18 November 2020

More Demolitions, New Settlement-Expansion Plans Form Backdrop to Spiking COVID-19 Infections, Top Middle East Peace Official Tells Security Council

Delegates Echo Coordinator’s Tribute to Saeb Erekat, Hailing Late Palestinian Chief Negotiator as ‘Passionate Advocate for Diplomacy’

Increasing demolitions of Palestinian property — and the announcement of 1,200 new construction projects in East Jerusalem — are now the backdrop for a worrying spike in COVID-19 cases in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the senior United Nations official for Middle East peace told a Security Council videoconference meeting today, while calling upon the parties concerned to cooperate urgently on health and economic matters.

Outlining recent developments, Nickolay Mladenov, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said that after weeks of declining COVID-19 cases, the number of infections is rising once again in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  The 2 million people living in the Gaza Strip — already severely impacted by restrictions on movement, cycles of violence as well as humanitarian and socioeconomic calamity — are facing a major outbreak, he added.

While welcoming the Palestinian Authority’s decision to restart civilian and security coordination with Israel, he expressed concern that some 121,000 Palestinians lost their jobs in the wake of the first COVID-19 lockdown and that food insecurity rates have soared.  With economic recovery likely to be “slow and painful”, the United Nations and its partners are providing critical humanitarian and development assistance, he said, noting that nearly 85,000 tests and advanced laboratory equipment components have been delivered since the outbreak of coronavirus alongside more than 5.5 million items for preventing and controlling infection.

Temporary arrangements brokered by the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) are facilitating the transfer of medical patients out of Gaza and the import of humanitarian supplies, he continued.  Reiterating the Secretary-General’s call for Israeli and Palestinian officials to re-examine and improve the nature of their economic relationship, he said both sides can take immediate steps to move goods into and out of Gaza and to increase trade between that enclave, Israel and the occupied West Bank.

He went on to spotlight a worrying incident on 3 November, when Israeli authorities carried out the most extensive demolitions in the occupied West Bank in a decade, destroying 70 structures in Area C, cautioning that such actions — and the resulting civilian displacement — will only compound Palestinian suffering during the upcoming winter.  In another concerning development, on 15 November, Israeli authorities opened a bidding process for the construction of more than 1,2000 housing units in the Givat Hamatos settlement between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, he noted, warning:  “If built, this would further consolidate a ring of settlements […] and significantly damage prospects for a future contiguous Palestinian State.”

Reiterating his call for Israel to cease such actions, he went on to report that sporadic violent incidents unfortunately continued throughout the period under review.  Militants in Gaza fired two rockets and released incendiary balloons towards Israel, though no injuries were reported.  One Palestinian was killed and 21 were injured — and one Israeli soldier was wounded — in clashes, attacks as well as search-and-arrest operations, he said.  On 4 November, an off-duty officer in the Palestinian Security Forces who had reportedly fired towards Israeli soldiers was shot dead near Huwwara, he added.  Palestinians perpetrated 23 attacks against Israeli settlers and other civilians in the occupied West Bank, resulting in injuries and damage to property.

All the while, he noted, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is still suffering a $115 million funding shortfall for November and December.  For the first time, the Agency finds itself unable to pay salaries and expenses in full, impacting 28,000 staff.  Emphasizing UNRWA’s essential role as the main provider of direct life-saving assistance to millions, he said it urgently needs $70 million to continue its operations — including combating COVID-19 in refugee camps — in the near term.  The international community should urgently step up its support, he stressed.

On regional developments, he welcomed the first visit by Bahrain’s Foreign Minister to Israel, as well as the visit to the region by the Secretary of State of the United States to sign several bilateral agreements.  As for the Syrian Golan the situation remains generally stable, as does the area in which the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is stationed, he said.

He went on to underline the responsibility borne by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to explore every opening that may restore hope in a two-State solution.  Extending his deep condolences for the loss of Saeb Erekat, he recalled that the late Palestinian Chief Negotiator and Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), who died of COVID-19 on 10 November, “never gave up on negotiations” as the only means of achieving peace.

