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Amid Resurgent COVID-19, Palestinian Expectations High Ahead of Long-Awaited Elections, Special Coordinator Tells Security Council

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.

The Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine said the people have registered overwhelmingly to participate in the upcoming elections, clearly demonstrating their thirst for democracy.  The elections are crucial for unity and must not be jeopardized, with voters freely expressing their political will without foreign intervention, he emphasized.  Urging the international community to prevent any Israeli obstruction, he recalled the recent unlawful arrest of several candidates and the disbanding of meetings in East Jerusalem.  “We have reached the moment of truth,” he stressed, pointing out that elections in all regions are enshrined in international law and must be respected.

Turning to the pandemic, he cited widespread suffering from the horrific impact of COVID-19, expressing gratitude for international support.  However, that suffering could have been alleviated had Israel upheld its obligations, including vaccinating those under occupation, instead of reserving vaccinations for those in contact with the Israeli people, he said, accusing Israel of using its pandemic response as a political bargaining chip and pursuing a policy of collective punishment.

He went on to state that Israel’s settlement expansion erodes the possibility of a viable Palestinian State, underlining the need to address that threat immediately.  Expansion dramatically alters the landscape, with the blatant objective of unlawfully seizing Palestinian land to erase the 1967 borders, which are indispensable to a two-State solution, he said.  The policy leads to Palestinian “Bantustans”, which allows Israel to push a “double narrative” while dealing a deadly blow to the two-State formula while pursuing colonial policies and accusing the International Criminal Court of anti-Semitism, he explained.  “We are in dire need of an international plan of action to defeat this colonial plan,” he emphasized.

Welcoming the new United States Administration’s position on funding UNRWA, he said it is in line with international law.  He called for reinvigorating the Quartet and for ensuring that States observe the non-recognition of and non-assistance to Israeli settlements.  “The map Israel is drawing with its bulldozers and cranes” is one of perpetual contention and apartheid, he said, stressing that the pre-4 June 1967 borders represent the line between peace and conflict.

The representative of Israel said five Iranian protesters arrested for “waging war on God” will be murdered for speaking out against the world’s most brutal regime, Iran, whose grave human rights violations remain the most substantial threat to peace and security in the Middle East.  That should be the focus of debates on the region, he emphasized.

Noting that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) now reports that Iran is enriching uranium to 60 per cent, which is not necessary for civilian purposes, he said its initiative is therefore a blatantly military one.  However, the international community continues to ignore Iran’s provocative behaviour, including its military exercises and development of ballistic missiles with the capacity to deliver nuclear warheads, he noted, warning of a single weapon that can carry a one-ton warhead for 5,000 kilometres.

Iran is “spreading its tentacles of terror across the Middle East”, supporting and funding terrorist groups for tyrannical and murderous objectives, and will say and do whatever is needed to reach that goal, he continued.  While the Council wastes time on useless discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the international community has attempted to re-engage with the “genocidal regime” to mistakenly redo the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, he said.  “For us to be safe, Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear capabilities today or at any point in the future,” he declared, stressing that the regime poses an existential threat to Israel, which will not be bound by any agreement that does not address that threat.

Turning to the upcoming Palestinian elections, he asked how the Council will work with Palestine if Hamas increases its power, since the group’s participation alone should be a concern, given that its list of candidates includes those who have carried out terrorist attacks.  Citing UNRWA textbooks that contain anti-Semitic references, he said that unless they are overhauled and other measures taken, the Agency has no legitimacy to exist.  He went on to oppose “slander” by the Palestinian Authority on vaccination efforts, stating that Israel has worked with the international community to help Palestinians since the pandemic began.  Israel has vaccinated more than 100,000 workers and transferred tens of thousands of doses from foreign providers, he asserted, saying it is both a moral imperative and in its own interest to help its neighbours.

