JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli officials expressed outrage Wednesday over U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ remarks that the deadly Hamas attack on southern Israel “did not happen in a vacuum,” saying his comment at a Security Council meeting amounted to a justification for terrorism.
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen canceled a scheduled meeting with Guterres following Tuesday’s council meeting, Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan called for Guterres’ resignation, and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, said the U.N. chief “failed the test.”
Guterres responded to the Israeli criticism, telling reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that he was “shocked” at the misinterpretation of part of his statement to the council, “as if I was justifying acts of terror by Hamas.”
“This is false. It was the opposite,” he said.
He reiterated the start of his statement on Tuesday: “I have condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented 7 October acts of terror by Hamas in Israel. Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians — or the launching of rockets against civilian targets.”
The secretary-general said he spoke of the grievances of the Palestinian people and also stated: “But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas.”
Ambassador Erdan called Guterres’ response “a disgrace,” saying he didn’t retract and apologize for his comments to the Security Council, and again called for the U.N. chief’s resignation.
The Israeli envoy said the secretary-general “once again distorts and twists reality,” pointing again to his statement Tuesday that the Oct. 7 massacres “did not happen in a vacuum.”
“Every person understands very well that the meaning of his words is that Israel has guilt for the actions of Hamas or, at the very least, it shows his understanding for the background leading up to the massacre,” Erdan said.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, asked about Erdan’s response, said anyone who listened to the secretary-general in the council Tuesday and earlier Wednesday knows that his position is “there is no justification for … the horrendous and abhorrent acts of terrorism perpetrated by Hamas on the seventh of October.”
Dujarric said Guterres stands by his words and “is not going to respond to one member state’s call to step down.”
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador, told U.N. reporters later Wednesday that Arab nations stand by the secretary-general “against these ridiculous attacks against him.”
Mansour called Guterres the symbol of multilateralism and the United Nations who stands on principles and stood at the gate of the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza “calling for help for millions of Palestinians besieged in the Gaza Strip to receive humanitarian assistance and he asked for a humanitarian cease-fire.”
“We salute him for that courageous position, and maybe today he is the most popular man under the sun in all corners of the globe, including among the Palestinian people,” Mansour said. “We want such decisive leaders … when it comes for standing for justice, standing for international law, standing for saving human rights.”
But Israel was not mollified.
“I will not meet with the U.N. secretary-general. After the October 7 massacre, there is no place for a balanced approach. Hamas must be erased off the face of the planet!” Cohen posted Tuesday on social platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
“We will refuse to grant visas to U.N. representatives. We have already refused to give one to Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths,” Erdan told Army Radio, accusing Guterres of justifying a slaughter. “It’s time to teach them a lesson.”
Israel historically has had tense relations with the U.N., accusing it of being biased against it.
On Tuesday, Guterres addressed a high-level Security Council meeting on the Israel-Hamas war that was sparked by the militant group’s Oct. 7 attack, which left at least 1,400 Israelis dead, and more than 220 taken hostage.
Israeli airstrikes have destroyed large swaths of the Gaza enclave, leaving at least 6,500 Palestinians killed, including over 2,700 children, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.
While Guterres unequivocally condemned the Hamas attacks, what created an uproar in Israel was his saying that it was important to acknowledge that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.”
He then went on to say: “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”
Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan said in a statement: “The slaughter of Jew by Hamas on October 7th was genocidal in its intents and immeasurably brutal in its form.”
He said that the secretary-general’s statement tests the sincerity of world leaders who came to Yad Vashem and pledged “Never Again.”
”Those who seek to ‘understand,’ look for a justifying context, do not condemn the perpetrators, and do not call for the unconditional and immediate release of the abducted – fail the test. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres failed the test.”
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.