While Israelis and Palestinians are cooperating in unprecedented ways to combat the expanding COVID-19 pandemic, Israel must do more to safeguard the health of all people under its control, the senior United Nations official in the region told the Security Council in a 23 April videoconference meeting*.
Nickolay Mladenov, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, also briefed the 15-member Council on the potentially serious consequences of Israel’s renewed threats to annex parts of the West Bank — land proposed as part of a future Palestinian State — emphasizing that such a move would violate international law, deal a devastating blow to a two-State solution and close the door to future negotiations. He said the two sides should embrace the window of opportunity for unity presented by COVID-19 and walk back such threats. “I strongly urge Israeli and Palestinian leaders to seize this moment to take steps towards peace, to reject unilateral moves that will only deepen the wedge between the two peoples and undermine the chances for peace,” he stressed.
Recalling that the two leading Israeli political parties agreed in recent days to form a joint emergency Government — with the land annexation plan serving as part of the deal — he noted that the Palestinian Authority has threatened that such a move would cancel the implementation of all existing bilateral agreements. The looming political crisis detracts from significant cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, alongside the United Nations and other partners, to combat the spread of the coronavirus, he said.
Outlining the United Nations response, he said the Organization put forward an initial request for $34 million to address immediate public health and humanitarian needs in the Middle East. Since the start of the epidemic, the United Nations has delivered more than 1 million essential supplies such as lab equipment, personal protective gear and thousands of COVID-19 tests. Those items have reached hospitals and clinics directly, as well as through the Palestinian Ministry of Health, and trainings are under way for health workers in the Gaza Strip. Israel is also providing support to Palestinians in combating the pandemic, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has opened its health services to non-refugees in Gaza.
Nevertheless, he said, Palestinian authorities have reported acute shortages of medical equipment. Currently, only two of six hospitals in East Jerusalem are equipped to address cases of COVID-19, and the Israeli closure of a testing clinic in the Silwan area on 14 April raised concerns. Urging staff of all prisons and detention centres to consider releasing vulnerable individuals in their charge, he noted that the crisis is heavily affecting women and exacerbating inequality. He also expressed concern that losses to the Palestinian economy could amount to $1 billion, as the Palestinian Authority lacks access to many conventional financial tools.
Despite a marked decrease in clashes amid the pandemic, several rocket launches from Gaza were reported during the period under review, he said. Hamas security forces detained eight civil society activists on grounds that have been questioned by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Some crossing points in Gaza were closed and more severe movement restrictions put in place. Sporadic violent incidents continued, resulting in three Palestinians killed and 25 injured, and several local Palestinian leaders were detained and later released. Meanwhile, the continued targeting of water and hygiene structures also remains a serious source of concern amid the pandemic.
Turning to other parts of the region, he said that while the situation in the Occupied Syrian Golan remains largely stable, several drones and aircrafts were observed flying over the Area of Separation, revealing that the risk of conflict may be escalating. Lebanon — which has instituted a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 — has seen renewed protests in some places, and its Palestine refugee camps have become increasingly volatile as residents severely impacted by the country’s economic crisis now face the mounting threat of the virus.
Speaking following the briefing, the Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine appealed for urgent international support for UNRWA and respect for the Secretary-General’s 23 March appeal for a global ceasefire, which was endorsed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “This must include a call on Israel to cease its war on the Palestinian people,” he stressed, spotlighting the need to release prisoners and lift the “amoral” longstanding blockade of Gaza. While many are now suffering, the pain of the Palestinian people is unique, having endured 53 years of oppression.
Noting that the Palestinian Authority is working to stop the spread of COVID-19, he voiced regret that even the extreme challenges presented by the pandemic have not convinced Israel to end its illegal activities. Most flagrant has been Israel’s new annexation push, on which it forges ahead with blatant contempt for the Council’s resolutions. Warning that such a move will lead to a collapse of any chance for peace through a two-State solution, he declared: “The result, we all know, will be a one-State solution of apartheid.” Such an outcome must be averted at all costs. He urged the international community not to let the naming of a so-called “emergency Government” in Israel distract from illegal actions, adding: “Now is the time to become more humane, more giving, not more brutal and more insatiable.”
The representative of Israel stressed that COVID-19 does not distinguish across borders, noting that at times of crisis peoples and Governments “show their true colours”. Outlining Israel’s work to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 across the region, he said it is providing resources to the United Nations response, facilitating the flow of medical supplies and food into Gaza and conducting medical trainings for Palestinian health workers. Israel has also donated health equipment, including testing kits, to the Palestinian Authority.
