January 2024 Monthly Forecast

Posted 1 January 2024
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The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question

Expected Council Action

In January 2024, the Security Council expects to hold its quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. It appears that France, January’s Council President, intends to convene the open debate at ministerial level. Secretary-General António Guterres is the anticipated briefer. Council members may convene additional meetings during the month depending on developments.

Key Recent Developments

Following the 7 October 2023 large-scale attacks against Israel led by Hamas, the Palestinian armed group and de facto authority in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have carried out massive airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. On 27 October 2023, the IDF also launched a ground operation initially focused on northern Gaza and later extended to most other areas of the Gaza Strip. Analysts have identified Israel’s offensive as one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history.

Figures provided by Palestinian officials in Gaza cited by OCHA indicate that, as at 28 December 2023, over 21,300 Palestinians had been killed. Almost 1.9 million people in Gaza, nearly 85 percent of the population, are estimated to be internally displaced, including people who have been displaced multiple times. Entire neighbourhoods have been bombed to the ground, with over 60 percent of Gaza’s total housing units reportedly being destroyed or damaged. Many people are currently missing and presumed buried under the rubble. According to figures provided by Israeli authorities cited by OCHA, over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in Israel, the vast majority on 7 October 2023. Over 200 hostages were taken into the Gaza Strip during the 7 October attacks, of whom 86 Israelis and 24 foreign nationals were released during a seven-day pause in hostilities, which ended on 1 December 2023.

In the initial aftermath of the 7 October 2023 attacks, Israel imposed a “complete siege” on the Gaza Strip, which had already been under a 16-year-long Israeli-Egyptian blockade. While a small quantity of aid has trickled in despite the ongoing hostilities, it has been insufficient to meet the needs of the civilian population. The 21 December 2023 Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report highlights the “catastrophic levels of acute food insecurity across the Gaza Strip”, with the risk of famine “increasing each day that the current situation of intense hostilities and restricted humanitarian access persists or worsens”. On 16 November 2023, over 30 independent experts of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) issued a statement saying that the “[g]rave violations committed by Israel against Palestinians in the aftermath of 7 October, particularly in Gaza, point to a genocide in the making”.

At the time of writing, Israeli airstrikes, fighting between the IDF and Palestinian armed groups, as well as the launching of rockets from Gaza towards Israel were ongoing.

Since 7 October 2023, Council members have held over 15 meetings and have voted on seven draft resolutions, adopting two of these texts; resolution 2712 of 15 November 2023 and resolution 2720 of 22 December 2023. (For more, see our 15 November and 20 December 2023 What’s in Blue stories.)

Several of the meetings that the Council has held on the war concentrated on specific concerns, such as the open briefings on 10 November and 22 November 2023, which focused, respectively, on attacks on hospitals in Gaza, and on the situation of women and children. More recently, on 29 December 2023, the Council held a meeting on the deteriorating situation in the West Bank and the viability of the two-state solution called by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Some participants at the meeting referred to a report published on 28 December 2023 by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which documented, among other violations, the increase in the use of unnecessary or disproportionate force by Israeli security forces resulting in unlawful killings in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in the period following 7 October 2023.

According to OCHA, between 7 October and 28 December 2023, 295 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank, eight by Israeli settlers, and one either by Israeli forces or settlers, with “[h]alf of the fatalities [being] reported in operations that did not involve armed clashes”. The year 2023 saw “the most advancements or approvals of housing units in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem” since 2017, when the UN began to systematically track these advancements, according to the 14 December 2023 Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2334 of 23 December 2016.

On 6 December 2023, the Secretary-General issued a letter appealing for a humanitarian ceasefire and urging Council members to “avert a humanitarian catastrophe”. The letter invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter, which states that “[t]he Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”.

On 8 December 2023, the Council failed to adopt a UAE-proposed draft resolution which, “[t]aking note of and acting upon” the Secretary-General’s 6 December letter, demanded an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. The draft text failed to be adopted owing to a veto by the US. All other members—except the UK, which abstained—voted in favour of the text.

Following the Council’s failure to adopt the UAE-proposed draft resolution, on 12 December 2023, the resumed Tenth Emergency Special Session (ESS) of the General Assembly on “Illegal Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory” adopted a resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. The ESS resolution, which was largely based on the UAE-proposed draft Council text, garnered 153 votes in favour, 23 abstentions, and ten votes against. This represented a notable increase in the number of member states supporting an end to the fighting compared to an earlier resolution on the crisis adopted by the General Assembly in October 2023 during a previous ESS resumption. This earlier resolution, which called for a “humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities”, received 120 votes in favour.

