What's In Blue

Posted Thu 12 Oct 2023

The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Consultations on the Situation in Gaza and Israel

Tomorrow afternoon (13 October), Security Council members will convene for closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Brazil (October’s Council President), later joined by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), called for the meeting. According to an 11 October press release by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the meeting was called to “address the situation in the Gaza Strip” and will be chaired by Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mauro Vieira. UN Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland will also participate in the meeting.

On 7 October, Palestinian armed group Hamas launched a large-scale attack against Israel, firing thousands of rockets and killing and capturing Israeli soldiers and civilians, including women and children, in several towns in southern Israel. Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) also participated in the attack, which Hamas said was “in response to the continued Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people and violations at the Al-Aqsa mosque”. Council members held closed consultations to discuss these and subsequent developments on 8 October.

According to figures provided by Israeli authorities cited in media outlets, the Hamas-led attack has so far resulted in the killing of at least 1,300 Israeli and foreign nationals and the wounding of more than 3,300 others. At least 150 hostages are reported to have been taken into the Gaza Strip.

Following the 7 October attacks, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched what it described as “one of the largest air strikes ever against Hamas in Gaza”. At press time, figures provided by Palestinian officials in Gaza indicate that 1,417 Palestinians, including women and children, had been killed, and over 6,200 wounded in connection with the airstrikes. According to a 12 October OCHA update, over 423,000 people have been displaced in Gaza, of whom more than two thirds are sheltering in schools of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

In remarks to the press delivered before the 8 October closed consultations, the Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN, Gilad Erdan, said that the 7 October events represented “Israel’s 9/11” and demanded an unequivocal condemnation of Hamas’ war crimes and “steadfast support” for Israel to defend itself. The Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, Riyad Mansour, who also addressed the press ahead of the consultations, said that “messages about Israel’s right to defend itself will be interpreted by Israel as [a] license to kill”. He stressed instead the need to address the root causes of the conflict in order to address its consequences.

In the past few days, many news outlets have reported of a military build-up near the Gaza Strip in preparation for a possible ground operation by the IDF. At the time of writing, rocket fire from Gaza towards Israel and Israeli strikes continued.

On 9 October, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that he had “ordered a full siege on the Gaza Strip” with “[n]o power, no food, no gas” allowed in. On the same day, Israel also decided to cease its water supply to Gaza. In remarks cited by the BBC on 12 October, Israeli authorities said that no electricity, fuel, or water supply will be resumed until the hostages were released. (While Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, the territory has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade for over 16 years.)

At tomorrow’s meeting, members are likely to seek an update regarding the possible opening of a humanitarian corridor into and out of Gaza. On 10 October, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for the establishment of such a corridor, adding that “hospitals cannot run without fuel, without electricity”. On 11 October, Gaza’s power plant ran out of fuel, and OCHA warned that there is “a severe shortage of drinking water affecting more than 650,000 people”. In an 11 October statement, Guterres said that “[c]rucial life-saving supplies–including fuel, food and water–must be allowed into Gaza”. Tomorrow, he may reiterate a similar message, while Wennesland may update members about his and other international interlocutors’ efforts to secure humanitarian access to the Gaza Strip. On 11 October, Wennesland met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and other officials in Cairo. At an 11 October press briefing, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said that during that meeting, Wennesland was told that Egypt would open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza and make the Sinai airport of El Arish available for the provision of humanitarian supplies. Dujarric noted, however, that “for the border to be effectively open, we also will need assurances from the Israeli side that the crossing will not be targeted”.

Tomorrow, members are expected to underscore the need to protect civilians and respect international humanitarian law. It seems that during the 8 October closed consultations, most Council members condemned Hamas’ 7 October attacks and said that Israel has a right to defend itself, with many also stressing that Israel’s response must adhere to international humanitarian law. Participants in tomorrow’s meeting may echo similar messages. Some may emphasise that UN and humanitarian personnel and structures must never be targeted. During Hamas’ attack, an Israeli paramedic was shot and killed in a Magen David Adom ambulance. According to OCHA, at least 23 humanitarian staff, including 11 health workers and 12 UNRWA employees, have been killed since 7 October. Tomorrow, some members may also condemn the indiscriminate launching of rockets from the Gaza Strip.

Guterres and Council members are likely to call for the immediate release of the abducted persons held in Gaza. In a 9 October statement, a spokesperson for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’ military wing) said that Hamas would start executing civilian hostages should Israel target Palestinian civilians without warning, adding that the executions would be broadcast “in audio and video”. Earlier this week, Qatar reportedly attempted to mediate a deal between Israel and Hamas for the release of the hostages, but these efforts have apparently been unsuccessful thus far. In a 12 October statement calling for the immediate release of hostages, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that it was in contact with Hamas and Israeli officials, adding that, as a neutral intermediary, it is ready to conduct humanitarian visits, support communication between the hostages and their families, and facilitate any eventual release.

Tomorrow, participants are also expected to express concern at the conflict’s possible regional spillover. On 8 October, Shi’a group Hezbollah launched a barrage of rockets from Lebanon at three Israeli positions in the area of the Sheb’a Farms, reportedly saying that the shelling was “in solidarity” with the 7 October Hamas-led operation. (The Sheb’a Farms is an area of farmlands disputed between Syria and Lebanon and currently occupied by Israel.) Israel returned fire, hitting several positions, including a tent that Hezbollah had placed earlier this year south of the Blue Line in the Sheb’a Farms area, according to media reports. (The Blue Line is a withdrawal line set by the UN in 2000 to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. While not representing an international border, it acts in practice as a boundary between Lebanon and Israel in the absence of an agreed-upon border between the two states.)

On 9 October, armed men later claimed by the PIJ as its operatives attempted to enter Israeli territory from Lebanon, triggering clashes with the IDF and exchanges of fire across the Blue Line. During this confrontation, Hezbollah fired at Israeli positions after some of its members were killed during the shelling of Lebanese territory by the IDF. On 10 October, there were further rocket launches from several positions in Lebanon towards Israel and the Sheb’a Farms area and IDF response fire. Exchanges of fire across the Blue Line were also reported on 11 and 12 October.

Today (12 October), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel, where he held meetings with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog. In the evening, Blinken travelled to Jordan to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah II of Jordan. He is expected to travel to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt in the coming days.

Following the 7 October attacks, the US deployed an air carrier to the eastern Mediterranean and increased fighter aircraft presence in the region. Washington said that these “moves are not to deter Hamas, but any country or group that may think of taking advantage of the instability and confusion”, an apparent reference to Iran which, while expressing unwavering “solidarity with Palestine”, has said that it was not “involved in Palestine’s response”. On 11 October, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly accused the US of increasing tensions in the Middle East through its military deployment and “sidestepping what was an established process for trying to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by unsuccessfully taking matters into its own hands, and without resolving fundamental issues”, a position that Russia has also expressed at Security Council meetings on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. On 12 October, the UK announced that it would deploy ships and surveillance aircraft to the eastern Mediterranean.

The regular Security Council meeting on this file, the quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” is scheduled for 24 October. However, given the gravity of the situation, members will continue to closely monitor developments in Israel and Gaza and may call for additional meetings if the situation deteriorates further.

Before Hamas’ 7 October attack, the Security Council had met on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” 16 times in nine months. (Ordinarily, the Council meets once a month under this agenda item.) However, while members routinely express support for the two-state solution and call for an end to settlement activity and condemn violence against civilians, including acts of terror, Council dynamics have consistently precluded effective action in response to the non-implementation of relevant Council resolutions and the elaboration of a shared strategy to prevent the deterioration of the situation.

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