What's In Blue

Posted Tue 28 Nov 2023

The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Ministerial-level Briefing 

Tomorrow morning (29 November), the Security Council will convene for a ministerial-level briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Closed consultations are scheduled to follow the open briefing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will chair the meeting. Secretary-General António Guterres and Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland are the anticipated briefers. Several member states are expected to participate at ministerial level at tomorrow’s meeting under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Today (28 November) marks the fifth consecutive day of a pause in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian armed group and de facto authority in Gaza. Following the 7 October large-scale attacks against Israel led by Hamas, 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 by OCHA indicate that, as at 23 November, over 14,800 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza. More than 1.8 million people in the Gaza strip, representing nearly 80 percent of the population, are estimated to be internally displaced and, as at 24 November, over 60 percent of the total housing stock in Gaza had been damaged or destroyed. According to figures provided by Israeli authorities cited by OCHA, over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in Israel, the vast majority on 7 October. Over 200 hostages were taken into the Gaza Strip during the 7 October attacks. (For background, see our 712,  23, and 29 October, as well as  6, 10, and 22 November What’s in Blue stories.)

The pause in the fighting began on 24 November as part of a deal between Israel and Hamas facilitated by Egypt, Qatar, and the US. The deal reportedly entailed the release by Hamas of 50 Israeli hostages held in Gaza and the release by Israel of 150 Palestinians held in Israeli jails during a pause of four days. The deal allowed for extending the initial four-day pause by a further day in exchange for the release of an additional ten hostages. On 27 November, Qatar announced that the pause was extended by two days. According to OCHA, as at 27 November, Hamas had released 69 hostages—51 Israelis and 18 foreign nationals—and Israel had freed 150 Palestinians.

Israeli officials have stated that the war will resume after the pause. In 23 November remarks on the deal with Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the war will continue until Israel has achieved all its goals, including the return of hostages and the elimination of Hamas.

In a 27 November letter to the Security Council, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, Riyad Mansour, said that the “genocidal aggression against the Palestinian people must be halted”, adding that a “temporary truce is not enough, a full, sustained ceasefire is imperative and must be pursued with absolute urgency to save civilian lives”.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Guterres is expected to report on the implementation of resolution 2712. On 15 November, the Security Council adopted resolution 2712 with 12 votes in favour and three abstentions (Russia, the UK, and the US) following the failure in October of four Security Council resolutions on the crisis in Israel and Gaza. Among other matters, the resolution:

  • demands that all parties comply with their international law obligations, “notably with regard to the protection of civilians, especially children”;
  • calls for “extended humanitarian pauses and corridors” in the Gaza Strip for “a sufficient number of days” to enable, among other things, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to facilitate the provision of essential goods and services as well as “rescue and recovery efforts, including for missing children in damaged and destroyed buildings”;
  • calls for the release of “all hostages held by Hamas and other groups, especially children”; and
  • calls on all parties to refrain from depriving the civilian population in Gaza of “basic services and humanitarian assistance indispensable to their survival”.

In addition to requesting the Secretary-General to report on its implementation, resolution 2712 requests Guterres to identify “options to effectively monitor” the resolution’s implementation. (For background, see our 15 November What’s in Blue story.)

According to OCHA, the pause has enabled humanitarian actors to enhance the delivery of assistance into and across Gaza, with aid trucks being able to reach areas in northern Gaza which had been largely inaccessible prior to the pause. At the same time, in a 27 November statement, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said that, while the UN scaled up the entry of aid into Gaza during the pause, this “barely registers against the huge needs”. The statement also said that the dialogue that led to the deal between Hamas and Israel “must continue, resulting in a full humanitarian ceasefire, for the benefit of the people of Gaza, Israel and the wider region”, a message that Guterres is likely to reiterate tomorrow.

