What's In Blue

Posted Thu 11 Jan 2024

“The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”: Open Briefing

Tomorrow afternoon (12 January), the Security Council will hold an open briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Algeria requested the meeting to discuss the threat of forced displacement of Palestinians in Gaza. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths and Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris are the anticipated briefers.

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 9 January, at least 23,210 Palestinians had been killed and 59,167 wounded since 7 October 2023. According to figures provided by Israeli authorities cited by OCHA, more than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in Israel in the conflict, the vast majority on 7 October 2023. Some 136 Israelis and foreign nationals remain captive in Gaza, after 86 Israelis and 24 foreign national hostages were released during the humanitarian pause of 24-30 November 2023.

Tomorrow’s meeting will be the second one this week on the Israel-Hamas war. Yesterday (10 January), at Malta’s request, Council members held closed consultations to discuss the implementation of resolution 2712 of 15 November 2023, which called for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors” throughout Gaza to facilitate the provision of essential goods and services as well as for the unconditional release of all hostages held in Gaza. Griffiths and Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Mohamed Khaled Khiari briefed. During that meeting, Griffiths, Khiari, and several Council members apparently reiterated the call for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

At tomorrow’s meeting, the briefers and Council members are likely to reiterate concerns about the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, including the widespread displacement. In a 5 January letter to the Security Council, the Secretary-General said that over 60 percent of homes in the Gaza Strip are estimated to have been damaged or destroyed and expressed concern about rampant hunger and thirst in Gaza, with over half a million people facing “what experts classify as catastrophic levels of hunger”. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimates that, as at 8 January, up to 85 percent of Gaza’s population (nearly 1.9 million people), had been displaced, many of them multiple times. As at 8 January, 146 UNRWA employees have been killed since the onset of hostilities.

The briefers and Council members may echo concerns, expressed repeatedly by other UN officials, over the displacement of Palestinians in the current conflict. On 7 December 2023, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini wrote a letter to the UN General Assembly, in which he stated that “large swathes of Gaza are destroyed and uninhabitable”, warning that “without safe shelter and aid, civilians in Gaza risk death or will be forced to Egypt or beyond”. On 22 December 2023, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons Paula Gaviria Betancur asserted: “[a]s evacuation orders and military operations continue to expand and civilians are subjected to relentless attacks…the only logical conclusion is that Israel’s military operation in Gaza aims to deport the majority of the civilian population en masse”.

In response to a question during the 3 January daily press briefing regarding statements from some Israeli officials, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, suggesting support for the transfer of Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip, Associate Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Florencia Soto Niño said: “[e]very person has the right to be protected from forced displacement from their home or residence”. In an apparent reaction to the officials’ statements, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said on 7 January that it is “absolutely not” the policy of the Israeli government to forcibly displace Palestinians out of Gaza, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated yesterday (10 January) that “Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population”.

In a summit held yesterday in Aqaba, Jordan, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected any efforts aiming “to liquidate the Palestinian issue or forcibly displace the Palestinians outside their land”, noted a statement from al-Sisi’s office.

Tomorrow’s session takes place against the backdrop of South Africa’s recently initiated proceedings against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), alleging that Israel has violated its obligations under the Genocide Convention through its actions in Gaza. The first hearing on the matter was held today (11 January).

At tomorrow’s Council meeting, several members are expected to call for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. In addition to decrying the high casualty rate of the current conflict, some members may emphasise the adverse effects of the conflict on the health, education, and general welfare of Gaza’s population. Members are likely to condemn the parties for not abiding by international law. Several members may urge Israel to take greater care to avoid civilian casualties in its military operations, and condemn settler violence in the West Bank. Some may also call for the release of the remaining hostages in Gaza, and condemn the indiscriminate firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel.

It is likely that members will also express concerns about the potential spillover effects of the conflict, given the exchanges of fire across the Blue Line, the recent killings of Hamas and Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon, as well as Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and the military response led by the UK and the US to these attacks that began earlier today. (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.) At the time of writing, the Council was expected to hold a meeting tomorrow on the military response to the Houthi attacks.

The quarterly open debate on “The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”, scheduled for 23 January, will be held at ministerial level. Secretary-General António Guterres may brief. Other Council meetings on this issue may be convened, depending on developments in Israel and Gaza.

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