Expected Council Action
The Secretariat is expected to brief the Council on the conclusions of a UN commission of inquiry into the damage to UN facilities and loss of life during the recent conflict in Gaza. The Secretary-General established the commission in February.
It seems likely that in April the Council will also pay close attention to the Egyptian mediated talks between Hamas and Israel on a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. This, along with the status of negotiations among Palestinian factions for the formation of a national unity government and other issues related to the stalled peace process, may be aired during the monthly Middle East briefing.
Key Recent Developments
During the Gaza conflict a number of UN facilities were hit by Israeli shelling. On 15 January the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) headquarters was partially destroyed. On 6 January at least forty people were killed in the Jabaliya refugee camp by Israeli shelling near a UN school that sheltered displaced persons. In both cases Israel said that it had come under mortar fire from Palestinian militants from inside the UN facilities. This was rejected by UNWRA.
On 9 February the Secretary-General told the Council he had established a UNinvestigation into all incidents involving death and damage at UN premises in Gaza between 27 December and 18 January. He said that he would report to the Council but later clarified that this would involve a briefing on the investigation’s conclusions. The investigation, led by Special Representative of the Secretary-General Ian Martin, began work on 12 February. On 13 February the president of the Council said members welcomed establishment of the investigation and took note of the Secretary-General’s intention to report its conclusions to the Council.
Israel also launched an internal investigation into possible humanitarian law violations by its army during the war. On 19 March Israeli newspapers published accounts by Israeli soldiers alleging mistreatment of Palestinian civilians.
On 16 March a group of eminent international judges and investigators called on the Secretary-General to establish a UN commission of inquiry to investigate all serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict and provide recommendations on prosecution of those responsible. They emphasised that this was necessary to achieve peace in the Middle East.
After recognising the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court on 21 January, the Palestinian Authority requested it to investigate war crimes by all sides during the conflict. The ICC is examining whether it can accept this request in view of the fact that the Palestinian Authority is not a state party to the ICC.
Efforts toward Palestinian unity continue. On 26 February, 13 Palestinian groups including Hamas and Fatah agreed to form five committees to address the composition of security services in Gaza and the West Bank, the formation of a unity government (which would prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections and lead the reconstruction and humanitarian aid efforts), reform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the holding of elections, and reconciliation. On 10 March the committees began work in Cairo.
The factions agreed to hold elections by 25 January 2010 but remained deadlocked over the unity government. Resumption of the talks is scheduled for 1 April. Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas made any power sharing agreement conditional on Hamas’s recognition of Israel and agreement to a two-state solution, but this was rejected by Hamas. The next Arab League summit scheduled in Doha on 30 March may provide an opportunity for further progress.
Egypt also continued to mediate talks between Hamas and Israel aimed at a permanent truce. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made freeing Gilad Shalit (an Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006) a precondition for the truce and for reopening Gaza’s borders. In exchange, Hamas demanded the release of 450 long serving Palestinian prisoners. At press time talks appeared stalled.
On 13 March, after a meeting of experts in London, the UK, the US, Canada Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway agreed on a programme of action to stop the flow of weapons to Gaza. The measure is aimed at increasing Israel’s sense of security and thus persuading it to ease its blockade of Gaza.
On 29 January the UN launched an appeal for $613 million for Gaza’s relief and reconstruction. On 2 March an international donors’ conference on reconstruction in Gaza was held in Sharm el-Sheikh. $4.48 billion was pledged, to be paid over the next two years. The Secretary-General said the continued closure of Gaza’s border crossings was intolerable as it prevented entry of aid workers and essential commodities. Israel has progressively opened the crossings for humanitarian supplies but still refuses reconstruction material to enter.
On 18 February the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, briefed the Council on the situation in the Middle East. He emphasised the need for a permanent Gaza ceasefire as a return to violence remained possible.
Following the 10 February parliamentary election in Israel, President Shimon Peres asked the leader of the opposition Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu, to form a new government. On 15 March he obtained agreement from the Israel Beitenou party to join in a coalition government (led by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel Beitenou has taken a hard line towards Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians). On 24 March, the Labour party joined the coalition as well.
