Speakers Also Discuss Diplomatic Thaw, Resumed Israeli-Palestinian Coordination
The United Nations official on Middle East peace updated the Security Council today on developments in the region, highlighting continued violence, including against civilians and children, as well as Israel’s ongoing settlement-related activity in the occupied West Bank.
Briefing via videoconference, Nickolay Mladenov, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, emphasized that the global community “must persevere in its efforts to prevent violent escalation in the region and encourage leaders on both sides to takes steps towards enabling a return to negotiations, not a retrenchment of conflict”.
On the implementation of Security Council resolution 2334 (2016), he noted that there has been continued Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. “Over the past year, Israeli authorities advanced controversial settlement plans that had been frozen for years,” he said, pointing out that half of them are deep in the West Bank, in areas crucial for the contiguity and viability of a future Palestinian State. In the strategic location of E1, he added, plans for some 3,500 units were advanced after an eight-year delay. If implemented, the E1 plan would sever the connection between the northern and southern West Bank, he warned, stressing that settlements entrench Israel’s occupation and undermine the prospect of a two-State solution.
He reported that, on 13 December, the Israeli authorities announced a tender for 290 housing units in the settlement of Gilo, East Jerusalem. On 16 December, the Knesset advanced, in a preliminary vote, a bill that sets a two-year time frame within which to legalize 65 outposts, he said, adding that the legislation would mandate that those outposts be treated as authorized settlements in the interim.
Stressing that continuing violence, attacks against civilians, and incitement to violence are unacceptable, he said all perpetrators must be held accountable. In particular, “children should not be the target of violence or put in harm’s way”. Security forces must exercise maximum restraint and may use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life, he said, underlining that Israeli and Palestinian authorities must carry out thorough, independent, impartial and prompt investigations into all instances of possible excessive use of force.
The indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars towards Israeli civilian population centres by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or others is prohibited by international humanitarian law, he continued, saying Palestinian militants must cease the practice immediately. Expressing concern over continued settler-related violence in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, he called upon Israeli authorities to abide by international law by protecting Palestinians from violence by Israeli settlers and to ensure that farmers can access their land freely and safely.
Highlighting several incidents that occurred in the reporting period, he cited one in which a deaf and mute Palestinian man from Nablus reportedly died of complications resulting from an injury sustained from live ammunition. The man was shot by private security guards on 17 August at Qalandia checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, he said, noting that the Israel Defense Forces previously stated that an investigation was opened into the incident.
The financial situation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) remains a serious concern, he said, recalling that, with support from partners and a loan from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), a disruption of vital services was averted in November. Unfortunately, despite that support, there is a December funding gap of $88 million, he said, adding that the January 2021 income forecast for UNRWA is worse and may well require more drastic measures to prevent a financial collapse of the Agency in the months to come. He noted that, on 15 December, the Palestinian Prime Minister and the Acting Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory launched the 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan, which includes an appeal for $417 million to help 1.8 million vulnerable people over the coming year.
Turning to the Gaza Strip, he said the situation remains fragile amidst immense suffering and the constant risk of a major escalation. Taking into consideration its legitimate security concerns, he urged Israel to ease the restrictions on the movement of goods and people to and from Gaza. Concerning the wider peace process, he urged Israelis, Palestinians, regional States and the broader international community to take practical steps to enable the parties to re-engage. On the Palestinian Authority’s decision to restart civil and security coordination with Israel, he said the Palestinian Authority has received $900 million in back revenues vital to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and the deteriorating financial situation.
New opportunities must be built, he said, while underscoring the difficulty of the road ahead. “It is not going to be easy, in fact it will be very, very hard, painstaking work to stitch back together what is necessary to allow leaders on both sides to engage in a meaningful process.” The conflict can be resolved by peaceful negotiation, but that must come from inside, not outside the region, he emphasized. The goal of a just and lasting peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples remains achievable and can be negotiated by the Middle East Quartet and all relevant actors, he added.
