UN Mideast envoy warns West Bank is ‘reaching a boiling point’

Tor Wennesland says expanding Palestinian population will soon make conflict unmanageable; US envoy also expresses concern, while criticizing UN’s ‘lopsided’ focus on Israel

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

UN Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland addresses the UN Security Council in New York on November 28, 2022. (Screenshot/ UN, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
UN Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland addresses the UN Security Council in New York on November 28, 2022. (Screenshot/ UN, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

NEW YORK — The United Nations envoy to the Middle East on Monday warned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “reaching a boiling point,” given a surge in violence in the West Bank.

“High levels of violence in the occupied West Bank and Israel in recent months, including attacks against Israeli and Palestinian civilians, increased use of arms, and settler-related violence, have caused grave human suffering,” UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland said.

“The targeting of civilians can never be justified and the violence must stop,” he told a UN Security Council briefing, calling for a return to a political process for a two-state resolution to the conflict.

“The current trends bring neither stability nor security for anyone,” he said.

Wennesland condemned the recent Palestinian terror attacks in Jerusalem and Ariel, as well as settler violence against Palestinians in Hebron.

“This surge in violence in the occupied Palestinian Territory is taking place in the context of a stalled peace process and entrenched occupation, and amidst mounting economic and institutional challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority,” he said, highlighting a decline in “donor support” for the PA and the lack of a democratic process for Palestinians, who have not held a general election since 2006.

He warned that “demography is moving faster than politics,” and that the rapid population growth in Gaza and the West Bank will make it “increasingly difficult” to manage the conflict. He commended Israel for allowing Gazans into Israel for work and allowing some new materials into the Strip.

Speaking after the Security Council briefing, Wennesland told reporters that the “conflict drivers” were settlement expansion, evictions, and demolitions, and he underlined the “precarious situation at Haram al-Sharif,” using the Arabic name for the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Asked about extremist elements in the incoming Israeli government, he said the UN had not been in touch with its members yet, but would find a way to work with them.

“It’s the Israeli population that are electing their own government. It is a process of the internal dynamics in Israel,” he said. “I can assure you one thing — the UN will work with this government in one way or another.”

“We are not putting judgment on those who are elected,” he said.

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour addresses a UN Security Council meeting on the Palestinian and Israeli conflict at UN headquarters, on March 26, 2019. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

After the Security Council meeting, the Palestinian envoy to the UN, Riyad Mansour, called for the UN to step in to “provide protection to the Palestinian civilian population.”

“The Security Council, which is a mighty force, the most powerful force in the UN for the maintenance of international peace and security — to describe without acting is pathetic,” he said.

He blamed escalating violence on “extremism on the side of the Israeli occupying side,” without mentioning Palestinian terrorism that has included a series of deadly attacks against Israelis this year.

Mansour said Palestinians were exploring “further steps” in response to Israel’s new government, after requesting the International Court of Justice weigh in on the conflict, and said the UN “should not deal with the fascists who will be in the Israeli government.”

The comments came amid heightened tensions in the region, following a series of Palestinian attacks that have left 30 people in Israel and the West Bank dead since the start of the year, including twin bombings in Jerusalem on Wednesday that killed two Israelis.

In the spring, the military launched a major anti-terror offensive in West Bank in response to the attacks.

The operation has netted more than 2,000 arrests in near-nightly raids, but has left over 130 Palestinians dead, many of them — though not all — while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces.

US Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks during a press conference, in the United Nations Security Council, September 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield also condemned the terror attacks against Israelis and settler violence during the Security Council hearing.

The US “is deeply concerned about the sharp escalation,” she said. “This has been the deadliest year in the West Bank since 2004.”

Thomas-Greenfield condemned the Palestinian Authority’s payments to terrorists and the “disruption to the historic status quo of holy sites,” referring to the flashpoint Temple Mount and other holy sites in the West Bank which have been the site of recent clashes.

The past year has seen a record number of Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, and, although Israel once firmly prohibited Jews from pray at the site, over the years the ban has slowly eroded, with individual silent prayer and occasional group services now not uncommon.

The Temple Mount, as the site of the two ancient Temples, is the holiest site for Jews, and the third-holiest for Muslims, as the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, who is to hold the title of national security minister in the next government, has called the status quo a “racist policy,” but has not expanded on what a new policy would look like.

Thomas-Greenfield also blasted the UN for its “lopsided focus” on Israel, including the open-ended Commission of Inquiry and the General Assembly’s request earlier this month for the International Court of Justice to weigh in on the conflict.

“The UN system is replete with anti-Israel actions and bodies,” she said.

“Instead of grandstanding and pursuing unproductive measures, we hope the UN will start focusing on concrete steps that improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians,” she said.

On Tuesday, the UN will host an annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people.

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