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The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Briefing and Consultations

On Monday (30 August), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on: “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”. Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India’s Foreign Secretary, will chair the meeting. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland is expected to brief.

The increasingly volatile security situation in the Gaza Strip and the status of the 20 May ceasefire, which ended an 11-day round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas are likely topics of discussion at Monday’s meeting. Wennesland may note that while the ceasefire has held thus far, the rising tensions in Gaza highlight its fragility and the need for a sustained process which will address the root causes of the conflict. On 16 August, a rocket was fired from Gaza into Israel and was intercepted by “Iron Dome”, Israel’s air defence system. The rocket launch was the first since the 20 May ceasefire and was preceded several hours earlier by the killing of four Palestinians by the Israeli security forces in connection with an arrest operation in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. In a 16 August tweet, Wennesland expressed alarm at the Jenin incident and called for a swift investigation.

Wennesland and several Council members are likely to express concern about recent tensions along the fence delimiting the border between Israel and Gaza. On 21 August, a protest march took place near the fence to mark the 52nd anniversary of a 1969 arson attack at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and to draw attention to the restrictions on the Gaza Strip. The march turned violent, and the clashes reportedly resulted in the wounding of over 40 Palestinians, including a 13-year-old boy, and of a member of the Israeli border force, who remains in critical condition at the time of writing. One of the Palestinians wounded in the clashes, identified by Hamas as one of its affiliates, later died. In response to the incident along the fence, Israel said on the same day that it holds Hamas responsible for instigating the violent protests along the border and announced that it had conducted airstrikes against Hamas weapons and storage manufacturing sites in the Gaza Strip. On 23 August, Israel carried out an airstrike against Hamas targets in response to the launch of incendiary balloons from Gaza.

On 22 August, the leaders of several Palestinian factions in Gaza, including Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), held a press conference and called on the people of Gaza to “continue their popular uprising” and maintained that Israel must bear responsibility for its “obstruction of the reconstruction of Gaza, and for the blockade”. Additional demonstrations took place near the fence on 25 August. Although the level of violence was not as high as that of the 21 August demonstrations, at least 14 people were reportedly wounded. At Monday’s meeting, Council members are expected to condemn the recent escalation of violence and may seek an update about the UN’s efforts to de-escalate tensions and maintain the ceasefire. Members are likely to express concern over the number of casualties connected to demonstrations along the Israel-Gaza border and call on both sides to maintain calm.

Access into Gaza is another likely topic of discussion at Monday’s meeting. On 26 August, Israel announced the easing of commercial restrictions on the Gaza Strip while noting that they are conditioned on the preservation of security in the region. On the same day, Egypt partially re-opened the Rafah crossing on the Egypt-Gaza border for three days after closing traffic in both directions on 23 August. The closure of the Rafah crossing was reportedly caused by disagreements between Egypt and Hamas in connection with Egyptian efforts to negotiate a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. While Council members are likely to welcome the easing of some restrictions on Gaza, they may be interested in hearing Wennesland’s views on whether the remaining restrictions allow for the adequate delivery of humanitarian assistance, as well as goods and services necessary for reconstruction. Some Council members are also expected to call on Israel to fully lift its blockade of Gaza.

Wennesland may update the Council on the memorandum of understanding which was signed between the UN and Qatar on 19 August for the delivery of a cash assistance programme by the UN to support vulnerable families and improve the socio-economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza. During the 11-day conflict in May, Israel halted the transfer of Qatari cash-based aid because of concerns that the funds ended up supporting Hamas. Council members are likely to welcome the memorandum of understanding, noting that it can facilitate critical relief for Gaza and help strengthen stability and the cessation of hostilities. Nonetheless, some members are also expected to stress that the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains dire and that the memorandum does not constitute a long-term solution to wider issues such as the reconstruction of Gaza after the May hostilities. Wennesland and several Council members are also likely to emphasise the need for safe and unhindered humanitarian access and the importance of finding a sustainable political solution addressing the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some members might also refer to the upcoming meeting of the Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), which is set to take place in September. The AHLC is a 15-member committee that coordinates development assistance to the Palestinian people at policy level and is chaired by Council member Norway.

During Monday’s meeting, Wennesland and Council members are expected to express concern regarding the situation in the West Bank. According to OCHA, between 27 July and 23 August, 985 Palestinians were injured by Israeli security forces in the West Bank. OCHA noted that most of these injuries occurred during protests against settlements, which took place in the town of Beita in the Nablus area. Members are likely to express concern at the high number of injured Palestinians and call for their protection.

Some Council members may urge the Israeli government to cease demolitions and seizures of Palestinian structures. According to a 13 August OCHA report, between 27 July and 9 August “Israeli authorities demolished, seized or forced people to demolish 57 Palestinian-owned structures across the West Bank due to lack of Israeli-issued building permits”. An additional 31 Palestinian-owned structures across the West Bank were demolished or seized in the period from 10 to 23 August, as noted in a 27 August OCHA report. Council members may also refer to the reported proposal for a new settlement in Atarot, between Ramallah and East Jerusalem, and underscore that the continuing settlement-building activity undermines the prospects of a two-state solution.

The need to protect human rights defenders may also be raised during Monday’s meeting. On 11 August, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, expressed concern about the harassment, imprisonment and criminalisation of human rights defenders in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. She stated that “arrests and raids on the homes of Palestinian human right[s] defenders form part of a wider crackdown against those defending the human rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”. Some Council members might echo Lawlor’s words and urge Israel to make sure that Palestinian human rights defenders are protected.

Some Council members may reference the 24 June death of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat, an outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority, while in the custody of Palestinian Authority security authorities. There have been reports of the harassment of journalists covering the protests in the West Bank which followed Banat’s death. In a 23 August tweet, Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Lynn Hastings, expressed concern over the arrest by the Palestinian police of Palestinians preparing to protest Banat’s death. She noted that “while the release of some of those arrested is welcomed, the police must do more to protect peaceful protests”. Council members may urge the Palestinian Authority to halt harassment and violence against activists and journalists and to respect freedom of expression.

On 13 August, four UN Special Rapporteurs, including Lawlor, reported that in the period between January and July 2021 “Israeli military forces have killed 11 Palestinian children in the West Bank” and a further “67 Palestinian children were killed in Gaza” during the May hostilities. Council members may express concern over these deaths and reiterate the Special Rapporteurs’ call to Israel “to work with the international community to establish an impartial body to conduct transparent, arm’s length and public investigations into these deaths consistent with the standards on international law”.

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