The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question
Expected Council Action
In July, the Security Council expects 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 Tor Wennesland is expected to brief.
Key Recent Developments
In a major development, on 20 June, Naftali Bennett and coalition partner Yair Lapid, who then served as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, respectively, announced their decision to hold a vote on dissolving the Knesset (parliament). The eight-party coalition co-headed by Bennett and Lapid was formed in June 2021 in opposition to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Coalition members included the United Arab List (the first Arab party in Israeli history to be part of a governing coalition), the left-wing party Meretz, and several right-wing parties.
Following the 30 June vote in favour of dissolution, Lapid assumed the function of caretaker prime minister. Parliamentary elections—which will be the fifth in Israel in less than four years—are expected to take place in early November.
The decision to dissolve parliament was taken once it became apparent that the government would not be able to secure a majority to extend the expiring emergency regulations, which, following the 1967 Six-Day War and the beginning of the occupation, apply significant portions of Israeli domestic law (instead of military law) to Israelis in the West Bank. Once the Israeli parliament is dissolved, however, these emergency regulations are automatically extended. Earlier in June, a vote on this issue failed to gain a majority. According to media reports, while some parliamentarians belonging to the governing coalition oppose the regulations out of principle, Netanyahu rallied his party, Likud, and other opposition parliamentarians to oppose the measures—which they would otherwise support—with the objective of destabilising the government.
The Security Council last held a meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” on 27 June. Wennesland briefed on the latest Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2334, which was issued on 22 June, as well as developments after the reporting period. Adopted in 2016, resolution 2334 stated that Israel’s establishment of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), including East Jerusalem, “constitutes a flagrant violation under international law” and called for immediate steps to prevent violence against civilians, including acts of terror. The report says that the period from 19 March to 16 June has seen the highest number of settlement units advance since October 2020. The report also states that daily violence throughout Israel and the oPt has increased during the reporting period. (See also our 24 June What’s in Blue story.)
In response to a wave of deadly terror attacks in Israel, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have intensified security operations in various locations across the West Bank, resulting in the death and injury of several Palestinians. On 11 May, Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead while reporting on one such operation in the Jenin refugee camp (see our 25 May What’s in Blue story). In a 13 May press statement, Security Council members strongly condemned Abu Akleh’s killing, calling for accountability and for an immediate, thorough, transparent, fair, and impartial investigation. On 24 June, the spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Ravina Shamdasani, said that an OHCHR probe into the killing found that the shots that killed Abu Akleh “came from Israeli Security Forces and not from indiscriminate firing by armed Palestinians”.
Although the security situation in the Gaza Strip has remained relatively calm, on 18 June, a rocket was fired from Gaza into southern Israel and was intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” air defence system. In response, the IDF said it had targeted Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip. However, Al Jazeera reported that, according to Palestinian media, the strikes fell on agricultural land in Gaza.
The 21 of June marked 15 years since the start of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. According to OCHA, almost 80 percent of the population in Gaza relies on humanitarian assistance, “[l]argely due to the blockade, poverty, high unemployment rates and other factors”. During a press briefing on 21 June, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said: “More needs to be done to alleviate the humanitarian situation, with the eventual goal of a full lifting of the Israeli closures, in line with Security Council resolution 1860 of 2009.” Wennesland regularly stresses the need to fully lift the Gaza blockade in his monthly briefings to the Security Council.
Resolution 2334 also called upon states to distinguish in their dealings between the territory of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967. The Secretary-General’s report includes updates on food labelling decisions by Norway and Canada in fulfilment of this aspect of resolution 2334. For instance, it notes that Norway announced that foodstuffs originating from the oPt sold in Norway must bear an indication of their territory of origin, including whether they are from the settlements.
The Ad Hoc Committee for the purpose of announcing voluntary commitments to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) met on 23 June. Secretary-General António Guterres and UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini addressed the meeting. Guterres encouraged states to reflect on how “investing in UNRWA means investing in stability in the region”, including against terrorism. Lazzarini said that the agency is chronically underfunded at a time when it faces increasing costs and demands. Lazzarini highlighted the discrepancy between UNRWA’s current financing model, which obliges the agency to rely on unpredictable voluntary contributions, and its mandate, which assigns it government-like functions, such as the provision of education and health services.
