The World’s Moral Failure in Gaza

JOHANNESBURG – The relentless siege on Gaza is a dark reflection on humanity. Well over 100,000 Palestinians have been declared killed, injured, or missing over the past six months, and the overwhelming majority are innocent civilians who bear no responsibility for Hamas’s appalling attack on October 7, 2023.

The United Nations Security Council has finally passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and the immediate release of hostages held by Hamas. Now, all UN member states – particularly Israel’s political and military allies – must do everything in their power to ensure that the resolution is implemented in full as soon as possible.

For Gazans who survive Israel’s military assaults, a lethal combination of displacement, hunger, and disease awaits. Israel’s blockade of humanitarian supplies, food, and clean water has made life in the enclave a nightmare. Aid agencies report mothers giving birth without anesthetics, babies dying from dehydration and malnutrition, and sickness ravaging entire communities. With no one in Gaza safe from massacre, we have reached the threshold of population-scale annihilation.

The trauma is now reverberating across the whole region. Gazans are haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder and grief, and more than one million children are in dire need of psycho-social support. The latest devastation adds to the suffering inflicted by Israel’s 18-year-old blockade of Gaza. And in the West Bank, Palestinians face multiple threats, from unconstrained settler violence and forced displacement to the constant threat of arbitrary detention. At the same time, more than 100 Israelis are still held hostage by Hamas, in contravention of international humanitarian law, prolonging the pain felt by their families and those of the civilians killed on October 7.

Worse may come if Israel defies warnings from its closest allies and moves ahead with its plans for an assault on Rafah, which is currently host to 1.5 million people, including over 600,000 children. Many of those seeking refuge in this border city have already endured the trauma of multiple displacements over the past half-year. A full-scale Israeli military incursion must not be allowed to happen.

I write these words as someone who looked into the eyes of young Palestinians while preparing the 1996 UN report The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. Speaking to children in refugee camps, we promised that their suffering would end. Not only have we failed to make good on that promise; we have left an even more hostile world for children who happen to be born Palestinian. I carry this haunting failure with me.

I also write these words as a member of The Elders, the group of independent global leaders that I co-founded with my late husband, Nelson Mandela, and which was chaired in its early years by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Madiba (Mandela) gave us a mandate to work for peace, justice, and human rights worldwide, and he always considered Palestinian liberation to be key to achieving a just and free world for all. How can any of us speak credibly of universal human rights and the international rule of law when we permit brutality and occupation to continue for decades?

Amid such despair and lack of moral courage by those with the power to stop the current carnage in Gaza, I am proud of the exceptional leadership that South Africa has shown in bringing a complaint against Israel for violating the Genocide Convention at the International Court of Justice. The ICJ’s preliminary ruling, on January 26, and the additional measures ordered on March 28, explicitly condemn the atrocities taking place in Gaza and are unambiguous about the steps Israel must take to protect innocent Palestinians, including unhindered provision of humanitarian assistance at scale.

Israel and the countries providing it with military and financial assistance must heed the court’s findings and adhere to their obligations under international law. But we are not helpless in the face of this monumental suffering. As members of one human family, we have an ethical duty to speak out against these injustices in our own circles of influence. We can wield power through our own individual and community activism. With our votes and protests, we can – and must – demand accountability from our political leaders.

Here is what we must demand. First, additional humanitarian land routes urgently need to be opened to meet the overwhelming need for life-saving aid. The safety of aid deliveries must be guaranteed at all times. Air drops and the recently proposed maritime corridor are insufficient, and must not be allowed to absolve Israel of its own responsibility to civilians in Gaza.

Second, world leaders must use military and financial leverage to compel Israel to cease its violations of international law and comply with the ICJ’s orders. All countries providing military assistance to Israel should immediately put these shipments under review and set new conditions for future provision. Those that continue supplying arms are enabling the carnage and may be complicit in war crimes.

Third, decision-makers must provide full financial and political support to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Many donors have rushed to suspend funding for the organization, pending the outcome of investigations into Israel’s allegations that some UNRWA staff participated in the October 7 attack. This premature, disproportionate response is now irresponsibly endangering the rights and well-being of millions of Palestinian refugees. The Israeli government has made no secret of its desire to dismantle UNRWA once and for all. Will we allow it to become yet another casualty of the war?

The situation cries out for concerted action by a broad coalition of countries committed to a just and permanent peace that enables Israelis and Palestinians to co-exist under conditions of mutual respect, self-determination, dignity, and security. Palestinian and Israeli lives and security are of equal worth. If this fundamental truth does not prevail on political leaders and ordinary citizens, we will continue to forsake generations of innocent children.

Graça Machel, Deputy Chair of The Elders, is Founder of the Graça Machel Trust.

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