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Instability Feeds COVID-19, Top Official warns Security Council, Stressing Need to Build on Recent Rapprochement Efforts in Middle East

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We Cannot Allow Israeli Unilateralism to Prevail, State of Palestine Stresses, as Israel Highlights Agreements with Arab States

Warning that COVID-19 “feeds off instability”, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process told the Security Council today that intensified international facilitation to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must urgently build upon recent efforts at rapprochement in the region.

“The pandemic has heightened the urgency of exploring all avenues to make progress towards resolving the conflict,” Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov told Council members, delivering his monthly briefing by video teleconference. “I sincerely hope that new avenues of cooperation to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace will emerge.”

Citing the recent normalization agreements between Israel and three Arab States, he noted calls for an international peace conference, and said broad regional and international consensus continues to affirm the international commitment to a two-State solution, in accordance with United Nations resolutions and international law. What is now required, he added, is leadership from both Israelis and Palestinians in working together and advancing the cause of peace.

However, the Palestinian Authority’s decision to end security and economic coordination with Israel has further exacerbated the resurgent pandemic threat, which has resulted in tightened restrictions, he pointed out. Expressing particular concern over the spread of COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip and the long-term damage to the Palestinian economy, education and social cohesion, he said the United Nations and its humanitarian partners have continued efforts to address the pandemic with assistance from the donor community, including by addressing critical gaps in medical supplies across the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Organization has brokered arrangements to allow the transfer of patients from Gaza outside the enclave, he added, warning, however, that the United Nations cannot take over the responsibilities of the parties, emphasizing that its additional tasks should be “limited and time-bound”.

Stressing the readiness of the United Nations to mediate solutions to the fiscal crisis and to get the Palestinian economy on better footing, he appealed for the resumption of coordination with Israel and for the facilitation of freer movement of Palestinian workers and goods once health conditions permit. The international community, he added, should accelerate humanitarian and development initiatives, he added.

He went on to express great concern over Israel’s resumption of major settlement during the reporting period, noting that it announced some 5,000 housing units in October, most in areas impeding the contiguity of a future Palestinian State. Such activity is contrary to international law and previous agreements, he reiterated. He reported that 82 Palestinians were displaced by the seizure and demolition of structures for lacking hard-to-obtain building permits, adding that a donor-funded school in a Bedouin community was threatened for the same reason. Calling upon Israel to cease such activity immediately, and to allow Palestinians to develop their communities, he also urged that country to facilitate the return of international staff members to the territories. There was no response to requests for visas from the Human Rights Office following a report of the Human Rights Council on business activities in the settlements, he noted.

Welcoming the understandings reached between Fatah and Hamas in September, he underlined the importance of holding long-delayed Palestinian elections, reiterating that the United Nations stands ready to support efforts to afford the Palestinian people their democratic rights. He went on to note that the Gaza understanding largely held during the reporting period. However, Israel took action after discovering Palestinians crossing with a bomb and a tunnel from Gaza, he added. Five rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel and Israel fired a total of 13 missiles in retaliation.

In the West Bank, two Palestinians, including a child, were killed and some 65 injured in clashes and other incidents, he continued. Seven Israelis, including two soldiers and one woman were injured. Reporting some 34 attacks by settlers against Palestinians, he underlined the need for Israel to ensure access and protection to farmers during the olive harvest. He went on to express deep concern over the health of a Palestinian prisoner on hunger strike, reiterating the need for all detainees to be promptly tried in court or released.

Regarding the diplomatic activity leading up to the normalization of relations between Israel on the one hand and United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan on the other, he expressed concern over statements by senior Palestinian officials to the effect that Muslims entering the Aqsa Mosque on the basis of the recent agreements face dangerous consequences. The United Nations rejects any politicization or incitement that involves the holy compound, he stressed.

Turning to Lebanon, he highlighted the designation of former prime minister Saad Hariri to form a Government and the holding of new talks on the Israel‑Lebanon maritime boundary. Reporting that the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has deployed an engineering unit to assist with reconstruction following the August explosion in the port of Beirut. The situation in UNIFIL’s area of operation remained generally stable, he added.

He went on to report that Golan, too, remained generally calm, despite continued violations of the Disengagement of Forces Agreement, adding that the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) continues to remind the parties of their obligations.

The Council the heard from speakers representing the Observer State of Palestine and Israel, as well as representatives of Security Council members. Written statements by other delegations were added to the written record of the meeting.

