Briefing on Middle East Peace Process
On Monday (18 August), Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry will brief Security Council members on Israel-Palestine during the regular monthly briefing on the situation in the Middle East. Consultations will follow, during which members may also discuss other developments in the region.
Monday’s briefing and consultations on the Middle East will take place just before the expiration of a five day ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas—the extension of a preceding 72-hour ceasefire. Council members will be keenly interested in Serry’s assessment of the indirect talks mediated by Egypt between Israel and the unified delegation of all Palestinian factions led by a Palestine Liberation Organisation official and including Hamas and Islamic Jihad on an Egyptian proposal. The ceasefire proposal reportedly presented on 13 August is likely to be of particular interest. At press time, media accounts indicated that progress had been made between the parties on several fronts—including on the lifting of the blockade, a central Palestinian demand—but it remained unclear whether the ceasefire’s expiration would bring another extension, a negotiated settlement or a relapse into fighting.
Council members will likely be interested in hearing about progress on proposals that aim to bolster the talks and facilitate agreement on key issues, such as an EU proposal for a European-backed UN mission to monitor the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza and the demilitarisation of the strip. In Brussels earlier today, EU foreign ministers suggested the EU was ready to support a possible international mechanism endorsed by the Council possibly through the relaunching of the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) for the Rafah crossing point launched in 2005. The EU foreign ministers also said they supported establishing a training programme for Palestinian Authority customs personnel and police for redeployment in Gaza.
Council members have been debating the role of the Council at this juncture as they negotiate a draft resolution presented by Jordan on behalf of the Arab League on 22 July. Currently members appear to be in a holding pattern due to different views on the sequencing of a resolution vis-á-vis a negotiated outcome from Cairo. Although the text was put in blue almost two weeks ago, there has been little progress towards a vote on the text following several consultations at expert level and one such meeting at permanent representative level. While the text has the support of many Council members, consensus has been thus far unattainable as some Council members believe that, given the ongoing negotiations in Cairo, the current text is ill-timed and perhaps outdated. These members would like to see a resolution that addresses issues of long-term peace and security, including by supporting arrangements for improving the untenable economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza, to ensure that any peace found would be durable. The last time the Council adopted a resolution on the peace process, however, was on 16 December 2008 when resolution 1850 expressed support for the since defunct 27 November 2007 Annapolis negotiations.
Council members who support the text as is are of the view that the Council has a role to play in supporting and encouraging progress in the ongoing talks. These Council members appear frustrated with the lack of action from the Council, as it appears it may have missed the window of opportunity to encourage the ceasefire through the current draft. The US, for its part, has apparently not engaged on the details of the text, but has seemingly said that the Council has a role to play in supporting any agreement coming out of the region. There are, however, many aspects of the current draft that would likely prove unacceptable for the US.
The Council last met on Gaza on 31 July, when an urgent meeting on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza was held at the request of Jordan. This meeting came one day after an attack on an UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) school in Jabalia in which at least 19 internally displaced people (IDPs) were killed, and two days after a compound housing the offices of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) and the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process was hit five times. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos and UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl briefed the Council. Krähenbühl reported that the school, which was sheltering 3,300 Palestinians at the time of the attack, received artillery strikes assessed to have been fired by the Israeli military, and that the precise location and coordinates of the school were conveyed to Israel on 17 occasions including a notification that the school was sheltering IDPs. The attack—the sixth such attack on an UNRWA shelter during the conflict—drew widespread condemnation. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned in the strongest terms the “unjustifiable” assault and stressed that it demands accountability and justice. “Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children,” he said.
While the Council habitually issues press statements following attacks on UN personnel or institutions, issuing a statement would necessitate condemning the attacks and assigning culpability to Israel for the attacks, a red line for the US. In lieu of issuing such a statement, hours of consultations primarily between Jordan and the US culminated in agreed elements read to the press by the then Council President, Ambassador Eugéne-Richard Gasana (Rwanda). The press elements are not a formal outcome and tend to express the lowest common denominator agreeable to all members. In this case the agreed elements expressed grave disappointment that the messages of the Council’s 28 July presidential statement had not been heeded, called for an immediate unconditional humanitarian ceasefire, encouraged the use of humanitarian pauses and called on member states to donate to UNRWA’s flash appeal. There was no mention of the recurring, at times fatal, attacks on UN installations in the Gaza conflict, and no specific reference to the Jabalia attack. Three days later, Israel shelled an UNRWA school in Rafah that was sheltering over 3000 IDPs, killing at least 10 people. The coordinates of the school had been communicated to the Israeli Defense Forces at least 33 times.
While Council members are likely to utilise consultations to discuss how best to proceed in light of developments out of Cairo and the region on Monday, they are also likely to use the monthly meeting to address other issues of grave concern in the Middle East, including Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.