The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Ministerial-level Open Debate
Tomorrow afternoon (23 January), the Security Council will hold its quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Stéphane Séjourné will chair the meeting. UN Secretary-General António Guterres is the anticipated briefer. Several Council members are expected to participate at ministerial level.
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 21 January, over 25,100 Palestinians had been killed. Entire neighbourhoods have been bombed to the ground, with 70,000 housing units across the Gaza Strip estimated to be destroyed or uninhabitable and 1.7 million people estimated to be internally displaced. 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 15 January, 136 Israelis and foreign nationals were estimated to remain captive in Gaza, after 86 Israelis and 24 foreign national hostages were released during the 24-30 November 2023 pause in the fighting. (For background, see the brief on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” in our January Monthly Forecast.)
At tomorrow’s meeting, Guterres is likely to echo key messages on the Israel-Hamas war from his remarks to the summits of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Group of 77 (G77) plus China, both held in Kampala, Uganda, where he spoke on 20 and 21 January, respectively. Speaking at the NAM summit, Guterres reiterated his calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the unconditional release of all hostages. Addressing the situation in Gaza, he said that “[p]eople are dying not only from bombs and bullets, but from lack of food and clean water, hospitals without power and medicine, and gruelling journeys to ever-smaller slivers of land to escape the fighting”.
Tomorrow, Guterres may underscore that the level of aid reaching Palestinians in Gaza remains wholly insufficient to meet their needs. A 19 January OCHA humanitarian access update noted that “the capacity of humanitarian agencies to operate safely and effectively anywhere in Gaza remains heavily compromised by Israeli restrictions on the import of critical equipment, including sufficient numbers of armored vehicles (AVs) and appropriate communication devices”. The update says that, in the first two weeks of January, only seven of the 29 missions planned by humanitarian agencies to areas north of Wadi Gaza were carried out, either fully or partially, due to access denials by the Israeli military, marking a significant increase in denials compared with the previous months.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Guterres and many Council members are expected to stress the importance of establishing a two-state solution based on relevant UN resolutions and international law. In his address to the G77 plus China summit, Guterres said that the repeated refusal to accept the two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians “is totally unacceptable” and that the “denial of the right to statehood for the Palestinian people” would prolong the conflict indefinitely. This was an apparent reference to recent remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said that he “will not compromise on full Israeli security control over the entire area west of Jordan – and this is contrary to a Palestinian state”.
Council members are expected to express alarm at the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, with many members likely to reiterate their calls for a ceasefire. As in past meetings, members are likely to underscore the importance of protecting civilians and respecting international humanitarian law and may call for safe and unhindered humanitarian access for humanitarian agencies to be able to scale up their operations in Gaza. Members are also expected to call for the release of all remaining hostages and may reiterate their condemnations of the 7 October 2023 Hamas-led attacks. Several members may also restate their rejection of any forcible displacement of Palestinians.
Tomorrow, Guterres and Council members are also likely to express concern at the situation in the West Bank and at the risk of an escalation engulfing the wider region. For instance, Guterres might reiterate his recent warnings about the risk that daily exchanges of fire across the Blue Line could trigger a broader escalation between Israel and Lebanon and may call for an end to hostilities and for de-escalation. (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.)
Since 7 October 2023, Council members have voted on seven draft resolutions on the crisis, adopting two of these texts: resolution 2712 of 15 November 2023 and resolution 2720 of 22 December 2023. (For background, see our 15 November and 20 December 2023 What’s in Blue stories.)
In the lead-up to tomorrow’s open debate, Council members were apparently unable to agree on a draft presidential statement on the war between Israel and Hamas which was put forward by Russia on 17 January. Unlike Security Council resolutions, presidential statements require the agreement of all 15 members to be adopted. Consistent with dynamics during previous Council negotiations on the crisis, it seems that members were unable to reach agreement on proposed language demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and on including text condemning Hamas for the 7 October 2023 attacks. Today (22 January), Russia apparently withdrew the draft text from consideration.
Tomorrow’s meeting is unlikely to be the last Council meeting this month on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Pursuant to resolution 2720, on 26 December 2023 the Secretary-General appointed Sigrid Kaag as Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator (SHRC) for Gaza. The resolution requested that the SHRC, who began her assignment on 8 January, provide an initial report to the Security Council within 20 days. Today, spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said that Kaag is expected to brief the Security Council on 30 January. Further Council meetings may be convened depending on developments in Gaza and Israel.