What's In Blue

Posted Wed 26 May 2021

Briefing on the “Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”

Tomorrow (27 May), the Security Council will hold its scheduled monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”. The meeting will be held in person in the Security Council chamber, although the briefers will likely participate via videoconference (VTC). The format is expected to be an open briefing, possibly followed by closed consultations. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland and Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), are the anticipated briefers. A civil society representative may also brief.

Tomorrow’s Meeting

Wennesland is expected to update members on the latest developments in the region, including his assessment of the sustainability of the 20 May ceasefire that ended the recent 11-day round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Several sources have indicated that Palestinian armed groups launched some 4,000 rockets at Israel, while Israel conducted roughly 1,500 strikes in Gaza. The fighting claimed the lives of at least 230 Palestinians, including 65 children, and 12 people in Israel, including two children.  Council members will likely be interested in hearing from Wennesland about efforts by the UN and other international actors aimed at ensuring that the ceasefire holds. Several members may encourage diplomatic activity toward this end.

Wennesland may also express concern regarding the ongoing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, including at the holy sites, and at the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood over the threatened evictions of Palestinians from their homes. Violence earlier this month at these locations preceded the eruption of hostilities between Israel and armed groups in Gaza. Several members may urge an easing of tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians and warn against acts of violence and incitement.

Wennesland and Lazzarini are likely to discuss the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, which was exacerbated by the recent hostilities. According to local authorities, the fighting resulted in the destruction of 258 buildings, while water, sanitation and electrical infrastructure sustained severe damage. The fighting also damaged several health care facilities in Gaza. In addition to those who lost their lives, Gaza’s Ministry of Health reported that 1,948 people in Gaza were wounded in the hostilities. Council members may want to hear about the work of UNRWA and other actors in addressing the increased humanitarian needs resulting from the 11 days of fighting. There may be calls for enhanced humanitarian assistance to Gaza. OCHA recently announced that it would soon be releasing a consolidated response plan, including a financial appeal. This plan may be referenced during tomorrow’s meeting.

Wennesland and several Council members may state that the recent hostilities underscore the need to reinvigorate a peace process aimed at achieving a negotiated two-state solution. Several participants may also reiterate their condemnation of Israeli settlement activity and demolitions of civilian structures. In assessing the recent crisis, some members might condemn the rocket fire from Hamas and other militant groups, while also questioning whether Israel made sufficient effort to distinguish military from civilian targets, as required by international humanitarian law. Some may also call for an investigation into the violence during the 11 days of hostilities.

Recent Council Developments

Tomorrow’s meeting follows a period of intense Council engagement on this file over the past few weeks. It will be the fifth time that Council members have convened to discuss this agenda item since 10 May. The previous four meetings were held via VTC. They included consultations on 10 and 12 May, an open debate on 16 May, and a discussion under “any other business” on 18 May.  The General Assembly also convened to discuss the crisis under the agenda items “The Situation in the Middle East” and the “Question of Palestine” on 20 and 25 May.

During the 11-day crisis, Council members made numerous attempts to issue a press statement, and in one instance, press elements, in response to the hostilities. Council President China, Norway and Tunisia spearheaded the efforts to draft a press statement, while Norway proposed press elements at the 12 May consultations. It appears that nearly all members felt that the Council should pronounce itself and speak with one voice on the crisis. However, while indicating that it was engaging in intensive diplomacy to end the crisis, the US did not support a Council product.

During the “any other business” session on 18 May, France reportedly announced that it would propose a draft resolution, which was subsequently circulated to Council members. The draft, which was leaked to the press, demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities, called for all parties to ensure full respect for international humanitarian and human rights law, and urged support for a negotiated two-state solution. The US apparently indicated that it would not support the French draft. On 21 May, a day after the ceasefire was declared, China, Norway and Tunisia proposed another draft press statement; they were subsequently joined by France. At this point, the US engaged in the negotiations.

In the press statement, which was agreed and issued on 22 May, the Security Council called for “full adherence to the ceasefire”.  The members of the Council also mourned the loss of civilian lives from the fighting, and “stressed the immediate need for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian civilian population, particularly in Gaza”.  They further “reiterated the importance of achieving a comprehensive peace based on the vision of a region where two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace with secure and recognized borders”. It appears that the initial draft of the press statement underwent some revisions before agreement was reached. For example, language in the initial draft that was not included in the final version reportedly had reminded parties of their obligation under international law and explicitly referred to a negotiated two-state solution in keeping with relevant UN resolutions.