The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question
Expected Council Action
In January, the Security Council will hold its quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. It appears that as part of the Norwegian presidency of the Security Council, the debate will be convened at ministerial level and will be chaired by Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anniken Huitfeldt. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland and a civil society representative are expected to brief.
Key Recent Developments
The quarterly open debate follows two recent meetings of key interlocutors on the Middle East in Oslo. On 17 November 2021, the Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC)—a 15-member committee that coordinates development assistance to the Palestinian people at the policy level and is chaired by Norway and co-sponsored by the US and the EU—met in person at ministerial level. Speaking prior to the AHLC meeting, Qatar’s Minister of State of Foreign Affairs announced that Qatar and Egypt had signed an agreement to supply building material and fuel to Gaza. A meeting of the envoys of the Middle East Quartet—which consists of the EU, Russia, the UN, and the US—was held on the same day. In the joint press statement released after the meeting, the envoys expressed concern about “ongoing acts of violence in the West Bank, the advancement of new settlement units, the untenable fiscal crisis within the Palestinian Authority and threats of violence from the Gaza Strip”. The envoys called on the parties to “take additional steps to address these challenges directly through fiscal and other reforms, as well as to avoid unilateral steps”.
On 14 December 2021, officials from the US and the Palestinian Authority held a virtual meeting of the US-Palestinian Economic Dialogue (USPED). This was the first USPED meeting since May 2016, as no USPED meetings were held during the Trump administration. In mid-November 2021, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield (US) conducted an official visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, during which she met with high-level Israeli and Palestinian officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The recent period has seen the continuation of violent incidents. Several such incidents were noted in a 14 December 2021 OCHA Protection of Civilians report:
- On 17 November, a Palestinian stabbed and injured two Israeli Border Police officers in the Old City of Jerusalem and was subsequently shot and killed by Israeli police.
- On 21 November, a Palestinian shot and killed an Israeli civilian and reportedly injured an Israeli civilian and two Israeli Border Police officers. The attacker was shot and killed by Israeli forces.
- On 4 December, a Palestinian stabbed and injured an Israeli and tried to stab an Israeli Border Police officer near the Old City of Jerusalem and was shot and killed by security forces.
- On 6 December, a Palestinian was shot and killed by security forces after he drove a vehicle into a security booth at a checkpoint in Tulkarm, injuring an Israeli security guard.
- On 8 December, an Israeli was stabbed and injured by a Palestinian in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem.
- On 10 December, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian in the context of weekly protests against settlement activity in Beita, Nablus.
- On 13 December, a Palestinian was killed by security forces following a search-and-arrest operation in Nablus.
On 16 December, an Israeli civilian was killed in an attack carried out by Palestinians near the Homesh outpost in the West Bank. According to a 17 December statement issued by Wennesland, “there have been several retaliatory attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in villages near Nablus”. In the statement, Wennesland condemned all violent and terrorist acts and appealed “to all sides to deescalate the situation”.
During the reporting period, 441 Palestinians—including 97 children—were injured in clashes with Israeli security forces across the West Bank. Most of the injuries were registered during demonstrations against settlement activities near the village of Beita in the Nablus area.
At the end of October 2021, Israeli authorities announced plans for the construction of several thousand housing units in different locations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. (For further details, see our 7 November “What’s in Blue” story). On 6 December, the Jerusalem District Planning Committee decided not to advance the plans for a settlement in Atarot, between Ramallah and East Jerusalem, citing the need first to conduct an environmental study. Commenting on the 2 December 2021 conversation between Bennett and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that Blinken had “strongly emphasized that Israel and the Palestinian Authority should refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution, including advancing settlement activity”.
According to OCHA, between 16 November and 6 December 2021, Israeli authorities “demolished, seized, or forced owners to demolish” 62 structures owned by Palestinians, displacing 55 people, including 18 children.
Israel recently designated six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organisations. The initial order—which applied only within Israel and was signed on 22 October 2021 by the Israeli Ministry of Defence—was extended on 7 November 2021 to the West Bank. Several key international human rights interlocutors have criticised the designation, including High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, a group of UN independent experts on human rights, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. Council members discussed the designations during a meeting on 8 November 2021 under “any other business” called by Tunisia, and several Council members raised the issue at the 30 November 2021 monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”.
On 11 December 2021, the first round of local elections was held in some areas of the West Bank; the second round is expected in March 2022. On 29 April, Abbas indefinitely postponed Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections, originally scheduled for 22 May and 31 July.
The ceasefire reached after the 11 days of hostilities in May 2021 between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has largely held, and Israel has recently eased restrictions it previously imposed, allowing more goods to enter the Strip and issuing permits for traders and merchants to enter Israel. At the same time, Wennesland has called for a longer-term, sustainable arrangement for Gaza in his monthly briefings, stressing that the objective remains the lifting of all restrictions. On 9 December 2021, the Israeli minister of foreign affairs travelled to Egypt on a diplomatic visit to discuss, among other issues, the situation in Gaza.