From 13 to 16 July, US President Joe Biden is expected to travel to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, where he will attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan (GCC+3). According to media reports, the visit to Israel will go ahead notwithstanding the collapse of the coalition government and Biden is likely to meet with caretaker Prime Minister Lapid and other Israeli leaders.
A key issue that the Palestinian Authority may discuss with Biden is the status of the US diplomatic mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. During the Trump administration, the US Consulate in East Jerusalem was closed and downgraded to the “Palestinian Affairs Unit” within the US Embassy in Israel. (In a highly controversial move, former US President Donald Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018.) In June, the US announced that the “Palestinian Affairs Unit” was being renamed the “US Office of Palestinian Affairs” and that it will report to Washington on substantive issues while continuing to operate under the US Embassy in Jerusalem. The Israeli news outlet Haaretz has reported that senior Palestinian officials are not satisfied with the change as it falls short of reopening the consulate in East Jerusalem, a move Israel strongly opposes.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced on 20 June that Israel had been working with the US on a regional partnership named the Middle East Air Defense Alliance which, he said, had “already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries”. On 31 May, Israel and Council member the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed a major free trade agreement which will remove tariffs on many products, including food, cosmetics and medicines.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 50th session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue with, and considered the first report of, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the oPt, including East Jerusalem, and Israel (A/HRC/50/21). The Commission reviewed the findings and status of the implementation of recommendations of previous UN fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry on the situation, and those of other UN human rights bodies. The Commission “found that the key findings and recommendations linked to the underlying root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict have not been implemented, and that this lack of implementation is at the heart of the systematic recurrence of violations in both the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel”. (The Commission was established by HRC resolution S-30/1 adopted on 27 May 2021.)
Women, Peace and Security
On 24 June, the Informal Experts Group on Women, Peace and Security (IEG) held a meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Wennesland briefed. This was the first time the IEG met on the situation in Israel and the oPt.
Key Issues and Options
The overarching issue for the Council remains determining how it can better support the resumption of political negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to move towards a resolution of the conflict and achieve a two-state solution. In the absence of progress towards this, ongoing issues include preventing new escalations of violence, the expansion of settlements in the oPt, and other developments that undermine the viability of a two-state solution. Current Council dynamics and recent developments—such as the uncertainty about the outcome of the upcoming Israeli elections—make it unlikely that the Council will adopt a product to, for instance, condemn recent plans for settlement expansion and stress the importance of further relaxing and ultimately lifting the Gaza blockade.
In March, the HRC appointed Francesca P. Albanese to the role of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, taking over from Michael Lynk. In a 16 May statement, Albanese—together with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, and Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context—called for stopping “the forced evictions, arbitrary displacement and forcible transfer” of Palestinian communities from a cluster of villages in the West Bank known as Masafer Yatta.
An option would be for the Council to meet in a closed meeting format with Albanese, Jimenez-Damary and Rajagopal to engage in a frank discussion on the international humanitarian law prohibition of forcible transfers as it applies to the oPt and the consequences of this practice for both the communities at risk of being forcibly displaced and the wider resolution of the conflict.
The press statement on the killing of Abu Akleh represented a rare show of consensus in the Council’s work on the situation in Israel and the oPt. It is unlikely, however, that this consensus will carry over into the Council’s engagement on the political aspects underpinning the divide. In the context of the April clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site in Jerusalem’s Old City, some Council members held preliminary discussions on issuing press elements calling for a de-escalation. However, divisions among members on whether and how to mention the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site—which reflect divisions between Israelis and Palestinians regarding this site—prevented agreement on the proposed text.
In addition, it appears that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is further complicating Council dynamics on this file. During May’s monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, the US referred to “how Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine is affecting food insecurity in the region”, adding that Russia is blocking food exports and “actively impeding Ukrainian farmers”. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia (Russia) countered that these accusations were misleading and lamented the decision of the organisers of the 9-10 May meeting of the Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) not to invite Russia. Nebenzia said: “Any attempt to exclude Russia from the process of resolving the Palestinian question, the situation in Syria or any other Middle East crisis would be counterproductive.” (The AHLC is a 15-member committee that coordinates development assistance to the Palestinian people at policy level and is chaired by Council member Norway.) During the April monthly meeting, Russia expressed disappointment at the fact that its “Quartet colleagues again and again refuse[d] to cooperate on resuming the Middle East peace process”.
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.|
|22 June 2022S/2022/504||This was the twenty-second Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2334.|