would need to have a robust and independent monitoring mechanism to ensure that humanitarian relief was reaching starving Gazans. Such a mechanism has been floated by the UAE in a draft Security Council resolution this week, though it may well be shot down by another US veto.

The UN could offer a more expanded version of this mechanism, to include monitoring of the Israeli withdrawal, and potentially of a transitional security arrangement. If, for example, there were a joint Arab security force deployed, the UN monitoring group could report back on progress towards an agreed set of benchmarks.

One creative idea might be a monitoring mechanism with a trigger for a larger deployment if certain conditions were not met. For example, the Security Council (or General Assembly) could set out clear, time-bound conditions on humanitarian access and Israeli troop withdrawal. If these were not met, it could automatically trigger deployment of something more robust, like a peacekeeping mission.

While there are no easy solutions, it is vital that the UN offer visible leadership and alternatives at a time when the US, Israel and Palestine are failing. Last week, the UN Secretary-General took the extraordinary and bold step of invoking Article 99 in calling for a ceasefire for Gaza. A ceasefire is absolutely needed but will not be enough for the people of Gaza, or to prevent the increasing risks of regional spillover. The UN needs to lead by putting more options on the table.

Published: December 15, 2023, 6:00 PM
Updated: December 17, 2023, 10:04 AM