The representative of Kenya said “both sides must work harder to meet in the middle if either is to ever enjoy handing peace to their children”.  That must begin with Israeli and Palestinian leaders building bridges of understanding and respect, particularly during the present time of political transition, he added.  In the interim, the international community must do its utmost to support stability and help to sustain relative calm.  Turning to the upcoming elections, he emphasized that the preparations and the vote must be timely, free, fair and participatory, with all parties abiding by their agreed commitments.  He called upon the Israeli and Palestinian authorities to strengthen cooperation amid the surge in COVID-19 cases, and stressed UNRWA’s critical role in delivering basic food and medical services for refugees and the internally displaced.

The representative of Norway said Palestinians have high expectations and it is essential that the elections are carried out as planned.  “We are encouraged by the Palestinian people’s great enthusiasm for what will be the their first election for many years,” she added, noting that more women are listed as candidates than ever before.  She urged the Palestinian Authority and Israel to work together to facilitate the elections, as per their commitments under the Oslo II accord, emphasizing, however, that it is first and foremost the responsibility of the Palestinian factions to ensure that the elections promote unity and strengthen democracy and the rule of law under a single legitimate government.  The Council, for its part, must make its best efforts to support the Palestinian people, she said, pledging that Norway remains ready to contribute to the resumption of meaningful negotiations towards a political solution.

The representative of France expressed concern over the risk of de facto annexation of Palestinian territory and called upon Israel to renounce its settlement plans, including in East Jerusalem.  Israel must also stop the demolition of Palestinian structures, including those financed by France and the European Union, he emphasized.  Condemning rocket attacks from Gaza targeting residential districts in Israel, he vowed “France will never waver when it comes to Israel’s security”.  Regarding COVID-19, he said better coordination between the two sides should be a top priority to ensure an effective response that includes equal access to vaccines.  As for the upcoming elections, they represent an opportunity for Palestinian society to regain its voice and renew the democratic legitimacy of its institutions, he said, urging Israel to enable voting throughout the entire Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.  He went on to say that France is delighted that the Council is once again speaking with one voice in support of a two-State solution that it had itself endorsed.  However, words must be turned into action to breathe new life into the peace process, he stressed.

The representative of China said the international community must encourage progress on the ground towards a two-State solution, with the two sides avoiding actions that threaten that goal.  To that end, Israel must cease settlement construction and prevent violence, and the Palestinians must respect Israel’s right to exist and address its legitimate security concerns, he said.  Noting that the importance of the upcoming elections “cannot be overemphasized”, he urged the international community to help create the right conditions for success.  He commended Palestine for the huge amount of preparatory work, despite encountering new obstacles, in support of the “common aspiration” that the elections be held across the length and breadth of the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.  Turning to COVID-19, he called upon the international community to intensify efforts to relieve an already dire health situation made even more fragile.  He noted that China delivered 100,000 doses of vaccine on 29 March, and recently completed a solar-powered project to ease power shortages in a children’s hospital.

The representative of India urged both sides to refrain from provocative acts of incitement, inflammatory rhetoric and unilateral measures that vitiate the conditions necessary for peace.  Turning to the pandemic, he expressed concern over the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, threatening Palestinian health systems and disrupting economic and humanitarian activities, especially in Gaza.  Welcoming the coordination and cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities to mitigate those challenges and encourage the smooth movement of vaccines and medical supplies, he noted that his country’s first shipment of 25,000 vaccines reached Palestine on 29 March.  India will also contribute $10 million to UNRWA for the biennium 2021-2022, he said.

The representative of the United Kingdom welcomed the decision by the United States to restore funding to the Palestinian people and to UNRWA, saying that will improve the lives of thousands, particularly those most impacted by the occupation and by COVID-19.  Expressing support for the upcoming elections, he said Palestinian voters deserve a free, fair and inclusive process, which the Government of Israel must help facilitate, in accordance with the Oslo Accords,  including unhindered voting in East Jerusalem.  In that regard, the recent disruption of meetings in East Jerusalem and the arrest of candidates is unacceptable and must stop, he emphasized.  Unilateral actions inflame tensions, he said, adding that illegal Israeli settlement construction remains the biggest physical threat to a two-State solution, others being the demolition  of Palestinian buildings and  the eviction of Palestinians from their homes.  He went on to condemn anti-Semitism and terrorist actions.

