posted on Fri 18 Jul 2014 1:58 PM
Israel/Palestine: Political Affairs Chief to Brief following Israeli Ground Operation in Gaza

This afternoon at 3 pm(18 July), Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman will brief the Security Council on the situation in Israel/Palestine. An urgent meeting was requested last night by Jordan, the Arab Group’s voice on the Council, in response to Israel’s announcement that it was initiating a ground operation into Gaza. It seems there were divergent views over the meeting’s format. Turkey, though not a Council member requested an open debate and was supported by Council members Argentina, China, Jordan and Russia. The US expressed a preference for a briefing followed by consultations, supported by Australia, Lithuania and the UK. Eventually Rwanda, the Council President in July, proposed a debate format which would allow Feltman to brief and for Council members as well as Israel and Palestine to speak. At press time, it seemed unlikely there would be any immediate Council outcome, though if the situation in Gaza continues to escalate further some Council members believe it will become more difficult for the Council to not react in a meaningful way.

The outbreak in violence—related to massive Israeli security sweeps in the West Bank targeting Hamas members and mounting tensions due to the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation after the collapse of US-mediated peace talks—marks the worst fighting there since 2012. Israel’s widening of its military ground operations yesterday comes after 10 days of escalating bombings and airstrikes that have killed 268 and injured approximately 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza. UN estimates indicate that the overwhelming majority of these casualties are civilian. One Israeli soldier and one Israeli civilian have been killed and five injured. Human Rights Watch has investigated some of these attacks, reporting that Israel is targeting civilian infrastructure and killing civilians and that Palestinian armed groups are launching rockets toward Israeli population centres.

Council members issued a press statement on 12 July that called for de-escalation, reinstitution of the November 2012 ceasefire, respect for international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians, and support for the resumption of direct negotiations (SC/11472). This press statement, which was proposed by Jordan following the 10 July meeting of the Council on Gaza, was met with initial resistance by the US. The Arab Group and Palestine then discussed the possibility of pursuing a resolution in the Council, and, while aware that a US veto was likely at this juncture, nevertheless stressed to the US the importance of the Council responding to the situation in Gaza. The possibility of a resolution appears to have softened the US position on a press statement, allowing for agreement two days after it was proposed.

At today’s meeting, Council members will likely be interested in focusing on protection of civilians and hearing more from Feltman about whether there is any possibility of a ceasefire following the failure of Egypt’s ceasefire proposal and the resumption of fighting after the end of the five-hour humanitarian pause negotiated by Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry.

On 14 July, Egypt, supported by the Arab League and the US, proposed a ceasefire that was accepted by Israel on 15 July but rejected by Hamas on 16 July. Hamas reports that it was never officially consulted about the initiative and that the proposed ceasefire would only reinstate the status quo. Hamas’ requirements for a truce include wider conditions addressing Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the re-release of Palestinian prisoners who were released in 2011 as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange with Israel, as well as those prisoners released as part of the terms of the recent US-brokered peace talks. The prisoners were re-arrested in the last month during Israel’s security sweeps in the West Bank.

The proposal’s failure brought into question the ability of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime to broker a truce due to its hostility towards Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. (President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, was deposed on 3 July 2013 by a military coup led by Sisi.) Both groups are considered terrorist organisations by the Sisi government. Further, as Egypt continues to confront an Islamist insurgency in north Sinai, which borders Gaza, finding amenable terms for an agreement on any sustained opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza may be difficult.

Hostilities quickly resumed after yesterday’s humanitarian pause and Israel’s announcement that it would carry out ground operations. However, the Secretary-General expressed appreciation that it had been mostly respected and that the humanitarian pause demonstrated that a cessation of hostilities would be possible if all the parties put the interests of civilians, who have borne the brunt of the escalation, first. He added that underlying factors that have led to the recent escalation must be addressed, referencing the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, the Israeli blockade of Gaza and other unimplemented core elements of resolution 1860. (Resolution 1860—the most recent substantive Council outcome on Israel/Palestine—was adopted over five years ago on 8 January 2009 and called for an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.) It is possible that Feltman may reiterate some of these points during his briefing.

Council members will also be interested in whether a suitable mediator between Israel and Hamas can be identified. Palestinian officials say they prefer involvement by Turkey and Qatar who have better relations with Hamas than Egypt. However, Turkey’s suitability as a mediator is complicated by its poor relations with Israel over the Gaza flotilla raid of 31 May 2010. In the years since, there has been a steady, if quiet, rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. However, on 10 July Turkey said that it would not normalise relations with Israel so long as it continues its Gaza offensive.

Council members’ statements later today will likely contain entrenched views that have been repeated over the years in the monthly Council meetings on Israel and Palestine. Council members in their statements are therefore likely to discourage escalatory acts, encourage parties to exercise restraint, call for Israeli withdrawal and a ceasefire and the resumption of negotiations toward a two-state solution. Some members may further emphasise the importance of Israel lifting its blockade of Gaza.

Given the dynamics in the Council on the Israel/Palestine issue, in particular the US position, and the difficulties that would be encountered in defining the conflict and apportioning blame for the escalation, agreeing on any substantial and meaningful Council outcome may prove prohibitively challenging. Many Council members will be closely listening to the US statement, particularly regarding how it characterises the scale of violence committed by Israel in comparison to Hamas and other Palestinian armed factions. Painting a picture of parity between the parties will be a difficult issue to skirt, especially when the US has consistently argued in the case of Syria that the scale of violence committed by government forces far outstrips the violations committed by the opposition.