Middle East (Israel/Palestine)
Expected Council Action
In July, the Security Council is scheduled to hold its quarterly open debate on “the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov is expected to brief. With the extraordinary and provisional measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic likely still to be in place, the debate is likely to be held as an open videoconference (VTC) with statements by non-Council members submitted in writing.
Key Recent Developments
On 17 May, citing the need for national unity in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rival, Benny Gantz, launched a coalition government, following three inconclusive elections that began in April 2019. Under the terms of the coalition deal signed by the two leaders, the government will be able to decide as early as 1 July on whether to annex parts of the West Bank. The terms of the agreement stipulate that the decision on annexation—which Gantz does not have the authority to block—will be made in “full agreement with the United States and with international discussions on the subject”. At press time, several aspects of the government’s approach to this issue were still unclear, including the precise areas to be annexed and whether the process is foreseen in a phased manner.
Speaking in Ramallah on 19 May, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the Palestinian leadership would be absolved from security and other agreements with Israel and the US in light of the Israeli government’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank. Subsequently, the Palestinian Authority withdrew some of its forces from Abu Dis, indicated that it was ending its intelligence cooperation with the United States, and declared that it would no longer accept taxes collected for it by Israel.
Mladenov briefed Council members on 20 May in an open VTC session, which was followed by a closed VTC. He said that Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank “would constitute a most serious violation of international law, deal a devastating blow to the two-state solution, close the door to a renewal of negotiations and threaten efforts to advance regional peace and…broader efforts at maintaining international peace and security”.
The Jerusalem District Planning Committee approved the construction of as many as 2,200 housing units in occupied East Jerusalem’s Har Homa settlement on 26 May. The Secretary-General’s recent report on the implementation of resolution 2334 maintained that this expansion and the envisioned “construction of 3,000 housing units in the Giva Hamatos settlement…would further consolidate the ring of settlements around Jerusalem’s southern perimeter, separating the Palestinian areas of the city from Bethlehem and the southern West Bank”.
The security situation in the Gaza Strip has generally been calm in recent months, although some incidents have been reported. On 6 May, Palestinian militants fired two rockets into Israel from Gaza. Palestinian militants have also resumed launching incendiary devices into Israel since mid-May. No casualties have been reported from these incidents.
Difficult sanitary conditions in the densely populated Gaza Strip raise concerns about the potentially devastating humanitarian and economic impacts of a wider outbreak of COVID-19 in the area. As of 19 June, 72 cases of COVID-19 and one death as a result of the disease have been reported in Gaza. Citing recent surveys, the Secretary-General estimates that some “35 percent of industrial firms in Gaza have ceased their operating capacity” and nearly “all restaurants and hotels have ceased operations” as a result of the virus. This has resulted in thousands of people losing their jobs in a place where the unemployment rate was already 45 percent in 2019. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has taken a number of measures to curtail the spread of the virus in the Occupied Palestinian territories, including closing schools and providing medical advice to patients whose condition is less severe by phone rather than in person.
On 24 June, the Council held its monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Special Coordinator Mladenov, and Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Ahmed Aboul Gheit briefed. All three emphasised that annexation by Israel of parts of the West Bank would have grave consequences. Guterres said that it “would…grievously harm the prospect of a two-State solution and undercut the possibilities of a renewal of negotiations”. Mladenov stated that it “may kill the very idea that peace and statehood for the Palestinian people can be achieved through negotiations”. And Gheit declared that it would “destroy any prospect for peace” and seriously threaten regional stability.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 15 June, the Human Rights Council (HRC) concluded its general debate on the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet presented four reports concerning the human rights situation in Palestine. She emphasised that the reports showed the “persistence of human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territory and in the occupied Syrian Golan” and expressed concern regarding the “excessive force used by Israeli forces and the heavy burden placed on the already impoverished community and overstretched health facilities and social services in Gaza”. On 16 June, a group of HRC special procedures mandate holders issued a statement raising concerns about the agreement by the new Israeli coalition government to annex parts of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. The statement stressed that the “annexation of occupied territory is a serious violation of the Charter of the United Nations” and pointed out that the Security Council “has repeatedly criticised the Israeli settlements as a flagrant violation under international law”.
Women, Peace and Security Developments
In his 20 May briefing to the Council, Mladenov quoted from the Secretary-General’s 9 April policy brief on “The Impact of COVID-19 on Women”: “[a]cross every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex”. Mladenov added that UN Women had recently reported that the pandemic was disproportionally affecting Palestinian girls and women. He further said that inequalities in the economic sphere are expected to widen due to the creation and exacerbation of pre-existing vulnerabilities and gender-specific risks. Mladenov showed continued concern over an increase in gender-based violence, especially when families live in small spaces and face growing socioeconomic pressures. He referred to reports by NGOs in Gaza and the West Bank showing “a rise in cases of life-threatening incidents of gender-based violence”. This challenge is aggravated by an ongoing lack of shelters, protection and referral services, according to Mladenov.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for the Council is how to address the potential annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel—a step that the UN and nearly all members of the Council would consider illegal under international law and a major blow to the two-state solution. Given US support for the Israeli government, a formal outcome critical of such a move would be highly unlikely at present. Instead, different groups of members—for example, those Security Council members representing the EU, the AU or the Arab League—could issue joint statements in advance of the monthly debate expressing their positions. As for recent precedent, the EU members of the Council issued a joint statement critical of Israeli settlement activity in November 2019, shortly after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo broke with past US policy, saying that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law”.
Another important issue for the Council is what role it can play in resurrecting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, given the widespread rejection of the US peace proposal earlier this year, including by the Palestinians. One option that has been proposed by a number of Council members—and could be further explored this month—has been to revitalise the Middle East Quartet, which consists of the EU, Russia, the UN, and the US.
Given the ongoing humanitarian needs facing Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere—which are likely to be exacerbated by the coronavirus—members may choose to appeal for enhanced financial support for UNWRA. In this regard, an UNWRA pledging conference, chaired by Jordan and Sweden, was held virtually on 23 June, resulting in pledges amounting to approximately $130 million. Fulfilment of these pledges will help to partially cover UNWRA’s $400 million funding gap.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Strong criticism of potential annexation of parts of the West Bank has been widely voiced both in and out of the Council, and such views are likely to be reiterated during the July meeting. The League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, many EU member states, and many UN Security Council members have rejected the US “Vision for Peace”—which envisions the incorporation into the state of Israel of existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem. The US maintains that its peace plan should be viewed as a starting point for negotiations; at the 24 June Council meeting, US Ambassador Kelly Craft asserted that the plan “is designed to lead the sides to a realistic two-state solution, offering a viable path to Palestinian statehood”. At the same meeting, Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon accused the Palestinians of choosing “rejectionism over any realistic solution” to the conflict.
UN DOCUMENTS ON ISRAEL/PALESTINE
|Security Council Resolutions|
|23 December 2016S/RES/2334||This was a resolution that condemned Israeli settlements and was adopted with 14 votes in favour and a US abstention.|
|18 June 2020S/2020/555||One of the reports on the implementation of resolution 2334.|
|Security Council Letters|
|20 May 2020S/2020/430||This was a record of the open VTC on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” on 20 May.|