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Middle East Open Debate

Tomorrow (25 July), the Security Council will convene for its quarterly open debate on “the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov will brief. His briefing and the interventions of Council members and other members states are expected to focus on the escalation of violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The latest flare-up in violence began on the morning of 14 July, when three armed Arab Israelis shot dead two Israeli security guards at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem. The assailants were killed by Israeli police. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the terror attack in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that day. Following these events, Israel limited the access of Muslim worshippers to the holy site. On the following day, it installed metal detectors at the entrance used by Muslim worshippers, a move that sparked a week of escalating clashes between protesters and Israeli security forces at the site.

Friday (21 July) marked the bloodiest day since the start of the recent violence—three young Palestinian men were killed in clashes in Jerusalem, and three Israeli settlers were stabbed to death by a Palestinian assailant in their home in the West Bank settlement of Halamish. Abbas announced on Friday night that his government would “freeze contact on all levels” with Israel until the metal detectors are removed from the entrances to al-Aqsa Mosque, which is within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound.

In recent days, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has issued two statements deploring the death of the three Palestinians and strongly condemning the West Bank stabbing attack in which three Israeli settlers were killed. He called "on all to refrain from any actions or words that could further escalate an already volatile situation."

The Middle East Quartet, comprised of the EU, Russia, the US and the UN, issued a statement on 22 July expressing deep concern at the escalating tensions and violent clashes taking place in and around the Old City of Jerusalem and strongly condemning acts of terror. Noting the particular sensitivities surrounding the holy sites in Jerusalem, and the need to ensure security, the Quartet envoys called on all to demonstrate maximum restraint, refrain from provocative actions and work towards de-escalating the situation, while welcoming assurances by Netanyahu that the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem (i.e., the administrative rights of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf or religious authority) will be upheld and respected. They too encouraged Israel and Jordan to work together to uphold the status quo, noting Jordan’s role as custodian of the holy site.

On Saturday (22 July), Egypt, France and Sweden requested that Council members meet under ‘any other business’ today in order to take advantage of Mladenov’s presence in New York. The meeting provided an opportunity for Mladenov to share his assessment of the situation and for members to exchange views on how the Council can support Guterres’ call for de-escalation. Tomorrow’s more formal debate is not conducive to such an interactive discussion.

In remarks to the media that followed today’s briefing, Mladenov detailed some of what he conveyed to Council members. He warned that the dangers on the ground would escalate if the crisis is not resolved before Friday, the Muslim day of worship, when more violence over access to the holy site could be expected. He asked all member states to use their influence to encourage both sides to ensure that security is restored and that the status quo is preserved at the religious site. He welcomed assurances from Netanyahu that the status quo at the site would not be altered, and he encouraged Israel to continue its contacts with Jordan, custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, in order to find a solution.

Mladenov asked members of the Security Council to unequivocally condemn all violence perpetrated in the last few days. He stressed the significance and sensitivity of Jerusalem, warned that events there cannot be viewed as localised, and advised against turning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious conflict that would have dangerous repercussions for the entire region and beyond. Regarding tomorrow’s open debate, he called on member states to refrain from inflaming tensions further and to take the opportunity to call on all parties to de-escalate tensions.

It appears that during the meeting Uruguay proposed that the Council issue elements to the press that could demonstrate its concern with the events on the ground. However, the US blocked the proposal before any specific substance could be discussed, saying that it did not have instructions from capital and could not agree to any statement to the press. Elements to the press are less formal than a press statement, which itself is not considered a formal Council outcome. In September 2015, during a rise in tensions in Jerusalem, which included clashes in and around the Haram al-Sharif compound, members issued a press statement expressing their grave concern (SC/12052).

The tensions have reverberated in Jordan as well, where a Jordanian teen attacked an Israeli guard with a screwdriver at the Israeli Embassy in Amman on 23 July. The guard shot and killed the assailant, accidentally shooting and killing a bystander as well.

Today’s briefing under ‘any other business’ was the second in ten days on Israel/Palestine. On 12 July, Mladenov briefed Council members on the situation in Gaza, at the Secretariat’s request. This briefing came a day after Gaza’s last working power station was closed due to fuel shortages. He briefed on the punitive measures taken against Hamas by the Palestinian Authority (PA) that included severe cuts in fuel provisions. He reported that Egypt had provided some fuel to Gaza and that the UN was providing fuel for key installations such as hospitals, but warned Council members that the situation in Gaza remains untenable.

Interventions by Council members were brief, with most members expressing concern over the humanitarian situation and stressing the need for intra-Palestinian reconciliation. Egypt stated that it was continuing to mediate between Palestinian factions and with Israel concerning easing restrictions. US Ambassador Nikki Haley expressed support for the increased pressure being applied to Hamas, but also acknowledged the extremely serious humanitarian consequences. Haley, who recently visited the region, stated that “no one should live like” Palestinians in Gaza. She asked Mladenov what action he believed should be taken. He responded that at that time, it was advisable to closely follow developments and employ quiet diplomacy, but stressed that public statements may be necessary if the situation continued to deteriorate.

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