By Akanimo Sampson
United Nations Middle East envoy, Tor Wennesland, has told a virtual meeting of the Security Council that expectations are high for the first Palestinian elections in 15 years. The diplomat is also urging international support for the process.
Against a backdrop of rising tensions in Israel and Palestine, a UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East in March 2019 painted a bleak picture to the Security Council, cataloguing further terrorist acts, attacks against civilians, reprisals against demonstrators, unlawful demolitions and settlement expansions, and a funding crisis which could have dramatic consequences for the stability of an already volatile region.
“I am saddened by the persistent violence that continues to result in the tragic loss of Palestinian and Israeli lives”, said Nickolay Mladenov.
“Recent incidents in the West Bank and Gaza highlight the mounting tensions across the occupied Palestinian territory and the risk of a broader escalation of the conflict,” the UN official told the Security Council. “I am concerned that we may once again be facing another dangerous escalation of violence in Gaza with potentially catastrophic consequences.”
This was the ninth quarterly report on the implementation of 2016 Security Council resolution 2334, covering the period from December 15 through to March 15, 2019.
Mladenov however opened his briefing sounding the alarm on the most recent escalation of violence across the Gaza-Israel border.
He lamented the launch of at least 104 rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip towards Israel in the past 10 days: some were intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome system, while others caused material damage to a house in Israeli southern town of Sderot or hit uninhabited areas; one hit a house in central Israel, injuring seven people, including three children.
“There is no justification for terrorism”, said the Special Coordinator, calling on all to “join the United Nations in condemning the continued indiscriminate firing of rockets by Hamas towards Israel”, which he called “acts of provocation” that can “only dramatically increase the risk of escalation and ultimately damage our collective efforts to support the people of Gaza and intra-Palestinian reconciliation”.
Mladenov noted that, in response, in the past 48 hours, Israeli forces carried out 42 air strikes on various locations in Gaza, firing 16 shells into the enclave. According to local sources, seven Palestinians were injured, several buildings were destroyed, including offices of the Hamas extremist group which controls Gaza.
“The last two days have shown us how precipitously close we are to the brink of war”, he warned.
“My team and I have been working intensely with Egypt and all concerned parties to ensure that the situation does not spiral out of control,” said the Special Coordinator. “As I have said many times in this Council, but I will repeat it today again, nobody has an interest in a full military confrontation in Gaza,” he stressed, adding that “a new conflict will be devastating for the Palestinian people, it will have consequences for Israelis, who live in the vicinity of the Gaza perimeter, and it is likely to have regional repercussions”.
Mladenov implored the 15 members of the Security Council to “call on all sides to exercise maximum restraint.”
Non-compliance with Security Council resolution 2334
“No steps have been taken by Israel to immediately and completely cease all settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, as called for by Security Council Resolution 2334”, said Mladenov, adding that the recent “advancement, approval or tender of more than 3,000 units in the occupied West Bank, is the largest batch since May 2018”.
“I reiterate that the establishment of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, has no legal effect and constitutes a flagrant violation of international law…and must cease immediately and completely”, he stated.
The Special Coordinator also noted that “demolitions and seizures of Palestinian-owned structures also continued across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem,” resulting in the displacement of many people and the destruction of important infrastructure, such as a water cistern an elementary school.
Although Resolution 2334 “calls for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians,” that was not the reality, highlighting that demonstrators protesting dire economic conditions in Gaza, and citing “injustice due to the Palestinian division and the Hamas takeover of Gaza by force and violence”, had themselves come under attack.
“Although the protests were generally non-violent, Hamas security personnel violently dispersed participants and many, including women, children, journalists and human rights activists, were beaten and hospitalised”, said Mladenov, who noted that “tens of homes were raided in search of demonstrators” and that “local human rights monitors reported that over a thousand people, including children, were arrested, with many reportedly beaten”.