In contrast to those efforts, he said, the Palestinian Authority has decided on a path of hate and libel. Pointing out that Jews have historically been falsely blamed for causing disease outbreaks through the ages, he rejected slanderous attacks on Israeli soldiers who are risking their very lives to curb the spread of COVID-19 — for the benefit of both Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority remains willing to spread lies to “score a few cheap political points”, actions which, he cautioned, will have serious consequences. Meanwhile, he said, the Iranian regime has asked for sanctions imposed against it to be lifted amid the pandemic, even as it launched a new satellite. Iran cannot be permitted to use the outbreak to advance its nuclear agenda, he cautioned.
As Council members delivered statements, several emphasized that the current fragile period requires both parties to avoid any provocative action — including incitement, settlement activity, demolitions and settler violence — that might undermine their tenuous cooperation in combating the pandemic. Others insisted that Israel, as the occupying Power, bears a special responsibility to keep Palestinians safe against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The representative of the Dominican Republic, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, commending the unprecedented coordination between Israeli and Palestinian health authorities. Voicing his delegation’s support for a two-State solution, he said new facilities are needed for the orderly movement and testing of people, and assistance must be provided to families financially affected by the virus. Israel should consider allowing more humanitarian access and necessary medical supplies into Gaza. Welcoming the Palestinian Government’s adoption of an emergency budget, he stressed that it remains very much in need of external support and urged donors to continue making contributions.
The representative of the United Kingdom described cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in response to COVID-19 as an example of the responsible approach that is needed at this difficult time. Urging Israel to ensure that the Palestinian economy is permitted to function and to support the Palestinian Authority’s economic stability, he voiced deep concern about reports that the new Israeli governing coalition has reached an agreement paving the way for annexation of parts of the West Bank. Any such unilateral moves would both damage efforts to restart peace talks and contravene international law, he warned.
Germany’s representative stressed that COVID-19 “endangers Israelis and Palestinians alike” and said both parties should step up their cooperation to mitigate its effects. He called on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to ensure the delivery of COVID-19 related aid and facilitate the distribution of medical supplies and personnel, particularly in Gaza, adding that the parties should exercise maximum restraint and refrain from taking any measures that can worsen the situation and undermine a two-State solution. “Unilateral actions creating facts on the ground will not lead to sustainable peace and security but to perpetual instability and insecurity,” he said, strongly advising any Israeli Government against the annexation of occupied Palestinian land.
France’s delegate also voiced his support for a two-State solution and his concern about the threat of annexation. France, along with its European partners, has warned repeatedly against the annexation of parts of the West Bank, which would constitute a blatant violation of international law. “Such steps if implemented would not pass unchallenged and shall not be overlooked in our relationship with Israel,” he cautioned, while also calling on Israel to refrain from publishing tenders or taking any measures aimed at promoting new settlement construction. Turning to COVID-19, he emphasized that there is no alternative to cooperation in fighting the pandemic. While Israel should guarantee the continued delivery of medical equipment and allow humanitarian evacuations from Gaza, the Palestinian Authority is also responsible for providing medical aid and supplies. France is mobilizing €3 million to support the Palestinian response to COVID-19, along with €71 million mobilized by the European Union, he said.
The representative of Niger called on both parties to renounce all unilateral action in order to strengthen mutual confidence. If Israelis and Palestinians are to achieve their respective aspirations for the creation of a viable State, and for security, a return to the negotiating table on a sound, mutually acceptable basis is needed. He called on Israel to respect international law and end the occupation of Palestinian land, including in East Jerusalem, in accordance with Council resolution 2334 (2016). Israel’s cooperation with the Palestinian Authority to bring medical supplies into the West Bank and Gaza should be broadened, he said, adding that Gaza needs international assistance to address the shortage of health workers, medicines, medical equipment and supplies, including through support for UNRWA.
The representative of Estonia echoed calls to set aside animosity and instead create corridors for life-saving aid and diplomacy. Calling on all parties to resolve their differences through dialogue, negotiation and mediation, he underlined UNRWA’s crucial role in stabilizing the region and advocated for a stronger focus on mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in Gaza. “The most important goal should be keeping the prospects for moving towards peace alive,” he said, expressing concern about Israel’s announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem and condemning reported rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, commending the solidarity and support between the Palestinian and Israeli authorities sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, urged both parties to keep enhancing their cooperation. Progress in that regard, however, risked being stymied by illegal settlement activity and the threat of annexation. Emphasizing that “imposed solutions will not work”, she underscored the importance of the two-State solution, adding that any outcome must adequately address the needs of all parties.
