The year 2021 began with “a degree of guarded optimism” for progress towards the settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the United Nations mediator for the Middle East peace told the Security Council today, citing renewed international efforts to broker direct peace negotiations and cooperation between the two sides, including in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“By every measure, 2020 was a year of setbacks for the Palestinians, their institutions and their economy,” said Tor Wennesland, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General, during a videoconference briefing. “Yet, we begin 2021 with a degree of guarded optimism.”
He said that the restart of coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority places the Palestinian Government in a more solid fiscal position and could portend greater communication between the sides on a variety of critical issues.
The Special Coordinator devoted his remarks to focus on the implementation of Security Council resolution 2334 (2016), from 11 December 2020 to 23 March 2021, highlighting both progress and challenges.
He said that the resolution reiterates calls by the Middle East Quartet, comprising the European Union, Russian Federation, United Nations and the United States, for “affirmative steps to be taken immediately to reverse negative trends on the ground that are imperilling the two-State solution”.
Some positive steps were recorded during the period, the Special Coordinator said, citing measures towards Palestinian unity, including the 15 January decree issued by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, calling for legislative, presidential and Palestinian National Council elections, as well as the 9 February talks of Palestinian factions that resolved several long-standing differences.
The areas of agreement include recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, establishment of an electoral court with appointments made by consensus and the release of all detainees held because of their political affiliation or opinion.
On 17 February, the Palestinian Central Elections Commission concluded voter registration and announced registration of over 91 per cent of eligible voters. “I am encouraged by the steady advance towards the holding of Palestinian elections and urge the parties to carry on their dialogue and overcome remaining differences,” he said.
Resolution 2334 (2016) also calls upon “all parties to continue, inter alia, to exert collective efforts to launch credible negotiations”, he said. On 11 January and 11 March, the foreign ministers of Egypt, France, Germany and Jordan met in Cairo and Paris, respectively, to discuss ways to advance the Middle East peace process. On 21 December 2020, the United States Congress passed legislation that allocates $250 million over five years for programmes that “help build the foundation for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians and for a sustainable two-State solution”.
On 23 December 2020, 15 February 2021 and 23 March 2021, the envoys of the Quartet met virtually to discuss the latest political developments and the situation on the ground, with all agreeing to meet regularly to continue their engagement, he continued. On 8 February, the League of Arab States issued a statement reiterating its support for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian State based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Turning to the issue of COVID-19 vaccination, the Special Coordinator reported that Israel, where the vaccination campaign is progressing at a quick pace, indicated that the vaccination of the Palestinian population is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority. However, Israel has facilitated deliveries across the Occupied Palestinian Territory and extended its vaccination programme to some Palestinian populations, including in East Jerusalem. This includes Israel’s provision of some 5,000 vaccines to the Palestinian Authority, as well as the vaccination of more than 100,000 Palestinians holding permits to enter Israel, including Palestinian health workers in Israel. In the last days of the reporting period, there were reports of progress in talks about increased vaccine provision, including by Israel, he added.
However, he expressed his deep concern that Israeli settlement expansion has continued, particularly into highly sensitive areas. These practices entrench the Israeli occupation, erode the possibility of a contiguous, independent and viable Palestinian State and further threaten the prospect of achieving a two-State solution. Settlements have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of international law, he said, urging Israel to cease the advancement of all settlement activity immediately. He also urged Israel to cease demolitions of Palestinian structures and evictions of Palestinian people.
Expressing a deep concern over the daily violence that continues to fuel mistrust and victimize children so often, he called for adequate funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The Agency is not only a lifeline for millions of Palestine refugees, but also critical for regional stability, he said.
In closing, he reiterated his call to the members of the Quartet, key Arab and international partners, as well as to Israeli and Palestinian leadership, to strengthen efforts to return to meaningful negotiations towards a viable two-State solution.
