[JURIST] Israel found itself on the defensive with the United States as its most vocal ally in a Friday UN Security Council [official website] open meeting in which ambassadors from the Arab world and beyond condemned it for breaching international law in its attacks on Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, in its operations in Gaza in immediate response to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. The Council meeting on the spiraling Middle East conflict [JURIST news archive] was called in New York to hear a situation briefing from Vijay Nambiar, Special Adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs.
In debate following the briefings, diplomats criticized both Israel and Hezbollah and a few countries such as Japan tried carefully to walk a fine line not overtly condemning any parties, but criticism of Israel was significantly more pronounced overall. Arab representatives were the most accusatory, with Lebanese ambassador Nouhad Mahamoud declaring that "hiding behind the right to self-defence," the Israelis had "revealed their twisted understanding of international law", and Palestinian Permanent Observer Riyad Mansour asserting that "war crimes and State terror are being committed by the occupying Power on a daily basis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory." European states were also critical, however, with Switzerland's Peter Mauer saying, according to a UN summary, that
respect for law was not a matter for negotiation. International humanitarian law prohibited attacks on civilians who were not directly participating in hostilities. Parties to a conflict were obliged to distinguish between civilian and military infrastructure, to respect the principle of proportionality in all military operations and to refrain from any form of collective punishment against the population. ... There was no doubt that Israel had the right to protect its territory and its population against such acts. Nevertheless, the reaction of the Israeli armed forces in Lebanon was clearly disproportionate. An entire country could not be held ransom for acts of military reprisal. The repeated air strikes against civilian targets were a serious violation of international humanitarian law, as was the indiscriminate firing of rockets by Hizbollah against population centres in Israel.Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman insisted that his country was responding to terrorism and the kidnappings of its soldiers, and that Hezbollah had to be disarmed. Taking up his theme, US UN Ambassador John Bolton agreed that
There was no moral equivalence between acts of terrorism and Israels exercise of its legitimate right to self-defence... Of course, the civilian deaths were a matter of great concern to his country. That was a tragedy, and he would not attempt to describe that any other way. The United States had urged the Government of Israel to exercise the greatest possible care in its use of force. But, it was a mistake to ascribe a moral equivalence to civilians who died as the direct result of malicious terrorist acts, the very purpose of which was to kill civilians, and the tragic and unfortunate consequence of civilian deaths as a result of military action taken in self-defence.Read the official UN summary of Friday's Security Council meeting. Watch recorded video of the session [part II here].