World·Analysis

Why Israeli claims of UN bias have ramped up since the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attacks

Accusations of UN bias against Israel are nothing new but have ramped up following the Oct. 7 Hamas-led deadly attacks on Israel, with some observers suggesting the country's relationship with the body may be at one of its lowest points.

UN-Israel relations have long been fraught, but some observers say they've reached an all-time low

Gilad Erdan, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Gilad Erdan, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting at UN headquarters in New York. Accusations of UN bias against Israel are nothing new but have ramped up following the Oct. 7 Hamas deadly attacks on Israel. Some observers suggest Israel's relationship with the body may be at one its lowest points. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

For some Israeli politicians, the United Nations has a troubling fixation on their country.

A bias, some claim, has revealed itself particularly prominently in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel. Those attacks claimed the lives of around 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials, and prompted Israel to launch a ground and air offensive inside Gaza that has killed more than 29,400 Palestinians, Gaza health authorities estimate.

It was just last month that Israel's UN ambassador, Gilad Erdan, accused the international body of being a place of "bias and hypocrisy" with "no morals" for calling for a ceasefire while dozens of hostages still remain in Gaza.  

And it was at a General Assembly meeting back in November that Israeli diplomat Reut Shapir Ben-Naftaly said that the organization's "twisted anti-Israel bias has been on clear display" since the Oct. 7 attack.

Amit Soussana, 40, right, is embraced by a friend after speaking to journalists in front of her destroyed house in the kibbutz Kfar Azza, near the Gaza Strip, Israel, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.
Amit Soussana, 40, right, is embraced by a friend in front of her destroyed house in the kibbutz Kfar Azza, near the Gaza Strip, Israel. Soussana was held in captivity for 55 days after being kidnapped during the cross-border attack by Hamas on Oct. 7. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

Hillel Neurer, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, monitors the international body as part of the group's work combating antisemitism and what it sees as anti-Israel bias. 

"A large part of its time is spent condemning Israel," Neurer said of the UN.

Evidence of such bias, says Neuer, can be found in the tally of resolutions passed against individual states. In 2023, according to Neuer's website, which tracks them, the UN adopted one resolution each against Iran, Syria, North Korea, Myanmar, Crimea, Russia and the U.S. for alleged human rights violations. 

But Israel faced 15 such resolutions, according to UN Watch. Those resolutions range from condemnation of the destruction caused by the Israeli Air Force during an operation that created an oil slick in Lebanon to criticism of Israel's activities in the occupied territories and its treatment of Palestinian refugees. 

"It's 15 to 1. There is no resolution on Pakistan. There's no resolution on Venezuela in the General Assembly," Neurer said. "There's no resolution on China in the UN. There's no resolutions on most of the world's worst abusers. There's 15 on Israel. That's what's going on with the General Assembly."

Despite the fact that these resolutions were adopted in the UN General Assembly, Israel had repeatedly ignored them.

Palestinians walk past destroyed houses, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Jabalia refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip February 22, 2024.
Palestinians walk past destroyed houses amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Jabalia refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday. (Mahmoud Issa/Reuters)

UN pivotal in creation of Israel

Accusations of UN bias have ramped up following the Oct. 7 attacks, and some now suggest Israel's relationship with the body is significantly fractured.

Neuer and others say antisemitism is the root cause of what they consider the disproportionate attention the UN has paid to Israel.

But some observers argue that other reasons factor into it, including the historical relationship between Israel and the UN, the sympathy some states have for the Palestinian cause, and Israel's ability to avoid having to take any serious action in response to the resolutions because of U.S. protection.

Protesters shout slogans as they march demanding a ceasefire and the end of Israel's attacks on Gaza, in New York City, U.S., February 22, 2024
Protesters shout slogans as they march demanding a ceasefire and the end of Israel's attacks on Gaza in New York City on Thursday. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

It was the United Nations, back in 1947, that adopted the resolution to partition what was then Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. That resolution was the basis on which Israel declared independence the following year.

Richard Gowan, the UN director of the International Crisis Group, an organization that works to prevent deadly conflict around the world, says the UN's role in the establishment of Israel is at least one of the reasons why there is so much focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

"For many, many members of the UN, there is a strange sense that the organization has a special responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is qualitatively different to the UN's engagement with other wars and other crises," he said.

"And I think that that is rooted in the fact that, the UN was present at the creation of Israel."

UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie, left, and Andrew A. Cordier, his executive assistant, check their lists following the vote on the Palestinian partition question by the United Nations General Assembly delegates meeting at the Queens Museum in New York,  Nov. 29, 1947.
UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie, left, and Andrew A. Cordier, his executive assistant, check their lists following the vote on the Palestinian partition question by the United Nations General Assembly on Nov. 29, 1947, in New York. The UN had a pivotal in the creation of the state of Israel, but relations between the two entities have deteriorated in the decades since. (Matty Zimmerman/The Associated Press)

Since 1947, the membership of the UN has changed from only 57 countries to 193 sovereign nations today. 

UN support for the Israeli state in 1947 came from a body dominated by Western Europe and Latin American states, at a time when colonial powers were in charge of much of Asia and Africa. 

