Mar 15, 2023 - World

UN envoy: "Responsible leaders" can take steps to de-escalate tensions in West Bank

Tor Wennesland

Tor Wennesland speaks to reporters at the UN in New York on Nov. 28, 2018. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Tor Wennesland of Norway, the UN special envoy for the Middle East peace process, told Axios this week that Israeli and Palestinian leaders must make strategic decisions to ensure the holy month of Ramadan remains peaceful.

Driving the news: The time around Ramadan, which begins next week, and Passover, which starts April 5, has historically been a sensitive period, particularly in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. But U.S., UN and regional officials are especially worried this year due to violence that has significantly worsened in recent months.

  • Senior officials from the U.S., Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are expected to hold another regional security meeting in the Egyptian town of Sharm el-Sheikh on March 19 ahead of Ramadan, Wennesland said. A senior Israeli official confirmed the meeting.
  • The first such meeting took place last month in the Jordanian city of Aqaba where Palestinian and Israeli officials agreed to take steps to de-escalate the situation, though tensions immediately rose that day and after the talks.
  • Hady Amr, U.S. special representative for Palestinian Affairs, arrived in the region on Tuesday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials in order to make sure both sides come to the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
  • White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk and assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf plan to attend the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh.

What he's saying: Wennesland acknowledged it is very hard to agree on a strategy for de-escalation given the lack of trust between the parties, but he stressed that if the understandings reached in Aqaba are implemented, it could take things in the right direction.

  • “You can’t say that you don't agree on what is on the paper the moment you leave the room. You need to actually do something to implement it," he said, hinting at statements by senior Israeli ministers who said they are not committed to the Aqaba understandings.
  • Those understandings included temporarily suspending unilateral steps from both sides and increasing security coordination.

Ahead of Ramadan, "responsible leaders can make decisions" to ensure calm, Wennesland said.

  • He recently met with Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as officials from the Jordanian Waqf authority that administers the Al-Aqsa Mosque to talk about practical steps that can be taken in order to allow people to travel from the occupied West Bank in Jerusalem to pray without conflict.
  • Those steps must focus on implementing security measures, including crowd management in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and economic measures Wennesland said. Palestinians "should be allowed to come to pray without disturbances. End of story."

The big picture: Maintaining calm in the West Bank and Jerusalem during Ramadan will also be key to keeping the situation calm in Gaza, Wennesland said.

  • He is especially worried about the level of violence and the overall negative dynamic in the West Bank.
  • He told Axios he respects the Israeli need for security and to prevent attacks, but the rising number of Palestinians killed in Israeli raids only escalates the situation.
  • “The number of incidents needs to go down. The number of people getting killed needs to go down. The number of Palestinians getting harassed needs to go down," he said.

Wennesland also believes the Israeli government and military aren't paying enough attention to settler violence in the West Bank. "It is a strategic choice to prevent it. I don't know why it is not prevented. I'm asking it in the meeting with Israeli officials and I'm waiting for a very clear answer. Because it's completely unacceptable," he stressed.

  • “We can’t have Hawara all over the place," he said, referring to the Palestinian village where settlers attacked Palestinians and torched homes and cars last month.

In Ramallah, Wennesland said it's time to "reset" the capacity of the Palestinian Authority institutions.

  • "When the Palestinian Authority is getting weaker, the Palestinian security forces are getting weaker. We are at the point where the fragility is massive," he said.

He attributed that in part to the PA's decision to delay the 2021 parliamentary and presidential elections — a move Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed on Israel.

  • “I've been very clear with the Palestinian Leadership that it undermined the hope of participation in politics by a majority of the electorate in Palestine," Wennesaland said.
  • He also blamed the generational gap between the majority of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Palestinian leaders. And he said that because many believe the two-state solution isn't possible at this time, there's a disconnect and lack of trust that makes the PA weaker.

Wennesland acknowledged that the challenge Palestinian leaders face is even bigger because the political attention of the international community is focused on other parts of the world. “I understand why the Palestinians feel abandoned," he stressed.

  • But "the Palestinian leadership's responsibility is to establish a strategy for how they get out of the current situation that they can sell to their own people and present to the international community, and it can’t be only a repeat of what was said 15 years ago," he said.

On Israel, Wennesland said he's closely following the internal discussions about the government judicial overhaul plan and is concerned about the implications of the plan for Palestinians in the West Bank.

  • Human rights and international law experts have warned the weakening of the Israeli Supreme Court will have severe consequences for the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
  • The court has been the only institution that Palestinians in the West Bank can go to defend their rights, mainly regarding land disputes with Israeli settlers.
  • The legal issues are not only something that is affecting the state of Israel and the character of the state of Israel, it is definitely also having a fallout on the Palestinian side and the dynamics on the ground. That's where I have my focus," he said.
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