What's In Blue

Posted Mon 18 Dec 2023

The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Briefing and Consultations

Tomorrow morning (19 December), the Council will convene for an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland and Head of Mission and Chief of Staff of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) Major General Patrick Gauchat are expected to brief in the open chamber. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is expected to brief during the closed consultations.

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 14 December, figures provided by Palestinian officials in Gaza cited by OCHA indicated that 18,787 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, are estimated to be internally displaced, with rising overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions in shelters. During a recent visit to Gaza, Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) Carl Skau stressed the need for a humanitarian ceasefire, saying that “there is starvation” in Gaza and that “civilians are desperate”.

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.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Wennesland is expected to update the Council on the latest report of the Secretary-General on the implementation of resolution 2334 of 23 December 2016, which was circulated to Council members on 14 December and covers the period from 20 September to 7 December (S/2023/988). Resolution 2334 called for immediate steps to prevent violence against civilians, including acts of terror, and called on both parties to refrain from provocative actions, incitement, and inflammatory rhetoric. Tomorrow, Wennesland is likely to reiterate some of the key messages of the Secretary-General’s report, including his condemnation of the 7 October attacks and the killing of civilians in Gaza.

Council members are expected to express grave concern at the situation in Gaza and several members are likely to reiterate their calls for a ceasefire. They are also likely to re-emphasise the necessity of respecting international humanitarian law and protecting civilians from harm. Members may condemn, and call for accountability for, all attacks against civilians and civilian objects, including healthcare facilities, medical and humanitarian personnel, as well as places of worship. Members may also condemn all attacks against journalists. Preliminary investigations by the non-profit organisation the Committee to Protect Journalists show that, as at 17 December, at least 64 journalists and media workers were killed since the outbreak of the war, of whom 57 were Palestinian, four Israeli, and three Lebanese.

The Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2334 notes that the “current conditions are making it impossible for meaningful humanitarian operations to be conducted”. Tomorrow, many members are likely to call for safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and implementing partners. Some members may also welcome Israel’s 15 December decision to open the Kerem Shalom/Kerem Abu Salem crossing, which connects Israel and Gaza for the entry of aid into Gaza. (The Rafah crossing, which connects Gaza with Egypt, 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 11 December, several current and incoming members of the Council participated in an informal visit to the Rafah crossing, where they heard first-hand accounts about current difficulties concerning the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza. (For more information, see our 16 December What’s in Blue story.)

Members are also expected to reiterate their condemnations of the 7 October Hamas-led attacks, and some may condemn any related incidents of conflict-related sexual violence. These members may also express concern about emerging reports of sexual violence committed against hostages in Hamas captivity. Some members may echo the message conveyed in the Secretary-General’s report, which said that the indiscriminate firing of rockets towards Israeli population centres “must cease completely”.

While the ongoing war in Gaza is likely to be a significant focus of tomorrow’s meeting, members are also expected to focus on the situation in the West Bank. Resolution 2334 stated that Israeli settlements constitute a “flagrant violation under international law” and demanded an end to all settlement activity. The Secretary-General’s report noted that 2023 “has seen the most advancements or approvals of housing units in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem” since 2017 when the UN began to systematically track these advancements.

On 27 November, the Israeli government voted on a revised budget for the end of 2023 in light of the war with Hamas. Among other matters, the budget, which was approved by the Knesset (Israeli parliament) on 14 December, includes the allocation of funds for settlement expansion. Several Council members, including European members, may express concern about this development at tomorrow’s meeting. In a 16 December statement, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles said that the EU “is gravely concerned by the commitment of additional funding for settlement construction and related activities”, adding that this development “comes in a context of increased violence against Palestinians by extremist settlers in the occupied West Bank, which has reached unprecedented levels”.

In a 15 December joint statement, 14 states, including Council members France, Switzerland, and the UK, expressed grave concern about “the record number of attacks by extremist settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank”, noting that “[s]ince the start of October, settlers have committed more than 343 violent attacks, killing 8 Palestinian civilians, injuring more than 83, and forcing 1026 Palestinians from their homes”. The statement said that “Israel, as the occupying power, must protect the Palestinian civilian population in the West Bank”, noting that Israel’s failure to do so and to “prosecute extremist settlers has led to an environment of near complete impunity”. These and other members may reiterate similar messages tomorrow.

Members may also call for the full implementation of 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.

Resolution 2712 also requested the Secretary-General to identify “options to effectively monitor” its implementation. At the 29 November meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, Secretary-General António Guterres said that he has established a working group comprised of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), the Department of Peace Operations (DPO), OCHA, and the Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) to “urgently prepare proposals in this regard”. During the same meeting, Russia demanded that the Secretary-General should either consider the expansion of UNTSO’s existing mandate to monitor the implementation of resolution 2712 or “propose an alternative”. At the time of writing, it seems that the Secretary-General’s proposals have yet to be circulated.

Tomorrow, Gauchat may provide an update on the activities of UNTSO’s military observers in Lebanon and the Golan. The military observers serving under UNTSO’s mandate are unarmed and trained to observe and report violations of the ceasefire and disengagement agreements relevant to their areas of operation. Currently, UNTSO provides military observers as part of the Observer Group Lebanon (OGL), which supports the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), and the Observer Group Golan (OGG), which supports the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan.

Since 7 October, there have been multiple exchanges of fire across the Blue Line and, to a lesser extent, fire from Syrian territory towards areas of the Golan occupied by Israel and response fire by Israel targeting positions in Syria. (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.) Tomorrow, Gauchat may call on all parties to respect the relevant cessation of hostilities agreements and ensure the safety and security of peacekeepers and military observers deployed in the area.

At Malta’s request, DiCarlo is expected to brief on the implementation of resolution 2712 during tomorrow’s closed consultations. The resolution references child protection issues throughout its text and was authored by Malta, which chairs the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.

At the time of writing, Council members were negotiating a draft resolution proposed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) focusing on scaling up and monitoring humanitarian aid going into Gaza. The text is expected to be put to a vote tomorrow morning.

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