“The crackdown was condemned by all Palestinian factions”, he stressed, adding that he also strongly condemns this violent campaign against protesters, stating that “the situation in Gaza is untenable” and that “the long-suffering people of Gaza have a right to protest without fear of reprisal.”
The Special Coordinator then turned to the occupied West Bank, noting that four Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces and dozens injured; while two Israelis, one soldier and one civilian, were killed by Palestinians. He added that the situation in Jerusalem’s Holy sites “continues to be tense”.
“Security Council Resolution 2334 calls upon the parties to refrain from provocative actions, incitement, and inflammatory rhetoric. Unfortunately, such actions continued”, said Mr. Mladenov, citing several instances when several Palestinian and Israeli political leaders praised attacks or called for continued targeted assassinations.
Mladenov explained that, following Israel’s decision to withhold 6 per cent from revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to accept any transfers unless the full amount is restored, a “funding crisis” had resulted.
This had led to severe austerity measures: A 50 per cent salary cut for almost two-thirds of Palestinian government employees; an overall ceiling on salary payments; a cessation of promotions, appointments and bonuses, purchase of property and cars; and a 20 per cent reduction in operational expenses across the board including reduced expenses on travel, hospitality and fuel.
“In addition, the Palestinian Authority plans to borrow from domestic banks between now and July” ,noted Mladenov, deploring that “this will have a substantial impact on the Palestinian economy resulting in reduced purchasing power and further reduction in the GDP growth rate both in West Bank and Gaza”.
Lack of progress on the ‘two-State solution’
“I remain deeply concerned by the lack of progress towards the realization a two-State solution in line with relevant United Nations resolutions, long-standing international parameters and prior agreements”, said Mladenov, who stated that “there is no viable alternative” to it.
He called for much-needed “leadership and political will to take concrete steps in support of ending the occupation and realising a lasting peace…Until that can be found, another generation of Israelis and Palestinians is destined to spend their lives searching in vain for an elusive peace.”
In the mean time, speaking from Jerusalem Wennesland said, “the successful completion of inclusive Palestinian elections is a critical step toward renewing democratic legitimacy of the Palestinian Government.
“These elections should also pave the way to uniting Gaza and the West Bank under a single, legitimate national authority, which would be an important step towards reconciliation and could advance Middle East peace.”
Preparations continue for the Palestinian Legislative Council elections set for 22 May, he reported.
Registration of candidates concluded on March 31, and the final lists are expected on April 30, the start of the official campaign period.
“Since my last briefing, a growing number of young people are expected to participate in shaping their political future and having the opportunity to vote for the first time”, he said.
The UN has been supporting the electoral process, engaging regularly with parties and with the Central Elections Committee (CEC).
“To date, the CEC has performed its duties with professionalism and integrity, enhancing trust in the electoral process”, he said. “I also underscore the critical role of election observers to ensure respect for the results of a credible and transparent process.”
Wennesland also welcomed the CEC’s plans to implement special measures for safe voting during the pandemic.
As of Thursday, there were more than 316,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the occupied Palestinian territory, according to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Addressing the crisis, he said COVID-19 continues to pose “a formidable threat” across the occupied Palestinian territory and vaccination must be ramped up.
“I am seriously concerned by the significant rise in active cases in Gaza where the daily infection rate is reaching its highest level since the onset of the pandemic. In the West Bank, many hospitals remain at or near full capacity”, he said.
The envoy updated ambassadors on the vaccination campaign which the Palestinian authorities rolled out last month.
More vaccines needed
More than 300,000 doses have been delivered so far, he reported, and Israel also has continued efforts to vaccinate segments of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Additionally, more than 100,000 Palestinians who have permits to enter Israel, have also been inoculated.
“As the socio-economic impact of the pandemic has significantly exacerbated a seemingly never-ending fiscal and economic crisis in both the West Bank and Gaza, support for the Palestinian Government’s response must continue to be a priority”, Wennesland said.
“I welcome all efforts carried out thus far to vaccinate the Palestinian population, but the process needs to be accelerated and more vaccines are needed.”