The representative of Ireland said that for a two-State solution to happen, strong, inclusive and accountable democratic Palestinian institutions based on respect for the rule of law and human rights are critical.  So too are fair, free and inclusive elections, she added, noting that Ireland and its European Union partners support the holding of elections across the occupied territory and welcome the constructive engagement by the Palestinian factions.  She urged Israel to facilitate the holding of elections across the occupied Palestinian territory, particularly in East Jerusalem, and the participation of international observers.  Noting that Palestinian women want to be heard and to see themselves represented, she said that her delegation, as co-Chair of the Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security, looks forward to supporting them.

The representative of Tunisia said the Council and the international community must put more pressure on Israel to comply with international law and the relevant resolutions, including resolution 2234 (2016) on settlement activity, and to abandon its plans to annex Palestinian territory.  While noting that the upcoming Palestinian elections will be an important step towards strengthening democratic governance and the components of a future Palestinian State, he said recent actions by the occupying authorities, especially in East Jerusalem, are a cause for grave concern.  The international community must do all it can to ensure the elections go forward, including in East Jerusalem, and to help Palestinians fulfil their electoral duty free of hurdles placed by the occupation authorities, he emphasized.  He called upon Israel to lift restrictions on freedom of worship for Palestinians in Jerusalem, especially during Ramadan.  Stressing the impact of COVID-19 in the occupied territories, he called for increased humanitarian assistance and for the fulfilment of UNRWA’s financial needs in 2021.  While welcoming the resumption of economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians from the United States, he called upon the Council and other stakeholders to compel Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and for the international community to provide protection to Palestinian civilians.  He went on to say that Tunisia looks forward to increased efforts by the Quartet (United Nations, European Union, United States, Russian Federation) to revitalize the peace process, including through an international conference.

The representative of the United States said that his country’s Administration has been very clear about its commitment to advancing a negotiated two-State solution and reengaging with the Palestinians.  On 7 April, he recalled, the United States announced an additional $235 million in economic, development and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinians, including $150 million for UNRWA.  Going forward, he pledged, the United States will re-engage with the Agency, its donors, host countries, and other Member States to address its long-standing challenges while also upholding its neutrality and zero-tolerance of racism, discrimination or anti-Semitism.  He encouraged both the Palestinian Authority and Israel to refrain from unilateral steps that could exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts towards a negotiated two-State solution, such as the annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolitions, incitement to violence and providing compensation for individuals imprisoned for acts of terrorism.  Turning to the upcoming Palestinian elections, he said they are a matter for the Palestinian people to determine.  The United States and other key partners have long been clear that participants in the democratic process must accept previous agreements, renounce violence and terrorism, and recognize Israel’s right to exist, he emphasized.

The representative of Niger emphasized that no attempt to reactivate the peace process can prosper as long as Israel continues its unbridled occupation of Palestinian lands and building new settlements, including in East Jerusalem.  Alongside the Gaza blockade, those practices constitute flagrant violations of United Nations resolutions and international law, he said.  Similarly, rocket fire towards Israeli residential areas must also cease, he stressed.  Turning to the upcoming elections, he expressed hope that they can strengthen cohesion among Palestinian political factions, while also reopening the door to dialogue with Israel.  Noting the difficulty of holding elections in the context of COVID-19, he said it requires urgent action, especially in Gaza, where the dense population makes it difficult to observe social distancing.  Citing Israel’s successful vaccination campaign, he called upon its Government to ensure an effective fight against the coronavirus spreading among Palestinians.  He went on to underline the need for adequate funding of UNRWA in that context, while applauding the resumption of United States assistance and diplomatic communications with the Palestinian authorities.