Riad Malki, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the State of Palestine, declared: “It is time to drop the old talking points,” emphasizing that it is preposterous to think that Israel’s right to security can justify its occupation and oppression of an entire nation for decades, or to claim that Palestinians refuse to negotiate when it is Israel that illegally pre-empts peace talks “on the ground every single day”. Recalling that the parties identified final-status issues that should be negotiated on the basis of internationally agreed terms of reference and parameters, he said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintains that Jerusalem must be Israeli, settlements must remain in place, refugees shall remain refugees and Israel will control Palestine’s borders. “Israel does not want to end its illegal occupation; it wants to make it permanent,” he stressed, rejecting attempts to label Palestinians the intransigent party.

“We cannot allow Israeli unilateralism to prevail while the world continues calling for bilateral negotiations,” he continued, underlining that it is no longer enough to say settlements are illegal, one must ensure accountability, distinction and non-assistance. It is no longer enough to speak of a two-State solution, it must be accompanied by recognition of the State of Palestine and support for its sovereignty over the territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, he said. Palestine has not adopted a disruptive posture, nor contributed to transforming the political conflict into a religious one, he pointed out. President Mahmoud Abbas continues to push for a peace process, in cooperation with the Middle East Quartet (United Nations, European Union, United States, Russian Federation) and in line with Security Council resolutions, he added.

He went on to point out that, while Israel decided — only under pressure — to freeze its annexation plans for areas beyond occupied East Jerusalem, it has not renounced its decades-long policy aiming to “control maximum Palestinian land with minimum Palestinians”. Its de‑facto annexation continues with the recent advancement of 5,000 settlement units deep into the West Bank, including in and around occupied East Jerusalem, he said, warning: “The international community must act to salvage peace, or we will all bear the consequences. As long as Israel continues to reap the benefits of occupation it will never negotiate in good faith, he added. The international peace conference proposed by President Abbas can help generate the necessary momentum and mobilize the international community to help the parties negotiate a peace agreement, he said, emphasizing: “Anything else is volatile, and it is futile.”

The representative of Israel said that, in the short period since he assumed his new role as Permanent Representative, he has found that the Security Council’s focus does not reflect the reality on the ground, and that it holds an institutional bias against Israel. He added that he has been told the Council is “a lost cause”. Noting that the Council routinely held more than 100 debates on the question of Palestine over the past 20 years, including today’s, he emphasized that there have been more important developments in the Middle East. He asked why the Council is not discussing the historic momentum created by the normalization of relations between Israel and three Arab States, which offers an opportunity for peace and stability in the region. The agreements were discussed only in an informal meeting. For instance, Sudan’s position shifted from “no” to peace with Israel, recognition of Israel as a Jewish State, and negotiations with Israel, to “yes” to all three, he pointed out, saying he looks forward to hearing the views of Council members views on that historic “paradigm shift” and the new opportunity to enhance cooperation in the Middle East.

Instead of viewing the agreements as an opportunity, the Palestinian Authority attacked the decisions of their fellow Arab States, thereby “stabbing their backs”, he continued. The Council is putting pressure on the wrong side, he said, adding that Abbas has refused Israel’s offer to hold direct dialogue, and that it is still awaiting his reply to the offer, made in 2008. As for Abbas’ call for an international conference, such a meeting does not solve any issues, which can only be resolved through bilateral talks, he said, stressing that his delegation supports the Middle East peace plan put forward by the United States. Washington, D.C.’s, vision is a good, realistic starting point, he added. The Council should also be discussing Iran’s destabilizing behaviour, nuclear capabilities, and human rights violations, he said, stressing that it should also designate Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. Iran’s pursuit of Shi’a hegemony should be at the top of the Council’s Middle East agenda, he added. He went on to underline his commitment to proving wrong the critics who insist the Council is a lost cause.

The representative of the Russian Federation, Council President for October, speaking in his national capacity and delivering a statement on behalf of his country’s Foreign Minister, noted that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to undermine stability in the region and the world, while Palestinians continue to suffer and terrorism remains a threat. Israel’s annexation plans exacerbated the situation, he said, emphasizing that the need for a just and lasting settlement should not be shunted aside as other issues arise. Negotiations must begin without delay, taking into account all previous agreements, the two-State principles and final-status issues, he said, stressing that all unilateral actions, including settlement expansion and the destruction of structures, must be halted for that reason. Underlining that Palestinian unity is needed now more than ever, he pledged his country’s continuing dedication to facilitating a relaunch of Middle East peace talks. The Russian Federation reaffirms its offer to hold an international meeting in Moscow, he said.

