The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Quarterly Open Debate
Tomorrow (19 October), the Security Council will hold its quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland is expected to brief the Council. Two civil society representatives are also expected to brief. Council members will participate in person, while non-Council member states will submit their statements in writing. Representatives of Israel and the Observer State of Palestine are expected to participate.
The Council last met to discuss the “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” on 29 September. At that meeting, Wennesland provided an oral report on the implementation of resolution 2334 of 23 December 2016. Wennesland noted that no new settlement plans were advanced between 12 June and 27 September, prompting him to call for the pause in the advancement of settlement plans to “become permanent”. Nevertheless, according to the Israeli media outlet The Jerusalem Post, on 13 October, the Jerusalem Local Planning and Building Committee approved the expropriation of land for public buildings and roads in the Givat HaMatos settlement, which is situated to the south of Jerusalem, across the 1967 lines. At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members may note that plans to develop settlements in the area around Jerusalem, such as Givat HaMatos in the south or E1 area in the east, undermine the prospects of a two-state solution and a contiguous future Palestinian state.
The status of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas following the 11-day round of hostilities in May and the reconstruction of Gaza are likely topics of discussion at tomorrow’s meeting. According to an OCHA report dated 14 October, the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas largely held during September and Israel lifted more of the restrictions which it had imposed on Gaza following the May hostilities. Israel expanded the fishing zone in the southern part of Gaza’s coast to 15 nautical miles, issued permits for businesspersons to exit Gaza and expanded the operation of the Kerem Shalom crossing. OCHA further reported that, for the first time since 2014, steel bars entered Gaza through Israel during the month of September. OCHA also reported that during September, 8,250 people in Gaza remained in rented accommodation or with host families following the May hostilities. Moreover, according to a 23 September report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 96 percent of the water available in Gaza “is currently unsafe for human consumption”.
During his 29 September briefing to the Council, Wennesland stated that the “entry of materials and trade” in Gaza had reverted to pre-escalation levels. He warned, however, that “predictable access for materials necessary for stability and economic recovery remains a key challenge”. At tomorrow’s meeting, Wennesland may update Council members on the status of the reconstruction in Gaza and on measures taken by the UN, Israel and members of the international community to improve the humanitarian situation.
On 14 October, the UN began distributing cash aid to around 95,000 impoverished families in Gaza for the month of October. This effort is part of the cash assistance programme to improve the socioeconomic situation in Gaza, established through the 19 August memorandum of understanding signed by the UN and Qatar.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members may underline the importance of dialogue between the parties to avoid steps which could lead violence to flare up. In this regard, some may underscore the need to uphold the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem. Clashes at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site were among the incidents contributing to the escalation of violence that led to the 11-day conflict between Israelis and Hamas in May.
Under an agreement reached after the 1967 Six Day War, only Muslims are allowed to pray at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site. In recent months, however, reports indicate an apparent easing of restrictions by Israeli security forces at the site, allowing Jewish visitors to pray there. On 6 October, a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that a man who had been temporarily banned by the Israeli police from Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif after praying there did not pose a security risk, since he was praying quietly, and overturned the ban. The court’s decision triggered concerns from various stakeholders, including Jordan as the custodian of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and, reportedly, the US. On 8 October, the Jerusalem District Court reversed the lower court’s decision, with an Israeli District Court judge reaffirming that Jews are barred from worshipping openly at the site. Yesterday (17 October), Israeli Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said that the status quo at Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif “was in place and will remain in place”.
Some speakers may also refer to recent meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials. On 4 October, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Ramallah with a delegation of Israeli politicians from the ruling coalition, including Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej, who are members of the left-wing Meretz party. According to media reports, the sides spoke about the importance of dialogue and Israeli-Palestinian cooperation at the meeting.
Wennesland and several Council members are likely to refer to the situation in the West Bank and call for the cessation of attacks against civilians and of the demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures. According to the latest Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2334, between 12 June and 27 September, 302 Palestinian-owned structures were demolished or seized by Israeli authorities or demolished by their owners to avoid demolition fees, causing the displacement of 433 people. According to interim data collected by OCHA, 21 additional structures were demolished in the West Bank between 28 September and 15 October.
Several incidents of harassment and attacks committed by Israelis against Palestinians have recently been reported in connection with the beginning of the olive harvest season (between October and November). For instance, according to Israeli media outlet Haaretz, between 3 and 16 October, “Israeli citizens in the West Bank have sabotaged the harvest 18 times either by direct physical attacks on farmers, or by cutting and breaking trees or stealing the crops”. In a 12 October news release, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for the “safe, timely, and adequate access to olive groves of Palestinian farmers in the West Bank”. At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members may echo the ICRC’s words, call for the cessation of such attacks and underscore the need to protect civilians.
Wennesland and some Council members may refer to the dire financial situation of the Palestinian Authority at tomorrow’s meeting. During his 30 August briefing to the Council, Wennesland said that the “state of the Palestinian Authority’s finances remains precarious”. According to a 1994 economic agreement signed in Paris between the sides, Israel collects taxes on imported and exported goods on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and then transfers the funds to them. However, at a 30 August briefing to the Council, Wennesland explained that “Israel continues to deduct an amount equivalent to what is calculated as paid by the P[alestinian] A[uthority] to the families of prisoners and martyrs” and this makes it difficult for the Palestinian Authority to keep up with social protection payments and pay the salaries of government workers. On 22 September, the Palestinian news agency WAFA reported that Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bishara warned of the likely further worsening of the Palestinian Authority’s financial situation if Israel did not release the tax funds it has withheld.
Tomorrow, some members may mention the upcoming meeting of the Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), which is set to take place in November. 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.