The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Closed Consultations
Tomorrow (19 April) morning, following the consultations on the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Security Council members will convene for closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. China, France, Ireland, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) requested the meeting to discuss the recent developments in Jerusalem. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland is expected to brief. Tomorrow’s meeting is separate from the regular monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, which is scheduled for 25 April.
Council members are likely to seek an update from Wennesland on the recent tensions in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site and on the security situation in Jerusalem more broadly. (Located in Jerusalem’s Old City, Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism and the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest in Islam, among other sacred structures, and has seen recurrent tensions and skirmishes between Israelis and Palestinians.)
On the morning of 15 April, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces erupted at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. According to a statement by the Israeli police cited in media reports, police officers entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound to disperse Palestinians who were throwing stones, fireworks and other objects. At least 152 Palestinians were reportedly wounded in the clashes. Israeli news outlet Haaretz reported that on 17 April, Israeli police forces entered the compound to remove Palestinians who had set up barriers and gathered stones in the esplanade outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque to prevent a group of Jewish visitors from accessing the site.
Under an agreement reached after the 1967 Six-Day War, only Muslims are allowed to pray at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. A 17 April article by the Washington Post notes, however, that “in recent years large groups of nationalist and religious Jews have regularly visited the [Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount] site with police escorts, something the Palestinians view as a provocation”. The article explains this has fuelled “concerns among Palestinians that Israel is plotting to take over the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or partition it”, a claim that Israel denies.
Today (18 April), a rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel for the first time in four months. It was intercepted by “Iron Dome”, Israel’s air defence system and no injuries have been reported at the time of writing.
The recent events are taking place against the backdrop of intensified Israeli security operations in the West Bank following a wave of deadly terror attacks in Israel (for background on these attacks, see our April Forecast). These operations have led to the death and injury of several Palestinians.
Last year, clashes over restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities on gatherings at the Damascus Gate Plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem were a key factor leading to the May 2021 conflict between Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and Israel. In recent Council meetings, several members expressed concern at a possible escalation during the month of April, when Muslim, Jewish and Christian holidays overlap. For instance, during the most recent monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, which was held on 22 March, France said that “[t]he approach of the religious holidays is leading to fears of a sharp deterioration in the situation and an escalation similar to that of last May”.
Several key international interlocutors have issued statements following the recent developments at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. On 15 April, the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, Stéphane Dujarric, said that the Secretary-General was deeply concerned by the situation in Jerusalem and that he was calling for leaders on all sides to contribute to calm. The statement also said that “[p]rovocations on the Holy Esplanade must stop” and reiterated his calls for the respect of the status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem. On the same day, Wennesland issued a similar statement, calling on “the authorities on both sides to immediately de-escalate the situation and prevent any further provocation by radical actors”. Tomorrow, Wennesland is likely to echo these messages.
On 15 April, US Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement calling on all sides to avoid provocative rhetoric and actions and to preserve the historic status quo on Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. On the same day, EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Peter Stano issued a statement calling for an immediate stop to violence and for the respect of the status quo of the holy sites. The statement said that “[f]urther civilian casualties must be prevented as a priority” and called for Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation.
On 16 April, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation issued a statement condemning the “Israeli forces’ storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque, which resulted in the injury of a number of civilians”. The statement also said that the Israeli authorities “should respect the right of Palestinians to practice their religious rites and halt any practices that violate the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque” and called for respecting the custodial role of the Kingdom of Jordan. (Jordan is the custodian of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.) On 17 April, King Abdullah II of Jordan issued a statement saying that “maintaining calm requires Israel to respect the historical and legal status quo in Al Aqsa Mosque/Al Haram Al Sharif, and to create political horizons that fulfil all the just rights of the Palestinian people, on the basis of the two-state solution”.
In two 18 April tweets, Spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Wang Wenbin said that the recent escalation is a reminder of the importance of not marginalising the Palestinian question and called on the international community to “face up to the crux of the Palestine question” and to facilitate a resumption of peace talks on the basis of the two-state solution.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to reiterate these statements. They may also condemn today’s rocket launch and call for an immediate de-escalation. Council members are also likely to underscore the importance of preserving the historic status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem. This was a message conveyed by several Council members— including China, France, Ireland, Norway, and the US—during the 22 March meeting. At the same meeting, the UAE stressed the gravity of violating the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In their statements tomorrow, Council members may also refer to the recent escalation of violence in Israel and in the West Bank more broadly and deplore the loss of civilian life.
An outcome is not expected in connection with tomorrow’s meeting. It appears that in late March, some Council members discussed the possibility of issuing a press statement calling for calm ahead of the convergence of the religious holidays. However, it seems that the initiative did not garner sufficient support and was abandoned.