The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Briefing and Consultations
Tomorrow (29 September), the Security Council will hold its monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland and two civil society representatives will brief. Consultations are scheduled to follow.
In his briefing, Wennesland is expected to provide an oral report on the implementation of resolution 2334 of 23 December 2016. In this resolution, the Security Council stated that Israeli settlements constitute a “flagrant violation under international law” and demanded an end to all settlement activities. Resolution 2334 further called for immediate steps to prevent violence against civilians, including acts of terror, and called on both parties to refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric. Wennesland may provide an update on Israeli settlement activity, demolitions of Palestinian structures by Israeli security forces and evictions of Palestinians. According to an OCHA report on the protection of civilians, covering the period from 24 August to 6 September, Israeli authorities “demolished, seized, or forced owners to demolish” 31 Palestinian structures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, citing the absence of Israeli building permits. In a report covering the period from 7 to 20 September, OCHA did not register any demolitions across the West Bank, except for two structures demolished by their owners in East Jerusalem to avoid paying fines.
Council members are likely to express concern at the high number of casualties connected to protests against settlement activity in the West Bank. Some may reference the ongoing demonstrations near the village of Beita, in the Nablus area. On 24 September, a Palestinian man was killed by Israeli security forces during one of these protests. Between 24 August and 20 September, OCHA reported that 856 Palestinians were injured by Israeli forces in the West Bank, with most of these injuries occurring during protests near Beita. The protests in this area began in connection with the construction of the Evyatar settlement outpost in May. While Evyatar’s residents left in July, most of its structures were allowed to remain in place as part of a deal with the Israeli government. In addition, Israeli security forces remain stationed in the area while Israeli authorities deliberate the future of the outpost.
Wennesland may also refer to several high-level exchanges that have taken place among key actors in recent months. On 29 August, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz met in Ramallah. This was the first high-level meeting between Abbas and Israeli officials in more than a decade. Following the meeting, Israel announced several measures aimed at supporting the Palestinian Authority economically, including a $155 million loan. The meeting followed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s 27 August meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington, during which Biden stressed the importance of taking “steps to improve the lives of Palestinians and support greater economic opportunities for them”. In an interview which was published in the Israeli media outlet The Jerusalem Post on 15 September, Bennett said that it would be preferable to “create more business, strengthen the economy and improve living conditions for everyone in Judea and Samaria”, rather than focusing on Palestinian statehood. While Council members may welcome a focus on improving Palestinian livelihoods and strengthening the economy, some members may observe that economic relief and improvements in living conditions need to be accompanied by the resumption of a political process to achieve a two-state solution aimed at creating sustainable peace and stability.
Some members may call on the Middle East Quartet (which is comprised of the EU, Russia, the UN, and the US) to redouble its efforts to revive the Middle East peace process. In his 21 September speech at the 76th UN General Assembly high-level segment, while reaffirming the importance of a two-state solution, Biden said that “we’re a long way from that goal at this moment”.
In his 24 September address at the General Assembly high-level segment, Abbas said that Israel should “withdraw from the Palestinian territory it occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem” in one year, stating his readiness “to work throughout this year on the delineation of borders and solving all final status issues under the auspices of the international Quartet and in accordance with UN resolutions”. He suggested that if his demand were not met, this would lead him to question the need to “maintain recognition of Israel based on the 1967 borders”. Bennet did not make substantive references to the Palestinian question during his address at the General Assembly, focusing instead on Iran and blaming it for playing a destabilising role in the Middle East.
The reconstruction of Gaza is another likely topic of discussion at tomorrow’s meeting. On 30 August, some construction materials for the private sector started entering Gaza for the first time since restrictions were imposed by Israel following the 11-day round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in May. On 1 September, Israel further eased restrictions on Gaza, including by issuing 5,000 permits for business persons to exit Gaza and expanding the fishing zone in the southern part of the coast of Gaza. International media sources have recently reported that Naji Sarhan, Gaza’s Deputy Minister for housing and public works, announced on 26 September that the reconstruction of homes in Gaza will begin in the first week of October. Council members may be interested in receiving an update from Wennesland on the status of reconstruction efforts and measures to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Gaza. While Council members are likely to welcome the recent easing of restrictions, some members are also expected to reiterate their calls for Israel to fully lift its blockade of Gaza.
On 13 September, the UN began distributing cash aid to impoverished families in Gaza. This programme is expected to reach almost 100,000 beneficiaries and follows the memorandum of understanding which was signed between the UN and Qatar on 19 August for the UN’s delivery of a cash assistance programme to improve the socioeconomic situation in Gaza. During the last Council monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, which took place on 30 August, both Wennesland and several Council members–including France, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Niger, Norway, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Viet Nam, and the US— welcomed this initiative.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Wennesland may note that the security situation in Gaza remains fragile. Although the situation along the fence delimiting the border between Israel and Gaza has seemingly improved since the repeated clashes that took place between August and early September, he might warn that tensions between Israelis and Palestinians may spark a deterioration in the security situation. For instance, on 10, 11 and 12 September several rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel, in apparent connection with the capture, between 10 and 11 September, of four of the six Palestinian inmates who had escaped the Gilboa high-security prison in northern Israel on 6 September. Israel responded with airstrikes targeting Hamas military sites on 11, 12 and 13 September. On 26 September, the Israeli media outlet Haaretz reported that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had announced that they were preparing for rocket fire from Gaza following the killing by the IDF of five Palestinians during an arrest operation which took place in different locations across the West Bank on 26 September.