In the ensuing discussion, Council members reiterated their principled support for a negotiated two-State solution and exchanged views on the recent developments, including the dire humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
The representative of India expressed his country’s renewed support to UNRWA, which has continued to provide critical humanitarian, education and health services to more than 5 million registered Palestinians and has also assisted host Governments in their COVID-19 response programmes. Stressing the need to provide sustained and predictable financial support for the Agency’s programme budget, he noted that his country has voluntarily contributed $15 million to UNRWA over the past three years and has committed another $10 million for 2021-2022. The upcoming months will witness elections and Government formation in both Israel and Palestine. The international community must use this phase to focus on how to encourage the parties back to meaningful negotiations with the goal of achieving a peaceful solution to the dispute, he said, expressing appreciation for the efforts by the Quartet and other countries towards resuming these direct negotiations. India will support all international efforts, including a peace conference called for by President Mahmoud Abbas.
The representative of France, expressing support for a two-State solution, outlined the various commitments agreed to in Council resolution 2334 (2016). “This framework is the only one that will allow for the lasting stabilization of the region and allow for security for all, both Israelis and Palestinians,” he said, underlining the need to adhere to those commitments today as the situation continues to deteriorate. France, alongside Germany, Egypt and Jordan, is working to make strides on small, concrete steps aimed at overcoming mistrust between the parties and ultimately pushing the peace process forward. Joining other speakers in underscoring the importance of the upcoming Palestinian elections, he called on all parties to act constructively to ensure that they are conducted freely, fairly, on schedule and across all parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem. Turning to Council members themselves, he called on them to urgently reaffirm the framework of agreed parameters enshrined in resolution 2334 (2016) and support the parties in returning to the negotiating table.
The representative of Norway expressed regret that resolution 2334 (2016), the most recent parameter for peace laid down by the Council, is still not being implemented. The increased rates of home seizures, evictions and demolitions contribute to a more volatile situation and undermine the prospect of a future Palestinian State. Those acts, which are illegal under international law, must stop. Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, he applauded Israel’s vaccination of more than half of its population, as well as that of Palestinian health workers, and welcomed the Palestinian Authority’s launch of its own vaccination campaign. Also praising the high number of people who have registered for the upcoming Palestinian elections — many of whom are under 30 and first-time voters — she urged the Palestinian authorities and all Palestinian factions to ensure that the elections are held in a free, fair and competitive manner. Israel should facilitate the voting, including in East Jerusalem. She pledged that Norway, in its capacity as Chair of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee on the situation in Palestine, will continue to work with the parties to prepare for the meaningful resumption of the political process.
The representative of the United Kingdom highlighted the opportunity for renewed energy and commitment to reverse negative trends and secure meaningful progress towards peace, calling on all parties to seize this chance. Welcoming cooperation on fiscal issues and the re-establishment of formal Israeli-‑Palestinian mechanisms, such as the Joint Economic Committee and its subcommittees, he also applauded the launch of the Palestinian Authority’s national vaccine rollout and Israel’s decision to vaccinate those Palestinians who work in Green Line Israel and Israeli settlements. He urged Israel to seriously consider the provision of surplus vaccines to the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. The parties must seize the opportunity of democratic renewal, with the support of the international community, to take forward ambitious confidence-building measures. The United Kingdom’s position on the Israeli-‑Palestinian conflict has not changed, he said, expressing his country’s support for a negotiated two-State solution.
The representative of China said the international community should seize the current momentum to stay the course on a two-State solution. Spotlighting the unity of Arab States on the issue, in particular, he underlined the need to amplify regional voices and uphold the authority of the United Nations and the Security Council. China supports efforts to hold a conference on peace in the Middle East, and welcomes the second round of dialogue between the Palestinian factions. The global community should continue to focus on the root causes of the conflict and speed up the political process. Noting that 2021 will mark the fifth anniversary of the adoption of resolution 2334 (2016) — which reflects the will of the international community, but regrettably remains unimplemented — he called upon Israel to abide by its terms, stop settlement activities and take action against settlers who commit violence. He also underlined the need to respect Israel’s legitimate right to live in security, while asking Member States to increase and consolidate their support for UNRWA. Throughout the pandemic, China has deployed medical experts and supply shipments to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and its vaccines are also now being delivered, he said.
