Israeli-Palestinian peace climate vastly improved but threats persist, Security Council told

Kieran Prendergast, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, addressing the Security Council. (UN/Ky Chung)

People across the Middle East had had their hopes rekindled for progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians, while, at the same time, had been outraged by the cold-blooded terror attack in Lebanon that took the life of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and others, the Security Council was told this afternoon.

Kieran Prendergast, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, in his monthly briefing on the situation in the region, said the hope flowed from the summit meeting between President Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon in Sharm el-Sheikh on 8 February, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in the presence of Jordan’s King Abdullah. At that meeting, President Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon reaffirmed their commitment to the “Road Map”. Signalling their desire to break away from bloodshed and despair, the two leaders agreed that “all Palestinians would stop all acts of violence against Israelis everywhere” and that “Israel would cease all its military activity against all Palestinians everywhere”.

Both parties had since taken actions to keep up the momentum generated by the summit, he said. The Israeli Government had announced that it would release 900 prisoners and withdraw from five West Bank cities and the surrounding areas. On 21 February, 500 Palestinian prisoners were released, and negotiations to resolve impediments to the Israeli withdrawal were continuing. He commended Israel’s decision to halt punitive house demolitions. Israel had also reopened the three crossing points into Gaza — Erez, Rafah and Karni — after temporarily closing them in the wake of Palestinian attacks. Moreover, Israel announced that it was issuing more work permits, bringing the total number of workers authorized to enter Israel via Erez to 1,600.

On the Palestinian side, President Abbas had acted courageously to end violence, he stated. In the past month, the Palestinian Authority had deployed 1,000 security officers along the Gaza Strip’s northern border with Israel, and hundreds more in the central and southern districts of Gaza. President Abbas had also relieved three top security commanders in Gaza of their duties following a raid by militants against a Palestinian Authority prison in Gaza, during which three inmates were killed, and the firing of dozens of mortar shells against Israeli settlements on 10 February. Fulfilling an important obligation under the Road Map, Abu Mazen also restructured the security services into three main branches — the national forces, the intelligence forces, and the police — all of which would report to the Palestinian Prime Minister.

Together, those steps demonstrated President Abbas’ determination to prevent future attacks, he continued. An important result of his efforts came on 12 February, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad agreed to a temporary ceasefire. He called on those groups to eschew terror and armed confrontation with Israel and to choose the peaceful, democratic road of negotiations and political activism. The path taken by President Abbas would not be easy. If he was to prevail against those who favour violence over peace, he would need strong support from both Israel and the international community.

In addition to the positive steps taken by each party, he was most encouraged by the resumption of direct engagement between them. Most significantly, Prime Minister Sharon had reiterated his readiness to coordinate with the Palestinians the Disengagement Plan from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank, and the first meetings to that effect had taken place. He commended Prime Minister Sharon’s steady commitment to disengagement in the face of a serious escalation in threats and protests from his domestic opponents. In an important decision, on 20 February, the Israeli cabinet approved in principle the evacuation of settlements under the Plan. The Knesset also demonstrated support for the Prime Minister by passing, on 16 February, the Compensation and Evacuation Law, an essential step in carrying out the withdrawal plan.

While there had been many positive developments, he noted, the conflict continued and brought with it an unacceptable toll of death and suffering. Over the past month, 54 Palestinians and eight Israelis were killed, and 150 Palestinians and 46 Israelis were injured, among them a 17-year-old Israeli girl who was critically wounded, and later died, as a result of attacks by Palestinian militants, and a 10-year-old Palestinian girl killed by Israeli fire in the yard of an United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) school.

Despite the vastly improved political climate, most movement restrictions for Palestinians remained in place, Mr. Prendergast continued, including checkpoints, curfews and the permit system. “The lack of improvement in the daily life of ordinary Palestinians poses a serious threat to the viability of a renewed peace process”, he said. Closure continued to impact on humanitarian operations, as well.

On 20 February, the Israeli cabinet approved the revised route of the barrier in the West Bank, which, though moved closer to the “Green Line”, still incorporated a large amount of Palestinian land. To the south of Jerusalem, the new route surrounds four Palestinian villages with some 18,000 residents. Barrier activity also intensified in the Jerusalem area, where a large number of confiscation orders have been served to land owners.

He urged the Government of Israel to address its legitimate security needs in ways that did not increase suffering among Palestinians, pre-judge final status issues or threaten the longer-term prospects for peace by making the creation of a viable and contiguous PalestinianState more difficult. He also called on Israel to abide by its legal obligations, as set forth in the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice and General Assembly resolution ES-10/15.

The international community had come together in support of the new momentum, he said. The Quartet principals would meet on the margins of the London Conference on 1 March. That Conference would bring together the members of the Quartet, the Group of Eight (G-8), a range of key donors and the Palestinian Authority. The Secretary-General would also attend. Prime Minister Qurei would present the Palestinian Authority’s reform agenda and mechanisms would be assessed to help the Palestinians lay the groundwork for an independent, sovereign, viable, contiguous and democratic State. The Conference would also offer an opportunity to provide urgently needed funds for short-term assistance. By the end of January, the Authority had received only $25 million out of a total of $660 million pledged for the year.

Turning to the “atrocious terrorist attack” that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 14 others, he said the Secretary-General had selected a team, headed by Peter Fitzgerald, a senior law enforcement official of Ireland, to gather such information as necessary for the Secretary-General to report to the Council in a timely manner.

On 14 and 17 January, Hezbollah had detonated explosive devices along the “Blue Line” in Lebanon. In response to the attacks, Israel had carried out air strikes against Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon. A total of 30 Israeli over-flights had been recorded during the past month. He reiterated that those air violations must cease.

“By their meeting in Sharm el-Sheik and the measures taken subsequently, Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas have stirred widespread hope that Israelis and Palestinians might finally be on the path to peace”, he said. They had effectively restarted the process to implement the provisions of the Road Map. “We are convinced that 2005 is a year of opportunity. We fervently hope that, as United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it, the international community will help the parties to transform opportunity into achievement”, he said in conclusion.

The meeting began at 3:12 p.m. and adjourned at 3:30 p.m.

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