The representative of Viet Nam, expressing deep concern over the humanitarian situation in Gaza and other Palestinian areas in the context of COVID-19 and the fiscal crisis, called upon the international community to direct support through all channels in an effective, people-centred manner. Alarmed by continued violence in the West Bank and Gaza, he called upon all parties to exercise restraint and protect innocent civilians. Negotiations are needed without delay, both among the Palestinians and between them and Israel, to achieve a two-State peace, he said, emphasizing that the status quo is unacceptable. An international peace conference should be considered to help move progress forward in accordance with international law and previous agreements, he added.

Othman Jerandi, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of Tunisia, emphasized his delegation’s support for the Palestinian cause and called for intensified international efforts to help Palestinians realize their legitimate rights, including a sovereign Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital. He went on to reject Israel’s recent escalation and its violation of Council resolutions — including most recently resolution 2334 (2016). “Today, we find ourselves before a real opportunity to make progress,” he said, referring to the international peace conference proposed by President Abbas. Tunisia supports such an effort, which is in line with the goal of a two-State solution, he emphasized, calling for greater international efforts to compel Israel to end its occupation. He went on to stress that any Israeli annexation plan “needs to be rejected once and for all”, pointing out that the long-standing occupation of Gaza is particularly inhumane in the context of COVID-19. The Council should bolster its support for the Palestinian authorities in responding to the pandemic, he added.

The representative of the United States predicted that today’s meeting will be filled with the same unproductive rhetoric as many before it. Spotlighting the new impetus created by the recently signed Abraham Accords, she said that success shows what is possible “when leaders make courageous and bold decisions”. Just days ago, yet another peace agreement was announced between Sudan and Israel, she recalled, noting: “The conversation in the region in changing.” President Donald J. Trump’s willingness to approach matters differently has led to creative, bold and fresh thinking, she said, describing her country’s new vision for peace as thoughtful and realistic, unlike many past efforts. Washington, D.C., has encouraged the Palestinians to bring their perspectives to the negotiating table, she said, cautioning that simply rejecting the talks out of hand — or holding conferences aimed at airing the same old points — does nothing to advance peace. World leaders cannot keep doing what they have been doing for years and expect things to change, she stressed, calling upon Israel’s neighbours, and Council members, to embrace the current positive momentum and move forward towards peace.

The representative of China, describing the Palestine question as a root cause of instability in the Middle East, called for close attention to the escalation of violence in Gaza, new settlement construction and the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. It is imperative that both sides stick to the two-State formula, he emphasized, pointing out that what is lacking is not agreements or frameworks, but the courage to deliver on promises. Countries with influence should be objective and fair to advance peace in the Middle East, he said, stressing that no one should impose a solution, and that Beijing supports President Abbas’ call for an international conference. He went on to state that the international community should support the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and stop using funding cuts to exert pressure.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the international community must reaffirm its collective support for a two-State solution based on the pre-1967 borders and spare no effort to achieve a viable solution to the conflict. Welcoming President Abbas’ call for an international conference in early 2021, she said the time has come for the international community to meet its collective responsibility under international law to end the occupation of the Palestinian State. It is time to fully end the occupation that began in 1967 and resolve all final-status issues on the basis of Security Council resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973), and as reaffirmed in subsequent resolutions, she emphasized.

The representative of the United Kingdom, welcoming the rapprochement between Israel and the United Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, stressed that the shift in the region must be accompanied by progress towards a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians. To rebuild trust, actions such as settlement‑construction and housing demolition must stop, he said, calling, in particular, for Israel to stop threats against the internationally funded Bedouin school. He went on to express great concern over settler violence and rocket launches, emphasizing: “These negative actions must stop.” The United Kingdom remains dedicated to supporting a two-State solution based on the pre-1967 lines, he said, stressing that resuming dialogue is the only way to reach that solution.

The representative of Germany also welcomed the normalization between Israel and countries in the region, emphasizing the need to build on that development to advance progress towards a just and lasting solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on international law and previously agreed parameters. The situation must be comprehensively resolved and not just managed, he stressed. Condemning rocket attacks and hate speech against Israelis, he expressed regret that the country’s representative did not discuss planned settlement‑expansion during his presentation. He called for a complete cessation of settlement activity, destruction of Palestinian housing and plans for the unilateral annexation of their territory. Welcoming talks on Palestinian elections, he called upon Israel to facilitate them, while applauding its treatment of Palestinian leaders. The attitude of the Hadassah hospital in treating all patients equally, no matter what side they come from, should be a model for the region, he said.

