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UN envoy avoids casting blame for Jerusalem violence during Security Council huddle

Tor Wennesland updates members on Temple Mount tensions during closed-door emergency meet; despite Palestinian pressure, council refrains from issuing public statement

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland briefs, over video conference, the Security Council on the Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question  on January 26, 2021. (Daniela Penkova/UNSCO/File)
UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland briefs, over video conference, the Security Council on the Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question on January 26, 2021. (Daniela Penkova/UNSCO/File)

The UN’s Mideast envoy avoided casting blame on either side for the recent violence at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount during an update to Security Council members at an emergency meeting convened on Tuesday, two diplomats familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

In a statement released after the closed-door meeting, Tor Wennesland focused on expressing his concerns over the escalation while calling on leaders to take steps to reduce tensions and avoid further provocations.

Israel had been concerned about the possibility that it would be solely blamed for the clashes, given the large number of videos circulating on social media since Friday showing Israeli officers entering Al-Aqsa Mosque and striking journalists, women and children in the compound.

In an effort to sway Security Council members ahead of the Tuesday meeting, Israel’s Foreign Ministry sent each of their delegations a communique that included video clips of Palestinians hurling rocks and other objects at Israeli troops on the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque compound along with a message asserting that Israel is committed to maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

The Palestinian UN Mission was also in touch with Security Council members, sending updates of its own on the volatile situation at the holy site from the past several days, a UN diplomat familiar with the matter says. The diplomat said that the Palestinian mission pressed members to “break its silence” on the matter and issue a joint statement condemning Israeli actions, but such a step would’ve required the unanimous support of members.

The majority of the 15 member states ended up echoing the sentiment expressed by the UN envoy in their respective statements during the closed-door meeting, according to the two UN diplomats, who noted that the Emirati and Chinese representatives led a minority of countries who were particularly critical of the conduct by Israeli police at the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Despite its longstanding ties with Israel, China has long been one of the most critical UN member states of Jerusalem’s policies, particularly during last year’s Gaza war.

The UAE on the other hand has increasingly voted with Israel on various UN initiatives since the two countries normalized ties in 2020. But on the issue of Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi appears to align itself squarely with the rest of the Arab world, which does not accept any demonstration of Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount. The UAE summoned Israel’s ambassador on Tuesday to express its objections over police conduct at the flashpoint site.

Members of the United Nations Security Council meet in New York on April 19, 2022. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/AFP)

In his post-meeting statement, Wennesland said: “I am deeply concerned about the trajectory of events over the past couple of weeks in Israel and the occupied West Bank that have resulted in many civilians killed and injured.”

Fifteen people were killed in Israel in four separate terror attacks over the past several weeks. The IDF has expanded its activity aimed at nabbing terror cells throughout the West Bank, and this has led to the killing of 17 Palestinians since the beginning of the month. Most, but not all, were gunned down while clashing with Israeli troops.

“Particularly worrying are the heightened tensions we have witnessed in Jerusalem in recent days, in the Old City and in and around the Holy Sites during a period of holy days for Muslims, Jews and Christians,” Wennesland said.

On Friday, officers entered Al-Aqsa Mosque itself, where young Palestinians were had stockpiled and were throwing rocks and fireworks. During the clashes that ensued, some 400 people were arrested and more than 150 Palestinians were injured. Such clashes have continued, though less intensely, in the day that followed as well.

“The UN has remained in close contact with all relevant parties to de-escalate the situation. This dialogue has been constructive and I encourage continued engagement between the relevant parties,” said the UN envoy.

“At this crucial moment, when tensions remain high and some difficult days still lay ahead, all efforts to lower tensions should be encouraged, while provocations, spreading of misinformation and incitement to violence should be categorically rejected,” he said.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 15, 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Notably, the UN envoy’s reference to “spreading of misinformation and incitement” were nearly identical to the talking points used by Israeli officials who have claimed in recent days that Hamas and other extremist groups had launched a campaign aimed at stoking tensions, erroneously claiming that Israel is aiming to violate the status quo at the Temple Mount. This has led to thousands of Palestinians to converge on the holy site in recent days with the aim of “defending Al-Aqsa.”

Israel insists that it is committed to the status quo under which Muslims may visit and pray on the compound, whereas Jews may only visit during restricted time slots. Israeli authorities also arrested a handful of Jewish extremists who were seeking to perform a Passover sacrifice at the site by slaughtering a goat.

But Israeli police have also in recent years allowed for Jews to quietly pray as they’re ushered through the site by employees of Jordan’s Islamic Waqf in what amounts to a subtle violation of the fragile status quo on the site.

Israel extended sovereignty to the Temple Mount and East Jerusalem after capturing the area from its Jordanian occupiers in the 1967 war, but allowed the Jordanian Waqf to continue to administer the Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, and barred Jews from praying there. The Palestinians seek the area as the capital of an independent state.

The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism as the site of the biblical temples. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest shrine in Islam.

Palestinians shoot fireworks at Israeli police in the Old City of Jerusalem, on Sunday, April 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)

Wennesland concluded his statement by stressing that “leaders on all sides have a responsibility to reduce tensions, create the conditions for calm and ensure the status quo at the Holy Sites is protected.”

Standing alongside the ambassadors of France, Ireland, Estonia and Albania, Norway’s Ambassador to the UN Mona Juul issued what was described as a joint statement backing the remarks made by Wennesland during the meeting.

“We support all efforts to de-escalate and reiterate the call on all sides to exercise maximum restraint and to engage in de-escalatory efforts,” Juul said.

“We condemn all acts of terrorism and the firing of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel,” she added, referring to the rocket fired from Gaza a day earlier. “The deteriorating security situation highlights the need to restore a political horizon for a credible peace process.”

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