25 MAY 2006
Hamas Takeover, Gaza Tensions, New Israeli Government Have Produced New Challenges, Opportunities in Middle East, Security Council Told
Under-Secretary-General Gambari Briefs, Says Border Between Israeli, Future Palestinian State Cannot Be Resolved by Unilateral Moves
NEW YORK, 24 May (UN Headquarters) -- Briefing the Security Council this afternoon on the situation in the Middle East, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari said that the takeover by Hamas of the Palestinian Authority, inter-factional tensions in Gaza and the new Israeli Government had produced a new set of challenges and opportunities for the international community, including a serious humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Among the areas of concern were the continued closure of the Karni crossing between Israel and Gaza and the fact that official salaries had not been paid to some 155,000 Palestinian public sector workers since the end of February. Those salaries accounted for 25 per cent of the Palestinian economy, supporting about 1 million people. He noted that the largest portion of the shortfall in the Palestinian Authority's monthly budget was the Palestinian value added tax and customs duties, which Israel had failed to transfer for the third month in a row.
At its meeting in New York on 9 May, the Quartet -- the United Nations, the European Union, the Russian Federation and the United States -- had addressed those and other issues. To alleviate the dire fiscal and humanitarian situation, the Quartet had expressed its willingness to endorse a temporary international mechanism, to be developed by the European Union, which was limited in scope and duration, and ensure direct delivery of assistance to the Palestinian people.
Regarding the security situation, he said five Israelis were injured by Palestinian violence this month. No Israelis had been killed, though one Israeli and one American teenager died of wounds sustained in last month's suicide attack in Tel Aviv. A reported 45 Palestinians had been killed this month and 180 Palestinians had been injured. Of the Palestinian casualties, several of the dead and wounded were victims of intra-Palestinian fighting. That internal strife, notably in Gaza, had now reached worrying proportions, he said, also drawing attention to clashes between Palestinian Authority police and the new Hamas-led security force.
He noted that Prime Minister Olmert had stated during his meeting with President George Bush in Washington, D.C., yesterday that, while he intended to "exhaust every possibility to promote peace with the Palestinians", if Israel concluded that progress was not possible, it would be "compelled to try a different route". Mr. Gambari reiterated the central importance of negotiations for the future of the political process between Israel and the Palestinians. Unilateral moves "simply cannot resolve issues such as the border between the State of Israel and a future Palestinian State". Those must be mutually agreed; any changes to the 1967 lines could only be set through negotiated agreement.
Turning to Lebanon, he said the situation along the Blue Line had been quiet, but tense, with 20 Israeli air violations, as compared with three last month. The situation between Syria and Lebanon remained of concern, he added, and while the Lebanese national dialogue continued, bilateral and domestic tensions remained.
The meeting began at 3:10 p.m. and ended at 3:55 p.m.
Briefing by Under-Secretary-General
IBRAHIM GAMBARI, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said that, once again, the Middle East was at an important juncture. "However, rather than one intersection, we have several, and while the issues may not be strictly intertwined, each influences the other in ways that are increasingly difficult to predict." The takeover by Hamas of the Palestinian Authority, inter-factional tensions in Gaza, and the new Israeli Government had produced a new set of challenges and opportunities for the international community, including a serious humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Furthermore, the situation between Syria and Lebanon remained of concern, and while the national dialogue in Lebanon continued, bilateral and domestic tensions remained. The situations in Iran and Iraq, while not the domain of the current briefing, also impacted on peace and stability across the Middle East.
He first turned to the fiscal and humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where official salaries had not been paid to some 155,000 public sector workers since the end of February. Those salaries, he noted, accounted for 25 per cent of the Palestinian economy, supporting about 1 million people. Recipients provided the bulk of health, education and other services, including security, to the Palestinian people. Longer-term projects pointed to dramatic rises in poverty and unemployment rates, if current trends continued.
On 9 May, the Quartet held discussions on those and other issues, and benefited from the contributions of the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The meeting highlighted the regional impact of the current crisis, and resulted in the Quartet expressing serious concern about the deteriorating conditions. First, the Quartet stressed that international efforts to assist the Palestinian people did not relieve the Palestinian Authority government of its responsibilities, outlined in signed agreements. The Palestinian Authority had received the important message from the donor members of the Quartet that its commitment to the principles outlined by the Quartet would pave the way for the restoration of direct assistance.
Second, he said, the Quartet expressed its willingness to endorse a temporary international mechanism, to be developed by the European Union, that was limited in scope and duration, operated with full transparency and accountability, and ensured direct delivery of assistance to the Palestinian people. If those criteria could be met, the temporary international mechanism would begin operating as soon as possible, and be reviewed after three months. The United Nations was lending its full support to European efforts to establish the mechanism and was participating in discussions in Brussels today, discussions which would focus on the need to move quickly, to ensure flexibility and to address the crisis in the banking sector.