The representative of the Dominican Republic said COVID-19 has different undertones in places that have suffered from prolonged war and conflict, such as Syria, Yemen and Gaza. Expressing her delegation’s support for Israel’s recent normalization agreements respectively with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, she said that positive change could increase stability in the region. The Dominican Republic supports the proposal to hold an international peace conference, which requires, as its starting point, mutual respect, respect for international law and face-to-face participation by both Israel and Palestine, she said. Welcoming UNRWA’s efforts to meet the needs of millions of refugees, she called upon donors to bolster their contributions to the Agency’s work.

The representative of Niger, while expressing hope in the recent normalization of relations between Israel and some of its neighbours, deplored Israel’s decision to continue its expansion of settlements in the West Bank, warning such actions risk further stalling the peace process. The parties should work to negotiate a two-State solution, he said, urging the international community to spare no effort to ensure such a rapprochement. Welcoming the restraint demonstrated by the Palestinians and their call for a peace conference, he urged the parties to embrace opportunities to advance negotiations. He went on to underline that COVID-19 has poses particular challenges in Gaza, given the long-standing blockade, and called upon Israel, the occupying Power, to shoulder its legal responsibility to protect the Palestinian people amid the pandemic.

The representative of Belgium, noting that Israel’s new settlement‑construction violates international law and Security Council resolutions, urged that country to reverse its decision. She also expressed grave concern that Palestinians are displaced due to the demolition of their homes and structures, pointing out that avoiding forced displacement is Israel’s obligation as the occupying Power. She also called for an end to the continuing de‑facto annexation of Palestinian territory. On intra-Palestinian reconciliation, she urged the two rival factions to form a single legitimate authority through elections. She went on to welcome the normalization of relations between Israel and Sudan, expressing hope that the new dynamic contributes towards a two-State solution. She urged Israel to issue visas to personnel of the United Nations human rights office.

The representative of Indonesia said it is regrettable that Israel has committed another act of bad faith. As learned recently, on 14 and 15 October, authorities approved the construction of another 5,000 settlement units in the Occupied Palestine Territory. Describing that development as neither surprising nor new, he said the “creeping annexation” is testament that Israel’s annexation plan is alive and well. He echoed President Abbas’ call for the Secretary-General to convene an international conference, as a multilateral approach to the peace process, involving the Quartet and all relevant parties. The question of Palestine is longing for a just solution, he said, underlining that the Security Council has a solemn duty to resolve that question.

The representative of France said that the parameters of an Israeli‑Palestinian solution are known in the form of a two-State solution based on previous agreements. The Security Council credibility is at stake depending on its ability to help realize that solution, she emphasized. Welcoming the normalization of diplomatic ties in the region and the suspension of Israel’s annexation plans, she condemned, on the other hand, the planning for major settlement‑expansion and the demolition of Palestinian structures. Calling for the creation of a climate suitable resuming talks, she pledged that her country will continue to work towards that end with other partners who participated in the Amman meeting of 24 September. Inviting further consideration of an international peace conference, she also called for the holding of intra-Palestinian elections without delay, and pledged her country’s assistance in that effort, as well. She called, in addition, for adequate funding of UNWRA, and for Council members to fulfil their obligation to work together to relaunch the stalled Middle East political process.

The representative of Estonia called on regional actors to embrace the spirit of compromise demonstrated in the recent historic peace agreements signed by Israel and some of its neighbours. Both sides should now commit to re-engaging on final status issues in pursuit of a just and lasting peace. Welcoming the agreement reached between Palestinian factions on the holding of elections as a positive signal, he called for the announcement of an election date. He went on to urge all parties to refrain from any unilateral steps that could hamper the viability of a two-State solution, including Israel’s ongoing expansion of settlements in the West Bank, as well as incitement and the firing of rockets by Palestinians into Israel, none of which are acceptable.

The representative of South Africa said Israel’s acceleration of settlement expansions contradicts its new bilateral agreements, which include the suspension of annexation plans. “[The expansion] calls into question the benefits of these agreements for peace, as they have not eased the occupation,” he said, describing the new peace agreements as “ostensibly transactional”, having done nothing to improve the lives of Palestinians. Reiterating that Israel’s inhumane and illegal military occupation only serves to undermine the prospects for peace, he asked why the Council handles resolutions on certain issues — including Palestine and the question of Western Sahara — differently from others. If any other item on its agenda saw an actor violate international law as Israel does, “we would not have hesitated to take action”, he pointed out, emphasizing that such double standards, in a body whose responsibility is to maintain international peace and security, is unacceptable. He went on to express support for the proposed international conference on a genuine peace process and final status issues.