Israel-Palestine conflict

[OPINION] Why care about the Gaza War?

Edilberto De Jesus

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[OPINION] Why care about the Gaza War?

Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

'The lives and livelihood of OFWs, as well as national and international security concerns, make the Middle East a high priority region for the Philippines'

For many reasons. Forty of them crossed from the Gaza Strip into Egypt two weeks ago: Filipinos fleeing the fighting to head for home. Many were born and raised in Gaza. Many more chose to stay until their Palestinian partners could leave with them. 

An estimated 30,000 Filipinos live and work in Israel. The number based in Arab countries is larger by far, reaching some two million at its peak. OFW views on the geopolitical and strategic issues roiling the region probably depend on where they work and the attachments they have formed. Whatever their views, the funds they send back to their families at home fuel the country’s economy, another reason for the government’s interest in the region. 

Despite disruptions in global supply chains, the full-year level of OFW remittances in 2022 reached a record high of $36.1B, accounting for 8.9% of GDP. An estimated 13% of the remittances came from Arab countries. A stable and peaceful Middle East would expand employment opportunities for OFW.

Beyond economics, the Philippines values its friendly relations with the Muslim Middle East. Through both bilateral relations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, they have helped defuse the secessionist threat in Muslim Mindanao. They remain potentially a bulwark against terrorist jihad operations in the region.

The lives and livelihood of OFWs, as well as national and international security concerns, make the Middle East a high priority region for the Philippines. Add to this the sympathy aroused by graphic images in media of women and children wounded and killed by Israeli firepower; it would have been natural to expect Philippines support for Jordan’s resolution in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on October 26.

Jordan demanded an “immediate, durable, and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” between Israel and Hamas. It called on all parties to “comply with international humanitarian law and allow ‘continuous, sufficient, and unhindered provision of essential supplies and services into the Gaza Strip.” Surely, unimpeachable objectives deserving of Philippine support.

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But the Philippines also has long-standing ties with Israel, dating back to the sanctuary granted by Quezon to some 1,300 Jewish refugees escaping the Holocaust. It was the only Asian country that supported the UN recognition of the Israel state. And Israel, the victim of the October 7 Hamas attack that killed an estimated 1,400 and triggered the Gaza War, rejected the resolution. Resolving to destroy Hamas so it could not threaten Israel again, it opposed any unconditional ceasefire measure that would give Hamas breathing room. 

The US also voted against Jordan’s resolution. In times past, the Philippines would have been expected to line up with the US, its primary source of economic and military support. Instead, it  took the middle road, declining to join the 121 member states backing the Jordanian resolution or the 14 rejectionists; it abstained, along with 43 other countries. Its abstention provoked public protests and criticism from political observers at home.

A more nuanced reading of the Philippine vote would consider the UNGA debates on the Jordanian resolution and the proposed Canadian amendment. Canada’s resolution condemned the Hamas attack against Israel and demanded the release of the hostages they had taken. The amendment won 88 votes against 55 opposed and 23 abstentions; the amendment failed to secure the required two-thirds vote of the assembly.  

For those supporting the Canadian amendment, the UNGA failure to recognize and censure Hamas for its terrorist attack on Israel undermined respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. The demand for an unconditional ceasefire in the Jordanian resolution also seemed to deny a country’s right to defend itself against aggression, a sensitive issue for those who feared threats from Russia in the West and China in the East.

The voting pattern is instructive. All the ASEAN countries supported the Jordanian resolution, except the Philippines. So did Western, liberal democratic countries like France, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and Spain. Those who broke away from the US by abstaining included such staunch friends and partners in Ukraine as Australia, Finland, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Ukraine itself.

Foreign service professionals recognize that the UNGA is not the altar for celebrating moral principles; member states are likely to disagree on which moral principles to honor. More often, it is the stage where states play strategic, geopolitical games to advance their interests, hopefully without recourse to war. The complex, multiple issues raised for the Philippines by the Gaza War embrace human rights values, economic costs and benefits, and national security interests. These interacting, often conflicting concerns compel the Philippines to participate in these games.

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Because the context of the games is subject to sudden changes, objectives and strategy require continuing calibration. The US invaded Iraq as part of its reprisal for the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, which claimed some 3,000 casualties. Proportional to their respective populations, the toll of the October 7 attack would have  numbered about 70,000 Israeli lives lost in one day. The fury and fear aroused by the Hamas attack helps explain, if not excuse the ferocious, disproportionate Israeli response.

And the Palestinians also have legitimate grievances against Israel, including its role in delaying the implementation of the UN’s two-state solution, which the Philippines has supported. But the blame game can be pushed back to biblical days and its balanced resolution would defy Solomon’s wisdom. Both Hamas and Netanyahu must ultimately be held to account by their peoples. But this accounting will have to wait. The urgent task is the safety of the people besieged in Gaza, including the hostages. 

It is now clear that Israel cannot afford the global backlash caused by the civilian toll of its military operations – even granting that Hamas has deliberately and callously employed a human-shield strategy that puts non-combatants at risk. International laws and the commitment to human rights and values require us to be better than our enemies. –

Edilberto de Jesus is a senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.

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