Following the briefing, Security Council members took to the floor, with many expressing their concerns over Israel’s annexation plans, continuing settlement activities and confiscations. Several applauded the work of UNRWA and called upon the international community to further their financial support for the Agency. Others welcomed the normalization of relations between some countries of the region and Israel as a positive step. Speakers also underscored their concern over violence, particularly against civilians and children.
The representative of the United States said recent events have challenged conventional thinking regarding peace in the Middle East. The dispute between the State of Palestine and Israel dates back to the Council’s earliest days, and decades-old approaches have fallen short, she noted. The Abraham Accords peace agreement aims to make the region safer and more prosperous and saw Israel commit to working towards a two-State solution, she said, pointing out that in less than four months, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have opened diplomatic relations with Israel. For decades, she continued, the prevailing assumption was that normalized relations with Israel would only follow a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. However, recent events prove otherwise, she said, urging the international community to reflect on what else may have been missed or misinterpreted over the years and to consider the vision of the United States for peace in the region.
The representative of the Dominican Republic, reaffirming his country’s support for a two-State solution, expressed concern about the continuing expansion of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Any movement towards annexation not only violates international law but also has serious implications for security, stability and negotiations on a future peace, he stressed. Also expressing concern about violations of the rights of children in Gaza, he noted that they currently have only limited access to basic services like health care, water and electricity. He urged all parties to respect and protect those rights and to abstain from violence against children. Calling for investment in the creation of jobs for Palestinians, he said that if they have jobs, “things will start changing”.
The representative of Germany said plans for annexation, settlement expansion and confiscations are of deep concern, as are attacks against Israelis. He asked the Special Coordinator to assess honestly whether the changed facts on the ground have already ensured the unviability of a two-State solution. Welcoming the normalization of relations with Israel by some countries in the region, he also described as very positive the purchase of an interest in Israel’s Beitar Jerusalem Football Club by Saudi Arabians, with the blessing of an Israeli rabbi. He pledged to continue to work with partners in Jordan, Egypt and France towards a path forward. Noting his country’s recent contribution of some $200 million to UNRWA, he stressed the importance of wide support to the Agency, especially from within the region.
The representative of China said the lack of progress towards peace and the expansion of settlement activity in the West Bank is deeply worrying. The parties must launch peace talks without delay, she emphasized, seconding Palestinian calls for an international peace conference early in 2021. Applauding UNRWA’s continuing efforts, she urged support for the Agency, noting that his country has stepped up its donations of financial support and health supplies during the pandemic crisis. She went on to reaffirm China’s support for the Palestinian people and for the earliest possible negotiations towards a just and lasting solution to the Mideast conflict.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines highlighted the Security Council’s inaction and inability to protect Palestinians living under occupation and called upon the Council to facilitate the resumption of talks between both parties with a view to realizing a viable two-State solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security. Noting the expansion of settlements and evictions of families across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, throughout 2020, she reiterated the call by President Abbas for the United Nations to convene an international conference in early 2021 in order to launch a genuine peace process. She emphasized that the reported killing of a 14-year-old Palestinian boy leaves a stain on the international community’s conscience. She went on to welcome the recent launch of the Humanitarian Response Plan and to commend UNRWA’s efforts to provide critical services to 5.7 million Palestine refugees across the Middle East.
The representative of Indonesia expressed concern over continuing settlement expansion, increased demolitions, the humanitarian situation, civilian casualties, and the absence of negotiations between the parties. In the four years since the adoption of resolution 2334 (2016), nothing has truly changed, especially for the Palestinian people, he noted, emphasizing the need to create positive momentum for the peace process. Reiterating his delegation’s support of an international conference in early 2021, he said all efforts should be directed towards ensuring Palestinian rights and implementing a two-State solution. “If we ever truly wish for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, we simply cannot allow a culture of impunity to prevail,” he stressed, calling upon the international community to demand accountability. He urged the Israeli authorities to immediately cease all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, while underlining that country’s obligation, as the occupying Power under international law, to protect the lives and safety of Palestinians, particularly in providing COVID-19 vaccines.
