The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question
Expected Council Action
In April, the Security Council will hold its quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. It appears that Russia, April’s Council President, has chosen to convene the debate at ministerial level. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov is expected to chair the meeting. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland is expected to brief.
Key Recent Developments
In his 22 March Council briefing, Wennesland drew members’ attention to the significant increase in daily violence in the West Bank and Israel in the recent period. He said that between 8 December 2022 and 13 March, 82 Palestinians “were killed by Israeli security forces during demonstrations, clashes, security operations, attacks against Israelis and other incidents”, while four were killed “in a growing number of attacks by Israeli settlers”. During the same period, 13 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians “in shooting and ramming attacks, clashes and other incidents”.
Recent incidents have included the single deadliest Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operation in the West Bank since 2005, resulting in the killing of 11 Palestinians during a 22 February raid in the West Bank city of Nablus, and the 27 January Palestinian shooting attack in East Jerusalem that led to six deaths, which Wennesland identified as the deadliest attack against Israelis since 2005. Following a Palestinian attack in which two Israeli brothers were killed on 26 February, hundreds of Israeli settlers carried out—often in the presence of IDF soldiers—multiple attacks in the West Bank town of Huwwara, during which Palestinian houses and cars were set on fire and a Palestinian man was killed in what has been described as “the worst such violence in decades”.
Settlement activity and seizures and demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures have intensified in the recent period. On 19 March, OCHA reported that the month of February “accounted for the highest monthly number of structures demolished in East Jerusalem since April 2019”, noting that a total of 36 structures were demolished, compared with a monthly average of 11 in 2022. Regarding settlement activity, the Israeli government announced on 12 February that, in response to recent terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, it would retroactively authorise nine West Bank outposts that were built without the permission of Israeli authorities and would approve the construction of new residential units in existing settlements.
Following this announcement, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement on 20 February expressing “deep concern and dismay” at Israel’s decision and reiterating that continued Israeli settlement activity is imperilling the viability of the two-state solution. (For background, see our What’s in Blue story of 20 February.) Nevertheless, following through on its 12 February announcement, on 22 and 23 February, Israel approved plans advancing over 7,000 housing units in settlements across the West Bank, significantly more than the units approved in 2022 and 2021, which totalled 4,427 and 3,645, respectively. On 21 March, the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) repealed the provisions of the 2005 Disengagement Law pertaining to four northern West Bank settlements that were evacuated concurrent with Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
On 19 March, senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the US, Egypt, and Jordan held a meeting in the Egyptian town of Sharm El Sheikh to discuss, according to the Joint Communiqué issued after the summit, “ways and means to de-escalate tensions on the ground between Palestinians and Israelis”. This meeting followed the 26 February summit of the same five parties in the Jordanian city of Aqaba.
The 19 March communiqué said that Israel and the Palestinian Authority “agreed to develop a mechanism to curb and counter violence, incitement, and inflammatory statements and actions” and that the five parties “agreed to establish a mechanism to take the necessary steps towards improving the economic conditions of the Palestinian people” and to enhance the fiscal situation of the Palestinian Authority. According to the communiqué, both mechanisms “will report to the quintet leadership in April, in a resumed session of the meeting in Sharm El Sheikh”. The communiqué reiterated some of the commitments undertaken by the parties in Aqaba, such as Israel’s pledge “to stop discussion of any new settlement units for 4 months, and to stop authorization of any outposts for 6 months”. While these meetings have brought Israeli and Palestinian officials to the same table, analysts have argued that, far from signifying a restart of the peace process, the initiative is limited to the short-term goal of lowering tensions and does not directly address key issues such as settler violence and demolitions.
Large-scale demonstrations in Israel against the government’s plans for a major judicial overhaul have also characterised the recent period. On 26 March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Defence Minister Yoav Gallant after Gallant argued that the government’s plans are causing a “rift” within Israeli society that is “penetrating the IDF and security agencies”, therefore posing “a clear and tangible danger to the security of the state”. Following mounting national and international pressure, including from the US, Netanyahu announced on 27 March the suspension of the vote on the proposed judicial overhaul until the summer.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 3 March, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue with High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk regarding his report on the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), including East Jerusalem, and the obligation to accountability and justice.