The representative of Mexico welcomed the successful completion of the 23 March elections in Israel, while urging that Government to facilitate the upcoming vote scheduled to take place in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. “This is a watershed moment,” he said, noting that a critical window of opportunity is opening and urging all actors to create an environment more conducive to a lasting peace. Rejecting all acts that would hamper or impede that process, including Israel’s continued illegal settlement‑expansion, he called on the latter to halt demolitions that result in the displacement of Palestinians and create a climate of hostility that may lead to outbreaks of violence. Of particular concern is the increasing detention of minors by Israeli security forces, he said, calling on the authorities to promptly release 150 recently detained Palestinian children. Israel must also respect the rights and freedoms of journalists, protesters and other civil society members. Praising the delivery of thousands of COVID-19 vaccines for Palestinians via the global COVAX Facility, he urged Israel — which has been so efficient in vaccinating its own citizens — to increase the supply of doses to Palestinians living in the occupied territory.
The representative of Estonia called for active engagement of the Middle East Quartet members, as well as the countries in the region, to help create favourable conditions for the resumption of direct meaningful negotiations on all final status issues. Unfortunately, the situation on the ground continues to be worrying, she said, condemning Hamas’ recent rocket attack in Beer Sheva. Reiterating her call to implement Council resolution 2334 (2016) and refrain from any unilateral steps, she expressed her regret over the continued settlement activity by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, and urged Israel to halt these activities. Welcoming the continued engagement of the Palestinian factions to prepare for the upcoming legislative, presidential and National Council elections, she called upon all Palestinian factions to commit to democratic principles and urged the Israeli authorities to facilitate the holding of elections across all the Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.
The representative of Kenya said the full implementation of Council resolution 2334 (2016) will need to include the issue of settlements, territorial contiguity and the viability of the two-State solution. It will have to address the immediate socioeconomic connotations of acts that violate all aspects of the resolution and the violations that continue to entrench the economic isolation of parts of the region from the wider regional and global markets. Kenya believes that commitment to the principle of building bridges on multiple platforms will contribute to the comprehensive implementation of the resolution, he said, expressing his support for efforts to reinvigorate the Middle East Quartet. The Munich format and other confidence-building initiatives in the Gulf and the broader subregion must complement the work of the Quartet. Welcoming the normalization of relations between Israel and multiple Arab countries, he expressed hope that this development will make it easier for the Israelis and the Palestinians to do the same.
The representative of Ireland stated: “Those who have experience of prolonged, seemingly at times intractable conflict know the painstaking work and difficult compromises that are needed to pave the way for peace.” Noting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates deeply with Ireland, she said that shared experience is also why her country remains committed to a two-State solution. Condemning the construction of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, she underlined the principle of differentiation and spotlighted recent demolitions in Humsa al-Bqai’a in the Jordan Valley as being particularly troubling given the population’s vulnerability. She condemned all violent acts committed by both sides, calling for restraint, and voiced concern over the $200 million shortfall being faced by UNRWA. All States, including those on the Council and in the region, should join Ireland in providing the Agency with sustainable, predictable and sufficient funding. She went on to ask Israel to facilitate Palestinian elections, while encouraging women’s full and equal participation, and reiterated Ireland’s pledge to stand by the Quartet and other partners to help reinvigorate the peace process.
The representative of Tunisia said the Council is once again meeting to hear reports of the intransigence of the occupying Power and its unwillingness to listen to the will of the international community. The international community must take a firm stance to compel Israel to halt its plans to annex more Palestinian lands and further undermine a two-State solution. In light of its recent violations, he reiterated his previous calls for international protection measures and for the lifting of the blockade of Gaza. The global community should also respond to UNRWA’s urgent appeals and provide the funding needed to allow the Agency to carry out its work in 2021. Despite the continued political stalemate, the international community has demonstrated its renewed commitment to move the peace process forward. Welcoming the positive dynamics of the Quartet in particular, he reiterated Tunisia’s support for the holding of an international conference on peace in the Middle East, as proposed by Palestinian President Abbas. He also echoed calls by other speakers for Israel to facilitate free, fair and timely Palestinian elections with voting conducted throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
The representative of Niger said any normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and its neighbours must consider the aspirations of the Palestinian people. Rejecting Israel’s continued illegal settlement expansions and other violations of resolution 2334 (2016), he warned against employing a fait accompli approach thorough unilateral action, or embracing a “wait and see” policy, neither of which will result in a lasting and sustainable peace. Even as Israel continues to violate international law, rocket attacks fired into Israeli residential zones must also be rejected, and only serve to heighten tensions. He welcomed the opportunity provided by upcoming elections to lay the foundations for the resumption of negotiations, while also praising the recent decision by the International Criminal Court to begin investigating crimes committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since June 2014. Turning to UNRWA’s work, he said COVID-19 has only exacerbated difficult living conditions for Palestinians. The Agency must be able to continue to provide its critical services, to which there is currently no viable alternative.
