What's In Blue

Posted Wed 22 Nov 2023

The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Open Briefing

This morning (22 November), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Malta and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) requested the meeting, citing “the deeply concerning developments in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and the severe impact on women and children”. UN Women Executive Director Sima Sami Bahous, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell, and UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Natalia Kanem are expected to brief.

Following the 7 October large-scale attacks against Israel led by Hamas, the Palestinian armed group and de facto authority in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have carried out massive airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, and on 27 October, began their ground operation in northern Gaza. Figures provided by Palestinian officials in Gaza cited on 20 November by OCHA indicate that, as at 10 November, over 11,000 Palestinians, including more than 3,000 women and 4,500 children, had been killed in Gaza and approximately 2,700 people, including around 1,500 children, had been “reported missing and may be trapped or dead under the rubble”. Over 1.7 million people in Gaza are estimated to be internally displaced.

According to OCHA, as at 20 November, the Israeli authorities released the names of over 1,200 fatalities in Israel; 33 “[o]f those whose ages have been provided” are children. Figures provided by Israeli authorities cited by OCHA indicate that over 230 hostages, 40 of whom are reportedly children, were taken into the Gaza Strip during the 7 October attacks. At the time of writing, several media outlets were reporting that a deal had been agreed between Israel and Hamas on a temporary pause in the fighting and the release of 50 women and children held hostage by Hamas in return for the release of a number of Palestinian women and children detained in Israeli prisons.

In a 19 November statement, Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Philippe Lazzarini said that two UNRWA schools sheltering displaced families were hit in less than 24 hours in the Gaza Strip, reportedly resulting in dozen of casualties. He added that this was “yet another proof that no one, and nowhere is safe in Gaza”. According to a 20 November OCHA update, in the past six weeks, there have been multiple attacks on health facilities across the Gaza Strip resulting in many casualties “among patients, companions, and [internally displaced persons] staying in health facilities”, with the World Health Organization (WHO) recording 164 attacks on health care in Gaza since 7 October. On 16 November, over 30 independent experts of the UN Human Rights Council issued a statement saying that the “[g]rave violations committed by Israel against Palestinians in the aftermath of 7 October, particularly in Gaza, point to a genocide in the making”.

Today, Bahous and Kanem are expected to provide an update on the situation of women and girls. Kanem may describe how attacks on health facilities have severely impaired access to sexual and reproductive health services for women in Gaza. She might also provide an update on the delivery of humanitarian aid, including reproductive health kits and supplies for emergency obstetric and newborn care. According to a statement delivered by the humanitarian organisation CARE International during a 14 November informal briefing to Security Council experts working on Women Peace and Security (WPS), the lack of access in Gaza to “sanitation facilities and hospitals coupled with the lack of hygiene supplies expose women and girls to diseases and infections”. Many women who are giving birth in Gaza are doing so without medical assistance, “some in overcrowded shelters or on the streets amidst the rubble”, while pregnant and breast-feeding women are at heightened risk of malnutrition. The statement also noted that the risk of gender-based violence is rising “given the overcrowded shelters’ conditions while access to services is extremely limited”.

In a 16 November statement, Bahous stressed that “[b]eyond the lack of access to food, clean water, shelter and sanitation, Gaza’s women are caring for their children, the sick and the elderly”, many bearing “the weight of their family’s survival alone”. She emphasised the importance of addressing the specific needs of women and girls in the delivery of humanitarian aid and highlighted how women in Gaza are working as first responders and volunteers, “showing the power of women’s leadership and their centrality to their communities in the most appalling of circumstances”. Today, Bahous may echo some of these messages. She might also underscore the need for a return to negotiations for lasting peace for Palestinians and Israelis, and the importance of women’s meaningful participation in any such process. Bahous is also likely to reiterate her calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, unrestricted humanitarian access, the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, the unconditional release of the hostages—many of whom are women—and accountability for all violations of international law.

In her briefing, Russell may highlight serious challenges to the protection of children in Gaza, in such areas as healthcare, nutrition, and water and sanitation, and may highlight the importance of mental health and psychosocial support for all children affected by the violence. According to the humanitarian organisation Save the Children, the number of children reported killed in Gaza had by the end of October surpassed the annual number of children killed across the world’s conflict zones since 2019, and the “relentless bombardment of densely populated civilian areas has exacerbated the already-critical mental health crisis for Gaza’s children with far-reaching consequences”. Today, Russell may note that children in armed conflict situations are disproportionately affected by death and injury caused by explosive remnants of war and may refer to Security Council resolution 2601 on the protection of education in conflict, which urges all parties to armed conflict to cease attacks and threats of attacks against schools.

