Inequalities under Occupation Deepened amid COVID-19, Permanent Observer Points Out, as Members Re-elect Senegal to Chair
The unresolved question of Palestine underlines the continuing importance of the Palestinian Rights Committee, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said today, during that body’s first formal meeting of 2021, warning that unliteral actions jeopardize the possibility of restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“The year 2021 presents tremendous tests and opportunities across the board,” he told members of the entity, known formally as the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. “It challenges us to reinvent how we make and sustain peace, while confronting the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
He went on to emphasize that the United Nations remains committed to helping Palestinians and Israelis resolve the conflict and end the suffering, also reiterating his call upon Israel to immediately halt all settlement activity — a major obstacle to a two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.
Highlighting the Committee’s important role in mobilizing international opinion and in helping Palestinians and Israelis re-engage in meaningful negotiations, he stressed that the long-agreed goal is clear: to end Israel’s occupation and realize two States based on the pre-1967 borders — in accordance with international law, relevant United Nations resolutions and bilateral agreements — with Jerusalem as the capital of both.
Recalling the call by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, for convening an international peace conference under the auspices of the United Nations and an expanded Middle East Quartet (United Nations, United States, Russian Federation, European Union), he said that such a meeting would provide a positive opportunity to advance peace in the region.
On Palestinian unity, he welcomed the decree by President Abbas that legislative, presidential and Palestinian National Council elections will be held in 2021, describing it as “a crucial step” that would give renewed legitimacy to national institutions, including a democratically elected Parliament and Government. He also commended the Committee’s efforts to mobilize support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip, he said the public health system had already been pushed to the brink due to the occupation and the fragile socioeconomic, humanitarian and political situation. The Special Coordinator continues to encourage Israel to help address the priority needs of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and to support COVID-19 vaccine availability more generally.
Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine, said the past year deepened existing inequalities, which were even more trying for Palestinians, already under occupation for decades. Emphasizing that Palestine must not be the exception to the lofty goal of leaving no one behind, he said “building back better” makes it imperative to revive global cooperation, led by the United Nations, in addressing chronic injustices and inequalities. Describing the Palestinian Rights Committee as a symbol of multilateralism, he expressed regret over false accusations of anti-Semitism levelled against it, and urged all States to cooperate with its important efforts in the quest for peace.
He went on to note the ready availability of tools to realize a two-State solution, stressing that only the will is missing. He also called for the will to uphold the law and to hold Israel accountable for its violations and racist discriminatory policies in order to end practices that amount to apartheid. He urged the Secretary-General to continue to mobilize action, including the convening of a international conference, as proposed by President Abbas, as well as the recently announced elections.
Welcoming the appointment of Tor Wennesland as Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority, he also called attention to funding challenges for UNRWA. Noting that some say the agency faces too many obstacles, he said such views contradict the Committee’s mandate and United Nations principles. For those suffering, the time to end the conflict and make peace is now, he stressed.
Cheikh Niang (Senegal), speaking upon his re-election as Committee Chair, said the Secretary-General’s presence at annual meetings testifies to the constant commitment of the United Nations to a final solution to the question of Palestine. He expressed his determination to continue the necessary efforts to accomplish the Committee’s mandate to work for the full realization of the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights.
Commending the efforts of the Division for Palestinian Rights in the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs during the pandemic, he encouraged the Committee’s secretariat to persevere in implementing training programmes to benefit Palestinians. He went on to note that, despite COVID-19, Israel has relentlessly pursued the expansion of its illegal settlements, including in and around East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Its recent announcement that it intends to construct nearly 800 new housing units in the occupied West Bank, in addition to more than 12,000 units started in 2020, offers further proof of Israel’s annexation plans, so does the “apartheid road” in the Jerusalem area separating Palestinians and Jewish settlers, he said.
“The Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and the occupation itself are illegal under international law and constitute an obstacle to peace,” he declared. The best way to promote conditions for lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians is to renounce all forms of violence, as well as the “politics of fait accompli”, and to return to the negotiating table, with a view to reaching a comprehensive solution that assigns to each side the right to a sovereign State.
He went on to express support for the proposed international peace conference, and urged the parties to abstain from unilateral actions that could compromise the possibility of relaunching the peace process. Israeli and Palestinian leaders should take the opportunity to resume serious negotiations on a two-State solution, he added. Urging Member States to maintain their strong support for UNRWA’s access to predictable, sustainable resources, he underscored the need to work together in the spirit of multilateralism.
In other elections, the Committee re-elected Adela Raz (Afghanistan), Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta (Cuba), Mohammad Kurniadi Koba (Indonesia), Neville Melvin Gertze (Namibia) and Jaime Hermida Castillo (Nicaragua) as Vice-Chairs. Afghanistan’s representative will also serve as acting Rapporteur.
In other business, the Committee adopted its programme of work for 2021 (document A/AC.183/2021/L.2).
The Committee will reconvene at a date and time to be announced.
Members agreed that 2020 underscored the importance of multilateralism, and that 2021 represents a historic opportunity to further the goal of leaving no one behind. Indeed, COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation on the ground, many delegates said, expressing concern about grave humanitarian conditions and the crushing consequences of the ongoing blockade on Gaza.
Among other speakers, the representative of Lebanon commended the Committee’s critical work in helping Palestinians pursue their goal of living in a free State. However, consecutive Israeli Governments have failed to abide by United Nations resolutions over the last two decades, instead taking steps to derail the peace process, he said. The blockade and accompanying hardships, alongside settlement expansion and attacks by settlers must stop, as should impunity for violations, he said, also emphasizing the importance of steady funding for UNRWA and providing COVID-19 vaccines.
The representative of South Africa, among others, echoed calls for an immediate halt to Israel’s settlement‑expansion activities, saying they are hobbling the peace process and hurting the Palestinian people.
The representative of Egypt expressed the common hope that peace talks will resume alongside swift actions to alleviate the daily suffering in Palestinian communities under occupation for decades.
The representative of Indonesia said the situation on the ground requires the Committee’s continued engagement, including with Member States, emphasizing that its role is more important than ever before, especially in light of the pandemic’s impact.
Some delegates called upon stakeholders to galvanize efforts to concretely advance the Palestinian cause. Several speakers, including the representative of Afghanistan, said States must lend robust support to the peace process and the proposed international peace conference, with a view to advancing along the road towards a two-State solution.
The representative of Namibia declared: “There is no ‘plan B’ for the two‑State solution.” It is time that the State of Palestine takes its rightful place at the United Nations, he added, emphasizing that negotiations remain the only path to peace. Namibia is encouraged that the new Administration in the United States is reversing several decisions, supporting a two-State solution and restoring UNRWA’s funding, he said.
The representative of Cuba also expressed delight at the new steps, recalling his delegation’s condemnation of the previous United States Administration’s decision to move its embassy. That step undermined peace and stability in the entire region, and its withdrawal of contributions to UNRWA exacerbated conditions for the Palestinian people, he pointed out.
The representative of Guyana, reminded members: “This is the Committee’s 402nd Meeting.” Wondering whether members who attended its first meeting decades ago could have imagined that there is still no solution, in 2021, she cautioned that “leaving no one behind” will remain “just a slogan” if the question of Palestine remains unresolved.
Also speaking were representatives of India, Nicaragua, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.