Many delegations echoed that sentiment, expressing condolences for a famed negotiator described by some as a “passionate advocate for diplomacy” and a dogged champion of the Palestinian people’s sovereign aspirations.  Several speakers expressed alarm over the rapid increase in home demolitions in the occupied West Bank — as well as outrage over the resulting displacement of civilians on the brink of a pandemic winter — while calling upon Israel to cease its unilateral actions.  Others spotlighted the diplomatic normalization sweeping across the region, urging the parties to seize upon that momentum and return to the negotiating table in the spirit of Dr. Erekat’s legacy.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Council President for November, spoke in her national capacity, underlining the great human costs of COVID-19.  Citing the worsening humanitarian situation in the West Bank and Gaza, she pointed out that despite repeated international calls for a cessation of all settlement activities, Israel continues to methodically plan, tender and build new settlements, and to expand existing ones.  Its recent announcement of new construction tenders for 1,200 new structures in Givat Hamatos are of particular concern.  Against that backdrop, she underscored the importance of dialogue and expressed support for an international peace conference in 2021, as proposed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.  In the meantime, donor States should fill UNRWA’s large funding gap “as a matter of great urgency”, she urged.

The United Kingdom’s representative, rejecting Israel’s recent announcement of construction tenders in an “extremely sensitive” area, emphasized that Gaza’s reconstruction and economic recovery is more urgent than ever in the face of rebounding COVID-19 cases.  Meanwhile, Hamas must permanently end its attacks against Israel, he stressed.  Recalling that the United Kingdom provided $65 million to UNRWA in 2020 alone, he called, in particular, upon those countries that recently cut their funding to the Agency to reinstate it as soon as possible.  He went on to state that the recent diplomatic normalization agreements demonstrate that Israel and the Arab world can move forward in a more peaceful way, expressing hope that Israeli and Palestinian officials will re-launch talks.

Niger’s representative expressed concern over the “cruel and devastating fate” facing Palestinians in the West Bank, where Israel recently destroyed numerous homes, businesses and even animal shelters and latrines.  Calling attention to the absence of construction permits often used by Israel as a pretext to carry out such operations, he pointed out that the Government almost never grants permits to Palestinian applicants.  He went on to say that the Palestinian Authority’s recent announcement that it will restart security cooperation with Israel should serve as an impetus to re-launch negotiations.  Expressing deep concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, he noted the spread of COVID-19, now standing at thousands of cases, and the fragile health system struggling to respond.  He also stressed that UNRWA needs its critical resources now more than ever.

Belgium’s representative emphasized that any settlement-building initiatives that endanger the possibility of Jerusalem becoming a shared capital must be emphatically denounced if a two-State solution is to have a chance.  Stressing the right of Palestinian children to education, she called upon the Israeli authorities to protect 52 schools in the occupied West Bank at risk of demolition.  She also called upon Palestinian factions to engage in good-faith efforts to reunify Gaza and the West Bank under a single legitimate authority and to organize democratic elections in the Palestinian territories.  She went on to stress the need for strong political and financial support for UNRWA in light of its important role not only for Palestinians, but also for a two-State solution.

China’s representative cited relevant Council resolutions that define settlement activities which undermine the peace process as violations of international law, declaring:  “All parties must avoid an escalation of tensions.”  For its part, the international community should remain objective and impartial, he emphasized.  “No plan that deviates from the track of peace will succeed.”  Turning to UNRWA’s financial situation, he said China consistently supports the Agency, including through its recent provision of health kits for Palestine refugees across the region.

Germany’s representative expressed regret that negative trends on the ground are “increasingly entrenching a one-State reality”, describing the recent decision to advance the construction of more than 4,900 building units in the occupied West Bank, and the issuance of new construction tenders, as yet another step in the wrong direction.  He went on to emphasize that Israel’s suspension of plans to annex part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory must become permanent, and affirmed that Germany will not recognize any changes to the June 1967 lines other than those agreed by the parties.  Both sides should seize the positive momentum from recent diplomatic dynamics in the broader region and return to a path of meaningful negotiations on all final-status issues, while rejecting terrorism, provocative acts and inflammatory rhetoric, he urged.