The representative of France noted that, nearly four years after the adoption of resolution 2334 (2016), Israeli settlement expansion on the ground continues to hinder the realization of the necessary two-State solution. Condemning Israel’s most recent decisions in that regard, she called for their reversal, while also urging a freezing on demolitions and confiscations. She went on to emphasize that her country will recognize no change in the 1967 lines unless agreed through negotiations by the parties. She also urged differentiating goods produced in occupied territory. Urging a redoubling of efforts to restart talks within the parameters recognized in previous agreements, beginning with confidence-building measures, she welcomed the resumption of coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel and urged the parties to implement the Special Coordinator’s recommendations, including loosening restrictions on Gaza and strengthening Palestinian unity. Everyone must do their part in fostering peace, she stressed, pledging her delegation’s continuing efforts, alongside German, Egyptian and Jordanian partners, to create an environment conducive to dialogue, as well as its continued support for UNRWA.
The representative of Niger, expressing concern over the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the demolition of Palestinian schools and cultural sites, warned that settlement activities threaten to undermine both United Nations efforts in the region and prospects for a sovereign, viable Palestinian State, contiguous with Israel. A two-State solution is the only just, lasting option that will enable both peoples to achieve their legitimate aspirations, he emphasized. Expressing concern over the situation in Gaza, he called for an end to rocket and mortar fire into Israeli residential areas and for the lifting of Israel’s blockade so as to alleviate poverty, food insecurity and high unemployment in the enclave. He underlined the need for UNRWA to have the necessary resources to help the thousands of Palestinian families in need, especially during the current COVID-19 crisis.
The representative of Estonia urged Israelis and Palestinians to re-engage in meaningful negotiations on all final-status issues and to engage with the Middle East Quartet and other regional players for that purpose. Welcoming the Palestinian Authority’s decision to resume civilian and security coordination with Israel, he called upon all parties to refrain from unilateral steps on the ground, including settlement expansion and violence. He also called upon all States to distinguish between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967. In addition, he called for Palestinian reconciliation with a view to holding elections and reminded all parties of their obligations to respect freedom of expression and assembly. Noting his country’s contributions to UNRWA, he urged all others to support the Agency, particularly in the context of COVID-19.
The representative of the United Kingdom expressed sadness at the death of Ali Abu Alia, the Palestinian child killed following clashes between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian civilians, urging Israel to investigate the matter swiftly and comprehensively. She said 2020 has seen further settlement expansion — including into highly sensitive areas of East Jerusalem — and the most prolific demolition of Palestinian homes and structures since 2016. Reiterating the illegal nature of such settlements under international law, she said they represent an obstacle to peace and undermine the viability of a two-State solution. She urged Israel to cease such policies, build confidence and encourage the pursuit of dialogue, while also calling upon the Palestinian leadership to continue efforts to combat terrorism and anti-Semitism. She went on to stress the importance of providing UNRWA with additional funding, noting her own country’s $69 million contribution in 2020, and urged States that have cut funding to support the Agency so it can address the immediate needs of refugees in the region.
The representative of Viet Nam, expressing regret at the lack of progress on the implementation of resolution 2334 (2016), noted that the expansion of settlements has been going on throughout 2020 at an alarming rate. Notably, 50 per cent of settlement units were located in outlying areas deep inside the occupied West Bank, impeding the contiguity of a future Palestinian State, he pointed out. Expressing further concern over Israel’s plan to construct about 3,500 units in the strategic location of E1, he said that action would significantly undermine the chances to establish a contiguous Palestinian State as part of a two-State solution. “Settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, have no legal validity and constitute a violation of international law and United Nations resolutions,” he emphasized. Pointing also to the continued demolitions and seizures of Palestinian structures and properties in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, he called for an immediate end to those activities, in accordance with resolution 2334 (2016). The daily acts of violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces threaten to erode hopes for resumed negotiations and dialogue, he warned.