Third, the Quartet urged Israel to take steps to improve the humanitarian situation of the Palestinian people. Israel had responsibilities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as well as obligations outlined in previous agreements. The largest portion of the shortfall in the Palestinian Authority's monthly budget was the Palestinian value-added tax (VAT) and customs duties, which Israel had failed to transfer for the third month in a row. He noted the positive decision of the Israeli Cabinet on 21 May to spend approximately $11 million of that money on the health sector, further to Prime Minister Olmert's pledge to address humanitarian concerns, and notably health issues, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Israeli Government was encouraged to build on that step and find a way to transfer the full balance of monthly VAT and customs receipts. That money accounted for about one third of the budget of the Palestinian Authority, and its early transfer was vital.
Fourth, the Quartet called for urgent responses to assistance requests by international organizations, especially United Nations agencies. A revised Consolidated Appeal addressing the humanitarian needs of Palestinians under the new circumstances would be issued later this month, and donors were also called on to support the ongoing emergency activities of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Regarding the security situation, he said five Israelis were injured by Palestinian violence this month. No Israelis had been killed, though one Israeli and one American teenager died of wounds sustained in last month's suicide attack in Tel Aviv. A reported 45 Palestinians had been killed this month, including at least two children, and 180 Palestinians had been injured. Of the Palestinian casualties, 10 of the dead and at least 33 of the wounded were victims of intra-Palestinian fighting, as was one Jordanian government employee who was killed a few days ago in Gaza. That internal strife, notably in Gaza, had now reached worrying proportions.
Despite President Abbas' declaration that the announcement by the Palestinian Government of a new security force controlled by the Ministry of Interior was illegal, the Interior Minister had deployed 3,000 armed men in Gaza on 17 May. The President responded by ordering all police forces to reinforce deployment in the Gaza Strip, and there were clashes between Palestinian Authority police and the new Hamas-led security force. A few days later, the Chief of Intelligence, Tareq Abu Rajab, was seriously injured in an explosion. Incidents continued, including the killing a few hours ago of the Head of Preventive Security, Nabil Hodhod, in central Gaza. The situation remained extremely volatile, and he welcomed and encouraged Egypt's ongoing efforts to calm the tension.
Jordan had announced that its security services discovered a hidden cache of long-range Katyusha rockets for use by Hamas against senior Jordanian officials. President Abbas had expressed great concern about those allegations, which Hamas officials had denied. The Israeli Government reported that 81 attacks had been perpetrated against its territory. At least 40 of those attacks reportedly involved rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. It was essential for the Palestinian Authority to heed the Quartet's call to act decisively against terrorism and bring an end to the violence.
A senior Hamas military commander allegedly responsible for numerous attacks against Israeli civilians was arrested yesterday by Israeli security forces in the West Bank, he continued. Among other operations this month, Israel killed five alleged militants in Gaza on 5 May, seven on 14 May in the northern West Bank, and on 20 May, a leading member of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. In that last attack, a boy, his mother and his grandmother were killed, and a three-year old was wounded. Such collateral damage underlined the need for Israel to cease targeted killings, heed the call of the Quartet to show restraint, and consider the potential consequences of its actions on civilians.
The Quartet had urged both parties to take concrete steps to implement their obligations under the Agreement on Movement and Access, he said. The Karni crossing between Israel and Gaza had been closed for half of the scheduled days of operation in 2006. The United Nations and other actors faced increasingly tight Israeli restrictions on staff movement to and from Gaza and the supply of humanitarian goods through Karni, despite Israel's stated desire to support expanded United Nations operations. Karni had been opened to allow sufficient imports to avert a food-supply crisis this month. However, agricultural exports had been limited, resulting in losses of about $9.5 million since the beginning of the season. He was encouraged by the 17 May decision of new Israeli Defence Minister to reopen Karni in both directions. Regrettably, the implementation of that decision was suspended shortly thereafter.
According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, physical obstacles in the West Bank currently stood at 515, up from 476 last month. A system of permits heavily restricted travel to the Jordan Valley, access to closed areas between the Green Line and the barrier, and movement between different segments of the West Bank. The Quartet also stated on 9 May that the parties should avoid unilateral measures which prejudiced final status issues, and expressed concern about settlement expansion and the route of the barrier. However, on 26 April, Prime Minister Olmert announced his intention to increase the pace of construction and complete the barrier around Jerusalem by the end of the year. The Cabinet reiterated its commitment to the construction of the barrier and approved a series of changes in the northern West Bank and Jerusalem areas. Israeli settlement construction continued.
Turning to Palestinian political developments, he noted that, on 9 May, the Quartet welcomed President Abbas' continued commitment to a platform of peace. It also reiterated its grave concern that the Palestinian Authority Government had so far failed to commit itself to the principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations.
Continuing, he said that a Palestinian national dialogue would start tomorrow in Ramallah and Gaza City, linked by video. Some 500 representatives of all political parties, civil society, the private sector, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would participate. The agenda included measures to reinforce national unity, ways to address the current critical situation, and the activation of the PLO. The Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process had encouraged the pursuit through the dialogue of a positive consensus between Palestinian political actors on the road ahead.
