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”. Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Mohamed Khaled Khiari is the expected briefer.
Key Recent Developments
On 18 June, the Israeli government changed long-standing settlement planning and approval procedures to significantly expedite these processes, and on 26 June, it approved plans advancing more than 5,500 settlement units. These developments, which were met with expressions of concern by key international interlocutors, compound the Israeli government’s other recent moves in this direction. In February, for instance, Israel approved plans advancing over 7,000 housing units in settlements across the West Bank, and in March, the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) repealed the provisions of the 2005 Disengagement Law pertaining to four northern West Bank settlements—including the Homesh outpost—that were evacuated concurrent with Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. On 18 May, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) issued an order allowing Israelis to re-enter the area of the Homesh outpost.
Demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures are also on the rise, with OCHA reporting the demolition or seizure of 290 structures—43 of which had been provided as humanitarian aid—and the displacement of 413 people during the first three months of 2023. These figures represent, respectively, a 46 and 78 percent increase compared with the first quarter of 2022, which saw the highest number of demolitions since 2016.
Violence in the West Bank continues to escalate. Recent incidents have included the 19 June IDF raid and ensuing exchanges of fire in the Jenin refugee camp, during which five Palestinians were killed and two more later died of their wounds, and the 20 June shooting attack near the settlement of Eli, during which four Israelis were killed by two Palestinians. Following the 20 June shooting attack and through 25 June, Israeli settlers targeted several Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank, causing extensive damage. A Palestinian man was shot and killed during the violence. (Following these developments, Council members held an extraordinary meeting on 23 June and, on 27 June, agreed on press elements. For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 23 June.)
At the 27 June Security Council meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, Wennesland said that these “attacks followed a similar pattern, with large numbers of settlers, many armed, in some cases escorted by I[sraeli] S[ecurity] F[orces], setting fire to dozens of houses and vehicles, as well as fields owned by Palestinians, followed by confrontations, in many cases leading to casualties”. He noted that, while some authorities condemned the attacks—with, for instance, a joint statement by Israeli security forces referring to the settler attacks as “nationalist terrorism”—others delivered inflammatory statements. Wennesland referred in particular to a recent statement by Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s National Security Minister and leader of the far-right Otzmah Yehudit party, who called for a widespread military campaign in the West Bank, urging Israeli security forces to “blow up buildings [and] assassinate terrorists. Not one, or two, but dozens, hundreds, or if needed, thousands” and called on settlers to “run to the hilltops” and establish additional outposts. Wennesland also noted that some Palestinian factions celebrated the 20 June shooting attack and called for additional attacks.
The compounding effects of settlement expansion, demolitions, and settler violence were particularly evident in the displacement in May of the Palestinian herding community of Ein Samiya in the West Bank. According to a 25 May statement by Acting Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) Yvonne Helle, “the Israeli authorities have repeatedly demolished homes and other structures [these families] own and have threatened to destroy their only school. At the same time, land available for the grazing of livestock has decreased due to settlement expansion and both children and adults have been subjected to settler violence”, leaving no viable choice for this community than to leave.
International interlocutors have noted the reappearance of heavy weaponry during Israel’s operations in the West Bank as a concerning development. In a 23 June statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said that the airstrikes conducted by the IDF during the 19 June raid in Jenin were “a major intensification of the use of weaponry more generally associated with the conduct of armed hostilities rather than a law enforcement operation”. (During the raid, Israel deployed helicopter gunships in the West Bank for the first time in about 20 years.) On 21 June, three Palestinians were killed in an Israeli drone strike on a car that the IDF said was carrying “a terrorist cell” that had carried out shooting attacks in the West Bank. According to media reports citing a statement by the IDF, this was the first such strike in the West Bank since 2006. In his statement, Türk said that the Israeli authorities are required “to ensure that all operations are planned and implemented to minimize the use of lethal force”.
The ceasefire, which halted the 9-13 May round of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip, has held. However, there is an ongoing risk that developments in the West Bank may have spillover effects in Gaza, leading to a new violent confrontation. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 10 May.)