The representative of the Russian Federation, citing the long-standing international consensus on the need for a just solution to the Palestinian question based on resolutions, previous agreements and the two-State principle, emphasized that all final-status issues must be settled through direct negotiations. He called for “pooled efforts to utilize the full potential of collective diplomacy”. Expressing concern over continuing non-compliance with resolution 2334 (2016), he reaffirmed his delegation’s position that Israel’s settlement activity is unlawful. He also condemned violence and rocket launches into Israeli territory while stressing the need for Palestinian unity. He went on to call for further international efforts to address the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and to underline the importance of support for UNRWA, while acknowledging steps taken by the Agency to increase its efficiency.
The representative of Belgium, affirming that her country’s term on the Security Council has been guided by respect for international law, noted that the legal framework for a just and lasting settlement between Palestinians and Israelis is well-known and overwhelmingly endorsed by the international community. She called upon the parties to respect their obligations, including resolution 2334 (2016), emphasizing Israel’s obligations as the occupying Power, while calling upon Palestinians to advance reconciliation with a view to holding an inclusive and democratic electoral process. She went on to reiterate that her country does not recognize any changes from the 1967 lines, unless agreed by both sides, stressing the importance of differentiating between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In addition, Belgium is concerned about restrictions on journalists and violence against children, she said, going on to emphasize the importance of support for UNRWA and welcoming the normalization of diplomatic relations in the region.
The representative of Tunisia noted that despite international support for a two-State solution, the peace process remains deadlocked and the occupying Power still denies the Palestinian people their basic rights. It also continues to bolster unilateral measures, in violation of international law, by expanding settlements. The occupying Power has continued its aggression against Palestinian civilians, including children, as well as its violations of human rights and international law, he said, attributing its actions to the lack of international accountability. Urging the international community to shoulder its responsibilities and call upon the occupying Power to end settlement activities, he emphasized that the Palestinians must be able to participate in all initiatives to end the crisis to ensure peace in the Middle East. Tunisia supports the initiative of President Abbas to hold an international conference that would bring together all stakeholders to participate in a genuine peace process, he affirmed.
The representative of South Africa, Council President for December, spoke in his national capacity, noting that despite the 15-member organ’s adoption of more than 100 resolutions on the question of Palestine, that agenda item has seen the least progress. Indeed, since the adoption of resolution 2334 (2016), more than 46,000 housing units have been announced, approved or constructed, he said, describing that development as a direct violation of international law and an obstacle to the peace process. He went on to express alarm over the number of civilian casualties in the occupied Palestinian Territory and of Palestinian children that Israel holds in detention. South Africa calls upon the Security Council to take the long-overdue field visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territory by members willing to do so, he said. Describing recent bilateral agreements in the region as transactional, he pointed out that they do not include Palestine, a significant stakeholder in Middle East peace, and have not yielded tangible results for those affected by the illegal occupation. “These bilateral agreements do not change international law; they do not change United Nations Security Council resolutions,” he stressed. In Gaza, meanwhile, the health-care sector is unable to cope with increased demand and life-threating non-COVID-19 cases are being denied permits to travel for critical medical care, he said.
Mr. Mladenov, responding to Germany’s representative, emphasized that a two-State solution is not only necessary, but still possible. There is no other way to resolve the conflict in a way that is just for both peoples. Israel must preserve its nature as a Jewish State, while “the Palestinian people will not go anywhere, this is their home”, he said. The two need to separate, with appropriate security, he added, recalling that they have agreed on final-status issues in the past. The international community must facilitate negotiations through the Middle East Quartet, he said, pointing to the existence of forces that would like to maintain the status quo. However, there is no other way to resolve the conflict without a two-State outcome, he reiterated, saying it is still possible to do so in a way that recognizes the historical rights of Israelis and Palestinians alike.