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The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Closed Consultations

Tomorrow afternoon (7 May), Security Council members will hold closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Algeria requested the meeting to discuss the discovery of mass graves in the vicinity of two hospitals in Gaza. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Francesca Albanese, are expected to brief.

During tomorrow’s consultations, Council members might consider issuing a product, such as a press statement, depending on developments on the ground.

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 6 May, at least 34,735 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 6 May, an estimated 132 Israelis and foreign nationals remain captive in Gaza.

Developments in the last 12 hours might shift the expected focus of tomorrow’s closed consultations. Following reports that indirect talks between Israel and Hamas were close to collapsing, the IDF on 6 May carried out airstrikes on Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, and began issuing relocation orders directing Palestinians in parts of Rafah to evacuate to the area of Al-Mawasi, on the coast of the Gaza Strip, a move that was interpreted as signaling the beginning of an IDF offensive on 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 are present in that area.)

Later on 6 May, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh announced that the group had accepted the outline for a ceasefire proposed by Qatar and Egypt, which have been acting as mediators in the indirect talks between Israel and Hamas. Israeli officials reportedly reacted to the announcement by saying that Hamas had agreed to a “watered-down version” of a proposal put forward by Egypt that was not acceptable to Israel. In a statement this evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that while the proposal agreed by Hamas fell short of Israel’s demands, Israel would send a delegation to meet with negotiators in Egypt. At the same time, the statement said that Israel would continue its operation in Rafah.

At press time, some media outlets were reporting that IDF tanks were moving towards the Rafah border crossing which connects Gaza with Egypt.

Tomorrow, Council members and the briefers are expected to reiterate their alarm at the devastating consequences of an Israeli offensive targeting Rafah. In a 6 May statement, Türk described the relocation order issued earlier in the day by the IDF as “inhumane” and as running “contrary to the basic principles of international humanitarian and human rights laws”. OCHA warned that the area of Al-Mawasi “is already overcrowded and lacking safety and essential humanitarian services” and that “a mass evacuation on this scale is impossible to carry out safely”, while UNICEF warned of “a further catastrophe for children”, noting that potential evacuation corridors are “likely mined or littered with unexploded ordnance”. Humanitarian organisations have expressed similar concerns, with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) saying in a statement that an offensive in Rafah “could lead to the deadliest phase of this conflict, inflicting horrific suffering on approximately 1.4 million displaced civilians in the area”.

Council members ostensibly agree on the need to avoid a full-scale Israeli offensive in Rafah. The US, which has provided military and political support to Israel throughout the war, has also expressed opposition to such an operation. At the same time, the US has indicated that it would not oppose an offensive should Israel meet certain conditions, such as putting in place what the US has referred to as “a credible humanitarian plan”.

Participants at tomorrow’s consultations are likely to underscore the importance for the parties to agree to the terms of a ceasefire and to implement fully the resolutions adopted by the Security Council on the war.

The discovery of mass graves in the vicinity of two hospitals in Gaza is also expected to be a key focus of tomorrow’s meeting. The discovery followed the withdrawal of the IDF in early April after the conclusion of a large-scale operation in the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza. On 23 April, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Ravina Shamdasani expressed horror at the destruction of Al Nasser and Al Shifa medical complexes and at the discovery of the mass graves. Shamdasani said that, according to reports from Palestinian officials in Gaza, some of the bodies recovered in Al Nasser were found “with their hands tied, and stripped of their clothes”, and that a similar discovery was made at Al Shifa. She said that the fact that some bodies were found with their hands bound “indicates serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law” and stressed the need for an international investigation.

There are contrasting narratives regarding the mass graves. Palestinian officials in Gaza reportedly accused Israel of opening mass graves that had been dug before the IDF raid to add bodies and committing serious violations, including unlawful killings, torture and concealing of evidence. The IDF has denied these accusations, reportedly saying that it carefully carried out examinations of corpses buried by Palestinians to locate missing hostages.

Tomorrow, Türk is likely to call for an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the mass graves, a call that many Council members are likely to echo. (According to media reports, the US has called on Israel to investigate reports around the mass graves, but it has not called for an independent investigation.) Türk might reiterate the 30 April call by Secretary-General António Guterres for “independent international investigators with forensic expertise” to be allowed “immediate access” to the mass graves sites “to establish the precise circumstances under which hundreds of Palestinians lost their lives and were buried or reburied”. Tomorrow, members are also likely to call for accountability for all violations of international humanitarian law committed during the war.

In her briefing, Albanese might refer to her 25 March report titled “Anatomy of a Genocide”. According to the report, which analyses Israel’s operations in Gaza since 7 October 2023 with reference to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (‘Genocide Convention’), there are “reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating Israel’s commission of genocide is met”. Among other things, the report says that during the war Israel has distorted the terminology of international humanitarian law “to justify its systematic use of lethal violence against Palestinian civilians as a group and the extensive destruction of life-sustaining infrastructures”. The report notes that this has had “devastating, intentional effects, costing the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians, destroying the fabric of life in Gaza and causing irreparable harm to its entire population”.

Tomorrow, Council members are likely to reiterate the importance of safe and unhindered humanitarian access to the civilian population in Gaza. In a 4 May interview, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) Cindy McCain said that there is “full-blown famine” in the north of the Gaza Strip, and that it is “moving its way south”.

Today, Council members held closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”. The meeting was requested by France to discuss its proposed draft resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages. It appears that during the closed consultations members also discussed today’s various developments and potential Council responses.

On 10 May, the General Assembly is expected to resume the tenth Emergency Special Session (ESS) on “Illegal Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory”. The meeting follows the veto cast by the US on 18 April on a draft resolution put forward by Algeria recommending the admission of the State of Palestine to UN membership. On 26 April, the president of the General Assembly sent a letter to UN members saying that he would convene a plenary meeting of the General Assembly on the “use of the veto” (A/RES/76/262), which was held on 1 May. He also informed members that he had received a letter from Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, and Uganda requesting the resumption of the tenth ESS.

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