Ambassador raises issue of settler attacks on Palestinians

US envoy to Security Council: Settlement building has ‘reached a critical juncture’

Thomas-Greenfield also raps top UN body for disproportionate focus on Israel, but says it can play productive role by opposing terrorism, urging positive steps for Palestinians

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

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield during a news conference at United Nations headquarters, on March 1, 2021. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield during a news conference at United Nations headquarters, on March 1, 2021. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Security Council Tuesday that Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank “has reached a critical juncture” while also admonishing the top UN body for its “overwhelming focus” on the Jewish state.

Thomas-Greenfield made her remarks at the monthly Security Council meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the first session since she returned from a visit to the region earlier this month where she met with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders.

“US disapproval of settlement expansion goes back decades. This is nothing new for us. But the practice has reached a critical juncture, and it is now undermining even the very viability of a negotiated two-state solution,” the US envoy said.

Last month, Israel advanced plans for roughly 3,000 settlement homes, the majority of which are located deep in the West Bank, drawing the sharpest condemnation yet from the Biden administration.

However, last week Israeli officials confirmed to The Times of Israel that they had agreed to shelve a separate massive housing project in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Atarot, following pushback from Washington.

Reflecting on her meetings with Palestinian officials and civilians, Thomas-Greenfield said she “heard stories about Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians, ransacking homes, and destroying property in the West Bank, and this is an issue that I discussed extensively with Israeli counterparts.”

“I was told how many Palestinian families fear eviction from their homes because it is nearly impossible to get building permits as settlements expand,” she added.

Addressing the Security Council before Thomas-Greenfield, the UN’s Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland said that settler violence against Palestinians is “alarmingly high.”

“Since the harvest began on October 4, some 3,000 olive trees have been damaged or have had their harvest stolen,” he said. “Physical attacks on Palestinian farmers, volunteers and humanitarian staff have also been recorded, some reportedly taking place in the presence of Israeli security forces.”

Wennesland condemned the recent fatal shooting of an Israeli civilian in the Old City of Jerusalem by a Hamas terrorist. “Violent attacks and acts of terrorism can never be justified and must be condemned by all.”

For her part, Thomas-Greenfield lamented how civil society organizations in the West Bank are facing “unprecedented challenges in their work,” though she didn’t specify whether those challenges were coming from Israel, which blacklisted six Palestinian rights groups over alleged terror ties, or from the Palestinian Authority, which has cracked down on civilian critics in recent months.

The US ambassador reserved the opening of her speech to sound off on Israeli and US objections to what they consider to be the UN’s disproportionate focus on Israel.

“Israelis also shared with me their concern that the United Nations is intrinsically biased against Israel,” she said. “They interpret the overwhelming focus on Israel in this body as a denial of Israel’s right to exist and an unfair focus on this one country — and they are correct.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with US Ambassador the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on November 17, 2021. (Wafa)

She pointed to the mandated monthly meetings the Security Council holds on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that the body should meet more regularly to discuss Lebanon and Iran. Thomas-Greenfield noted that she saw “firsthand” during her visit to the region how Israel “is subjected to regular attacks by terrorist organizations, including Hamas, Hezbollah, both of whom are funded by Iran.”

“The impact of Iran’s regional malfeasance, nuclear aspirations, and hatred for Israel cannot be ignored,” the envoy said, later adding, “Israel does not define the Middle East.”

Thomas-Greenfield said that she left her trip to the Middle East with “several promising ideas” that Security Council members could pursue together.

“We can enforce Security Council resolutions intended to constrain Iran’s regional malign activities, nuclear threats, support for terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah,” she said, adding that the top UN body could “speak with one voice” in denouncing incitement to violence and in urging positive steps to improve lives, such as the Israeli granting of work permits for Palestinians and the Israeli authorization of building permits for Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank.

Last month, Israel advanced plans for over 1,000 Palestinian homes in Area C, where Israel has security and civilian control. However, most of the homes were only receiving retroactive approval. Only several hundred permits have been granted to Area C Palestinians in recent years.

The territory making up roughly 60 percent of the West Bank is where all Jewish settlements are located and the Israeli right has long opposed Palestinian expansion in those areas.

Every Israeli government since 1967 has expanded Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and settlements in the West Bank, territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War War that year and that the Palestinians want for their future state. The Palestinians view the settlements and the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem — now housing some 700,000 people — as a prime obstacle to peace, and most of the international community considers them illegal.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has criticized settlement construction as an obstacle to eventually reviving the long-moribund peace process, but has not demanded a freeze. In 2010, an announcement of approval for some 1,600 homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews in another part of East Jerusalem during a visit by Biden, then the vice president, aggravated a diplomatic rift that festered throughout Barack Obama’s presidency.

Israel’s political system is dominated by pro-settlement parties and the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is opposed to a Palestinian state. But he heads an unwieldy coalition of parties from across the political spectrum — some opposed to settlements — and appears to be seeking a middle ground that would sideline the issue at home and abroad.

Turning to Gaza, Thomas-Greenfield said the Security Council should “support for new efforts to facilitate humanitarian and reconstruction assistance” to the coastal enclave, while clarifying that it must ensure that no funds are diverted to the Strip’s Hamas rulers.

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield is given a military briefing during a tour of the Israel-Lebanon border, on November 16, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

She went on to urge member countries to follow the US lead in donating to UNRWA, as the UN agency for Palestinian refugees faces a growing financial crisis.

“As more states step up with contributions, they should also join the United States in urging UNRWA to establish a more sustainable financing model and to rigorously adhere to humanitarian principles, including of neutrality — something I personally raised with UNRWA leadership during my visit — to include concerns about antisemitic references in textbooks used in UNRWA schools,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

“Time is running out. We need to move now… Let us all commit, today, to constructive partnership and concrete progress between Israelis and Palestinians,” she concluded.

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