Resolution 2712 of 15 November 2023 called for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors throughout the Gaza Strip for a sufficient number of days” to enable unhindered humanitarian access and further called for the unconditional release of all hostages. It requested the Secretary-General to identify “options to effectively monitor” its implementation, with Russia demanding in subsequent Council meetings that the Secretary-General either consider expanding the mandate of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) to monitor the implementation of resolution 2712 or “propose an alternative”. In an 18 December 2023 letter, the Secretary-General identified three options for monitoring resolution 2712, while warning that monitoring “is heavily predicated on conditions on the ground being conducive to monitoring” and noting that “intense bombardment and hostilities on the ground, Israeli restrictions on movement, fuel shortages and interrupted communications make it virtually impossible” for the UN to reach most people in need. The three options are:

  • deploying additional UN personnel to strengthen monitoring by UN agencies already present on the ground, such as the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), OCHA, OHCHR, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO);
  • establishing a civilian observer mission mandated to monitor the implementation of resolution 2712, deployed by the UN or a third party, “with the consent or cooperation, as appropriate” of all parties; and
  • deploying unarmed UN military observers to monitor “compliance with humanitarian pauses/ceasefires”, which would require either the expansion of the mandate of an existing mission, such as UNTSO, or the creation of a new mandate by the Security Council, as well as “the consent or cooperation, as appropriate” of all parties.

Following numerous postponements and changes to earlier versions of the text to avoid a US veto, on 22 December 2023, the Security Council adopted resolution 2720 with 13 votes in favour and two abstentions (Russia and the US). The resolution called for “urgent steps to immediately allow safe, unhindered, and expanded humanitarian access and to create the conditions for a sustainable cessation of hostilities”. It also demanded that the conflict parties “allow and facilitate the use of all available routes to and throughout the entire Gaza Strip, including border crossings” to ensure that humanitarian personnel and assistance reach the civilian population. The resolution also demanded the unconditional release of all hostages. In the lead-up to the adoption, several Council members participated in an informal visit to the Rafah crossing organised on 11 December 2023 by the UAE—the penholder on resolution 2720—where members heard first-hand accounts about the difficulties of delivering humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.

Resolution 2720 requested that the Secretary-General appoint a Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator (SHRC) responsible for “facilitating, coordinating, monitoring, and verifying in Gaza, as appropriate, the humanitarian nature of all humanitarian relief consignments” that are provided to Gaza through states which are not conflict parties. The text also requested the SHRC to establish a UN mechanism for accelerating humanitarian consignments to Gaza through states which are not party to the conflict and demanded that the conflict parties cooperate with the SHRC. On 26 December 2023, the Secretary-General appointed Sigrid Kaag as SHRC for Gaza. She is expected to begin her assignment on 8 January.

Several humanitarian and human rights organisations have sharply criticised resolution 2720 for its failure to call for a ceasefire. In remarks to the press delivered shortly after the adoption of resolution 2720, Guterres said that a “humanitarian ceasefire is the only way to begin to meet the desperate needs of people in Gaza and end their ongoing nightmare”. He warned that it is a mistake to measure the effectiveness of the humanitarian operation in Gaza based on the number of trucks that are allowed to unload aid across the border, saying that the “real problem is that the way Israel is conducting this offensive is creating massive obstacles to the distribution of humanitarian aid inside Gaza”.

Human Rights-Related Developments

In a 10 October 2023 statement, the HRC’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and Israel, announced that it is collecting evidence of war crimes committed by all sides since 7 October 2023. As part of its investigation, the commission is inviting states, individuals, groups, and organisations to submit information regarding possible crimes committed by any armed actors, such as attacks against civilians and civilian objects; hostage-taking; use of civilians, including children, as human shields; collective punishment; and starvation. The commission has also issued a call for submissions concerning allegations of gender-based crimes, “with an emphasis on murder and hostage-taking, rape and other forms of sexual violence” committed by any armed actors on and since 7 October 2023. The findings of the investigation will be presented in the commission’s reports to the HRC and the General Assembly in June and October 2024, respectively.

Women, Peace and Security

In a 14 December 2023 statement, over 30 experts of the HRC called for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza to “protect the rights and futures of women and girls” in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Israel. The statement said that “Israel’s intense bombardment on Gaza has reportedly killed nearly 12,000 women and children” and destroyed access to essential services, with over 2,700 women becoming widows and new heads of households and leaving 1.1 million women and girls in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The experts noted that the disruption of schooling, collapse of the healthcare system, and the massive destruction of housing, among other factors, are making both short and long-term prospects for women of all ages and girls in Gaza dire.

