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Speech to the UNSC on Israel-Palestine

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In 30 November remarks to the UN Security Council, Crisis Group's Interim Vice President Comfort Ero laid out arguments for rethinking the framework of peacemaking in Israel-Palestine as well as steps various parties can take to improve the situation on the ground in the meantime.

Crisis Group is an organisation dedicated to the prevention and resolution of deadly conflicts. This past year, we noted with alarm a new outburst of violence in Israel-Palestine. We believe that this Council, and the international community broadly speaking, has done too little to steer this tragic conflict into calmer waters, to protect its victims, and to push Israelis and Palestinians toward a just solution. We thank the Council, and the Mexican presidency in particular, for giving me this opportunity today to present some ideas about a way forward.

The violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in April and May serves as the latest reminder of the instability of the status quo. Palestinians – whether in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel itself or in the diaspora – have acquiesced to neither territorial fragmentation nor political marginalisation. To the contrary, alongside rockets from Gaza, they raised a collective, if amorphous, voice. Their protests stressed the dispossession and repression of Palestinians, with the question of Jerusalem at the core. Among Israeli Jews, the combination of falling rockets and protests in their streets furthered hardened their conviction that there is no political deal to be had.

On both sides of this conflict – as well as among many Council members – faith in the Middle East peace process has waned. Israel has grown comfortable with the status quo. It is imposing its own realities on the ground in violation of this body’s resolutions. And it has consistently rejected anything resembling a plausible two-state outcome, including explicitly under its present government. Palestinians have seen Israel entrench its control under the cover of the peace process, denying them their rights and freedoms at a gathering pace. Yet no supplementary or alternative approach has emerged. For over a decade, my organisation has urged the international community to eschew a Nobel-prize winning push for a peace deal. Instead, we believe, the international community should work to put in place the building blocks of a more peaceful and just future for the generations of Israelis and Palestinians to come.

In the wake of the violent events of last spring, we renewed that call. In August, we released a report lamenting the continuing conflict, the high casualty numbers and destruction, notably among Palestinians and in Gaza. We urged all parties to the conflict – Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas – to take steps to at least staunch the bleeding. We challenged the international community not only to work urgently to lower the temperature by pressing all sides to cease violent and provocative actions, but also to undertake a serious effort to rethink the entire edifice of the peace process. Such a rethinking must acknowledge the structural power imbalance between an occupying state and an occupied people, and the necessity of challenging the impunity Israel has come to take for granted in its conduct toward Palestinians.

Unfortunately, we have seen little concrete action in this direction since then. Arguably, the opposite has happened. In June, a new Israeli government came into office. This government has given indications about its willingness to engage on daily measures and security with the Palestinian Authority, in finding ways to do what it calls “shrinking” the conflict by improving economic conditions in the occupied territories and marginally strengthening the PA itself. Yet the new government has continued to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank and has taken repressive measures against Palestinians in ways no different from its predecessors.

In October, the government outlawed six highly respected Palestinian civil society organisations on specious charges of being “terrorists”. In reality, these organisations have been active for years if not decades in providing essential services to people in need – services that Israel, as the occupying power, has not provided – and in documenting, reporting on and advocating for international accountability regarding Israeli violations of human rights in the occupied territories. They receive external funding, especially from European governments and others, and have been active in lobbying the U.S. Congress and European capitals, as well as at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, to advance their cause. According to all available evidence, those organisations have been carrying out their work in a lawful manner to the benefit of Palestinian society and in defence of basic principles of human rights.

These measures give the impression that Israel’s policy of “shrinking” the conflict and strengthening the Palestinian Authority in practice goes hand in hand with de facto annexation.

At the same time, there has been no serious effort on the Palestinian Authority’s part to refresh Palestinian politics through elections, which President Mahmoud Abbas promised earlier this year but then abruptly cancelled. In the absence of a new popular mandate, Palestinian politics has become dangerously ossified, turning the PA – like Hamas in Gaza – into a governing body with limited powers that is unresponsive, unaccountable, authoritarian and repressive. Palestinian governing authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza have added to restrictions on the freedoms of their own civil society to organise and speak out.

The international community is not an innocent bystander. Through its passive stance, it gives cover to Israeli government practices.

Yesterday, the world marked the 74th anniversary of UN General Assembly Resolution 181, more commonly referred to as the UN Partition Plan. It was thus that the UN gave its imprimatur to the notion of two states for two peoples. For some three quarters of a century, the world has failed to deliver on its promise. In Resolution 2334, passed in 2016, the Council referred to “negative trends” that are “steadily eroding the two-State solution and entrenching a one-State reality”. These words reflect the overall re-evaluation of the partition paradigm that is taking place in many quarters.

We at Crisis Group strongly believe that the international community, for now, should focus less on political paradigms and more on what is happening on the ground.

Ultimately, this conflict will be settled only through political negotiations. But they will not succeed until certain basic conditions are in place. First, Israeli willingness to engage Palestinians both individually as equals and as a collective with aspirations to national self-determination – and an external incentive structure designed with this in mind. Secondly, a coherent Palestinian polity with a leadership that can chart a path forward and challenge the status quo by non-violent means and in ways consistent with international law. And, thirdly, a reversal of on-the-ground, legal and political measures enacted by Israel that have cost Palestinians many of their most basic rights.

For many years, the protection of people and advancing their well-being was subordinated to the goal of a two-state solution. Today, among global and regional powers, pessimism about the possibility of achieving a two-state solution is having a similar effect, leading to inaction rather than action.

This is not the right way forward. Mr President, Members of the Council: it is incumbent on this body to undertake concrete action to protect the rights of all people in Israel-Palestine, and Palestinian refugees, even in the absence, for now, of a viable peace process, and regardless of whatever form an eventual political solution may take. Regarding this solution, this body should make clear that should Israel continue to obstruct the establishment of a fully sovereign and viable Palestinian state, any alternative that emerges in the future will have to respect the right to full equality and enfranchisement of all those in any space controlled by Israel.

More immediately, the international community should push for the following:

  • a long-term truce in Gaza;

  • a return to the historical Status Quo arrangement at Jerusalem’s holy sites, as it was conceived in 1967 when Israel conquered Jerusalem’s Old City, with modifications only by agreement of all relevant parties;

  • a halt to eviction orders in East Jerusalem;

  • an end to settlement activity in the occupied territories;

  • rescission of the order banning the six Palestinian civil society organisations;

  • holding Palestinian elections as soon as possible, with the participation of East Jerusalem Palestinians; and

  • revision of the international conditions known as the Quartet Principles so as to allow Hamas to participate in a Palestinian unity government. The present approach, in place since 2006, has empowered Hamas while obstructing Palestinian reconciliation and political renewal.

Mr President, Members of the Council. The laws are on the books. The tools are in your hands. What is lacking is the willingness to use these laws and tools to advance peace in Israel-Palestine.