What's In Blue

Posted Wed 5 Apr 2023

The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Closed Consultations

Tomorrow (6 April), Security Council members will convene for closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) asked for the meeting to discuss the recent developments at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site in Jerusalem’s Old City following a request by the Observer State of Palestine and Jordan. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland is the anticipated briefer.

Tomorrow will be the seventh time this year that Council members have met on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Ordinarily, the Council meets once a month under this agenda item. Tomorrow’s briefing is separate from the regular monthly meeting, which is scheduled as a ministerial level open debate on 25 April. (Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov is expected to chair the 25 April meeting and Wennesland is the expected briefer.)

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to seek an update from Wennesland on the ongoing tensions at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. 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 (also known as Al-Qibli Mosque), the third holiest site in Islam. It has frequently been a focal point of tensions and clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Under an agreement reached after the 1967 Six-Day War, only Muslims are allowed to pray at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site.

Overnight between 4 and 5 April, Israeli police entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque to forcibly remove a group of Palestinian worshippers who had reportedly locked themselves inside the mosque. According to the Israeli police, “dozens of law-breaking and masked juveniles smuggled fireworks, clubs and stones into the mosque and violently barricaded themselves inside,” forcing the police, after failed attempts at dialogue, to “enter the compound in order to remove the individuals, allow the Fajr [dawn] prayer to take place as planned and prevent a violent riot”. The Israeli police said that “stones were thrown and multiple firecrackers were set off inside the mosque”. Witness accounts cited by Al Jazeera say that the Israeli police “beat worshippers with batons and used tear gas and sound bombs to force them out of the prayer halls”. According to media reports, around 400 Palestinians were arrested during the incident.

In a 5 April tweet about the clashes, the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Lynn Hastings, said that “a health clinic was significantly damaged as the [Israeli Forces] used it to enter Al Qibli mosque” and that health care teams were “denied access to treat the injured”.

In a 5 April statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel was “acting to maintain the status quo and calm the situation” and that it “is committed to maintaining freedom of worship, free access for all faiths and the status quo on the Temple Mount”. Addressing the press on 5 April in New York, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, Riyad Mansour, condemned the raid and said that “it is the right of the Palestinian Muslim worshippers to exercise their religious duties and prayers in this holy month of Ramadan, and in any other time” at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and that the “Israeli occupying authorities ha[ve] no right” to determine when prayer is allowed as this “is the exclusive right” of Palestinian and fellow Muslims.

Also on the night between 4 and 5 April, multiple rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel. In response, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) carried out airstrikes and directed tank fire against what it described as Hamas targets in Gaza and military posts along the Gaza border fence. No casualties were reported following these incidents. Two further rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israeli territory late on Wednesday with no reported casualties.

At the time of writing, several media outlets were reporting new clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site.

Tomorrow, members are likely to seek an update from Wennesland on the situation at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site and may be interested in his assessment of the prospects for de-escalation. In a 5 April statement, Wennesland said that he was “disturbed by the apparent beating of Palestinians by Israeli security forces” and the “large number of arrests”, and that he strongly rejected “the stockpiling and use of fireworks and rocks by Palestinians” inside the Al-Qibli mosque. Wennesland’s statement also stressed that the status quo at the holy sites “must be upheld” and that the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza was “unacceptable and must stop”. The statement called on political, religious and community leaders “to reject incitement, inflammatory rhetoric, and provocative actions”, a message he may reiterate tomorrow.

Several international interlocutors expressed concern following the clashes at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. In a 5 April statement, the UAE “strongly condemned the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli police, which resulted in the assault of worshipers and multiple arrests”. The statement also stressed “the need to provide full protection for Al-Aqsa Mosque” and emphasised that “worshipers should not barricade themselves inside the mosque and places of worship with weapons and explosives”. On 5 April, Lord (Tariq) Ahmad of Wimbledon, UK Minister of State for the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and United Nations, said on Twitter that he was “[s]hocked to awake to the disturbing scenes of [the] Israeli Security forces’ raid on the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem injuring many worshippers during Ramadan” and that “the indiscriminate firing of rockets on Israel from Gaza and air strikes in response escalates the situation”. On the same day, the US Office of Palestinian Affairs tweeted its alarm at “the shocking scenes in Al Aqsa Mosque and rockets launched from Gaza toward Israel” and called for “restraint and de-escalation to allow peaceful worship and to protect the sanctity of the holy sites”.

Tomorrow, Council members are expected to call for calm and de-escalation. Members will likely stress the importance of upholding the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem and respecting Jordan’s role as the custodian of the Islamic and Christian holy sites in the city. Some members may regret that the current escalation is taking place after recent meetings of senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the US, Egypt, and Jordan in Aqaba (Jordan) and Sharm El Sheikh (Egypt), which aimed at de-escalating tensions, and may reference the commitments undertaken by the parties in the communiqués issued after these meetings. Members may call on all sides to refrain from provocations, incitement, and inflammatory rhetoric and condemn the recent rocket launches from Gaza towards Israel.

These events are taking place against the backdrop of what the Secretary-General recently described as an “intensifying cycle of violence that threatens to plunge Palestinians and Israelis deeper into deadly crisis, while further eroding any hope for a political solution”. (For background, see our April Forecast brief.) Tomorrow, participants may stress that the current tensions underscore the need to restore a political horizon and the urgency of resolving the core issues driving the conflict.

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