The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Quarterly Open Debate
Tomorrow (19 January), 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 will brief the Council. Gidon Bromberg and Nada Majdalani, the Israeli and Palestinian co-directors of the NGO EcoPeace Middle East, are also expected to brief. Members were invited to participate at ministerial level at tomorrow’s meeting, which will be chaired by Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Anniken Huitfeldt. In addition, some Council members, as well as the Observer State of Palestine, are expected to be represented at ministerial level. A representative of Israel is also expected to participate.
Non-Council member states are invited to participate in person at tomorrow’s open debate or submit a written statement to be included in the meeting’s official record.
As part of its January presidency, Norway views the quarterly open debate as an opportunity to increase international attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Speaking at a 4 January press briefing, Ambassador Mona Juul (Norway) said that Norway believes it is “critical to enhance the Council’s focus” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and emphasised “the need to find a political solution to this protracted conflict”. She also underscored that both sides need to avoid actions that undermine the prospect of a two-state solution.
Wennesland and Council members may reference as a positive step the 28 December 2021 meeting between Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting—which marked the first time since 2010 that Abbas met an Israeli official in Israel—was the second time Abbas and Gantz met in person during Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s tenure, after their August 2021 meeting in Ramallah. According to a 29 December press release issued by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Gantz and Abbas discussed “security and civilian topics” and Gantz stressed “the parties’ shared interest in deepening security coordination, maintaining regional stability and preventing terror and violence”. Palestinian official Hussein al-Sheikh said that the meeting discussed the “importance of creating a political horizon that leads to a political solution”.
While the 28 December meeting was criticised by Israeli opposition parties and by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, it prompted positive reactions from key international interlocutors. US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides expressed hope that this meeting would lead to more confidence-building measures in 2022. Wennesland tweeted that the meeting was “a timely and encouraging step” and that high-level dialogue was key to charting “a path back to dealing with key political issues”.
Following the 28 December meeting, Israel announced a series of confidence-building measures, including the granting of additional business permits for Palestinians to enter Israel, the approval of residency status for 9,500 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and the transfer of an approximately $32 million advance payment to the Palestinian Authority in taxes collected on its behalf by Israel. Wennesland and some Council members may welcome the steps by the Israeli authorities to ease the economic pressure on the Palestinian Authority, while possibly calling for their further expansion in light of the Palestinian Authority’s precarious financial situation. They may also highlight the importance of strengthening the Palestinian economy and institutions.
Wennesland and Council members may note that these developments took place against a backdrop of continuing tensions and violent incidents in the West Bank. According to OCHA’s 15 January Protection of Civilians report, which covers the period from 21 December 2021 to 10 January, three Palestinians reportedly attempted to “stab, ram or open fire at Israeli forces or settlers” in three separate incidents and were subsequently killed by Israeli security forces. A Palestinian was killed on 6 January in the context of a search-and-arrest operation carried out by Israeli security forces in the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. OCHA further reports that two Palestinians died after being hit by Israeli settler vehicles in two separate incidents. On 5 January, a Palestinian man was critically injured, and later died, after being hit by an Israeli police truck in the city of Hebron. OCHA’s report notes that the truck was confiscating unregistered vehicles and, according to Israeli sources, was being pelted with stones at the time of the incident.
After the reporting period of OCHA’s report, on 12 January, an 80-year-old Palestinian-American citizen was found dead following his arrest by Israeli soldiers in the Jiljilya village, near Ramallah. On the same day, US Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price said that Washington had contacted the government of Israel “to seek clarification about this incident”. Wennesland also called for a swift, thorough and transparent investigation into the incident. According to a statement by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) cited by media reports, on 17 January, a Palestinian attempted to stab an Israeli soldier at the Gush Etzion junction and was subsequently shot dead. At tomorrow’s meeting, Wennesland and some Council members are likely to express concern regarding the recent violent incidents and call on both sides to de-escalate the situation.
Council members may seek an update from Wennesland on settlement activities, as well as seizures and demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures. On 5 January, the Israeli news outlet Haaretz reported that discussion of settlement construction in E-1 (an area of the West Bank which is located between Jerusalem and the Ma’ale Adumim settlement) was postponed “to an unknown date”. However, Israel reportedly advanced settlement activity in other areas. According to The Times of Israel news outlet, on 17 January the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee advanced plans for a new neighbourhood (“Lower Aqueduct”) between the Givat Hamatos and Har Homa settlements in East Jerusalem. Regarding demolitions, OCHA reported that 63 Palestinian-owned structures were demolished or seized during the reporting period of its Protection of Civilians report. Evictions in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah remain a potential source of friction. On 17 January, the eviction of a family in Sheikh Jarrah was delayed following clashes between protesters and the police. At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members may stress that the continuing settlement activity, demolitions and evictions undermine the prospects for a two-state solution and risk triggering further instability and violence.
Wennesland may also provide an update on the situation in Gaza. After a period of relative calm, the recent period has seen sporadic incidents in the Gaza Strip area. On 29 December 2021, a member of a Palestinian armed group shot and injured an Israeli contractor who was working on the Gaza perimeter fence. In response, the IDF fired tank shells towards Gaza, which resulted, according to OCHA, in the injuring of four Palestinian farmers, including a child. On 1 January, two rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel, falling into the sea off the coast of Tel Aviv. The following day, the IDF said that it had carried out airstrikes on Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip. No casualties were reported in connection with these incidents.
Council members may be interested in receiving an update on the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, including the status of entry of key materials into Gaza. During his 21 December briefing to the Security Council, Wennesland noted that “further steps are required to solidify the cessation of hostilities and meet the needs of the population in the Strip”. On 9 January, Haaretz reported that “Israel is holding up the entry of hundreds of vital replacement parts for the proper functioning of Gaza’s water and sewage systems”. According to Haaretz, this has affected the quality and quantity of drinking water, increased the risk of flooding, and resulted in the release of partially treated wastewater into the sea.
In an 8 November 2021 article published in The Economist, Bromberg and Majdalani, together with the Jordanian co-director of EcoPeace Middle East, Yana Abu Taleb, argued that while the Middle East peace process has stalled, there is potential to build trust between the sides by working across communities to confront environmental threats faced by the region which could exacerbate conflict, including water scarcity and soaring temperatures. Tomorrow, Bromberg and Majdalani may echo similar messages, maintaining that through cooperation to address the effects of climate change, it is possible to “build trust from the bottom up, and keep the two-state solution alive”.