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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Schram: UN chief Guterres has opportunity to shine in Gaza

By Martin Schram
Published: June 24, 2024, 6:01am

By nightfall on Oct. 7, Israel was reeling as never before from the aftershocks of Hamas’ horrific slaughtering, raping and kidnapping of civilian hostages in the homeland that was created to be the sanctuary of Holocaust survivors. And two things were certain:

Israel would be retaliating, instantly and massively, vowing to obliterate Hamas terror forces that had fled back to their subterranean headquarters, tunneled beneath Gaza’s densely crowded apartment dwellings.

And thousands of Gaza’s Palestinian families were imperiled as never before. Yet they seemed to be unaware of the war crime inflicted upon them by their rulers and military protectors who were using them as human shields as they awaited Israel’s retaliatory onslaught. Palestinian civilians were in the streets, clapping and celebrating the news of their troops’ surprise attack on the enemy next door. Down below them, their Hamas leaders and troops apparently found comfort in the fact that everything was going according to plan.

With the Middle East headed toward certain catastrophe in Gaza, what our already-troubled and warring world most needed was for an already well-positioned leadership figure to step up and, well, lead. Everywhere we look these days, we see leaders who are beset by a world of problems – especially in their own backyards.

But this may be the perfect moment for the leader of an organization that was created to preserve world peace. Although the United Nations has seemed to be running on empty for years, this may be the best chance for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to prove that his lackluster track record need not be his legacy.

On Oct. 7, the day of Hamas’ attack, Guterres – a former prime minister of Portugal – had his spokesperson issue one of those short, obligatory condemn-and-appalled statements. That might have been sufficient if the secretary-general had followed up by convening the Middle East’s new generation of leaders and working to head off the obvious coming civilian catastrophe. What the world needed was for some leader to shine a reality spotlight on the power politics games that were being played.

On Oct. 24, in a speech to the U.N. Security Council on the Hamas-Israel crisis, Guterres mentioned the use of “human shields” in one generalizing sentence: “Protecting civilians can never mean using them as human shields.”

But he never linked Hamas to the use of “human shields.” He also failed to condemn Hamas’ use of human shields as a war crime against Gaza’s Palestinian civilians.

Meanwhile, Guterres was clearly determined to condemn Israel’s conduct at length: “It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.”

Guterres and other world figures, including President Joe Biden, have missed the opportunity to use Hamas’ use of human shields as the vehicle that should drive Gaza’s 2.2 million Palestinians far from Hamas.

Months ago, I suggested a new way world leaders should define the hostage crisis in Gaza by concluding Hamas has taken two categories of hostages: (1) the hundreds of Israeli hostages kidnapped Oct. 7; and (2) the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians Hamas forced into being hostages.

Today, the secretary-general should use that formula to forge a coalition of Arab leaders who can help the Palestinians rid themselves of the Hamas evildoers and work together to rescue and rebuild Gaza. Let Arab-led rescuers employ their ultimate but little-used weapon – prosperity – to achieve a lasting peace for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Peace through prosperity. What a concept.