The experts expressed serious concern over the hostage-taking of Israeli women and girls, calling on Hamas and other armed groups to release all hostages. The statement also called for accountability and expressed “alarm at increasing allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas and other armed groups against women and girls in Israel on 7 October, as well as sexual assault and threats of sexual violence against women” in the OPT since then. Finally, the experts warned that “no international crime justifies the perpetration of another”, urging Israel to immediately cease “its bombardment of Gaza and its mass displacement of Palestinians”.

Key Issues and Options

In his 6 December 2023 letter appealing for a humanitarian ceasefire, the Secretary-General said that the “situation is fast deteriorating into a catastrophe with potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region”. The most pressing issue for the Security Council is to determine how to respond to the Secretary-General’s appeal and other growing calls for a ceasefire. The fact that a veto-wielding member, the US, opposes any such calls continues to limit the Council’s options in this regard.

If Council dynamics continue to impede agreement on a resolution calling for a ceasefire, Council members who support such a measure could consider delivering a joint statement to this effect. Council members with influence on the parties and other key actors may also exert diplomatic efforts towards that objective.

Members may evaluate the options for monitoring the implementation of resolution 2712 identified by the Secretary-General in his 18 December 2023 letter, while also bearing in mind the Secretary-General’s warnings that the conditions for delivering humanitarian aid do not currently exist. Members might also consider steps the Council should take, should it be faced by non-implementation of resolutions 2712 and 2720.

Determining how the Council can facilitate the resumption of political negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to move towards a resolution of the conflict and achieve a two-state solution remains the fundamental issue for the Council. The prospects for a two-state solution were waning even before the current escalation, and the longer the war continues, the more difficult it will be to rebuild a political horizon for such negotiations. Deterring developments that could further undermine the viability of the two-state solution—such as the destruction of Gaza, the forced displacement of Palestinians, the expansion of Israeli settlements, forced evictions and demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures, violence against Israeli and Palestinian civilians—also remains paramount for the Council.

At the 29 November 2023 Council briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, some participants, including China, Russia, and incoming Council member Slovenia, called for an international peace conference. Members supportive of this proposal could start consultations to this effect.

Council Dynamics

Before 7 October 2023, Council dynamics precluded effective action in response to the non-implementation of Security Council resolutions as well as a shared strategy to restart a political process between Palestinians and Israelis, with the US maintaining that the circumstances were not ripe for the reignition of such a process and investing its diplomatic capital in initiatives such as the now-stalled normalisation agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Difficult dynamics have characterised the Council’s response to the current crisis, which has been marked by contentious and prolonged negotiations, punctuated by multiple failed adoptions.

All Council members voted in favour of the 12 December 2023 ESS resolution calling for a ceasefire, with the exception of the US, which voted against the resolution, and the UK, which abstained. All five incoming members (Algeria, Guyana, the Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, and Slovenia) cast votes in favour.

The US continues to provide Israel with military and political support, including through the sale of weapons, and its opposition to a ceasefire, which it maintains would allow Hamas to regroup and continue launching attacks. Although the US abstained on resolution 2720, its position on the war at the Council is unlikely to change substantively. In order to avoid a US veto, compromise language calling for “an urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities” was further scaled down to an opaque call for urgent steps “to create the conditions for a sustainable cessation of hostilities”, and a reference to indiscriminate attacks against civilians was removed from the text.

The UK has recently shifted its tone from only supporting humanitarian pauses towards calling for a “sustainable ceasefire”. While the exact scope of the phrase “sustainable” in this context is unclear, UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs David Cameron has indicated that a sustainable ceasefire does not amount to a “general and immediate ceasefire” and that it would require Hamas to “lay down its arms”.

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Security Council Resolutions
22 December 2023S/RES/2720 This resolution requested the Secretary-General to appoint a Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator tasked with establishing a UN mechanism for accelerating humanitarian consignments to Gaza. It was adopted with 13 votes in favour and two abstentions (Russia and the US).
15 November 2023S/RES/2712 This was a resolution calling for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors throughout the Gaza Strip for a sufficient number of days” to enable unhindered humanitarian access. It was adopted with 12 votes in favour and three abstentions (Russia, the UK, and the US).
23 December 2016S/RES/2334 This resolution condemned Israeli settlements and called for immediate steps to prevent violence against civilians, including acts of terror. It was adopted with 14 votes in favour and a US abstention.

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