14 February 2003

Best Path Towards Middle East Peace Remains Quartet's Road Map, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council

NEW YORK, 13 February (UN Headquarters) -- Without the prospect of some forward movement on the political front, it was difficult to envisage how the current cycle of violence and counter-violence in the Middle East could be stopped, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Kieran Prendergast, told the Security Council this morning.

Briefing the Council on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, he said the situation in the Middle East remained very serious. The best path forward towards ensuring the security of Israelis and Palestinians and achieving a comprehensive regional peace remained moving forward with the Quartet's road map. The longer its implementation was delayed, the farther apart Israel and the Palestinians would move and the longer it would take for them to build the trust and confidence that was a prerequisite for their mutual security and a just and comprehensive settlement.

Since his last statement on 16 January, violence between Israelis and Palestinians had continued unabated, resulting in further loss of life, injury and destruction, he said. Some 65 Palestinians and seven Israelis had been killed, bringing the death toll since the outbreak of the second "Intifadah" in 2000 to more than 2,300 Palestinians and nearly 700 Israelis. On 25 January, after a number of Qassam rockets were fired by Palestinians on Israeli communities, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had entered Gaza City in its biggest operation in the Gaza Strip since September 2000, which left 13 Palestinians dead and scores injured. Moreover, the humanitarian crisis in the occupied Palestinian territory was worsening.

He said that the Secretary-General was deeply disturbed at the mounting death toll and was gravely concerned for the future of both Israeli and Palestinian peoples, as well as the wider Middle East region, if death and destruction were not replaced by peace and reconciliation. Developments in the past month left little cause for optimism and no room for complacency.

On the political side, Israeli parliamentary elections on 28 January had resulted in a substantial increase in seats for the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party. Mr. Sharon had now been requested by President Katzav to form a new Government. The new Israeli Government could be assured of the cooperation and full support of the international community for taking steps that would move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict towards the two-State solution envisaged in Security Council resolution 1397 to achieve peace and security for both peoples.

He welcomed reports about a private meeting last week between Mr. Sharon and Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmed Qurei. That would hopefully mark the beginning of a renewed dialogue between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority towards reaching a cease-fire understanding.

Palestinian civilians often bore the brunt of Israel's military operations, he said. Israel had the right to defend itself, but it must do so within the parameters of international law. As the occupying Power, Israel had particular responsibilities, which were clearly defined in the Fourth Geneva Convention. Regrettably, Israel's actions were all too frequently at odds with those responsibilities.

He expressed concern, for example, over continued demolition of Palestinian homes. In the Hebron area, the IDF incursion on 30 January had resulted in the demolition of 22 Palestinian houses. Those were measures of collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law. He also reminded Israel of its obligations for the well-being of the Palestinian population under the Fourth Geneva Convention in connection with continued closures and curfews, which caused the deterioration of economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and hampered the work of the international donor community.

Since his last briefing, attacks by Palestinian groups had claimed the lives of seven Israelis, including one civilian, he said. Israel also continued to report interceptions of suicide bombers attempting to enter its territory. The Secretary-General had consistently condemned terrorist attacks as morally repugnant. Terrorism also undermined the pursuit of legitimate Palestinian national aspirations and was an obstacle to resuming a sustainable peace process.

He went on to welcome the efforts of the Government of Egypt to encourage the dialogue through meetings it hosted in Cairo and called on the parties to facilitate the continuation and fruitful conclusion of that dialogue.

Regarding the humanitarian situation, he said that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had warned that by the end of next month, the organization was in danger of running out of resources to feed 1.1 million people in the occupied Palestinian territory. UNRWA's $94 million appeal had gone largely unheeded. Mr. Prendergast called on the international community to respond generously to UNRWA's appeal. Although the primary solution to the humanitarian crisis lay in lifting curfews and closures, donor support was essential for meeting immediate needs.

He said there were a few tentative signs of hope. The Palestinian reform process continued to progress. Prime Minister Blair's meeting in London last month on the issue of Palestinian reform would be followed by a meeting of Quartet envoys, a meeting of the Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee on international assistance to the Palestinian people, and meetings of the Task Force on Palestinian Reform -- all to take place in London from 18 to 20 February. The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Terje Roed-Larsen, and Quartet envoys from the European Union and the Russian Federation had met with Chairman Arafat and senior officials of the Palestinian Authority on 11 February, calling for bold and immediate steps to facilitate security and institutional reforms ahead of the meetings.

Turning to the situation between Israel and Lebanon, he said along the "Blue Line", tension had increased after almost five months of relative calm, with Hezbollah targeting IDF positions in the Shab'a farms area with mortars and missiles. Noting that in June 2000 Israel had withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in accordance with Council resolution 425, he said the Lebanese Government should fulfill its responsibility to maintain calm along the whole length of the line. Israeli warplanes continued to violate the Blue Line and Lebanese airspace. The Wazzani/Hasbani water issue also continued to be a source of tension. The Lebanese Government had expressed its willingness to find a solution through the good offices of the Secretary-General. The Government of Israel, however, still had not expressed its wish to use the United Nations good offices.

A shooting incident on 8 January in the Golan Heights had resulted in the death of a Syrian soldier, he said, commending both Israel and Syria on their handling of that incident. However, that incident had served as a reminder of the great sensitivity of the Golan area. Both sides must act with the utmost caution and with full respect for the terms of the Disengagement Agreement.

The meeting started at 10:11 a.m. and adjourned at 10:35 a.m.

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