The representative of the Russian Federation agreed that Israel’s continued, unilateral settlement‑expansion constitutes a violation of international law and must end. Israel must also provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinians, especially amid the ongoing pandemic, and the global community should mobilize to further support UNRWA’s crucial work. Outlining the Russian Federation’s long‑standing support for a two-State solution achieved through direct negotiations between the parties — which must tackle such issues as refugees, water resources and the status of Jerusalem — he said Israel’s security concerns must also be taken into account. The upcoming Palestinian elections are a chance to overcome differences and strengthen State institutions. As previously agreed by the Quartet’s members, the Russian Federation will continue to engage with its partners regularly ahead of those elections, with an aim to help the parties return to the negotiating table. He also spotlighted Moscow’s proposal to convene a ministerial-level meeting of the Quartet, plus several other regional actors and Israel and Palestine, in the coming months.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines called on the Security Council to affirm respect for the vital principles of international law, stressing the need for a negotiated two-State solution and urging Israeli and Palestinian leaders to restart meaningful direct talks to achieve a comprehensive settlement. Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian-owned structures contravenes international law and the Charter of the United Nations. On the legislative, presidential and Palestinian National Council elections slated in May, July and August, respectively, she said these democratic exercises will bolster the peace process. Welcoming the conference call held between the envoys of the Middle East Quartet on 23 March, she encouraged the group to support President Abbas’ call for an international conference, take affirmative steps to address the threats imperiling the two-State formula and offer practical recommendations to enable an eventual return to meaningful negotiations.
The representative of Viet Nam expressed concern that little progress has been made in implementing resolution 2334 (2016) despite numerous calls from Council members and the broader international community. He strongly urged the Israeli authorities to reverse their decisions to build settlements in the West Bank, especially in sensitive areas in East Jerusalem, that are crucial for the contiguity and viability of a future State of Palestine. Also urging them to end all unilateral activities and respect their obligations under international law, particularly the fourth Geneva Convention, he welcomed positive new diplomatic dynamics and reiterated Viet Nam’s support for all efforts aimed at achieving a just and lasting peace based on international law, relevant Council resolutions and agreed parameters. “We are delighted at the progress made in preparing for Palestinian elections,” he continued, calling on all parties to respect the electoral process and on Israel to facilitate the conduct of voting — including ensuring free access to polling sites in East Jerusalem. He also called on Israel to continue facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance and COVID-19 vaccines to Palestinians.
The representative of the United States, Council President for March, spoke in her national capacity, expressing Washington, D.C.’s, support for Israel. The Biden Administration stands by Israel, particularly when that country was singled out. Each month the Security Council meets to discuss this issue, but there are other issues of threats to international peace and security that deserve the organ’s attention. Warning against anti-Semitic rhetoric, she said her delegation will vigorously oppose one-sided arguments. Her country is also committed to finding a mutually agreed two-State solution to the conflict, with Israelis living in safety and security and Palestinians establishing a viable, independent State. Both sides should take concrete steps towards the two-State formula and avoid unilateral actions, including settlement, demolition, violence and incitement. The United States is taking steps to reopen diplomatic channels that were halted during the country’s previous administration. On economic and humanitarian assistance, she said Israel’s vaccination of Palestinian workers is encouraging, urging it to continue such cooperation, announcing her country’s contribution of $15 million in humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza. “This aid is one piece of our renewed commitment to the Palestinian people,” she said.