Middle East Briefing and Consultations
Tomorrow morning (20 August) the Council is scheduled to receive a regular monthly briefing on the situation in the Middle East by Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernández-Taranco followed by consultations. The main focus of Fernández-Taranco’s briefing is expected to be developments in the peace process between Israel and Palestine and the Secretary-General’s recent trip to Jordan, Palestine and Jerusalem. Other areas that could be covered are Syria, Lebanon, the Golan Heights and Egypt.
Council members will be interested in the Secretary-General’s impressions and what he saw on the ground during his visit to the Middle East as well as an update on the resumption of direct talks between Israel and Palestine. The resumption agreement was brokered by the US following months of shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry. (Direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians stalled in September 2010, after Israel refused to extend its freeze on settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory.)
In relation to Syria, Fernández-Taranco is expected to cover the investigation, which began today, of the alleged use of chemical weapons in the civil war in Syria. In addition he is likely to cover the humanitarian impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on Jordan and Lebanon. Rocket attacks over the last month in Lebanon could come up during the briefing as well as the Beirut car bomb attack on 15 August which was condemned by the Security Council in a press statement (SC/11095). In addition, the Golan Heights and the latest incidents impacting the UNDOF area of separation will also probably be covered.
It seems that while some Council members may be keen to have a wider discussion on Egypt, Fernández-Taranco will discuss it largely within the context of the Middle East peace process. Violence spiked this past weekend in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and Council members may be interested in hearing how these and other recent developments in Egypt could affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Earlier today, at least 25 Egyptian policemen, who were in civilian clothes, were killed by Islamist militants who ambushed their buses close to the town of Rafah, near the Gaza border.
Council members will be keen to get more details on this incident as there appears to be uncertainty over how the policemen were killed. Some media reports say militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at the buses while other reports state the police were stopped and executed by the militants. In response, the Rafah border post into Gaza was closed and security increased at checkpoints.
During consultations Council members may have a number of questions about the crisis in Egypt. Some members may be seeking information on how the situation in Egypt has evolved since Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson briefed on the matter on 15 August in consultations. Although Council members were unable to agree on a press statement they authorised Council President Ambassador Marìa Cristina Perceval (Argentina) to make remarks to the press following the consultations. In these agreed remarks Perceval said that “the view of Council members is that it is important to end violence in Egypt and that the parties exercise maximum restraint”. She also said that there was a common desire among Council members on the need to “stop violence and to advance national reconciliation.”
An incident that might be raised by some members is yesterday’s killing by security forces of 36 Islamists held in custody in the Sinai. The prisoners were being transferred to the Abu Zaabal prison outside Cairo when the incident occurred. The Ministry of Interior said the prisoners, who had taken an officer hostage and were attempting to escape, died of asphyxiation after the transport van was tear-gassed. Muslim Brotherhood officials however described the deaths as “assassinations”. Council members could seek greater clarity on this incident.
In his second statement on Egypt since violence erupted on Wednesday, the Secretary-General on Saturday strongly condemned attacks on churches, hospitals and public facilities, and appealed to authorities to contain violence and to revive the political process. He also stressed that both the authorities and political leaders share the responsibility for ending the current violence. The Secretary-General reinforced these points during a press encounter at the UN today. The Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, will be in Egypt this week and is expected to report to the Secretary-General on the crisis upon his return. It is possible that some Council members may ask for a briefing from Feltman when he returns.