Humanitarian organisations, such as the Norwegian Refugee Council and Oxfam, while welcoming the deal, have also underscored the need for a lasting ceasefire. In a 15 November statement issued following the adoption of resolution 2712, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) said that the resolution failed to acknowledge “how necessary a sustained cessation of hostilities is to save lives and to enable humanitarian assistance”, before adding that “[h]umanitarian pauses, extended though they may be, are not enough”.

Tomorrow, Council members are likely to welcome the pause in fighting and call for increased humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza. Some members may call on Israel to open its border crossings into Gaza to facilitate scaled-up humanitarian deliveries. (Since the start of the escalation, humanitarian assistance has been delivered only through the Rafah crossing which connects Gaza with Egypt.) Members are also likely to welcome the release of the hostages and call for the release of all the remaining captives held in Gaza. Some members may also welcome the release of Palestinians from Israeli jails. Participants at tomorrow’s meeting are also likely to emphasise the need to respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians and civilian structures, including medical facilities and schools.

Members are also likely to restate some of their messages regarding resolution 2712. At a 22 November open briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, many members called for the implementation of resolution 2712, with France saying that it will carefully scrutinise the proposals made by the UN for this purpose. While underscoring the ultimate need for a ceasefire, both Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stressed the importance of monitoring the resolution’s implementation. The UAE also said that it “unequivocally reject[s]” linking the upscaling of humanitarian access to hostage release negotiations. Although the UK regretted that resolution 2712 “could not clearly condemn Hamas’ terror attacks”, it said that it supports the resolution’s objectives and urged its “urgent implementation”.

Wennesland is expected to brief the Council on wider aspects of the conflict between Israel and Hamas and is likely to provide an update on the situation in the West Bank and the broader region. In a 27 November update, OCHA reported that, between 7 October and 27 November, 231 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, representing more than half of all Palestinians killed in the West Bank this year. OCHA reports that, of those who were killed, 222 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, eight by Israeli settlers and one either by Israeli forces or settlers, noting that over half of the fatalities were reported “in operations that did not involve armed clashes”. Since 7 October, at least 143 Palestinian households comprising over 1,000 people from 15 herding/Bedouin communities in the West Bank have been displaced amid settler violence and access restrictions.

Wennesland might also refer to plans by Israeli authorities to expand settlement activity. On 27 November, the Israeli government voted on a revised budget for the end of 2023 in light of the fighting with Hamas. Among other lines, the budget reportedly included the allocation of funds for settlement expansion. In a 27 November post on X (formerly Twitter), EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles said that he was “appalled to learn that in the middle of a war” the Israeli government was “poised to commit new funds to build more illegal settlements”, stressing that this was “not self-defence and will not make Israel safer”.

Tomorrow, Council members are likely to express concern at the risk of the conflict extending to the West Bank and the wider region. At the 22 November open briefing, Malta said that “military incursions, settler violence, demolitions and forced transfer of Palestinians” in the West Bank risk making the “opening of a third front a real possibility”. Several members may raise similar concerns at tomorrow’s meeting. In his 27 November statement, Dujarric said that the Secretary-General urges all states to “use their influence” to end the conflict and “support irreversible steps” towards a two-state solution; a message that Wennesland, Guterres, and several Council members are likely to echo tomorrow. Council members may also urge Israel to cease all settlement activity and stress that settlements erode the possibility of achieving a two-state solution.

Tomorrow’s meeting follows a 27 November private meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” which was requested by Russia. Director of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Representative Office in New York Gréta Gunnarsdóttir and OCHA Head in Geneva and Director of the Coordination Division Ramesh Rajasingham briefed. Representatives from the permanent missions of Egypt, Israel, the Observer State of Palestine, and Qatar also participated in the meeting, with Egypt and Qatar providing an update on developments related to the pause in the conflict. In remarks to the press following the meeting, the Permanent Representative of Qatar, Alya Ahmed Saif Al Thani, said that Qatar’s hope is “to reach a ceasefire”.

It seems that China has proposed a draft presidential statement in connection with tomorrow’s meeting.

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