On 16 November 2021, Jordan and Sweden convened an international ministerial conference on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Addressing the Advisory Commission on UNRWA on 29 November 2021, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, said that “UNRWA is on the brink of collapse” and that there is a $60 million gap to cover the cost of services for the months of November and December 2021. Lazzarini noted that while 2021 saw “the welcome resumption of the immense US support to UNRWA”, other donors have decreased or not disbursed their funding.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 3 November, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory, Michael Lynk, and the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, issued a statement condemning Israel’s announcement that it was planning to build thousands of new housing units in its West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements. The experts noted that the illegality of the Israeli settlements is one of the most widely accepted issues in modern international law. They welcomed the diplomatic criticism regarding settlement expansion, including by the US, but observed that “criticism without consequences means little” and called on the international community to support the ongoing investigation into the settlements by the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.
On 10 November 2021, Lynk and the Working Group on the use of mercenaries expressed growing alarm at the rising rate of violence directed by Israeli settlers towards Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory. They emphasised that 2021 witnessed the “highest recorded levels of violence … and more severe incidents”. (The statement notes that “In several cases, Israeli security forces and outsourced private security companies stand by and take no action to prevent the violence; instead, they respond to settler-related violence by ordering Palestinians to leave the area, including Palestinian-owned land, or even actively support the settlers.”)
According to OCHA, in the initial ten months of 2021, there had been 410 attacks by settlers against Palestinians (302 against property and 108 against individuals), with four Palestinians killed. In 2020, there were 358 attacks in total, and in 2019, 335 attacks. Yesh Din—an Israeli human rights organisation—noted that 91 percent of investigations into settler attacks against Palestinians between 2005 and 2019 were closed by the Israeli authorities, with no charges filed.
Women, Peace and Security
On 20 and 21 October 2021, UN Women Palestine held an annual Open Day on Women, Peace and Security in Gaza City. The event brought together Palestinian women from Gaza and the West Bank and was organised in partnership with the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) and with support from the Government of Norway. During the Open Day, UN Women Special Representative for Palestine Maryse Guimond said that women’s leadership and participation have been absent in “peace efforts between Palestine and Israel and those aiming to achieve intra-Palestinian reconciliation, rendering the success of both endeavours more elusive”. Among the issues discussed were the importance of holding Palestinian elections and the impact of the occupation on Palestinian women and girls, with the Director of GUPW, Intissar Al Wazir, stating that women, peace and security resolution 1325 “is a very important framework to promote women’s protection from occupation violence”. Recommendations formulated by the participants at the event included the establishment of a platform for Palestinian women leaders, with diverse political views and from different generations, to convene and strategise on how to increase women’s participation in the Palestinian reconciliation process.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for the Council is what role it can play in reinvigorating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. During the November 2021 meeting, Wennesland spoke of the need to “restore a political horizon that will help stop the endless cycle of crisis management and move back towards meaningful negotiations to end the occupation and resolve the conflict”. Preserving the viability of the two-state solution; the persistence of violent incidents and clashes, including settler attacks; and the consolidation of the 20 May 2021 ceasefire into a longer-term arrangement also remain key issues.
To revitalise the Middle East Quartet, one option would be to issue a statement welcoming the in-person Quartet meeting in November and calling for the next meeting to be held at ministerial level to underscore the gravity of the current political impasse.
Another option would be for the Council to meet with Lynk and Rajagopal in a closed meeting format to engage in a frank discussion about recent settlement activity.
Council members have repeatedly called for an end to settlement activities and expressed support for a two-state solution. At the November 2021 monthly meeting on the Middle East, Council members mentioned settlement expansion as a source of concern, with the US noting that settlement expansion “has reached a critical juncture and is now undermining the very viability of a negotiated two-State solution”.
At the same time, the US has also criticised the Council’s focus on Israel as being disproportionate. At the November 2021 monthly meeting on the Middle East, Thomas-Greenfield said that Israelis “interpret the overwhelming focus on Israel in this organ as a denial of Israel’s right to exist and an unfair focus on that one country—and they are correct”. She called instead for more regular meetings on Iran and for open meetings on Lebanon and proposed to “enforce Security Council resolutions intended to constrain Iran’s regional malign activities, nuclear threats and support for terrorism organizations like Hamas and Hizbullah”. It appears that this was the first time in which the US directly mentioned Iran during an open meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” since the start of the Biden administration.
Council members also regularly underscore the importance for the parties to return to political negotiations. At the same time, it appears that the current US policy is driven by prioritising economic measures to improve the Palestinians’ living conditions over the resumption of the peace process.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE MIDDLE EAST, INCLUDING THE PALESTINIAN QUESTION
|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.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|30 November 2021S/PV.8913||This was the November monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”.|