What's In Blue

Posted Mon 24 Apr 2023

The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Quarterly Open Debate

Tomorrow (25 April), the Security Council will hold its quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Russia, as April’s Security Council President, has chosen to convene the debate at ministerial level. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov is expected to chair the meeting. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland will brief.

At the 3 April press conference on the Security Council’s programme of work for April, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia (Russia) said that the open debate is intended to provide an opportunity to discuss the complex dynamics in the region, focusing first on the “stagnation of the Palestinian-Israeli settlement and escalation of tensions”. Participants at tomorrow’s meeting may choose to share their views on these issues.

In general, Council members are expected to underscore the importance of the two-state solution, the need to avoid all actions that would undermine its realisation—including advancing settlement activity—and the necessity of restoring a political horizon to allow negotiations between the parties to restart. Members may call on Israelis and Palestinians to avoid unilateral actions and to engage in dialogue in good faith.

Some members are likely to be interested in Wennesland’s views on how to reinvigorate the peace process and what role the Security Council can play to facilitate this goal. Several speakers are likely to express concern at the stalling of the peace process and may highlight specific initiatives. Russia might choose to reiterate its earlier proposals for convening a meeting of the Middle East Quartet—which consists of the EU, Russia, the UN, and the US—with representatives of Arab countries, and may call on the UN, as one of the Quartet’s parties, to “proactively advance multilateral efforts within that body”. In recent Council meetings on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, Russia has blamed the US for blocking the Council’s adoption of any substantive decisions on the Middle East peace process and for hindering the Quartet’s efforts. According to media reports, Lavrov has recently restated this view; he may do so again tomorrow. Russia has also accused the US of bypassing the Security Council through its own initiatives with the parties and attempting to monopolise the peace process.

Other members may refer to recent meetings of senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the US, Egypt, and Jordan in Aqaba (26 February) and Sharm El Sheikh (19 March), and stress the importance of the parties observing the commitments undertaken during these meetings. These include, among other issues, a pledge by Israel “to stop discussion of any new settlement units for 4 months, and to stop authorization of any outposts for 6 months”, and the development by Israel and the Palestinian Authority of “a mechanism to curb and counter violence, incitement, and inflammatory statements and actions”. While the Joint Communiqué issued after the 19 March meeting strongly suggests that a resumed meeting of the five parties was to take place in Sharm El Sheikh in April, it seems that such a meeting has yet to take place. Some might reference as a positive step Israel’s recent decision to extend the opening hours of the West Bank Allenby Bridge crossing point into Jordan, which was announced by US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides on 2 April.

On 17 April, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang held separate telephone calls with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, during which he reportedly said that China is ready to facilitate peace talks. At the 22 March Council meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, China maintained that the fundamental reason for the volatility of the situation and the continuing clashes is the stalled peace process and delays in implementing the two-state solution. China proposed “convening a larger, more authoritative and influential international peace conference”, a suggestion it may reiterate tomorrow.

At tomorrow’s meeting, participants are also expected to reiterate their concern at the increasingly violent situation in the West Bank and Israel. According to the latest OCHA Protection of Civilians report, which was issued on 20 April and covers the period from 28 March to 17 April, during the first three months of 2023, Israeli security forces killed 84 Palestinians, a figure “almost four times higher than during the same period in 2022”. The report also says that in 2023, 18 Israelis have been killed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel, in addition to a foreign national and a soldier, compared with six in the equivalent period in 2022. Tomorrow, members are likely to condemn violence against civilians, including all acts of terror, and call for respect for international humanitarian law (IHL). At the 22 March meeting, Switzerland expressed concern over the expansion of the Israeli government’s authority “over settlement-related activities and civil affairs in the occupied territory”, noting that under IHL, “Israel must refrain from taking measures that would introduce permanent changes, in particular demographic and administrative changes in the occupied territory”.

As the month of April—during which Muslim, Jewish, and Christian holidays have overlapped—draws to a close, Wennesland may underscore the importance of avoiding all unilateral acts and any form of provocation and incitement. Members may refer to the recent tensions at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. The site—which is referred to by Muslims as “Haram al-Sharif” and as “Temple Mount” by Jews—is the holiest place in Judaism and the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest in Islam. On 6 April, Security Council members convened for closed consultations after Israeli police raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque on 5 April to forcibly remove a group of Palestinian worshippers who had reportedly locked themselves inside the mosque and refused to leave. According to OCHA’s Protection of Civilians report, “Israeli forces shot stun grenades, sponge-tipped bullets, and teargas cannisters, and beat Palestinians with batons, including children, and women”, injuring 43 Palestinians. The report says that “according to Israeli authorities, Palestinians threw stones and firecrackers at the Israeli forces raiding the mosque”.

In the hours after the raid, armed groups fired rockets towards Israel from positions in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Syria, prompting response fire by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Over 30 rockets were fired from southern Lebanon towards Israel, the highest number since 2006. Tomorrow, members are likely to stress the importance of upholding the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem, as well as condemning the violence and the indiscriminate firing of rockets.

Among other issues, some participants at tomorrow’s meeting may express concern about the difficult financial situation of the Palestinian Authority and the funding shortages of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). They may call on donors to support UNRWA to make sure that its services can continue.

Sign up for What's In Blue emails