Council members may be interested in an update from Russell on the recent visit by UNICEF officials to Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank. On 15 November, Russell and UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Ted Chaiban visited the Gaza Strip, including Al Naser hospital in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza. On 16 November, Chaiban met with the families of Israeli children held hostage in Gaza, after Russell was advised to suspend her travel to the region following a car accident in Egypt on her way to Gaza.

At today’s meeting, members are likely to underscore the importance of respecting international humanitarian law and protecting civilians and may stress the need to respect the protection afforded by international law to civilian structures, including medical facilities and schools. Council members are likely to express concern at the situation of women and children in Gaza and may highlight several of the issues raised by the briefers, such as the dire situation of pregnant women and the need for the urgent scaling up of humanitarian aid. At a 10 November Council meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, the UAE referred to cases of “children suffering from burns to their faces so severe that they are suffocating” and women having to undergo Caesarean sections without anaesthesia, before saying that “there can be no doubt that the attacks by Israel in pursuit of its security are disproportionate, they are cruel and they are inhumane, and we condemn them”.

Members are expected to reiterate their condemnations of the 7 October Hamas-led attacks, and some may condemn any related incident of conflict-related sexual violence. For instance, at a 24 October meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, France said that the Council has the duty to “condemn the terrorist attack perpetrated by Hamas” against Israel, stressing that it was “an attack on civilians, who were murdered in cold blood, tortured and raped”. According to media reports, Israeli authorities are gathering witness testimony and evidence on suspected cases of sexual violence carried out amid the 7 October Hamas-led attack, with Israeli women’s rights organisation calling on the UN to address these allegations.

Today, Council members are also likely to express concern at the sharp increase in violent incidents in the West Bank and at the risk of the conflict extending to the wider region.

On 15 November, the Security Council adopted resolution 2712, with 12 votes in favour and three abstentions (Russia, the UK, and the US). The resolution, which followed the failure of four Security Council resolutions on the crisis in Israel and Gaza, has a humanitarian focus and references child protection issues throughout. It calls for “extended humanitarian pauses and corridors” in the Gaza Strip for “a sufficient number of days” to enable unhindered humanitarian access to facilitate the provision of “essential goods and services important to the well-being of civilians, especially children”. Resolution 2712 also calls for the release of “all hostages held by Hamas and other groups, especially children”. (For background, see our 15 November What’s in Blue story.)

Today, members are likely to welcome the reaching of a deal between Israel and Hamas on a temporary pause in the fighting and the release of some hostages, while calling for the release of all those who are held captive. Several members may refer to resolution 2712 and call for its full implementation. As mandated by the resolution, Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to report on the resolution’s implementation at the next regular meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, which is scheduled to be convened at ministerial level on 29 November. At that meeting, Guterres is also expected to identify “options to effectively monitor” the resolution’s implementation going forward.

In their statements after the adoption of resolution 2712, several members referred to the resolution as a first step towards a more comprehensive Council response to the crisis, while emphasising different priorities. For instance, although China said that resolution 2712 was useful “as an initial step towards a ceasefire”, it stressed that “the Council should have adopted a more comprehensive and robust resolution much earlier”, but that due to “the repeated and persistent obstruction of a permanent member”—an apparent reference to the US—resolution 2712 could only “serve as a first step based on minimum consensus”. Regretting that “several essential messages” were not included in resolution 2712, France argued in favour of the Council continuing to work to “achieve a broader expression”, stressing that this should include condemning the 7 October “terrorist attacks by Hamas”, recalling “Israel’s right to defend itself”, and calling for a “truce that could lead to a ceasefire”, among other issues. Today, some participants may reiterate their hope that resolution 2712 may lead to greater consensus among Council members.

On 13 November, the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict heard a briefing from Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba on the situation of children in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). On 20 November, the Informal Experts Group (IEG) on WPS held a meeting focused on the impact of the conflict on women and girls. It appears that this was the first emergency IEG meeting since the group started to meet in 2016. UNRWA Chief of Staff Ben Majekodunmi and UN Women Deputy Executive Director a.i. Sarah Hendriks briefed.

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