22 April 2005

Middle East Events Continue to Confirm Potential for Peace, Though Process Remains Fragile, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council

Challenge to Parties, International Community Is Ensuring Success of Disengagement From Gaza, He Stresses in Briefing

NEW YORK, 21 April (UN Headquarters) -- Recent events in the Middle East had continued to confirm the potential for peace, but the process was still fragile, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs warned this morning in his regular briefing to the Security Council.

Under-Secretary-General Kieran Prendergast said that against that background, Israel was preparing to withdraw from settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, which would be a landmark in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The challenge for the parties and the international community was to ensure that the disengagement happened, thus contributing to the momentum for peace and offering a real opportunity to revitalize the process.

For that to happen, both parties must be encouraged to resume contacts and work together to prepare for the withdrawal, he said. Coordination, cooperation and agreement between them, with the international community’s active support, were needed to achieve a successful disengagement that would lead to further steps in the implementation of the Road Map and towards realizing the end goal -- ending the occupation that began in 1967, and establishing a sovereign, democratic, viable and contiguous Palestinian State living side by side with a secure Israel.

Despite support from the Knesset (Parliament) and the majority of Israelis, some elements had increased their protests and incitement against the Government and Prime Minister, vowing active resistance to the disengagement, he said. On the Palestinian side, both President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei had announced that the Palestinian Authority was prepared to coordinate the withdrawal with Israel, despite the Authority’s political concerns about the plan. Although both sides have voiced their willingness to cooperate, reports suggested that their readiness had not yet been sufficiently translated into practice.

Coordination and cooperation would be needed even more in the challenging transition period once disengagement was complete, he said. The Palestinian Authority and newly-elected municipalities in Gaza must deal with a deeply impoverished population, in which tribal and family ties had re-emerged strongly. Immediate challenges for the Authority and civil society included rebuilding the rule of law and a respected security sector that could reassert its monopoly over the use of force, a characteristic of any functioning State. Despite the doubts and difficult challenges ahead, the hope and optimism of the past months remained, confirmed by the continued overall decline in casualties, violence and military operations. However, indicators on the ground, especially the apparent failure to break the tendency towards “retributive violence”, suggested that the current situation was fragile.

Israel justified its continuation of military incursions, arrest campaigns, curfews, and movement restrictions as necessary to confront and pre-empt security threats, he said. Palestinian leaders claimed they were taking action against militants, but acknowledged that the process was slow and difficult. Internally, Al-Aqsa militants had become the main disrupters of law and order, threatening Palestinian Authority officials and ordinary citizens. President Abbas had declared a state of alert and begun reshuffling West Bank security forces. He had subsequently announced his intention to disarm Fatah militants on Israel’s wanted list and proposed their integration into the Palestinian Authority’s security agencies.

There was also much that Israel could do to support rather than hinder President Abbas’ ability to take difficult steps, he continued. The relevant confidence-building measures were clearly laid out in the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings, and in Phase One of the Road Map. Against the background of unmet Road Map obligations and insufficient progress on the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings, the joint Israeli-Palestinian committees dealing with fugitives, prisoners and the transfer of major urban centres in the West Bank had not meet in the past month. Security control had not been transferred in any of the Palestinian cities during that period, and neither had any prisoners been released. Those required steps were part and parcel of the wider process to coordinate and move forward together.

He emphasized that one of Israel’s primary obligations under the Road Map, and an important confidence-building measure, was the requirement to halt all settlement activity, including natural growth, and the dismantling of settlement outposts erected since March 2001. It was a matter of great concern that, despite strong international objections, Prime Minister Sharon had publicly reiterated his commitment to the eventual implementation of the E1 plan aimed at connecting Jerusalem with the largest West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim. In addition, the Israeli Lands Authority had announced on 18 April that it was inviting bids for the construction of 50 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Elkana.

The fragile nature of the current situation was reflected in the Palestinian economy, which, despite modest improvements, was still in a state of crisis, he said. Unemployment remained high, at a rate between 36 and 41 per cent in the Gaza Strip. Israeli measures to ease closures had not yet had positive effects on those rates, although the month of March had brought an improvement in trade flows between Israel and Gaza. On the fiscal front, the Palestinian Legislative Council had approved the delayed budget plan for 2005 on 30 March. The budget aimed for fiscal revenues to the extent of $1 billion, though donor support would have to cover a deficit of more than $1.17 billion. About 60 per cent of the budget would be allocated for Palestinian Authority wages and salaries.

Turning to Lebanon, he said there had been a number of important developments. Particularly worrying were a number of bombings that had caused great anxiety among the population. Since the last briefing, there had been further two explosions. Following the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami on 13 April, Najib Mikati had been appointed Prime Minister-designate on 15 April. On 19 April, he had announced a new 14-member cabinet that was expected to be put to a parliamentary vote of confidence shortly. The new cabinet’s main tasks would be to draft an electoral law that was acceptable to all, and to oversee parliamentary elections.

He said that on 7 April, the Security Council had adopted resolution 1595 (2005), establishing the International Independent Investigation Commission into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Lebanese Government had undertaken to extend its full cooperation and support to the Commission, whose work in Lebanon was expected to begin shortly.

On south Lebanon, he noted that overall calm seemed to have prevailed along the Blue Line for some time. However, violations of the Line had continued to take place, mostly in the form of recurring air violations by Israel and also by Hezbollah. The increased air activity from both sides created an additional concern in the risks posed to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) helicopter patrols along the Blue Line.

The meeting began at 10:17 a.m. and ended at 10:40 a.m.

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