What's In Blue

Posted Fri 17 Feb 2023

The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Briefing and Consultations*

On Monday (20 February), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland and Deputy Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Leni Stenseth are the anticipated briefers. Closed consultations are scheduled to follow the open briefing.

At the time of writing, Council members were negotiating a draft resolution on Israeli settlements in the West Bank drafted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in coordination with the Observer State of Palestine. It seems that a vote might take place on Monday.*

The recent decisions by Israel to advance settlement activity in the West Bank are expected to be a key focus of Monday’s meeting. On 12 February, the Israeli government announced that it will retroactively authorise nine West Bank outposts which were built without the permission of Israeli authorities. The statement, which was issued by the Israeli Security Cabinet, headed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says that the decision was taken in response to recent terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. According to media reports, this is the first time since 2012 that Israel has retroactively authorised settlement outposts. The statement further announced the approval in the coming days of the construction of new residential units in existing settlements. Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich reportedly said that 10,000 units were due to be approved.

In a 13 February letter to the Security Council, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, Riyad Mansour, said that these decisions are “further proof of a deliberate Israeli policy to colonize and annex the Palestinian land, in grave breach of international law, i.e. constituting war crimes”. The letter calls on the Council to speak with one voice to send a message to Israel that “it must cease all illegal politics and measures forthwith, and that it will face accountability for its flagrant contempt of international law and the international community”. It appears that the Israeli decision to advance settlement activity prompted the Observer State of Palestine’s initiative to pursue a Security Council resolution focusing on this issue.

The announcements by Israel on the advancement of settlement activity was met with expressions of concern by key international interlocutors. On 13 February, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said that the Secretary-General was deeply concerned by the decision to authorise the nine outposts and reiterated that “all settlements are illegal under international law and [are] a substantial obstacle to peace”. The statement also said that, should these measures be implemented, “they would further undermine prospects for a viable two-State solution”. On the same day , the EU rejected the Israeli decision to consider the nine outposts as legal under Israeli law and restated its position that settlements are illegal under international law.

In a rare joint statement issued on 14 February, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the US said that they are “deeply troubled” by the Israeli government’s announcements, adding that they “strongly oppose these unilateral actions”. On 13 February, the General Secretariat of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)—which includes Council members Albania, Gabon, and the UAE among its members—issued a statement strongly condemning the decisions to advance settlement activity and stressing that these measures are “null and void under international law and relevant UN Security Council resolutions”. On Monday, Council members are likely to reiterate similar messages. Members may also be interested in an update from Wennesland on his engagement with Israeli officials on this matter and on his wider efforts to de-escalate tensions.

Members are likely to express concern at the increasingly violent situation in the West Bank and Israel and the concrete risk of further escalation. Participants are likely to condemn all acts of terror and may refer to recent attacks by Palestinians, such as the 27 January terror attack near a synagogue in East Jerusalem during which seven Israelis were killed by a Palestinian shooter and the 10 February car-ramming attack in East Jerusalem which resulted in the deaths of three Israelis, including two children aged six and eight. In a 14 February letter to the Security Council, the Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN, Gilad Erdan, called on the international community to condemn “the latest terror attacks against Israeli civilians in the strongest and unequivocal terms”.

Recent weeks have seen a continuation of raids by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank, demolitions of Palestinian structures and incidents of settler-related violence, such as the 11 February violent confrontation near the West Bank outpost of Havat Yair, during which a Palestinian was reportedly shot dead by a settler. In a 13 February statement, three Special Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council said that during the month of January, Israeli authorities reportedly demolished 132 Palestinian structures, a figure that represents a 135 percent increase compared to the same period in 2022. On Monday, Wennesland and Council members may call on all sides to urgently take de-escalatory steps and avoid unilateral actions. They are also likely to underscore the importance of adhering to international humanitarian law and protecting civilians.

In her briefing, Stenseth is expected to provide an update on the work of UNRWA in its fields of operations in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. She may emphasise UNRWA’s stabilising role in the region and brief on the difficult financial situation of the Agency, which depends on voluntary donations and has long suffered from chronic underfunding while facing increasing demands. At a 24 January briefing in Geneva, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said that shifting geopolitical priorities, changed regional dynamics and the emergence of new humanitarian crises have deprioritised the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, resulting in a stagnation of funding for UNRWA since 2012. Lazzarini also noted that increased violence across the West Bank is affecting the daily lives of refugees and UNRWA’s capacity to deliver services. Stenseth may reiterate these messages on Monday. Council members are likely to call on donors to support UNRWA to make sure that its services can continue.


**Post-script (20 February): After the publication of this story, on 19 February, following talks between high-level US, Palestinian, and Israeli officials, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) informed Council members that it would not pursue a resolution and would instead focus on drafting a presidential statement. The Security Council adopted the presidential statement (S/PRST/2023/1) prior to its 20 February meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. The presidential statement expresses “deep concern and dismay” with Israel’s 12 February announcement regarding the expansion of settlement activity and reiterates that continued Israeli settlement activity is imperiling the viability of the two-state solution. For more information, see our 20 February What’s in Blue story.

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