In an important precursor to the dialogue, Palestinian political detainees in Israeli prisons, including senior Fatah and Hamas members, announced on 10 May an agreement on common principles for national action and dialogue, he said. The agreement referred to establishing a Palestinian State along the 4 June 1967 borders. It described the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and said that political action should be based on Arab legitimacy and United Nations resolutions. It declared that resistance to Israel's occupation should be limited to the 1967 borders. The document was endorsed by President Abbas, while the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority Government's response had been more cautious.
On the Israeli side, he said that Prime Minister Olmert presented his governing coalition to the Knesset on 4 May. The coalition guidelines stated that the Government "will strive to shape the permanent borders of the State of Israel" and that it "will act to achieve this through negotiations and agreement with the Palestinians -- conducted on the basis of mutual recognition, signed agreements, the Road Map principles, cessation of violence and the disarming of the terror organizations".
He said that the Quartet had welcomed Prime Minister Olmert's call for negotiations with a Palestinian partner committed to the principles of the Road Map. In that context, the meeting between President Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Livini at the World Economic Forum in Sharm el Sheikh last weekend had been a positive development, as was the agreement reached to prepare carefully for a meeting between the President and Prime Minister Olmert.
Prime Minister Olmert had met President George Bush in Washington, D.C., yesterday, he noted. While the Prime Minister had stated his intention to "exhaust every possibility to promote peace with the Palestinians", he had also noted that, if Israel concluded that progress was not possible, it would be "compelled to try a different route". That involved removing settlements that were not part of major Israeli settlement centres in the West Bank, while ensuring that major population centres would "remain under Israeli control and become part of the State of Israel as part of the final status agreement". President Bush had encouraged Prime Minister Olmert to reach out to President Abbas, and stated that the best servant of peace was "a negotiated final status agreement". He had also indicated that any final status agreement could only be achieved on the basis of "mutually agreed changes". The United Nations supported the need for a negotiated outcome, and urged all parties to engage in substantive dialogue at the earliest opportunity.
With regard to Lebanon, Mr. Gambari said that the situation along the Blue Line had been quiet, but tense. There had been 20 Israeli air violations, as compared with three last month. He continued to call on the parties to fully respect the Blue Line. The Secretary-General's Personal Representative for Lebanon had reminded all interlocutors of the need to take the necessary measures to lower tensions. On 2 May, Lebanon called for the removal of several sand barriers and border police posts, which Syria had established in the vicinity of the Lebanese towns of Ras Baalbeck and Aarsal. Those had been set up apparently to stem smugglers operating in the area. Following bilateral discussions, work had begun on the removal of a number of those posts. That episode showed that progress could be achieved on the basis of direct bilateral consultations between Lebanon and Syria. It also reinforced the need for the delineation of the two countries' borders.
He said that, on 17 May, units of the Lebanese army clashed in the western Beka'a valley with members of an armed Palestinian faction based outside the refugee camps. According to reports, one Lebanese soldier and one Palestinian gunman were wounded. A Lebanese soldier was also briefly held by the Palestinian group. That incident highlighted the importance of implementing the decision taken in the National Dialogue to disarm within six months all Palestinian factions situated outside the camps.
Within Lebanon, the sixth and seventh rounds of the national dialogue took place on 28 April and 16 May, respectively, he said. The question of the President had been discussed in both rounds, but there had been no conclusion. Participants put aside the issue and began a discussion on Hezbollah's weapons and the development of a national defence strategy. That would be taken up when the dialogue reconvened on 8 June. He welcomed and encouraged the stated intention of Lebanese leaders to continue the national dialogue, which was the most effective way to address the critical issues facing the countries. Also welcome was the support of Lebanon's neighbours for that important initiative.
He said that Terje Roed-Larsen had reported to the Council separately on the implementation of resolution 1559, and the Council had recently adopted resolution 1680 (2006) dealing with the need for further action by the relevant parties. In addition, the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission's Serge Brammertz would present his interim report to the Council in early June.
The example set by the Lebanese through their national dialogue was a good one, and the coming dialogue in Palestine could be another example of constructive engagement by the stakeholders in addressing critical issues, he said. The parties in Palestine should make every effort to avoid a further deterioration of the situation. The national dialogue was an opportunity to reassert the goals and institutions shared by all Palestinians and agree on ways to pursue a negotiated two-State solution to the conflict along the lines defined by the Road Map. He sincerely hoped that the dialogue would become a channel for communication and conciliation.
He also reiterated the central importance of negotiations for the future of the political process between Israel and the Palestinians. Unilateral moves "simply cannot resolve issues such as the border between the State of Israel and a future Palestinian State". Those must be mutually agreed; any changes to the 1967 lines could only be set through negotiated agreement. He welcomed last weekend's meeting and the intention of both sides to work together. A two-State solution could only be achieved through negotiations, and its achievement would be an important element of ensuring sustainable peace and security in the region.
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