The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Briefing on Recent Tensions
Tomorrow afternoon (5 January), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. The meeting was requested yesterday (3 January) by China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), joined today (4 January) by France and Malta, to discuss the recent developments at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site in Jerusalem’s Old City. The site—referred to by Muslims as “Haram al-Sharif” and by Jews as “Temple Mount”—is the holiest place in Judaism and the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and has frequently seen tensions and clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.
Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Mohamed Khaled Khiari is the anticipated briefer. Representatives of Israel and the Observer State of Palestine are expected to participate at tomorrow’s briefing. Jordan and several other countries may participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. Tomorrow’s briefing is separate from the regular monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, which is scheduled as an open debate on 18 January.
On the morning of 3 January, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the recently appointed Israeli National Security Minister and leader of the far-right Otzmah Yehudit party, visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site escorted by a large security presence. Ben-Gvir assumed his post following the 29 December 2022 swearing-in of the new coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party won the majority of votes during Israel’s 1 November 2022 elections. (For background, see our January Forecast brief.)
Palestinians view the increasing number of visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site by Jews and visits by high-profile Israeli Jewish politicians as steps towards disrupting the status quo at the holy sites. Under an agreement reached after the 1967 Six-Day War, only Muslims are allowed to pray at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. However, as stated in a 3 January Washington Post article, in recent years, the number of Jewish visitors has grown to “hundreds, sometimes thousands during holiday periods, and at times the visitors pray in open violation of the rules”.
The Palestinian Authority and several Arab countries denounced Ben-Gvir’s visit as highly provocative. In a 3 January joint letter to the Council’s January President (Japan), Jordan and the Observer State of Palestine requested a Security Council meeting to discuss “the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al Haram Al-Sharif by an Israeli Minister accompanied by Israeli occupation forces”. (Jordan is the custodian of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.) In a 3 January letter to the Security Council, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, Riyad Mansour, urged the Council to unequivocally condemn Ben-Gvir’s “illegal and dangerous actions” and to demand the cessation of Israel’s “violations and assaults on this holy site”, a message he may reiterate tomorrow. In a statement on the same day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the State of Palestine condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit as threatening to “trigger a religious war” and “Israel’s continued aggressions at Al-Haram Al-Sharif” as aiming at a “spatial and temporal division” of the site “to enable Jewish worship there and impose Israeli control over the holy site”.
In a 3 January tweet, Israel’s Permanent Representative to the UN Gilad Erdan said that the visit does not “deviate from the status quo”, which Israel has maintained “for many years, even though it discriminates against Jews [and] Christians who can only visit, not pray”, points he may stress again tomorrow.
Several international interlocutors issued statements following Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. On 3 January, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq said that the Secretary-General called on “all to refrain from steps that could escalate tensions in and around the Holy Sites”. The UAE “strongly condemned the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard by an Israeli minister under the protection of Israeli forces” and stressed the need to provide “full protection for Al-Aqsa Mosque and halt serious and provocative violations taking place there”. According to media reports, Netanyahu postponed a trip to the UAE, which was scheduled for next week, shortly after the UAE’s condemnation of Ben-Gvir’s visit.
During a 3 January press briefing, US Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price expressed concern at the visit and said that it “has the potential to exacerbate tensions and to provoke violence”. Price also took note of the fact that Netanyahu’s governing platform calls for the preservation of the historic status quo at the holy sites and said that the US expects him “to follow through on that commitment”. In a 3 January tweet, EU Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process Sven Koopmans said that the status quo at the holy sites and their custodianship by the King of Jordan “are essential to regional peace”.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members may reiterate similar messages and may also underscore the importance of avoiding all acts of violence, provocation, incitement, and inflammatory rhetoric. Some might also condemn the 4 January rocket launch from Gaza towards Israel, which fell inside the Gaza Strip. While responsibility for the launch has not been claimed, ahead of Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site Hamas had reportedly stated that any such visit would constitute a “red line”.
Tomorrow, participants are likely to stress the importance of re-establishing a political horizon for the peaceful resolution of the conflict and express support for the two-state solution. Some may call on the new Israeli government to avoid any steps that would undermine the two-state solution’s viability.