What's In Blue

The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question: Closed Consultations

This afternoon (9 May), Security Council members will hold closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. It seems that Russia requested the meeting to discuss a possible role for the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in monitoring a potential ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. UNTSO Head of Mission and Chief of Staff Major General Patrick Gauchat 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 8 May, at least 34,844 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 8 May, an estimated 132 Israelis and foreign nationals remain captive in Gaza.

On 6 May, the office of Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh announced that the group had accepted the outline for a ceasefire proposed by Qatar and Egypt, which, together with the US, have been acting as mediators in the indirect talks between Israel and Hamas. This was followed by a statement by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying 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, Gaza’s southernmost city. (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.)

On 7 May, the IDF took control of the Rafah border crossing, which connects Gaza with Egypt. This move, together with relocation orders issued on 6 May directing Palestinians in parts of Rafah to evacuate and airstrikes over Rafah, has been interpreted as indicating that a full-scale military operation in Rafah is imminent, prompting Secretary-General António Guterres on 7 May to urge Israel to “stop any escalation” and stress that “a full-scale assault on Rafah would be a human catastrophe”. (Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric noted in an 8 May press briefing that “well over one million people, including 600,000 children” have been sheltering in Rafah.) Guterres also called on both parties to “spare no effort to secure an agreement”. Although indirect talks in Cairo have reportedly resumed, an agreement has yet to be reached at the time of writing.

Today will be the second time that Council members receive a briefing from Gauchat since the outbreak of the war. The first time was during the 19 December 2023 open briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Today’s meeting is consistent with Russia’s apparent interest in exploring a monitoring role for UNTSO in Gaza.

The military observers serving under UNTSO’s mandate are unarmed and trained to observe and report violations of the ceasefire and disengagement agreements relevant to their areas of operation. Currently, UNTSO provides military observers as part of the Observer Group Lebanon (OGL), which supports the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), and the Observer Group Golan (OGG), which supports the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan.

Resolution 2712 of 15 November 2023, which called, among other things, for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors” throughout Gaza and the unconditional release of all hostages, requested the Secretary-General to identify “options to effectively monitor” its implementation. Following the adoption of resolution 2712, Russia demanded in subsequent Council meetings that the Secretary-General either consider expanding UNTSO’s current mandate to monitor the implementation of resolution 2712 or “propose an alternative”.

In an 18 December 2023 letter, the Secretary-General identified three options for monitoring resolution 2712. At the same time, the letter warned that any monitoring “is heavily predicated on conditions on the ground being conducive to monitoring” and noted that those conditions did not exist. One of the options identified was to deploy unarmed UN military observers to monitor “compliance with humanitarian pauses/ceasefires”. The letter noted that this would require either the expansion of the mandate of an existing mission, such as UNTSO, or the creation of a new mandate by the Security Council, as well as “the consent or cooperation, as appropriate” of all parties. The other two options were to deploy additional UN personnel to strengthen monitoring by UN agencies already present on the ground, and establishing a civilian observer mission mandated to monitor the implementation of resolution 2712, deployed by the UN or a third party “with the consent or cooperation, as appropriate” of all parties.

In recent Council meetings and negotiations Russia has apparently argued for a possible role for UNTSO in monitoring a possible ceasefire in Gaza. Today, Russia might be interested in hearing Gauchat’s views about this possibility.

Similarly to his 19 December 2023 briefing, Gauchat may provide an update on the activities of UNTSO’s military observers in Lebanon and the Golan. He is likely to note that, since his last briefing, ceasefire violations have continued across the Blue Line and on the Golan. (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.)

Gauchat may highlight the dangerous escalatory pattern of fire exchanges across the Blue Line. He may refer to an incident on 30 March, when three UNTSO military observers serving in the OGL and a language assistant were injured during a patrol along the Blue Line as a result of an explosion that was reportedly caused by a landmine. Members might also be interested in an update from Gauchat regarding UNTSO’s liaison activities with officials of, respectively, Israel and Lebanon, and Syria and Israel.

Today, Council members are also expected to refer to recent developments in Gaza. Members are likely to reiterate their deep concern at the devastating consequences of a full-scale Israeli offensive targeting Rafah. Members may stress the need 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. Members are also likely to call for the safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid at scale to Palestinians in Gaza.

It appears that members are negotiating a press statement proposed by Algeria calling for an investigation into mass graves recently discovered in the vicinity of two hospitals in Gaza. This follows the 7 May closed consultations on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question,” which was called by Algeria to discuss the discovery of mass graves. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, Francesca Albanese, briefed. (For background, see our 6 May What’s in Blue story.)

Tomorrow (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 and the 1 May plenary meeting of the General Assembly under the “veto initiative” (A/RES/76/262). At the ESS, the General Assembly is expected to vote on a draft resolution recommending that the Security Council favourably reconsider the application of the State of Palestine for UN membership. The draft resolution also contains enhanced modalities set out in an annex for the participation of the State of Palestine in the work of the General Assembly. (For more, see the In Hindsight in our May 2024 Monthly Forecast.)

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