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The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Quarterly Open Debate

Tomorrow (25 April), 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. Representatives of Israel and the Observer State of Palestine are expected to participate. Non-Council members are invited to participate in person at tomorrow’s open debate.

Council members last met to discuss the “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” in closed consultations on 19 April. The meeting was requested by China, France, Ireland, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to discuss the situation in Jerusalem following the 15 and 17 April clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site in Jerusalem’s Old City. The site—which is referred to by Muslims as “Haram al-Sharif” and as “Temple Mount” by Jews—is the holiest place in Judaism and the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest in Islam. Under an agreement reached after the 1967 Six-Day War, only Muslims are allowed to pray at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site.

According to a statement by the Israeli police cited in media sources, police officers entered the compound on 15 April to disperse Palestinians who were throwing stones and other objects such as fireworks. Two days later, Israeli police forces re-entered the compound to remove Palestinians who had set up barriers and gathered stones to prevent a group of Jewish visitors from accessing the site. According to a 22 April statement by Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ravina Shamdasani, the conduct of Israeli security forces, particularly on 15 April, “raises serious concerns that the use of force was widespread, unnecessary and indiscriminate”. The statement says that some Palestinians, “who did not appear to pose any threat to the Israeli security forces in any manner”, were “beaten with batons or shot with sponge-tipped bullets from close range”.

The Palestinian Authority and several Arab countries—including the UAE—have regarded the incidents at Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount as highly provocative. On 19 April, the UAE summoned the Israeli Ambassador to Abu Dhabi to protest “the events taking place in Jerusalem and Al Aqsa Mosque, including attacks on civilians and incursions into holy places” and to stress the importance of respecting Jordan’s role as custodian of the holy sites. In a 19 April press stakeout, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, Riyad Mansour, referred to these incidents as the storming of Haram al-Sharif and the Al-Aqsa Mosque by “Israeli occupying authorities […] along with extremist settlers, with complete disregard to the sensitive feelings of the Palestinian Muslims who are worshipping during this very important time”.

On 21 April, the League of Arab States (LAS) convened an emergency meeting in Amman at the request of Jordan, which had also apparently lobbied Security Council members to request the 19 April Council meeting. In a statement issued following the meeting, the LAS condemned the “Israeli attacks and violations against worshippers” at Haram al-Sharif, warning that they could trigger wider conflict. In a series of tweets on 21 April, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that Israel has no plans to change “the status quo on the Temple Mount” and that the police acted only to prevent violence at the site to allow prayer to continue. Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces were again reported on 21 and 22 April.

Shortly before the 19 April closed consultations, some Council members apparently discussed the possibility of issuing press elements calling for de-escalation in Jerusalem. However, divisions among Council members prevented agreement on the proposed text. It seems that the main point of contention was whether and how to mention the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. Some apparently wanted to refer solely to “Haram al-Sharif”, while others insisted on the need to also mention “Temple Mount”. It seems that other proposals included using terms such as “holy esplanade” or “holy sites”, as well as referencing a 2015 press statement which expressed concern at tensions in Jerusalem, “especially surrounding the Haram al-Sharif compound”. Ultimately, the difference of views was unbridgeable and the initiative was abandoned.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Wennesland is likely to provide an update on the security situation in East Jerusalem and call for dialogue, de-escalation and respect for the status quo at the holy sites. During his 19 April briefing, Wennesland apparently said that although the situation is extremely fragile, an escalation to open conflict is still avoidable. He stressed that an immediate priority is to prevent a further escalation of violence, while highlighting the importance of also working on long-term solutions to the conflict. Tomorrow, Council members may be interested in receiving an update on the UN’s engagement with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to lower tensions. Wennesland may also provide an update on the security situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Council members are expected to express concern at the recent escalation and call for calm and restraint. Members are also likely to stress the importance of upholding the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem. After the 19 April meeting, Ireland delivered a joint statement to the press on behalf of Council members Albania, France and Norway, together with former Council member Estonia. The statement said that “violence needs to stop immediately”, underscored the importance of respecting the status quo at the holy sites and stressed the role of Jordan in this regard. It also noted that the worsening security situation “highlights the need to restore a political horizon for a credible peace process”.

Council members may express concern about the spillover of tensions in Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip and condemn the recent rocket fire directed against Israel. On 18 April, a rocket was launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel and was intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” air defence system. In response, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said that they had destroyed a weapons manufacturing workshop belonging to Hamas in southern Gaza. According to media reports, at least five rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel on 20 April, some of which were intercepted by “Iron Dome”. The IDF subsequently targeted a series of Hamas sites across the Gaza Strip. On 22 April, two rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip, one falling within Gaza and the other crashing in an open field in Israeli territory. No fatalities were reported.

As the month of April—during which Muslim, Jewish and Christian holidays have overlapped—draws to a close, Wennesland and Council members are likely to underscore the importance of avoiding all forms of provocation and incitement. On 20 April, a far-right march took place in Jerusalem despite not having been authorised by the Israeli authorities. During the march, the Israeli police prevented the participants, some of whom chanted anti-Arab slogans, from reaching flashpoint areas. On 21 April, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al Safadi said that he had received assurances that Israel would not allow Jewish worshippers to enter Al-Aqsa during the last ten days of Ramadan, which started on Friday (22 April).

Tomorrow, Council members may also refer to the events that have characterised the period preceding the recent tensions. Members are likely to condemn the wave of deadly terror attacks which took place in Israel in late March and early April. The latest such attack occurred on 7 April in central Tel Aviv, resulting in three deaths. (For background, see our April Forecast.) Some members are also likely to refer to the intensified security operations carried out by Israeli security forces in the West Bank, which led to the death and injury of several Palestinians, and may express concern at reports of the use of excessive force by the security forces. In a 22 April statement Shamdasani said that the Israeli authorities’ response to the attacks in Israel, in particular in the Jenin Governorate, such as movement restrictions and punitive measures against family members of suspected attackers, “raise concerns of possible collective punishment”.

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