The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Briefing and Consultations
Tomorrow morning (22 March), 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 is expected to brief. Closed consultations are scheduled to follow the open briefing.
Wennesland is expected to provide an oral report on the implementation of resolution 2334 of 23 December 2016 covering developments since his last quarterly report, which was issued on 14 December 2022. In resolution 2334, the Security Council stated that the establishment of settlements by Israel “constitutes a flagrant violation under international law” and stressed that the cessation of settlement activities is essential for salvaging the two-state solution. Resolution 2334 also called for immediate steps to prevent violence against civilians, including acts of terror, and called on both parties to refrain from provocative actions, incitement, and inflammatory rhetoric.
Tomorrow, Wennesland is expected to note that settlement activity, as well as seizures and demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures, have continued during the reporting period. For instance, he may refer to Israel’s approval on 22 and 23 February of plans advancing over 7,000 housing units in settlements across the West Bank. These units were part of the plans announced by the Israeli government on 12 February, together with the decision retroactively to authorise nine West Bank outposts which were built without the permission of Israeli authorities.
In a separate development, today (21 March) the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) repealed the provisions of the 2005 Disengagement Law pertaining to four northern West Bank settlements which were evacuated concurrent with Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. According to media reports, the head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Central Command will still need to sign a military order that would allow Israelis to return to those areas.
According to the latest OCHA Protection of Civilians report, which covers the period between 28 February and 13 March, Israeli authorities demolished, confiscated, or forced people to demolish 35 structures–eight of which had been provided by donors as humanitarian assistance–in Area C and East Jerusalem, in the West Bank. The report says that the month of February “accounted for the highest monthly number of structures demolished in East Jerusalem since April 2019”, noting that a total of 36 structures were demolished, compared with a monthly average of 11 in 2022.
Tomorrow, Wennesland is likely to underscore that all settlements are illegal under international law and call on Israel to cease settlement activity and halt evictions and demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures. Wennesland and Council members may recall the 20 February presidential statement which reiterated that continued Israeli settlement activity is imperilling the viability of the two-state solution.
Several members are expected to refer to the 19 March meeting of senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the US, Egypt, and Jordan as a positive development. The summit, which was held in the Egyptian town of Sharm El-Sheikh, follows the 26 February meeting of the same five parties in the Jordanian city of Aqaba and was similarly followed by a Joint Communiqué. The 19 March Joint Communiqué says that the parties discussed “ways and means to de-escalate tensions on the ground between Palestinians and Israelis”. It reiterates some of the commitments undertaken by the parties in the Aqaba Communiqué—such as the commitment by Israel “to stop discussion of any new settlement units for 4 months, and to stop authorization of any outposts for 6 months”—but also contains new elements. In particular, the Joint Communiqué says that Israel and the Palestinian Authority “agreed to develop a mechanism to curb and counter violence, incitement, and inflammatory statements and actions” and that the five parties “agreed to establish a mechanism to take the necessary steps towards improving the economic conditions of the Palestinian people” and to enhance the fiscal situation of the Palestinian Authority. According to the Joint Communiqué, both mechanisms “will report to the quintet leadership in April, in a resumed session of the meeting in Sharm El Sheikh”.
Tomorrow, Wennesland is likely to update Council members on violent incidents in the West Bank and Israel, including during IDF raids in the West Bank, Palestinian attacks against Israelis, and attacks by settlers against Palestinians. Members are likely to express concern at the increasingly violent situation, reiterate their condemnation of all acts of terror and violence against civilians, and call for accountability.
Members are also expected to call on Israelis and Palestinians to refrain from provocative actions and may condemn acts of incitement and inflammatory rhetoric. Participants may refer to a speech delivered by Israeli Finance Minister and leader of the far-right Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich in Paris on 20 March in which he claimed that “there’s no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people”. Images of the event show Smotrich speaking at a podium featuring the outline of a map of Israel’s borders extended to include the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Jordan, which prompted Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi to condemn the incident as a “reckless inflammatory act and a violation of international norms and the peace treaty” between Jordan and Israel. On 1 March, Smotrich had called for the West Bank town of Huwwara to be “wiped out”; his statement came days after the town had become the target of a large-scale attack by Israeli settlers during which a Palestinian man was killed and Palestinian houses and cars were set on fire. The violence in Huwwara followed a Palestinian attack that killed two Israeli brothers.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is set to start this week and will overlap in April with the weeklong Jewish observance of Passover. Tomorrow, Council members are likely to call for calm and stress the importance of upholding the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem and refraining from provocations that may escalate tensions. In 2021, clashes over restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities on gatherings at the Damascus Gate Plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem contributed to the escalation of violence that led to the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in May 2021.