What's In Blue

Posted Tue 17 Nov 2020

Monthly Meeting: The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question

Tomorrow (18 November) Security Council members will hold a videoconference (VTC) briefing, followed by VTC consultations, on “The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov is the anticipated briefer.

During the meeting, Mladenov and several Council members are likely to voice their concerns about ongoing Israeli settlement activities, including the Israeli government’s 15 November decision to commence bidding for the construction of more than 1,200 new housing units in the Givat Hamatos settlement in eastern Jerusalem. There is likely to be criticism of these plans as a violation of international law and a blow to the prospect of a two-state solution. In this regard, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell issued a 15 November statement underscoring the EU’s position that “[a]ny settlement construction will cause serious damage to the prospects for a viable and contiguous Palestinian State” and that “settlements are illegal under international law”.

The outgoing US administration has a different view of settlements than other Council members. On 18 November 2019, in a break from past US policy, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated: “After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate…the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law”. Media reports have indicated that during his trip to the Middle East in the coming days Pompeo will visit a West Bank settlement, marking the first time a US Secretary of State has done so. The incoming US administration of President-elect Joseph Biden, which takes office on 20 January 2021, is expected to have a position on settlements that is less accommodating to the Israeli government.

The demolition of Palestinian civilian structures is another issue that may be raised. In Mladenov’s 26 October Council briefing—his most recent—he urged Israel to end “the demolitions and seizures of Palestinian property throughout the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem”. In a 4 November statement, Humanitarian Coordinator ad interim for the occupied Palestinian territory Yvonne Helle observed that more structures (689) have been razed so far in 2020 in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, than in any complete year since 2016.  She stated: “The lack of Israeli-issued building permits is typically cited as a reason [for demolitions], even though, due to the restrictive and discriminatory planning regime, Palestinians can almost never obtain such permits.”

Members may be interested in Mladenov’s views on the decision today by the Palestinian Authority to restart security and civilian cooperation with the Israeli government. The Palestinian Authority had severed this cooperation at a time when the Netanyahu government was discussing plans to annex parts of the West Bank. While Israel suspended its annexation plans in August in exchange for the normalisation of relations with the UAE, the lack of security and civilian cooperation persisted. In his most recent Council briefing, Mladenov maintained that the financial crisis facing the Palestinians had been worsened by the severance of cooperation, which prevented the Palestinian people from benefiting from tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

Efforts towards Intra-Palestinian reconciliation may also be addressed in the meeting. In this respect, Mladenov may give an update on recent discussions between Hamas and Fatah in Cairo, including plans for possible Palestinian legislative and presidential elections.  According to several sources, Israel’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank—and the subsequent diplomatic normalisation agreements that Israel forged with the UAE and Bahrain—have underscored to the different Palestinian factions the importance of reconciliation and unification.

A number of potential negotiating formulas have been proposed in recent months to re-engage Israelis and Palestinians in peace talks, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ call on 25 September for an international conference in early 2021—undertaken by the UN Secretary-General “in cooperation with the [Middle East] Quartet and the Security Council”—to resolve “all final status issues”. However, while members are likely to call for efforts to re-launch the political process during the meeting, many are aware that the incoming US administration is likely to have a different approach towards the conflict than the Trump administration, which will be a factor in the parties’ calculations given the important US role in the region and its participation in the Middle East Quartet.

Another matter that is likely to be discussed in the meeting is the difficult financial situation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). On 9 November, Phillipe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, announced that the agency did not have sufficient funds to pay the November salaries of 28,000 staff members; he appealed to member states for financial support so that “the Agency can continue its critical services and life-saving operations”. UNRWA notes that it needs US$70 million by the end of November to pay the salaries of staff through the end of the calendar year. Tomorrow some Council members may emphasise the importance of enhanced financial support for UNRWA, especially given the heightened humanitarian needs in Gaza and the West Bank during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

There may also be condemnation of the firing of two rockets from Gaza into Israel on 14 November. It appears that no casualties resulted from this attack; no one has claimed responsibility for the rocket launches, which came shortly after the one-year anniversary of Israel’s assassination of Bahaa Abu al-Ata, an Islamic Jihad militant, on 12 November 2019. The Israeli Defense Forces said that they had responded, striking “underground infrastructure and military posts” belonging to Hamas.

In addition to Israeli-Palestinian relations, Mladenov may briefly touch on developments in Lebanon and the Golan Heights.