Open VTC Debate: “The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”
On Sunday (16 May), the Security Council is expected to hold an open videoconference (VTC) debate to discuss the recent escalation of violence in Israel, Gaza and East Jerusalem. China, Norway and Tunisia called for the meeting. This will be the third time in six days that the Council has met to discuss this issue. Council members received a briefing in closed VTC consultations from the Special Coordinator of the Secretary-General for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland on 10 May and 12 May. Sunday’s meeting will be the first of these meetings to be held publicly. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to deliver opening remarks, and Wennesland will brief. Representatives of Israel and the Observer State of Palestine will participate. Council members and other parties whose interests are affected will also speak during the VTC session. Other member states will have the opportunity to submit written statements that will be compiled in a UN document.
Violence is ongoing in the region, after rising tensions in late April in East Jerusalem led to violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in different parts of the city. On 7 May, skirmishes erupted between Israeli police and Palestinians at the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, lasting for several days. Militant groups in Gaza continue to fire rockets into Israel, with Israeli Defense Forces responding with aerial and artillery fire on Gaza in an operation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described in a 12 May tweet as “action to strike at the military capabilities of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip”.
At the time of writing, Palestinian officials have reported that 126 Gazans, including 31 children, have died in the recent round of fighting; Israeli officials have reported that eight people have been killed in Israel, including two children. In addition to the exchange of fire between Gaza and Israel, the conflict has taken on a new dimension in recent days, with an escalation of tensions and violence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations in cities across Israel.
At Sunday’s meeting, Wennesland is likely to provide an overview of the current situation on the ground and efforts to mediate between the parties. He and/or the Secretary-General may reiterate the points that the Secretary-General made in a statement earlier today (14 May) through his spokesperson. This includes an appeal to the parties to cease hostilities in Gaza and Israel, an expression of concern about the potential humanitarian consequences of the fighting and the possibility that the violence will fan the flames of extremism in the region, and a call for an intensification of diplomatic efforts to end the fighting.
Council members are also expected to call for an end to the fighting. However, there will most likely be differences in tone depending on their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some members may condemn the rocket fire from Gaza, but also call on Israel to do its utmost to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. Others may be more critical of Israel, given the rising number of civilian casualties in Gaza. Several may also emphasise that the current crisis underscores the need for a two-state solution.
Members may be interested in an update from Wennesland about international efforts to promote a ceasefire. According to media reports, there have been various mediation initiatives, including by Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Russia, the EU, and the US.
When Council members last met to discuss the recent escalation of violence on Wednesday (12 May), Wennesland spoke about the exchange of fire between Gaza and Israel and the recent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protestors in East Jerusalem. He expressed concern about the high number of casualties that the sides had suffered in the fighting and reiterated his calls for de-escalation and restraint. He further welcomed international efforts to mediate an end to the crisis.
During that meeting, Council members reiterated Wennesland’s call for de-escalation and Norway proposed draft press elements. The draft text expressed concern about the situation in Gaza and the tensions and violence in East Jerusalem, especially around the holy sites. It demanded an end to the violence, called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, and reiterated support for a negotiated two-state solution. It also urged an intensification of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.
The US blocked the press elements, however, just as it had blocked a draft press statement on the situation the prior day (11 May). The US maintained that a Council product would not be helpful, noting that it was engaging with senior officials on both sides to mediate an end to the crisis. Some members apparently challenged the US position, suggesting that the press elements could be issued in conjunction with diplomatic engagement. These members further emphasised the importance of the Council speaking with one voice on the crisis.
As the fighting continued after the 12 May meeting, some members expressed an interest in holding another meeting on the crisis on 14 May (Friday). The meeting originally anticipated for 14 May was postponed until Tuesday (18 March), apparently at the request of the US. However, there was significant pushback from several Council members, who felt that given the severity of the crisis, it was important to convene the meeting sooner than 18 March. As a compromise, members agreed to meet on Sunday (16 May). Several members may again be interested in pursuing a press statement as an outcome of Sunday’s meeting; however, getting agreement on this would be unlikely if the fighting continues and the US approach to the crisis remains the same.
Following Sunday’s open meeting, the next scheduled meeting on the “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question” is the monthly session on 27 May, which is planned as a VTC briefing, followed by VTC consultations. However, given the gravity of the current crisis and concerns about further escalation, the Council will continue to closely monitor developments in the region, and could hold additional meetings on this issue before then.