The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Ministerial-level Open Debate*
Tomorrow (24 October), the Security Council will hold its quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mauro Vieira will chair the meeting. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland, and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) Lynn Hastings* are the expected briefers.
Background and Recent Council Developments
Tomorrow’s meeting follows a period of intense, yet inconclusive, Council engagement on this file over the past few weeks. It will be the fourth time that Council members have convened to discuss this agenda item since the 7 October large-scale attacks against Israel led by Hamas, the Palestinian armed group and de facto authority in Gaza. 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”. According to figures provided by Israeli authorities cited by OCHA, the Hamas-led attack has resulted in the killing of approximately 1,400 Israeli and foreign nationals and the wounding of more than 4,900 others. Over 200 hostages are reported to have been taken into the Gaza Strip.
Since the 7 October attacks, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has carried out extensive airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. Against the backdrop of an imminent IDF ground operation, Israeli authorities ordered the population of Gaza north of Wadi Gaza to relocate to southern Gaza. Figures provided by Palestinian officials in Gaza cited by OCHA indicate that more than 4,600 Palestinians have been killed and over 14,200 wounded in connection with the airstrikes. More than 1,000 people are presumed to be dead or trapped under the rubble, with OCHA noting that “[e]ntire neighbourhoods have been destroyed”. On 9 October, the Israeli authorities ordered “a full siege” of the Gaza Strip, stopping the provision of power, food, gas, and water. (While Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, the territory has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade for over 16 years.)
Last week, the Security Council failed to adopt two draft resolutions addressing the escalation. A Russian-proposed draft text (S/2023/772) failed to be adopted on 16 October because it did not garner the requisite votes, while a Brazilian draft text on the matter (S/2023/773) was vetoed by the US on 18 October. The Russian draft called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, while the Brazilian draft called for “humanitarian pauses” to allow unhindered humanitarian access. (For background, see our 7, 12 and 16 October What’s in Blue stories.)
Following the 18 October vote, the Security Council held an emergency briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. The meeting was called by Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), later joined by China, after the 17 October strike on the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza. Hamas has said that Israel attacked the hospital, while Israel has maintained that the blast resulted from a failed rocket launch by the PIJ. Wennesland and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths briefed, both calling for a fact-based investigation into the strike.
During the meeting, both the Observer State of Palestine and Israel lamented the Council’s inability to reach agreement on a product. The Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, Riyad Mansour, said that if the Council had called for a ceasefire two days earlier and “acted accordingly” it would have saved hundreds of lives, while the Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN, Gilad Erdan, criticised the Council for not having done “the most basic thing” by condemning “Hamas’ brutal terror attack”.
At the time of writing, Council members were negotiating a third draft Security Council resolution on the situation in Israel and Gaza proposed by the US. While members largely agree on the importance of the Council addressing the crisis, sharp divisions remain on important aspects of the current escalation, its causes, and what elements the Council should prioritise in its response.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Guterres is likely to provide an assessment of the current situation on the ground. He may reiterate the points that he made during his recent trip to Egypt, where on 20 October he visited the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing which connects Gaza with Egypt and on 21 October attended an international summit on the crisis in Cairo. Addressing the summit, Guterres said that while the “grievances of the Palestinian people are legitimate and long” and the “the wider context” must not be ignored—including over 50 years of occupation “with no end in sight”—“nothing can justify the reprehensible assault by Hamas that terrorized Israeli civilians”. He added that, at the same time, “those abhorrent attacks can never justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people”. Guterres called for a humanitarian ceasefire in order to advance three near-term objectives—humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza, the release of all hostages, and dedicated efforts to “prevent the spread of violence”—while stressing the importance of the two-state solution as “the only realistic foundation for a true peace and stability”.
Tomorrow, Council members may seek an update from Hastings about efforts to secure regular humanitarian access to the Gaza Strip. The first humanitarian convoy since the start of the crisis entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing on 21 October. This first 20-truck convoy was followed on 22 October by 14 additional trucks and on 23 October by a further 20. On 23 October, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said that “this is the equivalent to no more than four percent of the daily average of volumes of commodities entering Gaza” prior to the current crisis. He noted that aid deliveries have thus far not included fuel, adding that the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) will exhaust its fuel reserves within the coming days. Israel has reportedly said that it will not allow fuel to enter the Gaza Strip until all hostages being held in Gaza are released.
Tomorrow, members are expected to stress the importance of increasing humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza. Some may call for humanitarian pauses and/or a humanitarian ceasefire to facilitate the safe delivery of aid to all those in need. Some participants at tomorrow’s meeting may also call for the reconnection of electricity, water, and other utilities for the civilian population in Gaza.
Council members are expected to underscore the importance of respecting international humanitarian law and protecting civilians. According to OCHA, at least 16 health workers and 29 UNRWA employees have been killed since 7 October. Participants may emphasise that civilians, including UN and humanitarian personnel and civilian structures, such as schools and hospitals, must never be targeted. Members are also expected to condemn all acts of terror and are likely to reiterate their condemnations of the 7 October Hamas-led attacks and call for the immediate and unconditional release of the abducted persons held in Gaza. Several members may say that Israel has a right to defend itself, while also stressing that Israel’s response must adhere to the international humanitarian law principles of distinction and proportionality.
Council members and the briefers are expected to express concern at the possible expansion of the conflict to the West Bank and the wider region. During his 18 October briefing to the Security Council, Griffiths said that the situation in the West Bank has been deteriorating, adding that the previous week had been the deadliest for Palestinians in the West Bank since the UN started recording fatalities in 2005, while incidents of settler violence had also increased. Exchanges of fire across the Blue Line have continued and intensified in the recent period. On 23 October, Dujarric said that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation and urges all actors to cease hostile activities. (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 border between the two states.)
General Assembly Developments
General Assembly resolution A/RES/76/262 of 26 April 2022 stipulates that “the President of the General Assembly shall convene a formal meeting of the General Assembly within 10 working days of the casting of a veto by one or more permanent members of the Security Council, to hold a debate on the situation as to which the veto was cast, provided that the Assembly does not meet in an emergency special session on the same situation”.
Following the 18 October Council failure to adopt the draft resolution proposed by Brazil, the Office of the President of the General Assembly (PGA) received three letters requesting the resumption of the Tenth Emergency Special Session (ESS) of the General Assembly on “Illegal Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory”. The first letter was sent by Russia, Nicaragua, and Syria. The second was sent by Jordan and Mauritania as, respectively, Chairs of the Arab Group and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The third letter was signed by Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Timor-Leste, and Viet Nam. On 23 October, the Office of the PGA announced that the ESS would resume on 26 October.
*Post-script (24 October, 10:45 am EST): An earlier version of this story indicated that Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths was expected to brief the Council. The story was amended to reflect that the Council was instead briefed by Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) Lynn Hastings.