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Upcoming Israeli, Palestian elections could pave way to restoring legitimate political horizon in Middle East, top official tells Security Council

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University Students Recount Memories of Interactions between Arab, Jewish Youth

Upcoming elections, currently being organized by both Israelis and Palestinians and slated to be held in 2021, will help to clear a crucial path towards restoring a legitimate political horizon in the Middle East, the senior United Nations official responsible for the peace process told the Security Council during a videoconference meeting today.

Tor Wennesland, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, noted an extraordinarily high rate of voter registration among Palestinians — many of them under 30 years old — and called upon the global community to help the two sides seize the opportunity presented by elections to pave the way for the peace process. Joined in his briefing by an Israeli and a Palestinian of university age, he emphasized the centrality of the democratic process and of deciding one’s own future, especially for young people who have grown up knowing only conflict.

Drawing a link between the upcoming elections and the stalled formal negotiations, he noted their potential to unite Palestinian factions. Declaring: “The holding of free and fair elections across the Occupied Palestinian Territory is a crucial step towards re-establishing Palestinian national unity, one that can renew the legitimacy of national institutions,” he said. Outlining progress towards the legislative, presidential and Palestinian National Council elections — slated for 22 May, 31 July and 31 August, respectively — he said the factions recently met in Cairo and agreed on several outstanding issues. Among other things, they stressed that elections must be held throughout the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, without exception.

Recalling that the Palestinian Central Elections Commission recently closed its voter registration, he said the total number of registered voters has now risen to more than 2.6 million, 93 per cent of all eligible voters. “It is encouraging to see such strong public participation in the democratic process,” he said, pledging that the United Nations will continue its efforts to safeguard the critical right to vote.

Meanwhile, he said, the COVID-19 crisis remains a persistent health threat that has triggered a massive economic fallout while unilateral steps on the ground continue to erode the prospect of a viable and contiguous Palestinian State, moving the parties farther from constructive dialogue and compromise. In response, the United Nations is working with the parties and a broad range of partners to address the Palestinian people’s pressing socioeconomic needs, including pandemic-related ones, he assured, adding that the Organization is also advancing the goal of ending the occupation and realizing a negotiated two-State solution.

Turning to diplomatic developments, he reported that the Envoys of the Middle East Quartet (Russian Federation, United States, European Union, United Nations) met virtually to discuss the latest political events and the situation on the ground. All agreed to meet on a regular basis to continue their engagement. On 23 February, members of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee met virtually in a meeting chaired by the Foreign Minister of Norway and the European Union High Representative, he said, recalling that they expressed renewed commitment to enhancing cooperation.

Welcoming the announcement of a Palestinian vaccination strategy and the initial allocation of at least 37,440 doses of vaccines to the Palestinian Ministry of Health by the COVAX-Advance Market Commitment facility, he reported that the Russian Federation and the United Arab Emirates also delivered 30,000 doses in February, adding to Israel’s earlier transfer of 5,200 vaccines to the Palestinian Authority, its vaccination of 5,000 Palestinian educational and health workers and efforts to vaccinate the population in East Jerusalem.

He went on to welcome Egypt’s decision to reopen the Rafah crossing — “the main gateway to the world for residents of Gaza” — on 9 February, while nevertheless pointing out that conditions on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territory remain a source of concern. Israeli authorities demolished or seized 170 Palestinian-owned structures in Area C and 10 in East Jerusalem, displacing 314 Palestinians, he reported. The demolitions were carried out due to the lack of Israeli-issued building permits, which are nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain. Daily violence also continued throughout the reporting period, including clashes, attacks, search-and-arrest operations, among other incidents.

Also addressing the Council was Oren Gian, an teenage Israeli student, who recounted his family’s escape from Iran to Israel decades ago. Sharing memories of his first interaction with Arab students, during a Model United Nations conference in northern Israel, he said that, despite his hesitation, he found that interacting with Arab students was not as difficult as he had expected. At the end of that year, he attended a summer institute on interfaith relations and citizenship in the United States, which attracted many Arab and Palestinian students, as well as a few Jewish ones.

Despite disagreeing with the Palestinian students on many subjects related to politics, he noticed that he began to feel more comfortable with them as time went by, he continued. They discussed topics in a respectful way, and later he kept in touch with one of the Palestinian students he had befriended. “Unfortunately, most Israeli and Palestinian students do not have these experiences,” he said, noting that they live in different towns and attend different schools. Israeli and Palestinian students need opportunities to meet so they can get to know the people on the “other side”, he added, emphasizing that they are the school principals, doctors, teachers and leaders of tomorrow. “It is much more effective to start to negotiate peace with people that you have already learned to respect.”

