Informal Visit to the Rafah Crossing by Members of the Security Council
At the invitation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), 11 current members of the Security Council and four incoming members travelled on 11 December to the Rafah crossing which connects Gaza with Egypt. A key objective of the one-day visit was for Council members to hear briefings on the humanitarian situation in Gaza from interlocutors on the ground, providing them with first-hand accounts about current difficulties concerning the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.
The visit to the Rafah crossing took place following the failure of a UAE-proposed draft Security Council resolution on 8 December. The draft resolution—which was vetoed by the US—demanded an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. All other members—except the UK, which abstained—voted in favour of the text. (For more information, see our 8 December What’s in Blue story.)
The visit was connected to the negotiations on a separate draft resolution put forward by the UAE, which focuses on scaling up and monitoring humanitarian aid going into Gaza. The text was put in blue yesterday (15 December) and is expected to be put to a vote on Monday (18 December).
On 1 December, hostilities resumed between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian armed group and de facto authority in Gaza, after a seven-day pause in fighting. The pause marked the first halt in hostilities since the 7 October large-scale attacks against Israel led by Hamas, and the subsequent massive airstrikes by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on the Gaza Strip and, since 27 October, their ground operation in northern Gaza. Following the collapse of negotiations between Israel and Hamas, the IDF launched a major offensive in the south of the Gaza Strip and resumed heavy bombardment and ground operations in other parts of Gaza, while Palestinian armed groups resumed rocket launches towards Israel.
As at 10 December, the day before the visit to the Rafah crossing, figures provided by Palestinian officials in Gaza cited by OCHA indicated that about 18,000 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, with many more missing, presumably under the rubble. Almost 1.9 million people in Gaza, nearly 85 percent of the population, were estimated to be internally displaced, with rising overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions in shelters. 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 attacks. During the pause, 86 Israelis and 24 foreign nationals were released as a result of the deal between Israel and Hamas. As part of the deal, Israel reportedly released 240 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Unlike an official Security Council visiting mission, which is agreed upon by all Council members and supported financially by the UN, this was a UAE initiative coordinated with Egypt, with the UAE apparently taking on, or at least fronting, all related costs.
It appears that the UAE extended an invitation to participate in the visit to all Security Council members, as well as to the five incoming members (I5) of the Council that will start their two-year term in January 2024 (Algeria, Guyana, the Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, and Slovenia). Among current Council members, representatives of Brazil, China, Ecuador, Ghana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, Russia, Switzerland, the UAE, and the UK participated in the visit. Among the I5, all but Algeria attended.
The US, Israel’s strongest ally at the Security Council, declined to attend, reportedly citing the short notice given by the UAE and the fact that US Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues David Satterfield was already present in the region. The US, which has voted against all but one draft resolution on the crisis put forward by other members, has often emphasised that it favours its own direct engagement on the ground as opposed to multilateral efforts on this file, with US Permanent Representative (PR) to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield stating at the 29 November Council meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” that “while the work we do in this chamber is tremendously important, often times progress happens outside these walls”.
Russia has sharpy criticised this position, saying after the 8 December vote on the UAE-proposed text that the result of discreet US diplomacy is “a graveyard of Palestinian children that Gaza has turned into, thousands of civilian casualties, hospitals, schools and UNRWA [UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] facilities destroyed by ruthless Israeli bombardments”.
France, too, declined to attend, reportedly in light of its dissatisfaction with the hasty negotiations on the UAE-proposed draft resolution which failed to be adopted on 8 December.
In an 11 December post on X (formerly Twitter), Israel’s PR to the UN Gilad Erdan called the visit “biased” and accused the Council of only caring “about the residents of Gaza and ignor[ing] the suffering of the residents of our south and the fate of the abductees”.
The visit was fast-paced. The delegation arrived in the UAE during the weekend of 9-10 December and left for Egypt in the early hours of 11 December on a UAE-chartered flight to the Arish airport, returning to the UAE late that night. Located in the Sinai Peninsula approximately 55 km from the Rafah crossing, the Arish airport is the main hub for the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Gaza. While the Rafah crossing is a pedestrian crossing not intended to accommodate a large number of trucks, it has been the sole operating crossing into Gaza after Israel closed the crossings between its territory and the Gaza Strip following the 7 October attacks. On 15 December, the Israeli government approved the entry of aid into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing which connects Israel and Gaza.
Upon arrival, the delegation, accompanied by a sizable media presence, including reporters from international outlets such as Sky News, Reuters, and Le Monde, was welcomed by Egyptian officials and UN Resident Coordinator in Egypt Elena Panova.
The delegation first stopped at the Sinai University in Arish for a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The briefing took place behind closed doors following a short initial segment that was open to the media, which included the observance of a minute of silence for UNRWA staff killed during the escalation, totalling 133 people as at 10 December, according to OCHA.
Members received briefings from UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) Lynn Hastings, Palestinian Minister of Health Mai Al-Kaila, Panova, and representatives of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society (ERCS), the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRSC), and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
In a 7 December letter to the President of the UN General Assembly, Lazzarini warned that UNRWA’s ability to implement its mandate in Gaza “is today severely limited” and that the premise of UNRWA’s mandate—which is “to provide services to Palestine Refugees until there is a political solution”—“is at grave risk”. It seems that during his briefing in Arish, Lazzarini echoed some of the issues raised in his letter, such as the “untenable” humanitarian situation in Gaza, the threat to civic order posed by UNRWA’s potential collapse, and the importance of preventing the forced displacement of Palestinians outside of Gaza. Hastings apparently illustrated the procedures for access for humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and the related challenges in some detail, while the MSF representative conveyed some of the harrowing personal experiences of MSF staff working in Gaza.
