Last week, the United Nations General Assembly considered a nonbinding resolution that called for a “humanitarian truce” in Gaza, hoping to bring a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. The vote was overwhelmingly endorsed by most countries, cognizant of the humanitarian crisis unfolding and the potential for it to escalate into a broader regional conflict.
Yet of the 14 states that voted against the resolution, six were Pacific Island countries – Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Tonga, Nauru, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. Several other Pacific Island states abstained. For those whose approach to international relations is to obsess about power – and divide the world based on power differentials – this may seem like a curious development; when the world is viewed through this lens smaller states should always be on the side of the less powerful force, regardless of the details.
But it would be misguided to believe that these Pacific Island countries do not care about the suffering of people in Gaza, or to cynically assert that they have been “bought off” by the United States. Pacific Island countries take their role within international institutions incredibly seriously – being keen multilateralists who rely on rules and norms to protect their own interests. They would not vote on any U.N. resolution without thorough consideration.
Rather than power, faith may be the key to understanding the Pacific Islands’ approach.
Much of the Pacific is highly observant in their Christianity, and they have an eschatological understanding of humanity. In particular, various denominations of Protestantism see the creation of Israel in 1948 as the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy in which the Jewish people – God’s chosen – return to the Holy Land. Support for Israel is therefore a deeply held spiritual belief, one that sits alongside Pacific Islands’ other considerations of interests and opportunities when forming their foreign policies.
Reflecting this worldview, in September, PNG moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Prime Minister James Marape said at the time, “For us to call ourselves Christian, paying respect to God will not be complete without recognizing that Jerusalem is the universal capital of the people and the nation of Israel.” That PNG is neighbors with Indonesia – a staunch supporter of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, with Jerusalem being central to this future – gives an indication of how important these beliefs are in PNG. It is an illustration of the diplomatic capital Port Moresby was willing to spend for them.
Fiji’s outsized per capita contribution to peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East can also be seen as the region being of critical spiritual importance to Suva. Fiji’s peacekeeping missions can be understood as taking some responsibility to ensure the Holy Land remains as stable as possible, and accessible to those whose faith draws them to the region. Around 200 Pacific Islanders were on a religious pilgrimage in Israel at the time of Hamas’s attack.
Faith guiding foreign policy decisions may not seem like a prudent approach – something that defies our conventional understanding of blunt interest-based practices – yet the behavior of all states is influenced by their cultures, and religion has a central role in many states. Even in the secularized West the residual values and conventions of Christianity inform traditional norms and perspectives. This influence may not be as recognizable as those states that overtly place religion at the heart of their worldview, but it is naïve to think that these values systems have simply dissipated as church attendance has declined.
Issues concerning Israel and Palestine are highly polarizing at the best of times, and are always subject to an abandonment of nuance. Hamas undoubtedly understood the uncompromising reactions it would create outside of the immediate region when it launched its assault on October 7. Inducing greater polarization throughout the world would have been a secondary objective, and with this they have been incredibly successful. Current events have established a new litmus test of human decency, depending on which “side” you are on.
States, however, make decisions on far more complex criteria than individuals that post on social media, and alongside the centrality of religion to Pacific culture any response to current events in the U.N. General Assembly would not have been taken lightly. Smaller states feel global instability in ways that states with greater resources do not. The resolution may have nominally been about a ceasefire, but as with all such votes, there are far wider considerations to make.
You don’t have to be religious to both recognize and respect the search for meaning and guidance that religion provides. This faith and guidance is incredibly important in the Pacific, and to mock or dismiss it is to look down upon Pacific Islanders, risk alienating them, and do unnecessary harm to relations with them. None of that is helpful to the current crisis in Gaza.