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On Gaza, Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa Searches for a Humanitarian Outcome

Grieving for the women of Israel and Gaza, Yoko Kamikawa believes restoring human dignity and peace in the Middle East would be easier with more women leaders.

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Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa shakes hands with UNRWA Director-General Philippe Lazzarini (left) before their meeting in Tokyo on March 28. (Courtesy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa received grim news soon after she took office last autumn. She was informed that Hamas had launched a surprise assault on Israel. It was her responsibility to coordinate Japan's response.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida decided the key principles to follow and set them out on X (formerly Twitter). He urged all parties to exercise maximum restraint and avoid harm to innocent civilians. Nevertheless, Israel has conducted an assault on Gaza, which has killed many thousands of people.

Japan has no military involvement in the conflict. Nor does it supply weapons to either side. However, it retains influence in the region, largely due to its long-term generous support for displaced Palestinians.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yuko Kamikawa

Dignity Under Threat

Kamikawa was moved by first-hand accounts of the suffering caused by the conflict. She described it as "a serious humanitarian crisis."

According to Kamikawa, "human dignity - to which Japan attaches importance - is under threat."

She is concerned that famine is imminent. 

"There is a crushing shortage of the bare essentials for human survival," she emphasized. "This includes safe water, food, shelter, medicine, and the necessities for women and children."

Her visits to Israel and Palestine convinced her of the need to encourage the participation of women in reconstruction and peacebuilding.

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"We have a better chance of achieving sustained peace and protecting women and girls if women hold leadership positions," Kamikawa declared.

According to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health, over 70% of Palestinian casualties are women and children.

Hamas itself committed extreme violence against women and children when it conducted its assault on Israel in October 2023. Many young women were murdered at a music festival, and around 250 people were taken hostage and terrorized, including 32 children.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his wife Yuko depart for the United States from Haneda Airport on April 8. (© Sankei by Kanata Iwasaki)

Kishida in Washington

President Joe Biden was likely thinking about the Israel-Gaza war as he hosted Kishida in Washington on April 10. The summit provided Japan's leader a valuable opportunity to hear directly how the US president viewed the conflict.

CIA Director Bill Burns has been deployed to Egypt to negotiate a ceasefire in exchange for freeing the remaining hostages.

Japan will be supportive of any credible proposal to de-escalate the violence.

Although their meetings focused more on the Indo-Pacific, the two leaders took time to mention the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. 

Working with the UN

Japan plays an important role in funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, that provides humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. This creates another dilemma for Foreign Minister Kamikawa.

In January, Israel alleged that 12 UNRWA employees took part in the violent assault organized by Hamas. It also claimed that many of the agency's employees in Gaza were members of Hamas.

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These serious allegations led some donors, including Japan and the US, to suspend their funding. Mr Kishida asked FM Kamikawa to look into the issue. She invited the agency's director, Philippe Lazzarini, to Tokyo for talks.

He reassured her that he was trying to purge the group of extremists and urged her to resume the flow of money, insisting it was vital to save lives.

During their meeting, Kamikawa and Lazzarini discussed how the agency could strengthen transparency and improve its governance.

Afterward, Kamikawa agreed that Japan would honor a pledge to give $35 million to UNRWA. However, she asked for proof that the organization would use the money responsibly.

An UNRWA building was destroyed by an Israeli tank attack in Hanounis, southern Gaza, on January26. (©Getty via Kyodo)

Danger Zone

The dangers on the frontline of the Middle East war became clear on April 1. Seven workers for an aid agency called World Central Kitchen (WCK) died in an Israeli Defense Force drone attack.

The event triggered a wave of international condemnation. It even prompted Biden to make an angry call to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Later, the Israeli army acknowledged its fatal error and said it had taken disciplinary action against those in command.

According to the UN, 224 aid workers - the vast majority of them Palestinians - have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war. 

Two-State Solution

The greatest concern among diplomats representing Japan and other countries is the lack of a long-term Middle East peace plan.

Japan has advocated a two-state solution, which envisions an independent Palestinian nation coexisting with Israel.

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This is broadly in line with the position of the US. In his State of the Union address in March, Biden said that he is a long-standing supporter of Israel. He added that there is no other way for Israelis and Palestinians to "live in dignity" and peace except for a two-state solution.

However, Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of the state of Israel. Meanwhile, Israel's Prime Minister has repeatedly stated his opposition to an independent Palestinian state. Netanyahu recently posted on X: "I will not compromise on full Israeli security control over the entire area in the west of Jordan and this is contrary to a Palestinian state." 

Hamas's position and Netanyahu's Tweet are evidence of the wide gulf between their respective hardline positions and that of the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres

Guterres has used social media to state his view: "the refusal to accept the two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians - and the denial of the right to statehood for the Palestinian people - are unacceptable. The right of the Palestinian people to build their own state must be recognized by all."

The most recent meeting between Guterres and Kamikawa took place in New York in March. They frankly discussed the humanitarian situation in Gaza and agreed that Japan and the UN would keep working closely together.

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Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays.

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