The second stop was at the Arish General Hospital, where members of the delegation visited Palestinians who were severely injured in the bombardments in Gaza, before travelling a short distance to an ERCS warehouse. There, ERCS Emergency Operation Center Manager Lotfy Soliman Gheith showed the delegation a series of items—including solar panels, water filters, and ultrasound machines—saying that they had been denied access into Gaza following inspections by Israeli officials.
Aid trucks parked at the roadside were clearly visible at several points during the visit, with hundreds of them lining the road leading to the Rafah crossing, the main stop of the visit. After the delegation disembarked in front of the crossing’s gate, several interlocutors—including Gheith and Al-Kaila—addressed members, who had the opportunity to ask questions, including regarding the transportation of injured Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt. In remarks to Sky News in front of the Rafah crossing’s gate, the PR of China to the UN, Zhang Jun, said: “[t]his is really a tragic event, not only for the Palestinian people, but for humanity, for the whole world. We should not allow it to continue. It has been too long”.
After travelling a short distance north along the fortified fence which separates Gaza from Egypt, the delegation attended the inauguration of a recently installed water desalination plant funded by the UAE. The PR of the UAE to the UN, Lana Nusseibeh, explained to the delegation that the plant takes water from the Mediterranean Sea, desalinates it, and then pipes it into Gaza, increasing the water supply in the territory in a more cost-efficient manner compared to transporting water on trucks.
The last stop was to a site where members received a videoconference (VTC) briefing from doctors working at a field hospital set up inside Gaza by the UAE. During the VTC, participating members heard from doctors and patients who relayed their upsetting experiences of severe physical trauma and loss caused by the bombardments. It seems that the UAE considered including a stop inside Gaza during the visit, but this was apparently not possible due to security reasons. A CNN team was allowed to enter Gaza the following day (12 December) to visit the UAE field hospital in person.
It seems that the participating members found the visit useful. Members apparently found it particularly valuable to learn in detail about the technical aspects of the clearance required by Israel to allow aid trucks into Gaza. While members were already generally aware of such restrictions, during the visit they were told of specific aspects, such as the requirement for trucks to travel 50 km south of Rafah to a checkpoint in Israel for the inspection of their cargo, before driving 50 km back towards the crossing.
While the promotional angle of the visit on the part of the UAE and Egypt was not lost to at least some of the participants, it seems that the visit afforded participating members a better appreciation of the challenges on the ground and a human connection unachievable in the Council chamber. Members apparently valued the opportunity to interact directly with humanitarian personnel and ask them questions, with some members visibly upset after hearing the traumatic experiences of bombing survivors.
Another element of the trip which members found useful appears to have been an informal dinner organised on the evening before the visit at Nusseibeh’s residence in the UAE, where members were apparently able to have a frank discussion. Exchanges at the Council are rarely informal and interactive, including in closed consultations, and some pointed out that an informal high-level conversation was particularly useful in this case, given that negotiations on this file are often held at PR-level. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland, Hastings, and Lazzarini also attended the dinner.
With all the key interlocutors with whom members interacted during the visit apparently underscoring the urgent need for a ceasefire, the trip seems to have energised at least some participants to continue working towards that objective. Members also stressed other aspects—such as the importance of improving the efficiency of arrangements for humanitarian deliveries and having longer pauses in the fighting—and underlined the need to implement resolution 2712. (Adopted on 15 November, resolution 2712 called for, among other things, “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors throughout the Gaza Strip for a sufficient number of days” to enable unhindered humanitarian access, and for the release of all hostages held by Hamas and other groups.)
While the visit can be seen as adding to the incremental pressure on the US to change its stance of unconditional support to Israel and reconsider its rejection of growing calls for a ceasefire, it is unclear to what extent the visit will shift dynamics at the Security Council, specifically regarding the Council’s ability to call for a ceasefire with one voice. All Council members who travelled to Rafah–with the exception of the UK–already support this measure. The visit may also have more subtle outcomes, for instance, in terms of building increased trust and openness among the participating high-level representatives, including beyond the end of 2023, especially considering that many incoming members took part in the visit.
General Assembly Developments
As participants left the UAE on 12 December, the resumed Tenth Emergency Special Session (ESS) of the Geneal Assembly on “Illegal Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory” adopted a resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.
The ESS resumed after the Council’s failure on 8 December to adopt the UAE-proposed draft resolution calling for a ceasefire. The resolution adopted by the resumed tenth ESS, which is largely based on the draft text proposed by the UAE at the Council, garnered 153 votes in favour, 23 abstentions, and ten votes against. This represented a notable increase in the number of member states supporting an end to the fighting compared to the 27 October General Assembly resolution calling for “an immediate, durable sustainable humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities”, which received 120 votes in favour and was also adopted during a resumed session of the tenth ESS.
At the 12 December ESS vote, members of the Security Council voted consistently with their vote on the UAE-proposed Council text, with the US voting against the ESS resolution, the UK abstaining, while all other members voted in favour. Compared to their vote on 27 October, Albania and Japan switched from abstaining to voting in favour. All I5 members cast votes in favour.