The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Briefing and Consultations
This morning (31 January), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Algeria requested the meeting following the 26 January order issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) indicating provisional measures in South Africa’s proceedings against Israel concerning alleged violations in the Gaza Strip of obligations under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the ‘Genocide Convention’). Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths is expected to brief.
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 30 January, over 26,700 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 30 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.
The proceedings initiated by South Africa at the ICJ and the provisional measures indicated in the 26 January order are expected to be a key focus of today’s meeting. On 29 December 2023, South Africa submitted an application instituting proceedings against Israel at the ICJ. It alleges, among other things, that “Israel, since 7 October 2023 in particular, has failed to prevent genocide and has failed to prosecute the direct and public incitement to genocide” and that “Israel has engaged in, is engaging in and risks further engaging in genocidal acts against the Palestinian people in Gaza”. The application includes a list of statements by Israeli officials provided by South Africa to the court as evidence of “specific intent” to commit and persist in committing genocidal acts or to failing to prevent them. Pending the court’s determination of the case on the merits, which might take several years, South Africa requested the ICJ to indicate provisional measures to “protect against further, severe and irreparable harm to the rights of the Palestinian people under the Genocide Convention”.
Public hearings were held on 11 and 12 January at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the seat of the ICJ, with South Africa detailing its request for provisional measures on 11 January. The following day, Israel requested the court to reject the request for provisional measures, arguing that South Africa presented a “distorted factual and legal picture” that does not provide an account of the environment created by Hamas in Gaza and the threat that the group poses to Israel, and claiming that Israel is operating in Gaza “not to destroy a people, but to protect a people, its people, who are under attack on multiple fronts”.
In its 26 January order, the ICJ concluded that “at least some of the rights claimed by South Africa and for which it is seeking protection are plausible”, including “the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts of genocide”. Considering that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is “at serious risk of deteriorating further before the Court renders its final judgment” and recalling that ICJ orders on provisional measures have “binding effect and thus create international legal obligations”, the court established that, among other measures:
- 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 Genocide Convention, including killing and causing serious bodily or mental harm, and ensure that its military forces do not commit any of these acts.
- Israel must take all measures within its power to prevent and punish direct and public incitement to commit genocide.
- Israel must take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the conditions faced by Palestinians in Gaza.
At today’s meeting, members are likely to present differing positions regarding the ICJ’s provisional measures. Some members may express a view similar to the one expressed by South Africa after the ICJ issued its order and argue that, although the ICJ did not directly request Israel to suspend its military operations in Gaza, the only way to implement the provisional measures is through a ceasefire. Other members are more likely to generally express support for the role of the court, recall the binding nature of its order and urge Israel to abide by it. Members are also likely to stress, like the ICJ did in its decision, that all parties to the conflict in Gaza are bound by international humanitarian law, and may echo the court’s call for the immediate and unconditional release of all the hostages that remain captive in Gaza. The US, which has opposed any calls for a ceasefire, might echo its 26 January statement and say that, in its view, allegations of genocide against Israel are unfounded and note that the ICJ did not call for a ceasefire.
On 28 January, 12 Israeli ministers participated in a conference in Jerusalem that called for the rebuilding of Israeli settlements in Gaza and the displacement of Palestinians, a move which was criticised by some other Israeli ministers. Today, several Council members may stress that settlements are illegal under international law and undermine the prospects for a two-state solution. Members may also restate their rejection of any forcible displacement of Palestinians. In a 29 January statement condemning the conference, France recalled that the ICJ “recently set out Israel’s obligation to take all measures within its power to prevent and punish this kind of rhetoric”.
The dire humanitarian situation in Gaza is another expected focus of today’s meeting. Following yesterday’s (30 January) closed consultations with Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator (SHRC) for Gaza Sigrid Kaag, France, January’s Council president, read out press elements welcoming Kaag’s appointment, expressing concern about the “dire and rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation” in Gaza, and emphasising the urgent need to “expand the flow of humanitarian assistance to civilians”. Members are likely to echo these messages today.
It seems that during yesterday’s closed consultations, several members referred 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”. The allegations concern 12 people, of whom one was confirmed dead while the identity of two is being confirmed. Following this news, over ten countries, including some Council members, announced that they would freeze their funding to UNRWA while the allegations are being reviewed. (For background, see our 29 January What’s in Blue story.)
At today’s meeting, Griffiths is likely reiterate the main messages from a 30 January statement that he issued together with the other principals of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the highest-level humanitarian coordination forum of the UN system. The statement said that decisions to “pause funds from UNRWA will have catastrophic consequences for the people of Gaza” and appealed for these decisions to be reconsidered. Human rights and aid organisations have also expressed concern at the suspension of funding.