"If you fast forward to the late 60s and early 70s," said Neuer, "the same General Assembly that voted for a Jewish state ... in the [1947] resolution, in 1975 said the idea of a Jewish state is racist."

Neuer is referring to a 1975 resolution that declared that "Zionism is a form or racism and racial discrimination."

Perhaps the most significant UN resolution after the partition plan was Security Council Resolution 242, passed in 1967 following the Six-Day War. It was a resolution that called for a "peaceful and accepted settlement" of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a resolution that Israel itself supported. But it has been a source of fierce debate since, interpreted differently by various parties, and has not secured the peace it promised.

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'One of the lowest points that I've ever seen'

For years, Israel and some members of the Jewish community outside the country have "held the UN in contempt," believing that Israel is discriminated against, singled out and subject to double standards, said Dov Waxman, director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at the University of California Los Angeles.

Indeed, polls conducted by Pew Research have found the majority of Israelis hold unfavourable views of the institution.

"But I think in the wake of Oct. 7, that sense of being unfairly treated by the UN has really been exacerbated," said Waxman.

Ela Bahat touches a picture of her 30-year-old son Dror, who was killed on Oct. 7 in a cross-border attack by Hamas at the Nova music festival in Re'im, Southern Israel.
Ela Bahat touches a picture of her 30-year-old son, Dror, who was killed in the Oct. 7 attack while attending the Nova music festival in Re'im, southern Israel. Roughly 1,200 people died in the attack, including Canadians. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

There have been criticisms from Israel that various UN agencies were slow to denounce the attacks on Oct. 7, particularly the allegations of sexual violence. Israel has also taken aim at UN Secretary Antonio Guterres himself, calling for his resignation after he said the Hamas attacks against Israel "did not happen in a vacuum."

As well, Israel is accused of "engaging in genocidal acts against the Palestinian people in Gaza" at the UN's International Court of Justice. Israel has rejected the claims and defended itself at a hearing in the Hague in January. 

This past week, the court opened another set of historic hearings into the legality of Israel's 57-year occupation of Palestinian territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

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Meanwhile, Israel has alleged that staff members from the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. UNRWA has fired several of the accused workers and is investigating the allegations.

Neuer said while historically, there have been many low points for Israel at the UN, currently, "it's one of the lowest points that I've ever seen."

Gowan of the Crisis Group agreed that the relationship between Israel and the UN is "certainly, extremely bad."

"If you look back over the history of the UN, Israel has often faced enormous criticism and pressure in the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council," he said.

But the intensity of the recent criticism is "very striking," he said.

Waxman agreed that Israel receives a disproportionate amount of criticism at the UN General Assembly and noted that some have perceived that criticism as antisemitic.

Palestinians mourn relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip at a hospital morgue in Rafah, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.
Palestinians mourn relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip at a hospital morgue in Rafah, Wednesday. Criticism of Israel has intensified as its offensive has expanded into southern Gaza. (Fatima Shbair/The Associated Press)

Last January, for example, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Erdan, Israel's UN ambassador, told the General Assembly that the disproportionate number of resolutions "singling out the one and only Jewish state — yes, it is antisemitism."

Waxman said while such perceptions might be valid, there are likely other reasons behind the criticism Israel faces at the UN.

In the case of some countries with Muslim majorities, voting against Israel may just reflect the fact that "much of the Muslim world is sympathetic to the Palestinians, and the Palestinian cause resonates across the Muslim world," Waxman said.

Also, he said, a large majority of countries in the UN have their own histories of colonialism and "continue to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of colonialism." 

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Protected by the U.S.

Daniel Levy, president of the policy institute U.S. / Middle East Project, says claims of bias are exaggerated, and that at the UN, Israel enjoys a "regime of impunity" despite its well-documented violations of international law and human rights.

He said Israel avoids any binding sanctions from the UN Security Council because it's protected by the U.S., a permanent member of the council and an unwavering ally of Israel, unlike other countries, such as Iran, Libya and North Korea, which do face sanctions.

"What's unique here is not that Israel is singled out for this excessively harsh treatment [but] that Israel is singled out for the impunity with which it is treated," Levy said.

"Because the UN can never actually do anything on Israel because of the Americans' veto, you create all these workarounds to try and at least get some traction."

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The UN, says Gowan, has been used very effectively by the Palestinians as a diplomatic battleground where they can challenge Israel.

He agreed that Israel does have one fundamental advantage in that the U.S. will use its veto power to protect Israeli interests on the UN Security Council. On Tuesday, for example, the U.S. vetoed an Arab state-backed and widely supported UN resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

Gowan said that since October, it's been very clear that the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has had a strategy of ignoring any criticism coming from any part of the UN and deliberately aiming to delegitimize the institution.

Waxman said while Israel may outwardly dismiss resolutions such as those calling for a ceasefire, it does care about its legitimacy on the world stage.

"While these votes don't impose any kind of concrete measures on Israel, they do affect Israel's standing in the world ... [which] can affect Israel's diplomatic relationships."

Israeli soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.
Israeli soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel earlier this month. Israel's ground and air offensive has left most of Gaza in ruins. (Ariel Schalit/The Associated Press)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press