21 February 2001



NEW YORK, 20 February (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of a message from Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the opening today of the United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People in Vienna, delivered on the Secretary-General’s behalf by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast:

As you meet today to discuss the crucial issue of assistance to the Palestinian people, I have to express my utmost concern at the deepening spiral of violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory that began in September. I appeal strongly to all concerned to exercise maximum restraint so as to prevent a further escalation, which could have very serious consequences for the entire region.

Following the initial outbreak of violence, efforts were made by the international community to put an end to the crisis and protect the lives of civilians. The understandings reached at Sharm el-Sheikh in October were an important step in that direction. Although the situation on the ground remained critical, we were all much encouraged to see senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators making progress on some core issues, such as refugees, Jerusalem, borders and security, during their talks at Taba. It was the latest step in a long and arduous process which began at Madrid in 1991 and has seen such milestones as the 1993 Oslo accords and subsequent understandings and agreements, including Camp David last July. The dramatic upheavals of the past several months and the tragic loss of life have underlined the urgency of reaching a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine on the basis of Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973).

Over the years, the international community has offered its support to the Palestinian people and provided significant economic assistance, resulting in some improvement in the living conditions and in the physical, as well as institutional, infrastructure in the Palestinian areas. However, as indicated in my July 2000 report on assistance to the Palestinian people, a worrying decline in both new commitments and reimbursements has become evident in recent years, despite the continuing challenges and the special needs that lie ahead.

Events since September last have had an extremely damaging effect on the Palestinian economy and have reversed the achievements of several years of economic recovery and progress. In fact, repeated border and internal closures have led to a dramatic deterioration in the living conditions of the Palestinians, whose economy is largely dependent on that of Israel.

I was briefed very recently by Terje Røed Larsen, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and my Personal Representative to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, on the impact of the conflict, border closures and other restrictions on the Palestinian economy and society. These restrictive measures deprive the Palestinian Authority of necessary financial resources and further aggravate the serious economic and social crisis in the occupied territory.

In these very difficult circumstances, I am gravely concerned about the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to continue to function. I have raised this matter with Prime Minister-elect Sharon, as well as other international leaders, including United States Secretary of State Powell and European Commission President Prodi. I have also instructed Mr. Røed Larsen to undertake wide-ranging and urgent consultations with a view to preventing such a destabilizing outcome.

Regrettably, today’s urgent requirement for humanitarian and relief assistance has taken precedence over medium- and long-term development needs. This is a big step backwards in economic terms, and it requires urgent attention on the part of the international community.

The United Nations remains in the forefront of efforts aimed at alleviating the hardships of the Palestinian people. Agencies such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and many others continue their work in the region, adjusting the focus of their activities as required by the circumstances.

For half a century, UNRWA has been providing a broad range of essential services to some 3.7 million Palestinians registered with it. I would like to use this occasion once again to call on donors to support UNRWA’s activities by contributing the resources required to keep up with the rising needs of the refugee community. Donor assistance is especially vital now, at a time of crisis and dire economic hardship.

Over the years, the United Nations development system has rendered extensive multilateral and bilateral assistance to the Palestinian people. UNDP, often in cooperation with other United Nations agencies and individual donor governments, has been involved in a wide range of development and rehabilitation projects and programmes, targeted at, among other things, poverty alleviation, capacity-building, institutional development, healthcare, agriculture and the environment.

Terje Røed Larsen and his office - the Office of the Special Coordinator for the Middle East (UNSCO) -- have been working closely with the various parties in the region in support of the peace process. Monitoring the economic situation and coordinating the provision of assistance continues to be a key objective. The Humanitarian Task Force for Emergency Needs, headed by UNSCO, has been instrumental in addressing urgent humanitarian needs. The contribution of international donors, always essential, has today taken on even greater importance.

The international community must continue to assist the parties in their quest for peace and reconciliation. Moreover, it must intensify its efforts to provide support and all the necessary forms of assistance to the Palestinian people, until a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the question of Palestine is achieved. The United Nations family will continue to stand by the parties in their efforts to bring peace and stability to the region.

This Seminar is an important step in this direction and comes at a very opportune moment. I would like to congratulate the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People on its initiative to convene the Seminar. I regret the fact that the invited Palestinian speakers, including high-ranking officials of the Palestinian Authority, were unable to come to Vienna, due to the closures and travel restrictions. This further illustrates the urgent need to normalize the situation. I call, yet again, on the parties to exercise maximum restraint and caution and to intensify their search for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.

Let me conclude by wishing you the best of success in your deliberations in the course of the Seminar.

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