Viet Nam’s delegate called for an immediate end to the reported arrest of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel, which took place amid a growing number of COVID-19 cases in the West Bank and Gaza. The World Bank forecasts that the Palestinian economy will shrink by 2.5 per cent in the best-case scenario, and by 7 per cent if the pandemic continues for four months. “This will seriously aggravate ongoing public debt, unemployment and poverty,” he warned, emphasizing the need for continued cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian authorities and urging all parties to the peace process to implement a global ceasefire.
The Russian Federation’s speaker said the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire has particular relevance for the Palestinian issue, which is the longest-running crisis in the Middle East. Welcoming cooperation between the two sides on health matters, he nevertheless echoed concerns raised about the COVID-19’s potential consequences in Gaza. Efforts to deliver medical equipment should be multiplied. While the situation in the Middle East is being aggravated by the pandemic, the Russian Federation’s support for a just and fair solution, based on relevant United Nations resolutions and with a sovereign Palestinian State, remains unchanged. Expressing regret over continued reports of Israeli settlement activities, demolitions and deadly clashes, he joined other speakers in urging the parties to avoid any provocative actions or unilateral steps.
The representative of China, meanwhile, echoed concerns about the alleged plan to annex the Occupied Palestinian Territory which runs counter to international law and relevant Council resolutions. Top priority must be given to responding to the pandemic, he said, encouraging Israel and the Palestinian Authority to sustain and enhance cooperation on the public health and security fronts. For its part, he added, the international community should turn the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to invest more effort into the political process, commit to a two-State solution and work towards an early resumption of peace talks.
The representative of South Africa agreed that all parties must seize the opportunity to build trust and confidence, warning that the current health crisis must not be used to further individual political goals. Regarding Israel’s stated annexation plans, he said only the Palestinians can decide their own fate, adding that the occupying Power must fulfil its responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to all those who need it. He went on to remind Israel of the United Nations Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) — which stipulate that “prisoners shall have access to the health services available in the country without discrimination on the grounds of their legal situation” — and called for the immediate release of political prisoners.
Belgium’s representative was among those speakers who underscored Israel’s special responsibility as an occupying Power amid the pandemic, adding that all measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should be taken in line with international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Voicing concern about the situation in East Jerusalem, as well as the forced closure of a testing facility in Silwan, he called for an end to the destruction and seizure of health, water and sanitation facilities. Israel should immediately lift the blockade of Gaza and enable the entry of essential medical supplies and humanitarian workers. “Once again, the developments on the ground underline the need to come to a sustainable and peaceful solution of the conflict in line with international law,” he said.
The representative of Indonesia also underscored Israel’s legal obligation to ensure the safety of people under its occupation — including helping them to cope with COVID-19. Among other things, it must ensure that Palestinians have the required medical facilities and equipment, provide unhindered humanitarian access and stop all illegal actions against Palestinians, including the Gaza blockade. He voiced concern that the $34 million requested by the United Nations Inter-Agency Response Plan has yet to be fulfilled, urging the international community to extend more support to Palestinians to combat COVID-19.
Tunisia’s delegate said that the chronic Israeli occupation, violations of Palestinians’ human rights and aggressive illegal practices continue to deepen social and economic hardships. Settlement expansions, the longstanding blockade of Gaza and the withholding of revenue from the Palestinian Authority has severely impacted and limited Palestinians’ access to basic services, including health care. “As the difficulties are huge and the humanitarian needs enormous, we call upon the international community to continue its vital support to the Palestinian Authority, including to the public health response [and] economic recovery efforts,” he said. He also appealed to Council members to urge Israel to abide by its obligations under international law and facilitate the free movement of medical staff and supplies, especially into Gaza, and to end its blockade.
Striking a different tone, the United States’ representative cautioned that the immediate goal of halting the spread of COVID-19 must not entirely overshadow the long-term goal of peace in the Middle East. Welcoming “true leadership […] that puts aside politics and makes bold decisions for the well-being of Israeli and Palestinian people”, she said that Washington is committed to helping leaders make choices that save human lives and honour human dignity. Recently, the United States announced $5 million in aid to Palestinian hospitals and households and will continue to assess how its assistance can best be used going forward. In light of recent steps taken to form a national emergency Government, Israel can count on the United States’ unwavering support. “The incentives for peace and progress between Israelis and Palestinians are stronger than ever,” she said.
[In addition to the participants in the videoconference meeting, non-Council members, observers and other delegations were also invited to provide written statements for the debate (under Rules 37 and 39), to be compiled and circulated as an official document of the Council, in accordance with letters from its Presidents for March (China) and April (Dominican Republic) on provisional measures and working methods during the COVID-19 pandemic (documents S/2020/253 and S/2020/273).]
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.