Malak Abusoud, a Palestinian student at Georgetown University in the United States, recalled her childhood growing up in Jerusalem and her constant fear of abuse and discrimination under the Israeli military occupation. She recalled that her cousin Mohammad, who lived in a refugee camp in impoverished conditions, was detained at age 11 for throwing a rock at a soldier, and that she herself stopped speaking Arabic in public and tried to hide her identity. “Israeli police are trained to see every Palestinian as a possible terrorist,” she explained, emphasizing that it is impossible to invest, grow or prosper when life is so full of uncertainty.

“What people-to-people peace organizations do not understand is that success or justice looks very different on both sides,” she said, noting that many of her Israeli friends who champion such organizations describe their impact as “life‑changing”. What the programmes offer them is simply a perspective that Palestinians are not actually so bad, changing a view crafted by a lifetime of Government propaganda. Palestinian students who have grown up amid violence have the extra burden of proving that they are human beings, even in such cross‑cultural programmes, she pointed out. “The problem is not the lack of conversation, as broadcasted by the media and perhaps this same Council, the problem is the lack of justice for Palestinians,” she stressed.

Welcoming the candid and powerful accounts by Ms. Abusoud and Mr. Gian, many Council members underscored the critical role that young people like them will play in raising awareness of the need for peace and preventing future conflict. Delegates also welcomed preparations for elections among Israelis and Palestinians, with many hailing the latter’s progress in particular as a crucial step forward. Several speakers called for renewed international support for a two-State solution and Palestinian sovereignty.

The representative of the United States said that engagement with senior Palestinian officials has resumed since the new administration took office and close consultations with Israel continue, citing the recent phone call between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Israel. Noting that the humanitarian crisis in the region is complicated by COVID-19, he encouraged both sides to work together to facilitate vaccine distribution, and to recognize the unsustainable disparity between two peoples living in close proximity to one another. He went on to point out that Gaza faces one of the highest unemployment rates on Earth, emphasizing: “This is not a talent gap; it is a structural issue that must be addressed.” He affirmed that his country intends to resume assistance programmes to Palestinians and looks forward to doing so, consistent with requirements under United States law. In that context, he called for an end to payments to the families of Palestinians linked to terrorist attacks. Clarifying that efforts to re-engage Palestinian leaders do not detract from his country’s commitment to Israel, he expressed dismay over the continuation of one‑sided United Nations resolutions that single out that country, noting the biased approach taken by the Human Rights Council, which places a disproportionate focus on Israel through its agenda item 7, the only country-specific item. The only path to ending the conflict is negotiations between the two sides, he stressed.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines took note of the International Criminal Court’s ruling that it has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories, emphasizing that all States must comply with their obligations under the Rome Statute and Council resolutions on cooperation with that body. She urged Israel to provide more coronavirus vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and called upon the international community to help fund the Palestinian vaccine plan. She went on to call for greater international attention to the financial situation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The representative of France said his country supports the vision of two States living in peace and security within secure and recognized borders, based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as their capital. Expressing regret that a fait accompli has jeopardized such a solution, he condemned the new demolitions and confiscations, including the destruction of humanitarian structures financed by the international community — the European Union and France among them — in Khirbet Humsa and elsewhere. Israel must end such activities, facilitate humanitarian access and respect its commitments under the fourth Geneva Convention, he emphasized. France also condemns the building of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including in the E1 area, he said, urging Israel to reverse those decisions. While welcoming Israel’s efforts that allowed the Palestinian health ministry to provide several thousand doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, he pressed the Security Council to unite with a view to relaunching the peace process.

The representative of China said the two-State formula must be respected, stressing that Palestinian statehood cannot be denied. He pointed to the land‑for‑peace principle and Security Council resolutions as the basic tenets from which the parties cannot deviate and called for implementation of resolution 2334 (2016). While pressing Israel to end its settlement activities and destruction of Palestinian homes and property, he emphasized nonetheless that Israel’s legitimate security concerns must be respected and guaranteed. He went on to call for the creation of a multilateral mechanism for promoting peace talks must be established, while urging those with influence to take an impartial stand to help the parties bridge their differences. Expressing support for the early holding of an international conference on peace in the Middle East, he recalled that attendees at the 8 February ministerial meeting of the Arab League reaffirmed their position on a two-State solution, a demonstration of unity that China welcomes. He called for stronger support to strengthen development in Palestine, stressing in particular the need to hold elections and safeguard Palestinian interests. China supports legitimate Palestinian demands and the creation of an independent Palestinian State based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, he reaffirmed.