The Russian Federation’s representative said lasting peace in the Middle East is impossible without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on international law and through direct negotiations between the relevant parties.  He called upon the Middle East Quartet (United Nations, United States, Russian Federation, European Union) to strengthen its engagement with key regional stakeholders, while welcoming the resumption of contacts between the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships.  All parties should uphold their obligations in line with earlier agreements and abstain from aggressive rhetoric and actions, he said, citing both the construction of new settlements and the launching of rocket fire from Palestine into Israel.  He went on to join others in expressing concern over UNRWA’s funding shortfall, calling upon the international community to increase its support for the Agency.

The Dominican Republic’s representative, while also sounding the alarm over UNRWA’s financial situation, pointed out that the Occupied Palestinian Territory’s health system faces imminent collapse under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic.  He went on to call for real dialogue addressing the aspirations and concerns of both parties and welcomed news reports that the Palestinian Authority and Israel will resume ties on the basis of prior agreements.  For its part, the Council must work hard and in unity so that the strong and resilient people of the Middle East can experience peace as the rule, with conflict as the exception, he said.

Viet Nam’s representative praised the Palestinian Authority’s stated willingness to resume negotiations with Israel, urging the Council and the wider global community to create favourable conditions for the success of such talks.  Describing the recent easing of tensions as encouraging, he nevertheless agreed with other speakers that the demolition of Palestinian structures in the West Bank is weakening prospects for a two-State solution.  The parties must refrain from actions and statements that could make dialogue more difficult, he said, calling also for the lifting of the Gaza blockade and for an end to restrictions, attacks and intimidation aimed at Palestinian farmers during olive harvest season.  He went on to echo international calls for the urgent provision of funding to UNRWA.

France’s representative said the Israel-Palestinian conflict is at a turning point and it is more urgent than ever to build momentum towards peace on the basis of a two-State solution.  Expressing alarm at Israel’s proliferating settlement expansion and record demolitions of Palestinian structures — including those financed by the European Union and its member States — he called upon the authorities to revisit their decisions in that regard.  Israel’s suspension of its annexation project must be definitive and not replaced by faits accompli on the ground, he emphasized.  Welcoming the announced resumption of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he said the elections announced by President Abbas in September must not be postponed again.

Tunisia’s representative underlined the Council’s obligation to support a two-State solution, an end to the occupation and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian State, pointing out that Israel, the occupying Power, continues flagrantly to disregard international conventions and Council resolutions.  Rejecting that country’s annexation plans and recent settlement expansion, he said the Council should play its part by ensuring the implementation of its own resolutions, especially resolution 2334 (2016).  He joined others in calling for the immediate lifting of the blockade of Gaza — highlighting the immense suffering it has caused for 14 years — while echoing calls for the re-launch of negotiations and for the holding of the international conference proposed by President Abbas. 

Indonesia’s representative emphasized that the international community must remain committed not only to a credible multilateral process, but also to protecting the internationally agreed consensus concerning Palestine.  In that regard, he said, Indonesia supports the convening of an international peace conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the resumption of talks involving all relevant parties.  He went on to note that, given Israel’s “creeping annexation” of Palestinian territory, the international community must reaffirm the illegality of Israeli settlements as well as the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, statehood and independence.  Turning to UNRWA, he appealed to the international community to match its political commitment to the Agency with sufficient and predictable financial contributions.

South Africa’s representative condemned Israel’s “continuing and abundant” illegal actions, including its recent demolition of 76 structures in the Bedouin village of Khirbet Humsa.  The wide-spread destruction of property represents a grave breach of international law, he said, adding that Israel continues to pursue illegal settlement activities in the West Bank amounting to de-facto annexation.  “A viable peace plan should not allow Palestinian statehood to devolve into an entity devoid of sovereignty, territorial contiguity and economic viability,” he stressed.

The representative of the United States noted that the recently-concluded Abraham Accords — which normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan — have brought peace within reach and triggered a wave of unprecedented interactions across the Middle East.  Calling upon the Palestinians to seize that momentum, she declared:  “We are putting decades of diplomatic failure behind us.”  In that regard, she urged the Council to put its monthly briefings on the Middle East to better use, noting that its current meetings on the matter are characterized by counter-productive rhetoric.  Instead, the Council should turn its attention to Iran’s sponsorship of terror groups and the ongoing conflict in Yemen, she said.

For information media. Not an official record.