The representative of Mexico pointed to 36 registered lists of candidates for the impending Palestinian elections as proof that the people, including women and the young, have a “lively desire” to be involved in political life.  Emphasizing that the process must be transparent and regular, since that is one of the underpinnings of democracy, he expressed hope that electoral preparations will continue to be punctual and peaceful, with the broad participation of citizens.  To that end, he rejected the harassment of Palestinian political activists in East Jerusalem by Israeli security forces, stressing that there must be no hindrance to the process, and to preserving the rights to freedom of expression and political association.  He applauded the resumption of assistance to UNRWA by the United States, noting that the Agency serves the needs of 5.7 million refugees, a role made even more relevant in the context of COVID-19.  In that regard, he welcomed the delivery of vaccines from China, United Arab Emirates, India and the Russian Federation, as well as Israel’s inoculation of 100,000 Palestinian workers.

The representative of Estonia called for active engagement by the Council, the Middle East Quartet and regional countries in creating favorable conditions for resuming direct meaningful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  A long-lasting solution to their conflict is in the interests of the whole region and beyond, he emphasized, encouraging both sides to continue practical steps to strengthen bilateral cooperation and rebuild mutual trust and confidence.  While urging Israel to halt its continued settlement expansion and demolitions in the occupied Palestinian territories, he also called upon the Palestinian factions to ensure the upcoming elections are free, fair and inclusive elections, and commit to democratic principles.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, noting that “too much time has already been lost”, said the Council has an obligation to cooperate in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Reiterating her country’s support for a two-State solution, she condemned Israel’s recent decision to advance construction of 540 illegal housing units in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Beit Safafa and Sharafat.  Concerning UNRWA, she called for sustained and predictable contributions to the Agency, especially in light of Gaza’s COVID-19 crisis, and encouraged the international community, including Israel, to ensure the availability of vaccines for all Palestinians.  She went on to encourage the Palestinians and their partners to work together for peaceful, free, fair, and inclusive elections, and said Israel must permit voting throughout the occupied territories.  Postponing the elections on account of access to voting stations would be unfortunate, she added.

The representative of the Russian Federation said his country is taking steps to support collective efforts for a just peace in the Middle East, including by proposing a ministerial conference of the Quartet and a meeting in the Quartet Plus format to overcome the current impasse.  The Russian Federation also supports the Palestinian proposal for an international peace conference, he added.  Calling upon both sides to exercise restraint, especially in the context of Israel’s recent elections and the upcoming Palestinian ballot, he emphasized that Palestinians must be guaranteed the right to vote and to stand for election.  Expressing concern over Israel’s ongoing settlement activity, he stressed the need to alleviate the humanitarian and economic problems of the Palestinians, especially in the context of COVID-19, while urging both sides to work together on vaccinations.  Meanwhile, he said, the international community must mobilize greater resources for UNRWA.  He went on to express regret that serious technical issues disrupted today’s videoconference meeting, saying that speaks volumes about the fact that the Council cannot fully base its work on the Internet.  The incident presents a good opportunity for Council members to decide whether to resume in-person meetings, he said, calling upon Viet Nam and China, as Council Presidents for April and May, respectively, to take practical steps to resolve the long overdue issue.

The representative of Viet Nam, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, calling for stronger and more active engagement by the Quartet and countries in the region.  He also reiterated his country’s support for the call by President Abbas for an international peace conference.  While describing the resumed cooperation between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in some areas as encouraging, he emphasized that all parties must take confidence-building steps and refrain from unilateral actions that could undermine the prospects for negotiations.  Joining calls for Israel’s Government to facilitate the electoral process across the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, he also welcomed the intention by the United States to restore humanitarian and development assistance to the Palestinian people, including its $150 million donation to UNRWA.

For information media. Not an official record.