The representative of Estonia said his delegation is encouraged by the positive developments, which hopefully will contribute to reviving the peace process. In addition to the normalization of relations between Israel and certain Arab States, he welcomed the new thrust in the work of the Middle East Quartet, as well as the announcement by President Mahmoud Abbas of legislative, presidential and Palestinian National Council elections. Also welcoming the resumption of civilian and security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he encouraged both to take further practical steps towards more favourable conditions for resuming direct negotiations. Those steps should include further coordinated efforts to combat COVID-19 and increased economic cooperation. He joined other speakers in calling upon the parties to refrain from unilateral steps that could increase tensions, and reiterated his call for Israel to halt its continued settlement‑expansion and demolitions.

The representative of Norway recalled that, on 23 February, his country’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy hosted a virtual meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, the goal of which is to build viable institutional and economic foundations for the realization of a two-State solution. During that meeting, the Committee welcomed the resumption of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which has contributed to a more positive dynamic between the parties, he noted. Describing the COVID-19 pandemic as the immediate priority, he urged the international community to keep strengthening the Palestinian public health system, including by providing sufficient vaccines. He went on to express deep concern at ongoing settlement activities and urged Israel to reverse its decision to build thousands of housing units in such areas as Givaat HaMatos and Har Homa. He also urged the Palestinian and Israeli sides to contribute constructively to the Palestinian election process and underscored the need for better representation of women and young people in the polls.

The representative of the Russian Federation took note of the resumed Palestinian-Israeli contacts on security and tax matters, while expressing concern over Israel’s illegal settlement‑building, demolitions of Palestinian homes and plans to annex occupied territories. The international community must play a constructive role in the peace process and in efforts to ease socioeconomic conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, he said, emphasizing that the need to mobilize humanitarian assistance in Gaza is critical amid COVID-19. Expressing support for a two-State solution, he stressed that there is no alternative to direct negotiations on the parameters of a final settlement, adding that elections in Palestine and Israel will help to consolidate State institutions on both sides. He went on to underline that Israel’s security concerns must be considered, while asserting his country’s aim to help achieve Palestinian unity around the “PLO platform”. The Russian Federation calls for intensifying the work of the Quartet, with regular meetings that would allow it “to keep their finger on the pulse” and ensure coordinated action, he said, adding that Quartet partners have demonstrated their readiness to engage in constructive cooperation. It also makes sense to involve regional players in advancing the peace process, he noted, proposing a “Quartet-plus” meeting that would involve Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and possibly Saudi Arabia in a joint effort to “shake the Middle East peace process out of its torpor”.

The representative of Mexico emphasized that Israel’s security concerns must be allayed, and at the same time, consolidation of a viable Palestinian State must be guaranteed. Welcoming Egypt’s mediation efforts between the factions, she said a united Palestinian Government would constitute a significant step. She urged Palestinian leaders and civil society to encourage women, youth and minority candidates in the upcoming elections, adding that Israel must facilitate the conduct of elections, particularly in East Jerusalem, as a confidence-building measure to demonstrate its interest in cultivating a Palestinian negotiating partner. She condemned all measures seeking to alter the demographic structure and status of Palestinian areas, including by displacing civilians and building settlements, describing such practices as violations of international law and obstructions of a two-State solution. She expressed regret over violence against civilians by any party and called for an end to incitement to violence.

The representative of Ireland said that, as an Irish woman growing up on a troubled island, the speeches delivered by the two young briefers reminded her that the Council’s purpose must be to alleviate the human impact of conflict in the Middle East. Youth engagement in that process, and in the upcoming elections in Israel and Palestine, is crucial, she emphasized, pointing out that more than half of the Palestinian population is under the age of 29. Many are disenfranchised, she added, citing the high unemployment rates and low political representation. She went on to stress her delegation’s strong support for UNRWA, its education programmes in particular, and its strong opposition to illegal Israeli settlements, describing them as a major obstacle to peace. Commending the Government of Israel’s vaccination efforts, she urged it to ensure free and equitable access and distribution of the vaccine to Palestinians, in accordance with international law.

