What's In Blue

Posted Mon 24 Aug 2020

The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Open and Closed VTC

Tomorrow (25 August) Security Council members will hold their monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”. The format will be an open videoconference (VTC) session, followed by a closed VTC. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov is the anticipated briefer.

The Special Coordinator and several Council members are likely to welcome the 13 August agreement by Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the US establishing the full normalisation of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE in exchange for an Israeli commitment to forgo plans to annex parts of the West Bank. (Among the Arab countries, Israel also has diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan.) Israel had previously indicated its intention to annex parts of the West Bank “as early as 1 July”. This declaration faced criticism from many Council members, who reiterated their position in Council meetings that such a move would contravene international law. Mladenov may express the hope that this agreement could create an opening for Israelis and Palestinians to re-engage with one another in pursuit of peace, while offering the UN’s support to help the parties work toward this end.

While Council members may echo this view, they are aware that Palestinian officials have been highly critical of the agreement. In a 13 August statement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called it a “betrayal of…the Palestinian cause” and indicated that the Palestinian Authority had not been informed of the agreement in advance. On 16 August, Saab Erekat, the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator, said “this step is a killer to the two-state solution”, due to concerns that normalisation of ties between Arab states and Israel decreases the pressure on the Israeli government to compromise in future negotiations. Earlier today (24 August) in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed the hope that other Arab states would follow the UAE in normalising relations with Israel. Pompeo’s visit to Jerusalem is the first leg of a six-day trip that is also expected to include time in Sudan, Bahrain, and the UAE.

One issue that remains unclear is the duration of the Israeli government’s decision to forgo annexation. The text of the agreement indicates that Israel would “suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in” the 28 January US peace plan, which proposed the incorporation of existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, and East Jerusalem into the state of Israel.  Some Council members may express the view that the agreement should stop plans for annexation—which they view as a violation of international law—and not just suspend them. Several members are also likely to reiterate their support for the two-state solution.

Mladenov and a number of members are also likely to voice their concerns about violence along the Gaza-Israel border in recent weeks. The militant group Hamas has fired rockets into Israel and allowed Gazans to launch incendiary balloons that have damaged farmland in Israel. Israel has responded with aerial attacks on militant targets in Gaza. Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, has indicated that it has escalated tensions with Israel to pressure it to soften its blockade on the Gaza Strip. In response to the recent tensions, Israel has increased restrictions on the territory, including by shutting down the one commercial crossing into Gaza; this has resulted in a shortage of fuel that has in turn reduced access to electricity there. Members may be interested in learning about the efforts of the Special Envoy—as well as those of Egypt and Qatar—to mediate an end to the current crisis.

In addition to the difficult humanitarian situation in Gaza, there may be discussion about the impact of COVID-19 in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, where infection rates have increased in recent months. Members may be interested in learning more about what the UN and Israeli and Palestinian officials are doing to address this public health challenge.

Another matter that may be raised by Mladenov is the high rate of home demolitions in East Jerusalem in recent months. According to Israeli media outlet “Haaretz”, in 2020, 89 residential units have been demolished in East Jerusalem, including 24 thus far this month. In 2019, 104 homes were destroyed in that part of the city. In his 18 June 2020 report on the implementation of resolution 2334 (S/2020/555), the Secretary-General expressed deep concern at “the continued demolitions and seizures of Palestinian structures in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem”. He further urged Israel to “cease demolitions and seizures of Palestinian property and to allow Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to develop their communities, in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law”.

Mladenov might also give an overview of his efforts to engage with Israeli and Palestinian civil society organisations to promote peacebuilding projects at the grassroots level.  This engagement is part of an initiative launched by the Special Coordinator’s Office in February to explore how such organisations can help reinvigorate the peace process.

Finally, Mladenov is expected to provide brief updates on the recent activities of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights and the situation in Lebanon. With regard to Lebanon, he may report on how the explosion in Beirut earlier this month—which claimed 181 lives—has exacerbated the humanitarian, political and economic challenges facing the country, as well as what the UN system is doing to help the Lebanese people in the aftermath of the catastrophe.