Situation in Middle East, including Palestinian Question - Security Council VTC Open Debate

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22-Apr-2021 02:43:16
Amid resurgent COVID-19, Palestinian expectations high ahead of long-awaited elections, Special Coordinator tells Security Council.

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Expectations are running high among Palestinians ahead of their first elections in nearly 15 years, even as a resurgence of COVID-19 hits the West Bank and Gaza, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process told the Security Council today.

A successful outcome of the elections can open the way towards reconciliation with Israel and advance peace in the wider region, said Tor Wennesland, who is also the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative. “The holding of credible Palestinian elections is a crucial step towards renewing the legitimacy of national institutions and re-establishing Palestinian national unity,” he added.

“I encourage international support to these efforts,” he told the Council’s quarterly open debate on the Middle East, held via videoconference, reporting that preparations continue for the Palestinian Legislative Council elections on 22 May, as Israel works to form a governing coalition after its citizens went to the ballot on 23 March. Palestinian presidential elections are scheduled for 31 July, he noted.

The United Nations is engaging with the Palestinian parties and the Central Elections Commission to prepare for the elections, he continued, emphasizing that all sides must ensure the right of Palestinians across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip to cast their ballots free from intimidation, arrest, detention or interrogation.

Highlighting the formidable threat posed by COVID-19 throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, he said the daily infection rate in Gaza is at its highest level since the pandemic started in March 2020. Many hospitals in the West Bank are running at or near full capacity, he added. Israel continues to vaccinate segments of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, he pointed out, while underlining the need for more vaccines and for accelerating the process. Meanwhile, he welcomed the announcement on 7 April that the United States will resume its assistance to Palestinians, including $150 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

He went on to reiterate his call for Israel to cease the demolition and seizure of Palestinian property throughout the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in accordance with its obligations under international law, and to let Palestinians develop their own communities. Surveying daily acts of violence, including repeated clashes in Old Jerusalem since the start of Ramadan, he said the Israeli security forces must exercise maximum restraint and use force only when it is unavoidable. He also called for an immediate halt to the launching of rockets aimed at Israeli population centres.

Returning to the Palestinian elections, he said a growing number of young people are expected to cast ballots for the first time and to help shape their own political future. Besides renewing the democratic legitimacy of the Palestinian government, he added, the polls should also pave the way to uniting Gaza and the West Bank under a single legitimate national authority — a key step towards reconciliation and advancing the Middle East peace process.

“The path forward will not be easy and will require political courage from all sides,” he cautioned, while emphasizing that advancing a two-State solution remains the goal, despite myriad challenges. In that regard, the international community — and the Middle East Quartet (United Nations, European Union, United States, Russian Federation) in particular — must signal a way forward towards an end to the occupation and to a sustainable peace, including by encouraging practical steps by all to set the stage for negotiations to resume.

Rein Paulsen, Director of the Coordination Division, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the pandemic has exacerbated a humanitarian situation in which close to one in two Palestinians — the majority of them in the Gaza Strip — require assistance and protection. The total number of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started stands at 313,000, he said, reporting 3,350 fatalities and a nearly 20 per cent surge in active cases this month alone due mostly to new variants. Two thirds of all active cases are in Gaza, which accounts for 30 per cent of the total population, he added. Noting that 3 per cent of the population in the occupied territories has been vaccinated by the Palestinian authorities so far, compared with 53 per cent of the Israeli population, he said Israel is also vaccinating more than 120,000 Palestinians, including those in the West Bank with permits to enter the country.

Providing an update on settlement activity, he said the Israeli authorities demolished or seized — or forced owners to demolish — 25 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank during the latest reporting period. They included six homes and 25 Palestinians were displaced, 15 of them children, he added, explaining that nearly all the structures were demolished on the grounds of lacking Israel-issued building permits, which Palestinians cannot obtain under the West Bank planning regime. Another 970 Palestinians, in East Jerusalem, face the risk of eviction due to cases brought before Israeli courts, mainly by settler groups, he reported. OCHA recorded 19 incidents in which Israeli settlers injured Palestinians or damaged their property, while suspected Palestinian perpetrators damaged 14 vehicles bearing Israeli licence plates, he said. Such acts of violence, as well as demolitions and the threat of eviction, make Palestinians feel unsafe even in their own homes, putting pressure on many families to leave their communities, he stressed.

He went on to welcome the resumption of support from the United States, including to UNRWA, while noting that, so far, only 22 per cent of the $417 million requested for the Organization’s plan to respond to all humanitarian needs has been secured, “leaving significant gaps across most sectors”.

In the ensuing debate, Council members once again reaffirmed their support for a two-State solution and reiterated their calls for Israel to halt its settlement activities. Several delegates urged the Quartet to step up its efforts, with others endorsing the call by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority for convening an international peace conference. Israel’s representative took a different tack, urging the Council to focus its attention on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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