What's In Blue

Posted Tue 28 Feb 2023

The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Closed Consultations

This afternoon (28 February), Security Council members will convene for closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) requested the meeting to discuss recent developments in the West Bank. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland is the expected briefer.

Today’s meeting is taking place eight days after the Council’s last meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, which was held on 20 February. (For more information, see our 17 February What’s in Blue story.) Today will be the fifth time this year that Council members will have met on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. (Ordinarily, the Council meets once a month under this agenda item.) Before the start of the 20 February meeting, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement expressing “deep concern and dismay” with Israel’s recent announcements regarding the expansion of settlement activity and reiterating that continued Israeli settlement activity is imperiling the viability of the two-state solution (S/PRST/2023/1). (For background, see our 20 February What’s in Blue story.)

Today’s meeting is expected to focus on recent developments that have marked the continuing escalation of violence in the West Bank and Israel. On 22 February, ten Palestinians—including a 72-year-old man—were killed and at least 100 were wounded during an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) daytime raid in the West Bank city of Nablus. A 66-year-old Palestinian who suffered from tear gas inhalation died in the hospital later the same day. Media reports citing IDF sources say that the military forces entered Nablus to arrest three Palestinians suspected in previous shooting attacks–one of which resulted in the death of an Israeli soldier in October 2022—who were hiding in a building. According to these reports, once the men refused to surrender and opened fire, the IDF fired missiles at the building, flattening the structure. Reports by the BBC said that several of those killed outside the building were civilians.

In a 23 February statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk expressed concern at the Israeli security forces’ use of explosive weapons during the operation. He said that “[c]onducting an operation involving shoulder-launched explosive projectiles and other weapons typically associated with hostilities in a highly populated area in broad daylight at a time of heightened public activity suggests concerning disregard for the lives and security of bystanders”. The 22 February raid was the second in less than a month to result in the deaths of at least ten Palestinians.

Following the raid, several rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel in the early hours of 23 February. In response, the IDF carried out airstrikes against what it identified as Hamas targets in Gaza. No injuries were reported in Israel or Gaza following the exchange of fire.

Today, Council members are likely to reference the 26 February meeting of senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the US, Jordan, and Egypt in the Jordanian city of Aqaba. Following the talks, the participants issued a Joint Communiqué in which the “Government of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority confirmed their joint readiness and commitment to immediately work to end unilateral measures for a period of 3-6 months”, among other commitments. This includes a commitment by Israel “to stop discussion of any new settlement units for 4 months and to stop authorization of any outposts for 6 months”. The two sides also affirmed their commitment to all previous agreements between them and restated “the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence”. The five participants agreed to convene again in March in Egypt to “achieve the goals” set in the Aqaba Joint Communiqué.

According to media reports, however, the news of the Aqaba Joint Communiqué’s adoption was rapidly followed by several Israeli political leaders denying that Israel had committed to a freeze in settlement activity. For instance, Israeli Finance Minister and leader of the far-right Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich said in a 26 February tweet that “there will not be a freeze on the building and development in settlements, not even for one day”. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu similarly denied that there will be any such freeze.

The situation on the ground deteriorated further as the Aqaba summit was taking place. A Palestinian opened fire on an Israeli vehicle, killing two Israeli brothers in the West Bank town of Huwwara, which is located south of Nablus. A few hours later, a large group of Israeli settlers entered Huwwara throwing rocks and setting Palestinian houses and cars on fire in what has been described as “the worst such violence in decades”. In a 27 February letter to the Security Council, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, Riyad Mansour, said that at least 300 revenge attacks were perpetrated in various West Bank locations, while in Huwwara settlers set fire to at least 35 homes, killed a Palestinian man and injured 100. In a statement on the same day, Wennesland said that he was gravely concerned by the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank, particularly the violence in Huwwara. The statement also said that “[t]here can be no justification for terrorism, nor for arson and acts of revenge against civilians”. The statement added that all perpetrators of violence must be held accountable.

On 27 February, an Israeli-American man was killed in a shooting attack while driving near the West Bank city of Jericho. At the time of writing, the IDF was searching for suspected Palestinian attackers in Jericho, where Palestinian news outlets reported closures of the two main entrances to the city and obstructions of the land crossing to Jordan.

At today’s meeting, Council members are likely to express deep concern at the increasingly violent situation in the West Bank and Israel. Members are likely to condemn all acts of terror and the 26 January outbreak of settler violence and may underscore the importance of protecting civilians. Council members may seek an update on the UN’s and other interlocutors’ engagement with the concerned parties to de-escalate the situation. Members may refer to the Aqaba Joint Communiqué as a positive step and may be interested in Wennesland’s views on the agreement, especially as to its status in light of the continued violence on the ground and the declarations by Israeli politicians rejecting the notion of a commitment to freezing settlement advancement. Amid the ongoing risk of a further escalation of violence, Wennesland and Council members are likely to underscore the urgent need to take de-escalatory measures and to address the driving causes of the conflict. With the religious holidays of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter just a few weeks away, members may stress the need to lower tensions ahead of this period and may reiterate previous calls to respect the historic status quo at the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount site in Jerusalem’s Old City.

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