Tomorrow (15 May), at the request of Kuwait, a public briefing of the Security Council will be convened under the agenda item “the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov will brief. Members are expected to make statements in the open chamber. The meeting is being held in response to today’s violence in Gaza, which at press time had led to the deaths of more than 50 Palestinians at the hands of Israeli security forces. At time of writing, a draft press statement proposed by Kuwait was under silence until six this evening, expressing grave concern at the recent violence and calling for an investigation.
The current unrest and violence take place amidst a deteriorating situation in Gaza that led Mladenov to state during his last briefing to the Council on 26 April that Gaza “is coming apart under the pressure of an explosive combination of negative humanitarian, security and political factors” (S/PV.8244). Mladenov warned that if a new conflict between Hamas and Israel were to take place, “it would have devastating consequences for Palestinians in Gaza” and “could undermine the relative stability of the West Bank and have repercussions for Israel and the region”.
The events of the past day are the latest in a series of violent encounters along the Gaza fence in recent weeks. Weekly demonstrations by Palestinians (called the “March of the Return”) began on 30 March. They are expected to culminate tomorrow (15 May) on the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians recognise as Yom al-Nakba, or the day of the catastrophe, marking the mass displacement that preceded and followed Israel’s establishment. Israel has warned protestors not to attempt to breach the Gaza fence in an effort to enter into Israeli territory. It has accused Palestinian protestors of throwing explosives and setting kites on fire in order to float them over the fence and set Israeli land on fire, and has used tear gas and live ammunition against demonstrators rushing the fence. At press time, today’s casualty count was the highest in a single day since the beginning of the “March of the Return”, with 52 Palestinians killed and over 1,600 wounded, according to Palestine’s Ministry of Health.
The current round of protests was largely fueled by the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem today, which marks Israel's declaration of independence on 14 May 1948. The decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been controversial. It has undermined US credibility among Palestinians as a mediator in the peace process, with the decision perceived by critics as prejudicing consideration of Jerusalem as a final status issue. An 18 December 2017 Council draft resolution—which would have affirmed that any decisions and actions that purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void, and must be rescinded—was supported by 14 Council members but vetoed by the US. Shortly thereafter, the General Assembly adopted a similar resolution with 128 votes in favour, 9 votes against, 35 abstentions and 21 absences.
The Israeli and Palestinian sides have expressed vastly different views about the violence. The Israeli Foreign Ministry tweeted today that “Palestinian casualties at [the] Gaza fence are [the] sole responsibility of Hamas, the organizer of the mass campaign to sabotage the Israeli-Gaza fence and storm into Israel”. In contrast, Ambassador Riyad Mansour, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, wrote in a letter to the Security Council today that Israel “continues to intensify its military attacks against the civilian population in the besieged Gaza Strip in grave breach of international law”. In an apparent reference to the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, he added that the “latest action by the US in Jerusalem has clearly emboldened the right-wing Government in Israel to carry out its illegal policies and practices, including the murder of innocent civilians ”. Mansour concluded by appealing to the Council to take action.
The Council has been following the situation in Gaza closely in recent weeks, but long-standing divisions have prevented it from playing an effective role in addressing the crisis. Several efforts by Council members to pronounce themselves have failed as a result of these differences of perspective. Two draft press statements (one in late March and one in early April) expressing grave concern about the situation on the Gaza border were blocked by the US. On 4 May, the US circulated a draft press statement expressing serious concern over anti-Semitic remarks made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on 30 April before the Palestinian National Council. Kuwait broke silence on the draft statement. It apparently said that it could not agree to the language in the draft statement as it was, reportedly noting that Abbas had apologised for his remarks and that they had been misinterpreted. While Kuwait apparently expressed a willingness to consider a more comprehensive draft text, the US withdrew the statement.
This morning, ten Council members—Bolivia, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, France, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Peru and Sweden—sent a letter to the Secretary-General requesting that the Council receive written, rather than oral, reports on the implementation of resolution 2334 (S/2018/454). The resolution reaffirmed that Israeli settlements have no legal validity, called for an end to all settlement activities, and called for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror. While the resolution requested quarterly reports from the Secretary-General, it did not specify the format. In their letter, the ten members noted that Mladenov had reported that steps had not been taken to end settlement activity and that violence against civilians, including terrorist attacks, had continued. They observed that the “standard practice” is for the Council to receive written reports. While the letter ultimately was signed by 10 members, US Ambassador Nikki Haley reportedly discouraged her Council colleagues from lending their support to the letter.
* Post-script: Council members were unable to issue a press statement, as the US broke silence on the draft, maintaining that it lacked balance and did not accurately depict the situation on the ground.