On 27 June, the Secretary-General published his annual report on children and armed conflict, which documented 3,133 grave violations that were perpetrated against 1,139 Palestinian children and eight Israeli children in 2022. Several civil society organisations and member states have criticised the Secretary-General for failing to hold accountable Israeli security forces and Palestinian armed groups, neither of which were listed in the annual report’s annexes. Several civil society organisations have called for Israel’s listing, with some also calling for the listing of Palestinian armed groups. (For more, see the Children and Armed Conflict brief in our July Forecast.)
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 8 June, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the OPT, including East Jerusalem and Israel, issued a report which found that “freedom of association, expression and opinion, and the right to peaceful assembly, are being violated by the Government of Israel, the Government of the State of Palestine and the de facto authorities in Gaza” (A/HRC/53/22). Introducing the report to the HRC on 20 June, Commissioner Navanethem Pillay said that “the majority of violations are being committed by Israeli authorities”. Among other issues, the report says that the commission concluded that the designations by Israeli authorities of six Palestinian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as terrorist organisations—which Council members discussed during several meetings in 2021 and 2022—were “unjustified, undertaken to silence civil society voices, and violate human rights, including freedom of association, freedom of expression and opinion, and the rights to peaceful assembly, to privacy and to fair trial”. The report also says that the commission has “documented several cases of sexual and gender-based violence by Palestinian security forces against Palestinian women human rights defenders”. (The commission was established by HRC resolution S-30/1 adopted on 27 May 2021. While some UN member states oppose the commission’s open-ended mandate, others support it.)
Key Issues and Options
The overarching issue for the Security Council remains to determine how it can support the resumption of political negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to move towards a resolution of the conflict and achieve a two-state solution. The deteriorating security situation and violence against civilians remain important matters of concern for Council members. While the Council has met on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” twelve times in six months, it has been unable to put forward a shared strategy to prevent the further worsening of the situation.
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—is also a key issue. In a recent statement, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, respectively Chair and Deputy Chair of The Elders, warned that a “‘one-state reality’ is now rapidly extinguishing the prospect of a two-state solution”.
On 20 February, the Council adopted a presidential statement expressing “deep concern and dismay” about Israel’s announcements regarding expansion of settlement activity. One option for the Council would be to adopt a follow-up presidential statement reacting to recent announcements of further construction and expansion of settlements and to the decision of the Israeli government to alter settlement planning procedures. The statement could echo the 28 June statement by the Secretary-General’s spokesperson and previous Council outcomes, condemning the advancement of settlement activity and reiterating that settlements constitute a flagrant violation of international law and are a major obstacle to the realisation of a viable two-state solution and a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace. The statement could also call for immediate de-escalation, calm, and restraint.
If Council dynamics impede agreement on a presidential statement, different groupings of Council members could consider delivering their own statement to this effect. These groupings could also explore and spearhead further options and proposals to promote broader and more effective Council action on this file.
Council and Wider Dynamics
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.
Nevertheless, dynamics on this file remain difficult. China, for instance, proposed issuing press elements during the 10 May emergency consultations, which had been called to discuss the hostilities between Israel and the PIJ. However, consensus could not be achieved. In particular, it seems that the US opposed the proposal, arguing that an outcome would not be helpful at that stage, and that it was preferable to leave space for quiet diplomacy. On 27 June, Security Council members agreed on press elements on the 23 June closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” after a failed attempt to do so on the day of the consultations. This was the first Council outcome, albeit an informal one, on this file since the 20 February presidential statement.
In recent Council meetings 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.
Many members have called for the implementation of the commitments agreed at the meetings of senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the US, Egypt, and Jordan in Aqaba and Sharm El Sheikh. Although the joint communiqué issued after the 19 March Sharm El Sheik meeting strongly suggests that the five parties would reconvene in April, no such meeting has taken place. At press time, further meetings under this US-led format appear unlikely in the immediate future, with senior Palestinian Authority leaders stressing that it is not possible to continue holding these conferences “if there is no actual and tangible positive development on the ground”.
In June, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas travelled to China, where on 14 June, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the establishment of a “strategic partnership”.
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.|