Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and northern parts of the West Bank marked a “watershed”, constituting the first removal by Israel of settlements on Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Security Council was told this morning.
Briefing the Council on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, Ibrahim Gambari, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said that the disengagement had started on 15 August, as announced. Despite the dramatic scenes everybody had seen on television and in newspapers, of Israeli military and police personnel removing settlers from their houses in Gaza, the operation had mostly proceeded smoothly and with surprising speed, aided by the restraint generally observed by militant Palestinian factions. The evacuation of Israeli settlers from Gaza had been completed on Monday, and evacuation from the settlements earmarked for removal in the northern West Bank had been carried out yesterday. The success of the operation was marred, however, by senseless and unprovoked murders of Palestinians by what Prime Minister Sharon had described as Jewish terrorists in the West Bank.
Regarding the Quartet activities, he said that its envoys had met last week in Jerusalem to assess the situation and prepare for the Quartet principals’ meeting on 20 September at United Nations Headquarters. The meeting would assess the progress of withdrawal and the issues left pending, as outlined by James Wolfensohn, the Quartet Special Envoy for disengagement. The Quartet would also have an opportunity to chart the next steps in pursuance of the vision of two States, Israel and a sovereign, viable, democratic and contiguous Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.
Mr. Gambari further reported that during his four trips to the region before the disengagement, Mr. Wolfensohn had continued to focus on these key issues: border crossings and trade corridors; linking Gaza and the West Bank; movement within the West Bank; the Gaza airport and seaport; and the houses and greenhouses in Israeli settlements. On all those issues, coordination between the Israeli and Palestinian sides had intensified in the last month. While substantial progress had been made in addressing those priorities in the framework of disengagement, much work would be required to bring about agreement on them. Real and difficult challenges still lay ahead in forging common ground between Israelis and Palestinians as peace partners.
Providing the details regarding the disengagement, Mr. Gambari recalled that on 15 August, Mr. Sharon had delivered a prime time televised address, in which he expressed regret that “changing reality in his country, in this region and in the world” required a reassessment and change of position, because “ Gaza cannot be held onto forever”. He alluded to the growth of the Palestinian population there, and their living “in incredibly cramped refugee camps, in poverty and squalor, in hotbeds of ever-increasing hatred, with no hope whatsoever on the horizon”.
Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Israeli police had carried out the operation efficiently, taking pains to avoid the use of force, he continued. For its part, the Palestinian Authority had renewed its commitment to a smooth and peaceful withdrawal. On 9 August, President Abbas had said that “a successful withdrawal and maintaining of security is the responsibility of all Palestinians, so that we can show the world we deserve our freedom and independence.” The Palestinian side’s cooperation had been manifest throughout the evacuation.
He went on to say that a spate of kidnappings of foreigners in the Gaza Strip over the past months reflected a decline in internal security and illustrated the breadth of the problem, which extended beyond armed factions to other family-controlled armed groups. The United Nations had been compelled to increase security measures, but the critical humanitarian, emergency and security staff of the United Nations remained in Gaza, and all operations and delivery of services continued unchanged. On the other hand, renewed commitments to the ceasefire by Palestinian armed groups had led to a significant reduction in the number of Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets. There would be continuing need for international assistance, so that over time, the goal of a robust Palestinian security sector ensuring the “one-authority, one-weapon” policy could be realized.
Two “particularly shocking” recent incidents included an attack on the passengers of a civilian bus in the Arab town of Shfa’Amr by an Israeli soldier who had deserted from the army to protest the disengagement. Four people were killed and at least 12 injured in that attack. On 17 August, an Israeli killed four Palestinians and wounded two others in the industrial area of the West Bank settlement of Shiloh.
While Israel’s bold first withdrawal was welcome, the situation elsewhere in the Occupied Palestinian Territory continued to fester, with many Palestinians fearing that Israel was consolidating its occupation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Of concern in that connection were recent statements by Hamas leaders that they would carry their resistance to the West Bank. Violence as a means to achieve any objective should be rejected. At the same time, it would be unwise to lose sight of the concern of mainstream Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank that their legitimate aspirations may be put off indefinitely.
There were indications that settlement activity in the West Bank had continued during the past month, he said. This year, tenders for the building of 235 housing units in settlements had been issued, most of them near metropolitan Jerusalem. On 4 August, the Housing Ministry had also issued tenders for the building of 72 housing units in the settlement of Betar Ilit. In Jerusalem, a scheme had been approved in July to construct a new Jewish settlement in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
He said that according to press reports, last Sunday, Prime Minister Sharon had confirmed his intention to continue building in the settlement blocs in the West Bank, ensuring a permanent territorial link between Israel and the Ariel settlement and uniting the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim with Jerusalem. Confiscation of land and Israel’s barrier construction had continued throughout the West Bank in the past month. Severe limitations remained on Palestinian movement.
Regarding preparations for Palestinian elections, he said that on 14 August, President Abbas had signed the amendments to the Palestinian Basic Law. The amended election law stipulates that the term of the President of the Palestinian Authority is four years and that Palestinian Legislative Council elections would be held every four years. The next legislative elections would be held on 25 January 2006. Mobile registration teams had, so far, registered a total of roughly 90,000 new electors, and it was expected that the total number of voters would slightly exceed 1.3 million.
Turning to Lebanon, he said that the security situation there remained unstable. On 22 August, for instance, another explosion in Beirut had injured several people and caused extensive material damage to buildings. The Secretary-General had strongly condemned that act of terrorism.
On 30 July, the parliamentary vote of confidence had formally established the new government of Fuad Siniora. The new Government’s policy statement outlined a number of challenging yet essential reforms. The Secretary-General’s Personal Representative for Southern Lebanon, Geir Pedersen, had since called on the President and senior Government officials, reiterating that the United Nations looked forward to working closely with the new Government and offering the Organization’s assistance, as required. Mr. Pedersen had underscored the importance of planning for further deployment of the Lebanese Army throughout southern Lebanon, in accordance with relevant United Nations resolutions. UNIFIL Force Commander, Alain Pellegrini had also met with Lebanese leaders. He emphasized the need to uphold the current calm along the Blue Line and to avoid any provocations.
Israel had demonstrated that it had the requisite maturity to do what would be required to achieve lasting peace, and the IDF had demonstrated their ability to discharge their mission with carefully calibrated restraint, Mr. Gambari said in conclusion. Prime Minister Sharon should be commended for his determination and courage to carry out the disengagement in the face of forceful and strident internal opposition. Under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians were soberly welcoming that important stage in their history. His continued leadership would be needed at a time of rising expectations in Gaza and mounting concern in the West Bank. He called on all Palestinian factions to eschew violence and pursue their goals through peaceful and democratic means.
Neither party should be exempt from its Road Map obligations, he stressed. President Abbas must take up the difficult challenge to transform and develop the security sector and ensure that the Palestinian Authority held the monopoly on the use of force. He would need all possible support from his own people, as well as from Israel and the international community. For its part, Israel should freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank. Creation of new facts on the ground, which prejudiced final status issues, could only but make the search for negotiated solutions far more difficult that they already were.
As the disengagement drew to an end, attention must turn to the aftermath — the “day after” — he said. That would be at the forefront of the Quartet’s agenda next month. It would be necessary to bring the process back into the mainstream laid down in the Road Map, in order to realize the vision of two States living alongside each other, and to achieve a comprehensive and just peace in the region.
The meeting was called to order at 10.14 a.m. and adjourned at 10.37 a.m.
For information media • not an official record