The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question
Expected Council Action
In October, 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
More than four months after the 20 May ceasefire agreement that concluded 11 days of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, the security situation in the Gaza Strip remains precarious. Nevertheless, while intermittent bouts of violence have marked the period since the Council’s last open debate on this issue in July, the ceasefire has, thus far, largely held. A measured easing of some of the restrictions imposed by Israel on Gaza and several notable meetings among key international interlocutors on the Middle East have also recently taken place.
For the first time since the 20 May ceasefire, a rocket was fired at Israel from Gaza on 16 August. It was intercepted by Israel’s anti-missile system. Earlier on the same day, Israeli security forces had killed four Palestinians in connection with a raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.
Recently, there have been repeated demonstrations near the fence delimiting the border between Israel and Gaza. One of the most serious incidents was on 21 August, when a march to mark the 52nd anniversary of the arson attack at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and to protest against the restrictions on Gaza turned violent. The clashes resulted in the death of two men (a Palestinian and an Israeli) and a 12-year-old Palestinian boy. In response to the 21 August incident, Israel launched airstrikes later that day against Hamas military sites in Gaza. Israel also carried out airstrikes against Hamas targets on 23 August, 29 August and 7 September following repeated launches of incendiary balloons from Gaza.
Several rockets were also fired from Gaza towards Israel on 10, 11 and 12 September, apparently in connection with the capture, between 10 and 11 September, of four of the six Palestinian inmates who had tunnelled out of a high-security prison in northern Israel on 6 September. The rockets triggered response fire from Israel on 11, 12 and 13 September.
Despite these confrontations, this period has also seen a number of important official meetings. On 29 August, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz met in Ramallah. This was the first high-level meeting between Abbas and Israeli officials in more than a decade. Following the talks, Israel announced a series of measures to support the Palestinian Authority economically, including a $155 million loan. The meeting came after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to the US, where he met with President Joe Biden on 27 August. Biden stressed the importance of taking “steps to improve the lives of Palestinians and support greater economic opportunities for them”.
In an interview reported in The Jerusalem Post on 15 September, Bennett said that instead of focusing on Palestinian statehood, it would be preferable to “create more business, strengthen the economy and improve living conditions for everyone in Judea and Samaria”.
On 2 September, Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi met in Cairo, reportedly to discuss the strengthening of the 20 May ceasefire and the revitalisation of the Middle East peace process. On 13 September, Bennett and al-Sisi met in Sharm el-Sheikh, marking the first formal Israeli visit to Egypt in a decade. It seems that the meeting included a discussion of the situation in Gaza, among other regional issues. Regarding the restrictions on Gaza, Wennesland said in his 30 August Council briefing: “The current gradual approach is a holding operation and not a strategic way forward and a solution for the people of Gaza. Gaza requires political solutions that will see a full lifting of Israeli closures”. After a ban lasting more than three months, some construction materials for the private sector started entering Gaza on 30 August. On 1 September, other restrictions were eased, including those on the fishing zone in the southern part of the Gaza coast. A 13 September Al Jazeera news report with interviews from Gaza, however, indicated that reconstruction was yet to start.
On 19 August, the UN and Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding for the UN to provide cash assistance to vulnerable families and improve the socioeconomic situation in Gaza. (During the May hostilities, Israel halted the transfer of Qatari cash-based aid because of concerns that the funds would end up supporting Hamas.) The distribution of cash aid by the UN to impoverished families in Gaza began on 13 September and is expected to reach almost 100,000 beneficiaries.
Regarding the situation in the West Bank, OCHA reported that 1,841 Palestinians were injured by Israeli forces between 27 July and 20 September; most of these injuries occurred during protests against settlement activities near the village of Beita in the Nablus area. OCHA reported that Israeli authorities demolished, seized or forced owners to demolish 119 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank during this period. Two further structures were demolished by their owners in East Jerusalem between 7-20 September to avoid paying fines. 58 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank between 1 January and 20 September. In his 29 September monthly briefing to the Council, Wennesland briefed on recent developments and the implementation of resolution 2334, which was adopted in 2016 and demanded that all settlement activities cease with immediate effect.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 48th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) is expected to consider the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on allocation of water resources in Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem (A/HRC/48/43), on 1 October. The HRC will also receive an oral update from the High Commissioner on the implementation of S-30/1, followed by a general debate. In resolution S-30/1, adopted at the HRC’s 30th special session, the HRC decided to urgently establish an ongoing independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate all alleged violations of international humanitarian law and all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law leading up to and since 13 April in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel.
Key Issues and Options
Key immediate issues for the Council include the consolidation of the 20 May ceasefire towards a longer-term arrangement, the improvement of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the acceleration of its reconstruction. Demolitions of Palestinian civilian structures and the possibility of further evictions are also an issue of concern to the Council. The resumption of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians remains a key issue.
Building on the recent diplomatic momentum, Council members could consider ways to support the reconstruction of Gaza and confidence-building measures between Israel and the Palestinians. A Council statement stressing the importance of maintaining the ceasefire and providing humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Gaza may also be an option.
Council members have repeatedly underscored that settlement-building is a violation of international law and have called for an end to settlement activities and demolitions of Palestinian civilian structures. Members also regularly stress the importance of Israel and the Palestinians returning to the peace table and the need for a two-state solution.
At present, the US, Israel’s strongest ally in the Council, appears to be prioritising measures to improve Palestinian living conditions, rather than putting its weight behind a resumption of the peace process. It has criticised actions by the parties as being provocative—including settlement activity, demolitions, hate speech, and compensation to individuals imprisoned for terrorism. At the same time, it has also maintained that “there are other issues in the region that are threats to international peace and security and deserve more of the Council’s attention”, as Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield (US) stated during the 25 March Council meeting on the Middle East. This year the US resumed its financial support for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), which had been cut during the Trump administration.
Though some Council members may support a strategy that prioritises economic and livelihood improvements over political negotiations, other members may stress that economic relief and improvements in day-to-day living conditions do not negate the need to resume working on a political process. During the 28 July Middle East meeting in the Council, Russia noted that “we should not lose sight of, or postpone until a more favourable moment, the task of reviving the political peace process, including relaunching direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on all final status issues”.
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 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.|