The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Emergency Meeting
Tomorrow (8 August), following the open debate on “Peace and security in Africa: Capacity-building for sustaining peace”, the Security Council will convene for an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), together with China, France, Ireland and Norway requested the meeting to discuss the recent developments in the Gaza Strip. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland is expected to brief. Representatives of Israel and the Observer State of Palestine are expected to participate.
On 1 August, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) arrested Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander Bassam al-Saadi in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. A 16-year-old Palestinian was killed during the operation. According to Israeli news outlet Haaretz, following al-Saadi’s arrest, a PIJ spokesperson said that the organisation was “on high alert and ready to respond”.
In the days following al-Saadi’s arrest, Israel strengthened security measures in areas close to the Gaza Strip, citing intelligence regarding an imminent retaliatory strike by the PIJ. This included closing roads and a railroad near the Gaza border fence and deploying special units and attack drones. On 4 August, caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that Israel “will not shy away from using force to restore normal life in the south of the country”. The following day (5 August), the IDF began striking sites in Gaza as part of a new operation codenamed “Breaking Dawn”. An Israeli military spokesperson said that the strikes—during which Tayseer al-Jabari, a senior PIJ official, was killed—were in response to an “imminent threat” from two PIJ militant squads. On the same day, Palestinian news agency WAFA reported that at least ten Palestinians were killed because of the strikes, including a five-year-old girl, and over 50 people were injured.
In a 5 August letter to the Security Council, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, Riyad Mansour, said that “Israel’s military aggression” against Gaza “is targeting residential buildings, vehicles, and main roads leading to hospitals” and called on the Security Council to stop Israel from repeating its acts of aggression, to protect lives and to ensure accountability. In reference to the fact that Israel has justified its operation on the basis of reports of an imminent threat, the letter underscored that “[t]here is absolutely no justification for such use of force against civilians” and that “[t]he insecurities of an occupying Power cannot be prioritized over the lives and rights of an occupied people”.
In the evening of 5 August, the IDF undertook a second round of airstrikes, targeting what it said were “terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip”. That same evening, the PIJ began launching rockets towards Israel. Exchanges of fire continued on 6 and 7 August, with the IDF carrying out airstrikes in Gaza and the PIJ launching rockets towards Israel. According to the most recent information from Gaza’s Ministry of Health, 43 Palestinians have been killed since the start of Israel’s operation and more than 310 have been wounded. Late on 7 August, Israel and the PIJ agreed to a ceasefire, which went into effect at 4:30 pm EST. The ceasefire was brokered by Egypt; the UN and Qatar were reportedly involved in mediation efforts.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Wennesland may reiterate key messages contained in his 5 August statement, which expressed concern at the ongoing violence and called “on all sides to avoid further escalation”. Council members are likely to welcome the agreement on the ceasefire and call on the sides to uphold the ceasefire. Members are likely to emphasise different aspects of the current outbreak of violence, in accordance with their positions on the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For instance, while Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova called for “maximum restraint”, she also reportedly pointed out that the current escalation “was caused by [the] Israeli army firing into the Gaza Strip on August 5, to which Palestinian groups responded by carrying out massive and indiscriminate bombardments on Israeli territory”. US National Security Spokesperson John Kirby said that the US fully supports “Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist groups”. Similarly, UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss said that the UK “stands by Israel, and its right to defend itself”. In a 6 August statement, the EU said that although “Israel has the right to protect its civilian population, everything must be done to prevent a broader conflict”. On the same day, the UAE issued a statement emphasising the need to restore calm and explaining that tomorrow’s meeting was called to “discuss the current developments and ways to support international efforts to achieve a comprehensive and just peace”.
Members may underscore the importance of protecting civilians and of respecting international humanitarian law. They are likely to condemn the indiscriminate firing of rockets from Gaza and there may also be criticism of Israel’s airstrikes. Some members may express concern at the impact of the conflict on children. Media outlets reported that, according to Palestinian sources, yesterday (6 August) at least four children were killed in an explosion in the vicinity of the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza. While Hamas and some Palestinian media sources have blamed Israel, the IDF maintains that the deaths were caused by a failed rocket launch by the PIJ.
At tomorrow’s meeting, members are expected to seek an update on the humanitarian impact of the strikes on the civilian population in Gaza. Members may express concern that the effects of the military operation are likely to exacerbate the dire living conditions in the Gaza Strip, which has been under Israeli blockade for over 15 years and where reconstruction is still ongoing following the May 2021 11-day round of hostilities between Hamas and Israel. According to OCHA, in June almost 80 percent of the population in Gaza relied on humanitarian assistance, “[l]argely due to the blockade, poverty, high unemployment rates and other factors”. In a 6 August statement, Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory Lynn Hastings said that the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza could only worsen due to the escalation and urged Israeli authorities and Palestinian armed groups to immediately allow the UN and its partners “to bring in fuel, food, and medical supplies and to deploy humanitarian personnel in accordance with international principles; this includes specifically ensuring access and safety through key border crossings”. Wennesland is expected to reiterate this request tomorrow.
Wennesland and several members may cite the recent escalation as evidence of the importance of creating a political horizon for the peace process to resume with the aim of achieving a two-state solution. At a 27 June Council meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, Wennesland said that “[o]nly sustainable political solutions will relieve the pressures on the long-suffering population of Gaza”, a message he is likely to stress again tomorrow.
The next regular meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” is planned for 25 August. However, members will continue to monitor developments in Gaza closely and may choose to hold another meeting if the ceasefire does not hold and the situation deteriorates.