Expected Council Action
In January, the Council will hold its quarterly open debate on the Middle East, with a focus on the situation in Israel/Palestine. Issues likely to be raised include the absence of a path toward a political solution and continuing incidents of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Key Recent Developments
Spiralling levels of tension and violence between Israelis and Palestinians continue since being sparked by clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police on 13 September 2015 at the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Al-Haram Al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem. Since the start of October 2015, a series of stabbings, shootings and car-rammings by Palestinians has killed 19 Israelis. Israeli forces have killed at least 117 Palestinians, 69 of whom the Israeli army identified as assailants, with thousands more injured and allegations of excessive use of force by Israeli forces.
The Council met on 16 October 2015 at Jordan’s request, with a briefing by Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Tayé-Brook Zerihoun. He stated that the occupation and diminishing prospects for achieving Palestinian statehood, compounded by dire economic circumstances and Israel’s expanding settlement activities, had transformed simmering Palestinian anger into outright rage. On 21 October 2015, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed Council members in consultations via video teleconference from Amman in an emergency meeting on the situation and his visit to the region, which included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Ban apparently reiterated the call he had made to Council members during his monthly lunch on 13 October, to find a better way of working on this important international peace and security issue.
In recent months, Palestine has repeated calls for a UN or other international protection force, which Israel has publicly rejected. On 21 October 2015, the Secretary-General sent a letter to the Council that contained findings from a 2014 review by the Secretariat of the historical precedents for the administration of territory by the League of Nations and the UN. The letter stressed the review was not an options paper proposing any particular system of protection for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, but was compiled for the purpose of assisting and informing any future work that might take place within the Secretariat on this subject.
In response to the escalating violence and calls for the Council to respond, New Zealand circulated a draft resolution to all Council members on 23 October 2015, calling on both parties to take the necessary steps to end the violence, declaring that continued suspension of negotiations is unacceptable and calling on all parties to rebuild trust and prepare for the commencement of negotiations towards a two-state solution. It further calls on both parties to refrain from actions or statements that might prejudice the resumption or outcome of negotiations, including continued settlement activities and referral of a situation concerning Israel or the Occupied Palestinian territories to the ICC.
New Zealand circulated a slightly revised draft on 19 November 2015. It seems New Zealand consulted widely with key parties. Both drafts were circulated beyond the Council membership, including to Israel, Palestine, key Arab countries and other interested parties, such as Norway. Palestine has criticised the draft resolution for not being strong enough as it does not address the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, terms of reference for a renewed peace process and Palestine’s calls for a UN or other international protection force. Israel has criticised the draft resolution as a distraction from the need for direct talks and raised concerns over New Zealand’s broad consultation process.
On 30 October 2015, Abbas met with ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and submitted for the third time this year information relevant to the preliminary investigation into the situation in Palestine. Announced by the Office of the Prosecutor on 16 January 2015, the preliminary investigation is intended to establish whether criteria for opening a formal investigation have been met. Palestine acceded to the Rome Statute on 2 January 2015.
The Middle East Quartet (comprising the EU, Russia, the UN and the US) last met in Vienna on 23 October 2015 and issued a statement calling for significant steps to be taken to restore confidence and hope in the viability of a negotiated two-state solution. At press time, Quartet envoys were in Israel and Palestine to engage directly with the parties and encourage them to take concrete actions.
US Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Jerusalem and Ramallah on 24 November 2015 for talks with Netanyahu and Abbas, his first trip to Israel in more than a year. Appearing with Netanyahu, Kerry said Israel had “every right” to defend itself and that he and the prime minister would discuss ways to “push back” against violence and restore calm. In the West Bank, Kerry said the situation for Palestinians is “very dire” and assured them the US wants to “help contribute to calm and to restore people’s confidence in the ability of a two-state solution to still be viable”.
Over the past few months, Egypt has reportedly flooded numerous underground tunnels along the border of the Gaza Strip, asserting that they were being used to move arms and militants. Tunnel diggers say the underground routes are mainly used for bringing commercial goods in and out of Gaza. By some estimates, fewer than 20 out of thousands of previously existing tunnels remain. The Rafah crossing, controlled by Egyptian authorities, remained closed for more than 100 days, before opening for two days on 3 and 4 December 2015.
The Council last met on the issue on 16 December 2015, and was briefed by Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Miroslav Jenča, who stated that the current circumstances and bloodshed on an almost daily basis should not be accepted as the new normal. He condemned all terrorist acts but emphasised a need to address primary elements motivating Palestinian anger. Israeli statements on commitments to a two-state solution have yet to be followed by actions demonstrating the sincerity of that commitment, he said. Meanwhile, he noted that in Gaza, Palestinian militants fired 10 rockets towards Israel over the past month and Israel conducted four airstrikes. He concluded that “we continue to look to the Security Council for any additional guidance on developing a new peace architecture for resolving the conflict.”
Human Rights-Related Developments
The Human Rights Council held a special meeting on 28 October 2015 to hear addresses by Abbas and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. In his statement, Abbas said the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, was the worst and most critical since 1948. He called on the Security Council to urgently set up a special regime for international protection of the Palestinian people, and urged for a Security Council resolution that would include clear standards for achieving peace based on the two-state solution along the 1967 lines and set a timeline to end the occupation, with international supervision. In the meantime, Israel should release the fourth tranche of prisoners and halt settlement activities, he said. High Commissioner Zeid warned that, if not stopped immediately, the violence would draw ever closer to a catastrophe and that the Middle East peace process must be reactivated with an unprecedented sense of purpose.
An immediate issue is determining how to de-escalate the current levels of tension and violence. The overarching issue is how to urgently move forward with confidence-building measures towards restarting negotiations on a two-state solution.
The Council has limited options on the Middle East peace process, and it is likely that the open debate will again feature the reiteration of previously stated positions—such as support for establishing conditions for the parties to return to realistic and meaningful negotiations, while encouraging parties to refrain from undertaking actions that could threaten the viability of such negotiations.
One option is to consider New Zealand’s draft resolution or to revisit the idea of adopting a resolution outlining parameters for a final status agreement.
Another option would be to explore other Council outcomes that could help advance prospects for a negotiated settlement and to invite the Quartet to report back to the Council on its ongoing efforts.
It seems that despite an escalation in the situation on the ground and calls for the Council to respond, Council dynamics on the issue remain largely unchanged and do not signal a decisive shift towards action at this time.
Some Council members have expressed support for New Zealand’s initiative, but it seems the US in principle is still against adopting a resolution. While New Zealand has indicated that it does not currently envision a time frame for adopting the text, it is unlikely it will pursue the draft further without at least some US support. It seems members such as France and the US are seeking to focus on creating the necessary atmosphere conducive to resuming talks outside the Council, including around the Quartet.
It is generally accepted that the fate of any Council outcome on Israel/Palestine lies ultimately with the US.
Separately, developments in relation to Egypt, particularly in regard to Sinai and Gaza, may gain prominence when it becomes a member of the Council in January 2016.
UN Documents on Israel/Palestine
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|16 December 2015 S/PV.7584||This was the monthly briefing on the Middle East.|
|Security Council Press Statement|
|17 September 2015 SC/12052||This was a press statement that expressed grave concern regarding escalating tensions in Jerusalem, including clashes in and around the Haram al-Sharif compound, and called for upholding the compound’s historic status quo.|
|Security Council Letter|
|21 October 2015 S/2015/809||This was a letter from the Secretary-General, which contained a summary of a 2014 review by the Secretariat of a number of historical precedents for the administration of territory by the League of Nations and the UN.|