The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Closed Consultations
Tomorrow morning (30 January), Security Council members will hold closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, following the vote on the mandate renewal of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator (SHRC) for Gaza Sigrid Kaag is expected to brief.
On 22 December 2023, the Security Council adopted resolution 2720 with 13 votes in favour and two abstentions (Russia and the US). The resolution requested that the Secretary-General appoint an SHRC responsible for “facilitating, coordinating, monitoring, and verifying in Gaza, as appropriate, the humanitarian nature of all humanitarian relief consignments” that are provided to Gaza through states which are not conflict parties. It also requested the SHRC to establish a UN mechanism for accelerating humanitarian consignments to the Gaza Strip through states which are not party to the conflict and demanded that the conflict parties cooperate with the SHRC.
Tomorrow will be the first time Kaag briefs Council members in her role as SHRC. Resolution 2720 requested the SHRC, who was appointed on 26 December 2023 and began her assignment on 8 January, to provide an initial report to the Security Council within 20 days and thereafter every 90 days until 30 September.
Following the 7 October 2023 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. On 27 October 2023, the IDF also launched a ground operation initially focused on northern Gaza and later extended to most other areas of the Gaza Strip.
Figures provided by Palestinian officials in Gaza cited by OCHA indicate that, as at 28 January, over 26,400 Palestinians had been killed. Entire neighbourhoods have been bombed to the ground, with 1.7 million people estimated to be internally displaced, many of whom have been displaced multiple times. According to figures provided by Israeli authorities cited by OCHA, more than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in Israel, the vast majority on 7 October 2023. As at 28 January, an estimated 136 Israelis and foreign nationals remained captive in Gaza, after 86 Israelis and 24 foreign national hostages were released during the 24-30 November 2023 pause in the fighting.
On 26 January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an order indicating provisional measures in South Africa’s proceedings against Israel concerning alleged violations in the Gaza Strip of obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Among other measures, the ICJ said that Israel must “take all measures within its power” in relation to Palestinians in Gaza to prevent the commission of acts within the scope of Article 2 of the convention, including killing and causing serious bodily or mental harm.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Kaag is expected to brief Council members on the actions that she intends to take to implement her mandate. She may also provide an update on her engagement with key regional and international interlocutors since taking office. Kaag started her assignment on 8 January in New York and later travelled to the region after a stop in Washington D.C. to hold meetings with US officials. On 14 January, Kaag travelled to Jordan before continuing her trip to Egypt, where she held meetings with Egyptian authorities in Cairo before travelling on 17 January to the city of Arish on the Sinai Peninsula. On the same day, Kaag and UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) Executive Director Jorge Moreira da Silva briefly visited Gaza, entering via the Rafah crossing which connects Gaza with Egypt. It seems that a key focus of the visit was to survey the UN logistical operations in Gaza. (UNOPS has been tasked by the Secretary-General with the operationalisation and management of the UN aid mechanism in Gaza mandated by resolution 2720.)
Later on 17 January, Kaag travelled to Israel, where she held meetings with Israeli officials, including Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and with family members of the hostages still held in Gaza. On 22 January, Kaag travelled to Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and a senior representative of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), before returning to Gaza on the following day. In Gaza, Kaag, together with Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory a.i. James McGoldrick, held meetings with civilians, representatives of UN agencies, international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in Gaza, and Palestinian relief workers.
Tomorrow, Council members may seek an update from Kaag about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and on progress towards establishing the mechanism for accelerating humanitarian consignments to Gaza mandated by resolution 2720. Members might be particularly interested in Kaag’s assessment of potential challenges and any support that may be needed to effectively implement her mandate.
Although not an expected focus of tomorrow’s meeting, Kaag and Council members are likely to refer to recent developments concerning the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In a 26 January statement, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said that Israeli authorities had provided UNRWA with “information about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees” in the 7 October 2023 attacks, adding that he had decided to “immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth”. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a 28 January statement that of the 12 people implicated, nine were fired, one was confirmed dead, and the identity of two others was being confirmed.
Following this news, several countries announced that they would freeze their funding to UNRWA while the allegations are being reviewed—including Council members Japan and the US, which said that they would suspend any “additional funding”—and the UK, which stated that it would pause any future funding. Switzerland also reportedly announced that it will pause the disbursement of previously approved contributions for this year until it receives more information on the allegations.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Kaag, who is expected to work with all UN agencies on the ground, including UNRWA, in the exercise of her mandate, may express concern at these decisions. In a 27 January statement, Lazzarini said that it was “shocking to see a suspension of funds to the Agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff” given the immediate action taken by UNRWA in response. Lazzarini’s statement stressed that “UNRWA is the primary humanitarian agency in Gaza, with over 2 million people depending on it for their sheer survival” and urged the countries that have suspended their funding to “re-consider their decisions before UNRWA is forced to suspend its humanitarian response”. Several countries, including Ireland and Norway, have said that they will continue their support for UNRWA, while Türkiye expressed concern at decisions to suspend funding for the agency. Over 20 aid organisations have also issued a joint statement expressing deep concern at the suspension of funding.
On Wednesday (31 January), Council members are expected to hold an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. The meeting was requested by Algeria following the 26 January order issued by the ICJ.