On 27 January Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes briefed the Council on the humanitarian situation after the Gaza conflict. The use of civilian installations by Hamas and the indiscriminate firing of rockets against civilians were clear violations of international humanitarian law, he said. Holmes also said that the Israeli Defense Forces had failed to protect civilians and humanitarian workers in Gaza. In addition, Israel’s operations raised questions of respect for the principles of distinction and proportionality. He said there must be accountability. This was followed by a briefing from UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd.
issuing a press statement taking note of the conclusions;
adopting a presidential statement supporting any recommendations made by the Secretary-General;
holding a debate on this issue either following the briefing or during the April monthly briefing on the Middle East;
initiating discussions on the establishment of a commission of investigation into serious violations of international humanitarian law committed during the conflict; and
referring the issues to the ICC as it did in March 2005 in resolution 1593 when it referred the Darfur situation to the ICC.
If there are positive developments on a permanent ceasefire or on the formation of a Palestinian unity government, the Council could include positive elements in any Council statement. Alternatively a statement could simply encourage further implementation of resolution 1860 (please see our 26 January Update Report on Gaza).
A key question is the Secretary-General’s stance on whether the Council should take up the Gaza accountability issues and whether he takes a narrow approach or also touches on the broader issue of war crimes committed during the conflict.
The second issue is then whether the Council takes up the question and whether there is pressure for it to extend its ambit beyond the Secretary-General’s conclusions.
A major underlying issue is whether there will be progress on the formation of a Palestinian national unity government. This would not only facilitate reconstruction and enable Egypt and Israel to open their borders with Gaza with a Palestinian Authority presence on the Gaza side, but also it would enable the Council to focus on positive elements in addition to accountability ones.
A related issue is Hamas’s status in any such unity government. On 27 February US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that reconciliation will not mean progress unless Hamas accepts Israel’s right to exist and previous peace agreements. The position of the Council if Hamas joins the government without fulfilling those conditions will be an important issue.
US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both visited the region in March. Clinton reiterated the need to consider a two-state solution and pledged support for the Palestinian Authority as the only legitimate government of the Palestinian people. She also denounced an Israeli plan to destroy Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, saying it went against the peace process. The US also pledged $900 million to Gaza’s reconstruction and made overtures toward Syria. The US continues to consider the Quartet as the most effective instrument for advancing peace in the Middle East but may be more open to some discussion of Israeli-Palestinian issues in the Council as part of this more generally proactive approach. It remains to be seen how any request for a debate will play out.
Council members seem very cautious regarding the general issue of accountability. Some delegations (Mexico and Austria) have made statements emphasising respect for humanitarian law and addressing impunity and may therefore be open to a Council follow-up to the UN Inquiry, although they may not take the initiative. Others including France, the UK, Japan, Turkey and Uganda seem to believe that, while accountability is important, it might not be timely to address this issue as it might hamper Palestinian reconciliation.
The US seems ultra cautious, preferring that the Council not address this issue and that the Secretary-General be hesitant about making recommendations. The US believes that as Israel is conducting an investigation there is no need for another one. Russia and China seem open to discussion of accountability, particularly regarding the damage to UN facilities but seem unlikely to take any initiative in the Council.
The Arab League supports the Council addressing accountability for Israeli violations. This may translate into proposals for a Council reaction to the UN inquiry and perhaps even discussion about the broader issue of war crimes. If this meets US resistance, the Arab League could look for compromise—perhaps in an agreed format for a Council debate on the issues which would allow the problem to be ventilated in public. Alternatively, it may take it to the General Assembly. It seems that the Arab Group has also advocated for the UN inquiry report to become public.
Overall, most Council members are waiting for the Secretariat briefing before deciding their positions on the possible Council response.
On the broader issues related to Gaza, there is ongoing support for full implementation of resolution 1860. Palestinian unity and permanent truce are considered priorities. For more information on the Security Council’s involvement in the Middle East peace process, please visit our December 2007 Special Research Report The Middle East 1947–2007: Sixty Years of Security Council Engagement on the Israel/Palestine Question.
Security Council Resolutions
Latest Security Council Press Statement
Latest Security Council Briefings
Gaza: World’s leading investigators call for war crimes inquiry, Amnesty International UK Press Release, 16 March 2009
Final communiqué of the Gaza anti-smuggling conference held in London on 13 March
Foreign-supplied weapons used against civilians by Israel and Hamas, Amnesty International, 20 February 2009