In his statement, Türk emphasised that the situation in the OPT is a “tragedy, above all for the Palestinian people”, noting that Israelis also suffer from the same situation and have a right to live in peace in their state, just as Palestinians do, in a state that is “recognised and viable”. He observed that 2022 saw the highest number of Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces since 2005. His report found that 131 Palestinians were killed in the context of law enforcement activities, including 65 unarmed persons, noting that since 2017, fewer than 15 percent of these killings have been investigated. Türk also noted that 13 Israelis were killed by Palestinians during the period covered by the report and that 2022 saw the highest number of Israelis killed since 2016. He condemned the violence, saying that for it to end, the occupation must end.
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 in order to move towards a resolution of the conflict and achieve a two-state solution. Members continue to be concerned about the deterioration of the security situation and violence against civilians in the West Bank and Israel. Other ongoing issues include deterring developments that undermine the viability of the two-state solution and a peaceful resolution of the conflict, such as the expansion of Israeli settlements, forced evictions and demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures, and the alteration of the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem.
In April, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish observance of Passover will overlap. In 2021, clashes over restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities on gatherings at the Damascus Gate Plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem were a key factor contributing to the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. At the 22 March Council meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, several members called for restraint ahead of the start of this delicate period and for upholding the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem. One option would be to issue a press statement calling for the status quo at the holy sites to be upheld, to avoid any unilateral measures and provocations, and to maintain calm and restraint.
Members that pledged to make Women, Peace and Security (WPS) a top priority by endorsing the 1 December 2021 Statement of Shared Commitments on WPS may consider stressing the importance of including a gender analysis in UN reporting on this file and integrating WPS language in related Council products.
There is broad support among Council members for the two-state solution. With varying degrees of emphasis, members also routinely call for an end to settlement activity and demolitions and condemn violence against civilians, including acts of terror and settler-related violence. For instance, at the 22 March meeting, several members expressed concern at Israel’s repeal of sections of the 2005 Disengagement Law.
The 20 February presidential statement was the first to be adopted by the Council on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” in over eight years and the first formal Council outcome since resolution 2334, which was adopted in 2016. The statement is an indicator of where the lowest common denominator of the Council’s consensus on Israeli settlements currently lies. While the statement reiterates that settlement activity imperils the viability of the two-state solution and calls for full respect for international humanitarian law, it does not contain language echoing resolution 2334 on the illegality of settlements under international law or directly demanding that Israel cease all settlement activities.
The statement should also not be interpreted as marking a breakthrough in Council dynamics on this file that would result in a more proactive and outspoken Council. Members could not achieve consensus on proposed press elements following the 28 February closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”.
Russia has regularly accused the US of blocking the Council’s adoption of any substantive decision on the Middle East peace process and the efforts of the Middle East Quartet—which consists of the EU, Russia, the UN, and the US. In a likely reference to the recent meetings of Israeli, Palestinian, US, Egyptian, and Jordanian officials in Aqaba and Sharm El Sheikh, Russia accused the US during the 22 March Council meeting of trying to monopolise the peace process and re-format it as best suits Washington, of imposing an “economic peace” on the Palestinians, and of forcing “back-room schemes” on the parties, thereby bypassing the Security Council.
Several other members, however, referred to the Aqaba and Sharm El Sheikh meetings in positive terms and stressed the importance for the parties to observe the commitments undertaken during these meetings. Many voiced concern over, and condemned, the remarks by Israeli Finance Minister and leader of the far-right Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich, who on 1 March called for the town of Huwwara to be “wiped out” and on 20 March claimed—while speaking at a podium featuring the outline of a map of Israel’s borders extended to include the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Jordan—that “there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people”.
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 Presidential Statement|
|20 February 2023S/PRST/2023/1||This presidential statement expresses “deep concern and dismay” with Israel’s 12 February 2023 announcement regarding the expansion of settlement activity and reiterates that continued Israeli settlement activity is imperiling the viability of the two-state solution.|