Friday, January 22, 2010

Faster than the USS Liberty compensation

'Reimbursement', not justice

From Ian Williams
Middle East International 22 January 2010

Israel has confirmed to the United Nations that it is agreeing to pay $10.5 million for the 15 January 2009 destruction of UN premises in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Most of the payment goes to UNRWA, with a few hundred thousand dollars for the office of the UN Special Coordinator for the peace process, whose facilities were also trashed in an act redolent with symbolism.

At Israeli insistence, the payment is scrupulously described as ‘reimbursement’ for the ruined supplies and facilities. Since UNRWA is a voluntarily funded agency, not paid for from the UN general assessment, the ‘reimbursement’ is as much a gesture to the donor countries who have shown increasing restiveness at seeing their aid to the Palestinians regularly destroyed by the IDF, as it is to the UN – although relations between Ehud Barak and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are perhaps more important.

Specifically excluded from the payment (carefully not labelled ‘compensation’, let alone ‘reparation’) is any money for human victims of the tragedy. Some Israelis now admit that ‘mistakes’ were made, but the Board of Inquiry, set up by Ban Ki-moon and headed by Ian Martin, a respected human rights figure, concluded that the action was part of a pattern of attacks on UN premises, schools, hospitals and warehouses.

The ‘reimbursement’ also excludes any admission of guilt by Israel: it is not to set a precedent. Indeed, it is unprecedented. It took 14 years for Israel to pay $6 million to compensate the US Navy for damage to the USS Liberty in 1967. Furthermore, Israel has not, as far as we know, compensated the Overseas Private Investment Corp, a US government-backed fund, for the $48 million owed to the Connecticut-based Morganti Group for its share of the Gaza power plant bombed by the Israelis in 2006. Nor has it compensated the European Union, whose members have been uncommonly vociferous about the costs of regular IDF flattening of their expensive aid projects.

Last January, Ban Ki-moon came, saw and was disgusted with the results of the Israeli attack and has persevered when previous UN chiefs have, in effect, let the IDF get away with successive horrors – just think of the recidivist shelling of UNIFIL’s outpost at Qana in 1996. His persistence, and relationship with Barak, the good cop of current Israeli foreign affairs compared with the Lieberman/Ayalon team officially holding the foreign portfolio, delivered the deal.
Special relationship

Barak immediately apologised to Ban for the destruction, which involved phosphorus shells. The secretary-general reported at the time: “The defence minister said to me it was a grave mistake and he took it very seriously. He assured me that extra attention will be paid to UN facilities and staff, and this will not be repeated.” Ban’s indignation was compounded because he was actually in Israel trying to secure a ceasefire when the UN premises were attacked. He could have been forgiven for thinking that someone in the IDF was trying to send him a message, not least when, as he soon complained, Israeli forces went ahead and carried out more such actions.

Barak and his ilk seem to have pushed the ‘reimbursement’ deal through. They are concerned at the erosion of the new special relationship between Israel and this UN administration. At one time, Israeli governments could rely on Washington to do the heavy lifting to bludgeon the international organisation into taciturn acquiescence. But the Obama administration, with its own issues with Netanyahu, cannot be relied upon to the same extent, so Israel has to do its own bilateral stroking.

But the greatest leverage for the UN was the detailed 184-page report of the Board of Inquiry led by Ian Martin, former special representative in East Timor. Reporting back to Ban last May, he concluded “that IDF actions involved varying degrees of negligence or recklessness with regard to United Nations premises and to the safety of United Nations staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries, and extensive physical damage and loss of property.” The report also called for compensation for damage to property, which was promptly endorsed by Ban.

Only a 27-page summary was published and the full report has been kept confidential. It is likely to be buried even more deeply as part of the deal. Almost certainly, Israel’s fear is that the details in there would add to the growing prospects of international criminal charges against Israeli personnel. The book was closed on using the Martin report as the basis for any further action.

The report is not being greeted as a triumph by local UN staff, who look with an understandably jaundiced eye at the damage Israel has done in Gaza. Ban may have achieved more than anyone else before in getting compensation, but many local employees, ruefully contemplating the death of colleagues and the people whose welfare they are charged to maintain, complain that it is at the cost of justice.

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