What's In Blue

Posted Mon 20 May 2024

The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Briefing on the Situation in Rafah

This afternoon (20 May), the Security Council will hold an open briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. The meeting will take place after the vote on a draft resolution on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) and outer space security. Algeria and Slovenia requested the briefing to discuss the situation in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost governorate. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland and Director of OCHA’s Operations and Advocacy Division Edem Wosornu are the expected 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 17 May, at least 35,303 Palestinians had been killed. Large areas of Gaza have been bombed to the ground, with up to 1.7 million people estimated to be displaced across the Gaza Strip, most of them multiple times. Figures provided by Israeli authorities cited by OCHA indicate that more than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in Israel, the vast majority on 7 October 2023. As at 17 May, an estimated 132 Israelis and foreign nationals remain captive in Gaza.

This morning (20 May), the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, announced that he was filing applications for warrants of arrest before the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber I for three Hamas leaders and two Israeli officials on various counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Khan is seeking an arrest warrant for the Head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar; the Commander-in-Chief of the Al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’ military wing) Mohammed Diab Ibrahim Al-Masri, also known as Mohammed Deif; the Head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh; as well as for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant.

At today’s meeting, Wennesland may provide an update on the situation in Gaza since the start of the IDF’s operation in Rafah. Despite repeated warnings from the UN and humanitarian agencies about the catastrophic consequences of an Israeli offensive targeting Rafah, the Israeli government has been threatening for several months to carry out a major operation in Rafah to eliminate the Hamas forces that it says have their last stronghold in that area. Following the issuance on 6 May of evacuation orders and the carrying out of airstrikes on some areas in Rafah, the IDF on 7 May took control of the Rafah border crossing, which connects Gaza with Egypt.

According to updates from OCHA and media sources, since the start of the IDF’s operation in Rafah, Israeli bombardment has continued to be reported across the Gaza Strip, with ground incursions and heavy fighting reported in eastern Rafah, as well as in other areas of Gaza, including in the Jabalya refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip.

Over a million people had been sheltering in Rafah prior to the start of the offensive in the governorate, which had been one of the few areas in Gaza where the IDF had not carried out their ground operation. In a 20 May update on X (formerly Twitter), the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimated that over 810,000 people have fled Rafah in the past two weeks.

Indirect talks between Israel and Hamas mediated by Egypt, Qatar, and the US resumed in Cairo on 7 May. Talks ended on 9 May without agreement, however. On 20 May, Reuters cited Qatar’s Minister of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Al-Khulaifi as saying that “he saw no political will to reach a ceasefire agreement in Gaza while military operations continued on the ground”.

Wosornu is likely to brief the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Rafah and in the rest of the Gaza Strip, including in areas to which Palestinians are fleeing. According to an 18 May update by UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, following the IDF evacuation orders, Palestinians in Gaza have mainly fled “to the middle areas [of Gaza] and Khan Younis including to destroyed buildings”. Noting that Palestinians have been forced to flee multiple times during the war, he stressed that people on the move are “without safe passage or protection” and every time they are “forced to leave behind the few belongings they have”.

Lazzarini added that the areas where people are fleeing to “do not have safe water supplies or sanitation facilities” and stressed that “[t]he claim that people in Gaza can move to ‘safe’ or ‘humanitarian’ zones is false” because nowhere is safe in Gaza. He described Al-Mawasi—one of the areas to which the IDF’s evacuation orders directed Palestinians in Rafah to relocate—as lacking “the minimal conditions to provide emergency humanitarian assistance in a safe and dignified manner”.

Wosornu may also update Council members on the delivery of humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip. According to OCHA, the Rafah crossing remained closed as at 17 May. The OCHA update noted that while the Kerem Shalom/Kerem Abu Salem crossing remains operational, “the prevailing security and logistical conditions are hampering humanitarian aid deliveries at scale”. On 19 May, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths warned that if aid does not reach the people in need and fuel runs out, there will be famine in Gaza, with “apocalyptic” consequences. Today, Wosornu is likely to echo these concerns.

On 17 May, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq announced that the UN agreed to support the dispatch of aid into Gaza through a US-built floating dock off the coast of Gaza “as long as it respects the neutrality and independence of humanitarian operations”. In line with previous messages from the UN on this issue, Haq said that while the floating dock, which became operational on 17 May, is “intended to supplement existing land crossings” into Gaza, it is not meant to replace any of these crossings.

At today’s meeting, Council members are likely to reiterate their deep concern at the devastating consequences of a full-scale Israeli offensive targeting Rafah and some members might call on Israel not to advance further with this operation. Members are also likely to reiterate their demands for a ceasefire and the release of all hostages and call for the full implementation of the resolutions adopted by the Security Council on the war. Members are expected to express concern at the displacement of Palestinians in Gaza and may call for the safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid at scale, with some also possibly urging Israel to remove all obstacles towards this end.

Although not an expected focus of today’s briefing, some members might refer to Khan’s filing of applications for warrants of arrest for Hamas and Israeli officials. In a 20 May statement, Slovenia welcomed the “progress in the investigation of the situation in Palestine” and said that war crimes and crimes against humanity “must be prosecuted independently and impartially regardless of the perpetrators”. Some Council members may similarly call for accountability and express support for the ICC’s judicial process and independence.

Following the start of the Israeli operation in Rafah, South Africa requested on 10 May that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) indicate further provisional measures and/or modify its previous provisional measures in the context of 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 (“Genocide Convention”). The ICJ held public hearings on South Africa’s request on 16 and 17 May during which the delegations of South Africa and Israel, respectively, presented their arguments. The court has yet to indicate a date for the delivery of its decision on South Africa’s 10 May request.

The ICJ has already issued two orders concerning this case. On 26 January, the ICJ ordered that Israel, among other things, 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 to ensure that its military forces do not commit any of these acts. In its order, the ICJ also called for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages abducted in Israel on 7 October 2023. On 28 March, the ICJ ordered that Israel shall, among other actions, take all necessary measures “to ensure, without delay” and in full co-operation with the UN, “the unhindered provision at scale” of basic services and humanitarian assistance, as well as “medical supplies and medical care to Palestinians throughout Gaza”.

Council members will continue to follow closely the situation in Rafah and might consider issuing a product should the situation deteriorate further. On 10 May, Council members issued a press statement on the recent discovery of mass graves in Gaza. (For background, see our 6 May What’s in Blue story.) In their statement, Council members called for investigators to be provided “unimpeded access to all locations of mass graves in Gaza to conduct immediate, independent, thorough, comprehensive, transparent and impartial investigations to establish the circumstances behind the graves”. Following opposition from the UK and the US, it seems that the adjective “international” with reference to the investigation was removed from the draft press statement during the negotiations.

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