The representative of Tunisia called for practical measures to create true change around the Palestinian question, notably the launch of serious, credible negotiations. Tunisia welcomes the proposal to convene an international conference, as well as a ministerial-level meeting of the Quartet with a broadened formula, he said, while insisting that Palestinians must be involved in any attempt to end the conflict and welcoming the Quartet’s willingness to harness international momentum in that regard. He pressed Israel to end its settlement‑building, abandon its annexation plans, and end its occupation of Palestinian territories, the Gaza blockade and all forms of collective punishment. Urging regional and international actors to increase aid deliveries to the occupied territories, he reaffirmed Tunisia’s unchanged position of support for Palestinians’ legitimate right to self-determination and an independent, sovereign State, along the 1967 lines and with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The representative of India, reaffirming his country’s support for the Palestinian cause and for a two-State solution, stressed that both sides must avoid unilateral actions which could prejudice final‑status issues. He described recent diplomatic efforts as encouraging and urged the Middle East Quartet to engage with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, while welcoming the progress of preparations for Palestinian elections. Meanwhile, the reopening of the Rafah border crossing is another significant development, he said, noting that it will ease the humanitarian and health situation in Gaza. India provided medicines and medical equipment to Palestinians as part of its COVID-19 response support, he said, adding that another batch of supplies will arrive in the coming weeks. Underscoring the importance of ensuring equity in access to vaccines across the world, he said that is why his country is providing “Made in India” vaccines to more than 30 countries, with 45 more to be supplied in the coming days, as well as doses to the global COVAX facility.

The representative of Viet Nam welcomed the recent developments towards the first Palestinian elections in more than a decade, encouraging all Palestinian political actors to continue talks in a constructive manner. The elections must be free, fair and inclusive, with Israel facilitating them across the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, he said. Turning to the peace process, he expressed his delegation’s delight to see stronger engagement by the relevant parties, saying Viet Nam looks forward to working with other Council members on President Abbas’ proposal for an international conference and other ideas to advance a two-State solution.

The representative of Kenya emphasized that real change will take real commitment on both sides. In that regard, he welcomed all efforts that speak to stronger security and civilian cooperation between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as initiatives to re-engage the two sides in peace talks. Hopefully, those initiatives will build upon the existing foundations and normative frameworks. Turning to the pandemic, he called for review of potential bottlenecks to the equitable distribution of vaccines and to economic recovery in order to mitigate suffering among the most vulnerable.

The representative of Niger condemned the demolition and confiscation of Palestinian properties, especially in East Jerusalem, noting that such practices are banned under the fourth Geneva Convention and Council resolution 2334 (2016). The two-State formula is the only way to ensure Israel’s security. He also condemned the trauma caused by the destruction of homes, noting that breaking into Palestinian homes, often late at night, exposes families to harassment and violence. Such actions were denounced by Israeli civil society organizations in a report that links them to psychological harm, he said, adding that serious rights violations committed under the illegal occupation should prompt the Council to end that tragedy. While citing the normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab countries as a possible turning point, he stressed that the Council cannot continue to shut its eyes to the abuse perpetrated by the occupying Power. While welcoming Israel’s provision of 5,000 vaccine doses to the Palestinian authorities, he described the amount as symbolic and insufficient, pressing Tel Aviv to fulfil its international legal obligations by supplying vaccines in the West Bank and Gaza at levels comparable to those enjoyed by its own citizens.

The representative of the United Kingdom, Council President for February, spoke in her national capacity, saying that building trust will require an end to unilateral actions. Reiterating her call for the Government of Israel to end the demolition of Palestinian homes and structures, she said the latest demolitions in Humsa AlBaqai’a have again made that vulnerable Palestinian community, including children, homeless. She also urged the Government to allow the unimpeded delivery of vital humanitarian assistance and to refrain from destroying or confiscating such aid once delivered. Expressing support for the rights and freedoms of women, young people and marginalized groups, she said the United Kingdom joins Palestinian women, and all Palestinians, in rejecting the recent changes made by Hamas — the de‑facto authorities in Gaza — to travel arrangements from the enclave, which will limit Gazan women’s independence and liberty. She went on to welcome progress on elections and vaccine cooperation, encouraging Israel’s Government to facilitate the transfer of vaccines to the Palestinian Authority as required.

For information media. Not an official record.