While Israeli and Palestinian authorities have shown exemplary cooperation in protecting their populations from the COVID-19 pandemic, there are no clear signs indicating a return to sorely needed negotiations towards a two-State solution, the Secretary-General’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process told the Security Council, which met* via videoconference on 30 March 2020.
“As the region continues to confront the enormity of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the broader geopolitical tensions, the situation on the ground remains fragile,” said Nickolay Mladenov, briefing the 15-member Council on the implementation of resolution 2334 (2016), covering the period from 18 December to 20 March. Credible negotiations have yet to be launched that will end the occupation and realize a negotiated two-State solution. Nor has Israel taken steps to cease all settlement activities and respect related legal obligations during the reporting period.
“In the absence of a renewed commitment of the parties to pursue concrete measures that will lead to genuine political progress, the situation, I am afraid, will continue to deteriorate,” he said, noting that such factors as Israel’s ongoing military occupation of Palestinian territory and the persistent risk of military escalation are collectively eroding prospects for peace. In addition, Israeli authorities have advanced or approved plans for some 3,800 housing units in West Bank settlements and have demolished or seized 96 Palestinian properties against a backdrop of sporadic violence and deadly clashes.
Still, he said, a “fragile calm” prevails in Gaza, stemming from understandings brokered by Egypt and the United Nations on 24 February. This restoration of calm occurred following deadly clashes near the perimeter fence separating Gaza from Israel. However, both Israeli and Palestinian authorities have continued to make dangerous, discriminatory and provocative statements, countering calls in resolution 2334 (2016) to avoid inflammatory rhetoric that could escalate tensions.
Reporting on several achievements in Gaza, he said that Israel has removed restrictions on shipments and issued more business entry permits. In terms of energy challenges, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in January that measures taken since October 2018 have reduced pollution and increased water supplies, he said, adding that sustainable solution are imperative to address Gaza’s energy deficit. At the same time, the reconstruction of housing damaged in the 2014 escalation is progressing, with 9,000 out of 11,000 destroyed homes having been rebuilt.
Yet more must be done, he said, as 1,000 families remain internally displaced and funding gaps remain — including $35 million to rebuild 1,000 homes and $75 million to repair 56,000 damaged homes. Despite critical interventions to bolster Gaza’s economy and water, energy and health sectors, humanitarian and socioeconomic conditions remain dire. The United Nations is supporting measures to tackle the spread of COVID-19, but Gaza is at particularly high risk for an outbreak given its already failing health-care system in one of the most densely populated areas of the world.
In addition, no progress has been made towards intra-Palestinian reconciliation or elections, he continued, noting that the Russian Federation hosted a series of bilateral talks on these matters. Citing other recent developments, he said that the United Nations Human Rights Office issued a report on businesses operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and the United States released its vision for peace.
Sharing some broad observations, he said that expanding Israeli settlements and unilateral steps on the ground are detrimental to peace. These and other actions must stop, including the demolition and seizure of Palestinian structures and violence against civilians. All incidents must be investigated and perpetrators held accountable.
The only sustainable solution to challenges in Gaza is political, he said. This requires concrete steps to ensure that Gaza and the occupied West Bank are reunited under a single legitimate Palestinian national authority, in accordance with the recommendations of the 2016 Middle East Quartet Report. Also, Palestinian leaders must engage positively with Egypt, reverse the negative trajectory, take concrete steps to end division and schedule elections.
Council members roundly commended Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The representative of the Dominican Republic said that linking a ceasefire and a halt to hostilities — including demolitions — to an effective COVID-19 response presents a unique opportunity, while cautioning that: “More sooner than later, we may be dealing with the consequences of years of neglect and inaction that have made this one of the most serious protracted humanitarian situations in the world.”
Elaborating on this, South Africa’s delegate said the Council must pay particular attention to the manner in which the COVID-19 pandemic affects the Palestinian people, adding that: “During this time when millions of people are being told to stay at home, some Palestinians are having their homes demolished. This is unacceptable and must be condemned.” As such, he called on Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza and on the international community to support UNRWA to provide humanitarian assistance “in these uncertain times”.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines raised concerns about rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, calling on Israel, as an occupying Power under the Fourth Geneva Convention, to ensure that all available, necessary preventative means are utilized to combat the spread of the virus.
Belgium’s representative, welcoming cooperation on both sides to tackle the pandemic, underlined the importance of facilitating the entry of critical supplies and equipment into Gaza.
The Russian Federation’s representative, among others, expressed hope that the recent Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on a COVID-19 response can become a confidence-building measure that extends into other areas. In terms of peace talks, he highlighted that an agreement was reached at a 26 March teleconference involving members of the Middle East Quartet to revitalize the process and to hold its next meeting soon.
The United States delegate praised the Israeli-Palestinian engagement to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as a “model of collaboration and cooperation” that is “encouraging, constructive and that, in a small way, speaks to the power of dialogue, the kind of dialogue we have all been urging the parties to engage in for many months now”. Such dialogue demonstrates the good that comes and the lives that can be saved when leaders do the hard work of forging a path to a safer, healthier more prosperous future, he said, adding that when the virus passes, all Council members “will be able to point to the cooperation we are seeing now and say that dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians is possible”.
France’s representative expressed hope that COVID-19 will also be an opportunity to foster reconciliation and peace. As unilateral steps to respond to common challenges simply do not work, he hoped that the ground could collectively be prepared for resuming peace talks in the framework of internationally agreed parameters and a two-State solution.
Some members, including representatives of Estonia, Germany and Tunisia, raised concerns about chronic obstacles to peace talks, namely settlement expansion and the Gaza blockade. Viet Nam’s representative said that Israel’s continued settlement activities could “close the door” to negotiations and unilateral steps on the ground continue to undermine prospects for a two-State solution, calling for more intense international and regional diplomatic efforts to achieve a just and lasting peace.
In a similar vein, the representative of China, Council President for March, speaking in his national capacity, said that all settlement activity and acts and unilateral initiatives aimed at legalizing settlements should cease. He also called for urgent steps to improve the economic and humanitarian conditions in the region, including increased and expedited financial support for UNRWA, and for more efforts to promote dialogue and negotiations.
Also participating were representatives of Indonesia, United Kingdom and Niger.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.