UN secretary-general warns against Jerusalem ‘provocations,’ settlement expansion

At pro-Palestinian event, Antonio Guterres decries ‘unilateral actions’ and threats to status quo at holy sites; Palestinian envoy demands international action against Israel

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

Illustrative: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on February 18, 2023. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP)
Illustrative: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on February 18, 2023. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP)

NEW YORK — United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday warned against “provocations” at Jerusalem holy sites and escalating violence in the West Bank at a pro-Palestinian event at United Nations headquarters in New York.

Guterres also decried settlement activity and called for more support for Palestinians during a periodic meeting of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, held as violence surges between Israel and the Palestinians.

Tensions have spiraled in the West Bank over the past year after a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks in 2022. IDF raids against terror groups have led to hundreds of arrests and dozens of deaths, mostly members of Palestinian terror groups. Ten Palestinians were killed on Wednesday in an IDF operation against terrorists in Nablus, which Guterres called “deeply concerning.”

Israel’s new right-religious government has also vowed to expand settlements and take a more hardline approach against the Palestinians. National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the flashpoint Temple Mount last month prompted an emergency UN Security Council session.

“The situation in the occupied Palestinian Territory is at its most combustible in years,” Guterres said Wednesday. “The situation in Jerusalem/Al-Quds is becoming more fragile amidst provocations and acts of violence in and around the Holy Sites. It radiates instability across the region and beyond.

“The position of the United Nations is clear — the status of Jerusalem cannot be altered by unilateral actions. Jerusalem’s demographic and historical character must be preserved, and the status quo at the Holy Sites must be upheld, in line with the special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” Guterres said.

Jordan considers itself the custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites as part of a deal worked out with Israel after 1967’s Six Day War.

Israel has repeatedly said Ben Gvir’s provocative Temple Mount visit did not violate the status quo at the site, which allows Jews to visit, but not pray, at the site.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. (Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit)

The Mount is the holiest site for Jews, as the location of the two biblical Temples, while the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Mount is the third holiest shrine in Islam — turning the area into a major flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel is reportedly set to bar Jews from entering the Temple Mount during the last 10 days of the upcoming Ramadan holiday, despite combative rhetoric from some members of the government.

Guterres condemned settlement activity during his speech. Far-right lawmakers in the new government, including Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, have pushed to legalize more settlement outposts.

“Across the occupied West Bank and Gaza, hopelessness is spreading, feeding anger and despair. Each new settlement is another roadblock on the path to peace. All settlement activity is illegal under international law. It must stop,” Guterres said. The UN Security Council on Monday issued a rare joint statement condemning a series of recent Israeli settlement expansion announcements.

“At the same time, incitement to violence is a dead end. Nothing justifies terrorism. It must be rejected by all,” Guterres said. “Our immediate priority must be to prevent further escalation, reduce tensions and restore calm.”

Palestinian terror attacks have killed 11 people in Israel since the start of the year, and left 31 dead in 2022. The deadly attacks against civilians this year prompted widespread celebrations in Palestinian cities.

The UN chief also said he was “deeply concerned by Israel’s recent punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority” after the PA successfully pushed the UN’s International Court of Justice to weigh in on the conflict.

“There should be no retaliation with respect to the Palestinian Authority in relation to the International Court of Justice,” Guterres said. “These measures risk further destabilizing the Palestinian Authority at a time when it is already struggling with a dire fiscal crisis that is undermining its ability to provide services to people.”

Israel sanctioned the Palestinians in response to the probe, including by withholding funding from the Palestinian Authority. The retaliatory measures sparked widespread international blowback.

Guterres also said the UN agency for the Palestinians, UNRWA, is facing an “impossible task” in supporting the population without sufficient funding, and called to ease restrictions on the Gaza Strip, which Israel and Egypt have put in place to prevent weapons from reaching the Hamas terrorist group.

“Our ultimate goals remain unchanged: end the occupation, realize a two-state solution. But we must face today’s reality. The truth is that trends on the ground mean time is working against us,” Guterres said. “The longer we go without meaningful political negotiations, the further these goals slip from our reach.”

The United Nations General Assembly Fourth Committee votes on measures addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at the United Nations in New York, November 11, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Speaking after Guterres, the Palestinian envoy to the UN, Riyad Mansour, demanded the international community, including the secretary-general, step in to protect the Palestinians in response to the Nablus raid.

“The United Nations, which is supposed to stand by the weak and the vulnerable, should stand with the Palestinian people,” Mansour said. “We will work with you, Mr. Secretary-General, but we need to see action.”

“We are losing credibility, you are losing credibility, this fabulous system is losing credibility,” he said, calling on the UN to use all of its resources “to put an end to these massacres against our people.”

“The international community should act, should implement its resolutions and should step up to the plate to protect the Palestinian population,” Mansour said, adding that the Palestinian mission will send a letter today to Guterres, the UN Security Council and the president of the General Assembly requesting further action against Israel.

Mansour also warned that the “occupied Palestinian territories are on the verge of a massive eruption because of the policies and practices, particularly of this Israeli government.”

Riyad Mansour, Palestinian representative to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, January 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Israel and the US say the UN is overwhelmingly biased against the Jewish state. The General Assembly condemned Israel more than all other countries combined last year, and Israel is under more investigatory scrutiny than any other country.

Multiple UN investigators of Israel have made antisemitic statements, without facing any repercussions from the UN.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, has accused the world body of turning a blind eye to antisemitism and institutional bias among its members.

“UN leadership is utterly failing to do what must be done in this war against evil,” Erdan said earlier this month.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk on Tuesday called on the Israeli government to pause its judicial overhaul plans, saying the proposed measures put human rights at risk.

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