The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question
Expected Council Action
In July, the Security Council will hold its quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland is expected to brief.
Key Recent Developments
On 29 April, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas indefinitely postponed Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections, originally scheduled for 22 May and 31 July. He cited as his rationale concerns that Israel would not allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate in the poll. Several sources, however, have speculated that he was worried that his party, Fatah, would not fare well in the vote.
On 9 May, hostilities erupted between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza following weeks of mounting tensions and violent incidents between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, including at the holy sites, and at the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood over the threatened eviction of Palestinians from their homes.
Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire on 20 May, following intensive diplomatic efforts by Egypt, Qatar, the US, and the UN. Palestinian armed groups launched some 4,000 rockets at Israel while Israel conducted roughly 1,500 strikes in Gaza. The fighting claimed the lives of 253 Palestinians, including at least 66 children, and 12 people in Israel, including two children. The round of hostilities was also marked by violent altercations between Jewish and Palestinian communities within Israel.
On 22 May, Council members issued a press statement calling for “full adherence to the ceasefire”. The members of the Council also mourned the loss of civilian lives from the fighting and “stressed the immediate need for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian civilian population, particularly in Gaza”. They further “reiterated the importance of achieving a comprehensive peace based on the vision of a region where two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace with secure and recognized borders”.
On 27 May, Special Coordinator Wennesland, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Philippe Lazzarini, and Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi briefed the Council via videoconference. Wennesland emphasised the importance of addressing the humanitarian situation in Gaza, highlighting the $95 million flash appeal that had been initiated earlier that day. He also spoke of the need to “create a political horizon that allows the parties to return to the path of meaningful negotiations”. Lazzarini emphasised that recovery from the hostilities and humanitarian assistance for Gaza would not prevent another round of fighting, adding that the “recovery phase [in Gaza] needs to be accompanied by a genuine political track aimed at lifting the blockade on people, goods and trade”. Khalidi called “for the world community to accept…the principle that, in any projected solution in Palestine-Israel, all citizens of both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and both collectivities must enjoy rights and security on a basis of complete equality”.
Naftali Bennett became Israel’s prime minister on 13 June after assembling an ideologically diverse coalition that narrowly succeeded in securing a vote of confidence in the Knesset, obtaining 60 votes, one more than the 59-vote threshold required to assume office. Bennett, who supports settlement construction and has voiced opposition to a Palestinian state, replaces former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been prime minister for 12 consecutive years. Bennett’s coalition includes an Arab party (Raam), representing the first time in Israel’s history that an Arab party has been part of a ruling coalition.
Tensions began to rise again in mid-June, following the uneasy ceasefire declared on 20 May. On 15 June, incendiary balloons were released from Gaza that Israel said caused 20 fires in Israeli areas near the Gaza Strip. In response, the Israeli military announced on 16 June that it had launched airstrikes on “military compounds belonging to the Hamas terror organization”. There were no reported casualties. Also on 15 June, Israeli nationalists waving Israeli flags marched through east Jerusalem in a parade that many Palestinians perceived as inflammatory, with reports that some of the marchers chanted “death to the Arabs”. The parade was held in lieu of the Jerusalem Day parade in May, which was cancelled amidst the hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians. In a 16 June letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the Palestinian Observer Mission to the UN decried the event as “an anti-Palestinian march by extremist and far-right politicians”.
On 21 June, Wennesland met with Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar; following the meeting, Sinwar expressed displeasure with Israel’s withholding of the transfer of financial aid from Qatar. He also complained of restrictions on the delivery of fuel to Gaza and the diminution of the Gaza fishing zone. Israel continues to demand the release of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two Israeli soldiers from Gaza as a condition for completely ending restrictions. The Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip announced following a 22 June meeting that if their demands for the restrictions’ easing are not met, they will resume launching incendiary balloons into Israel and will organise rallies along the border fence with Israel. In the aftermath of this announcement, Israel announced that as of 25 June it would expand the fishing zone and allow raw materials for key civilian factories to enter Gaza. At the same time, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz announced that while Israel would commit to improving the “situation for the benefit of the people…we will not tolerate terrorism of any kind”.
Wennesland again briefed the Council on 24 June. He expressed concern about the approval by Israeli officials of plans to expand the Har Homa settlement in East Jerusalem, noting: “If implemented, this plan would further consolidate the continuum of illegal settlements separating East Jerusalem from Bethlehem and other Palestinian communities in the southern part of the West Bank.” He further emphasised that the Israel-Hamas ceasefire remains “very fragile” and said that the UN is “working closely with all concerned parties and partners, including Egypt, to solidify a ceasefire, allow the entry of urgent humanitarian assistance and stabilize the situation in Gaza”.
Key Issues and Options
Key issues that the Council is considering include the importance of:
- maintaining and solidifying the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians;
- reinvigorating intra-Palestinian reconciliation, especially following the delay in the Palestinian elections planned for this year; and
- addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Council members could consider a statement emphasising the importance of maintaining the ceasefire and providing humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Gaza. As this may be politically difficult given the challenges in issuing the May press statement, different groupings of Council members could consider delivering their own statements to this effect.
Council members continue to emphasise the need for a two-state solution, an end to settlement activities and demolitions of Palestinian civilian structures, and a return by Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table. Following the May hostilities, several members have emphasised the need for the ceasefire to hold and the urgency of providing humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Gaza. In the 27 May meeting, members such as the US and Kenya underscored that assistance to Gaza should not be exploited by militants there.
During the 11-day crisis, Council members made numerous attempts to issue a press statement and, in one instance, press elements, in response to the hostilities. It appears that nearly all members felt that the Council should pronounce itself and speak with one voice on the crisis. However, while indicating that it was engaging in intensive diplomacy to end the crisis, the US did not support a Council product. Ultimately, on 21 May, a day after the ceasefire was declared, China, Norway, and Tunisia proposed another draft press statement and was joined by France in spearheading the initiative. At this point, the US engaged in the negotiations, and Council members were able to issue a press statement.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE MIDDLE EAST, INCLUDING THE PALESTINIAN QUESTION
|Security Council Resolution
|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.
|Security Council Meeting Record
|27 May 2021S/PV.8782
|This was a briefing on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.
|Security Council Press Statement
|22 May 2021SC/14527
|This was a press statement in which Council members welcomed the 20 May ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas after an 11-day round of hostilities.