Israeli-Palestinian relations bedevilled by lack of framework – UN envoy (1/3)

UN Middle East Envoy Alvaro De Soto. (UN/Devra Berkowitz)

While it is essential for both Israel and the Palestinians not to lose sight of the immediate goal – Israel’s disengagement from Gaza – relations between the two sides are being marred because no agreed framework exists for that pull-out, or for what will happen next, a senior United Nations envoy told the Security Council today. The Security Council met today to consider the Middle East, including the question of Palestine, on the request of Kuwait, submitted in a letter to the Council’s President, dated 19 July.


Alvaro de Soto, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General, said the forthcoming Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank continued to overshadow all other issues. Disengagement was an important step forward: withdrawal from the OccupiedTerritory, albeit partial and on terms largely set by the occupier, was a positive, precedent-setting step and one that the entire international community could not but support. It offered, moreover, an opportunity to re-energize the Road Map. “It is a moment pregnant with hope but also fraught with peril”, he said.

Regarding Quartet engagement and activities, he said the Quartet had met in recent weeks to review the situation at the current critical time. The Quartet continued to consider the Road Map and the two-State vision the best way to achieve a permanent peace and an end to the occupation that began in 1967. It condemned the upsurge in violence in Gaza and urged both parties to prevent any escalation of violence, so that the Israeli withdrawal could proceed peacefully. The Quartet also reiterated its full support for its Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement, James Wolfensohn, and his efforts to assist the non-security aspects of disengagement and the revival of the Palestinian economy. The Quartet was intensifying its monitoring of the situation.

He noted that Mr. Wolfensohn’s efforts were focusing on a set of six key issues. They included: border crossings and trade corridors; connecting Gaza with the West Bank; movement within the West Bank; the Gaza airport and seaport; the houses in Israeli settlements; and the greenhouses and dairy industry in the settlements. He also pointed out three essential areas the Palestinians should address, namely the Palestinian Authority’s fiscal crisis and development of a fiscal stabilization plan for incorporation into the 2006 budget, the creation of a broad development plan linked to fiscally sound financial plan for 2006-2008, and design of a package of quick-impact economic programmes that would provide an adequate response to demands for employment generation in the short term.

The last weeks had seen a gradual erosion of the informal quasi-ceasefire that had prevailed since the Sharm el-Sheikh summit and President Abbas’ Cairo agreement with Palestinian factions, he said. Palestinian militants had staged a number of attacks with mortar and Qassam rocket fire against Israeli settlements, as well as urban centres inside Israel. Following the gradual increase in violence in the last ten days, Israel was taking more forceful action. A suicide bombing on 12 July in Netanya, that had killed five Israelis and wounded many others, had prompted Israeli forces to enter the West Bank City of Tulkarem, which in turn led to a firefight in which two armed Palestinians, one of them a member of the security forces, had been killed. In the following days, the violence escalated further, with Israel, breaking the restraint observed in the past few months, resuming its earlier practice of targeted killings with the stated intention of preventing terrorist operations.

The Palestinian Authority had been hard-pressed to establish law and order in both the West Bank and Gaza, he said. President Abbas had reiterated his commitment to work towards “one authority, one gun”, a clear pledge to assert the Palestinian Authority’s monopoly on the use of force. A number of worrying incidents had underscored the imperative and urgency for the Palestinian Authority to assert its control and end violence and internal unrest. But the Palestinian Authority had lately shown the resolve to confront militants challenging its authority and to live up to its obligations under the Road Map to end the violence and begin dismantling terrorist capabilities. On 23 June, a deal had been reached involving the handover of weapons by more than 200 militants in Nablus, after earlier such deals had been reached and partially implemented in Tulkarem and Jericho.

Turning to Palestinian Authority elections, he said that on 18 June, the Palestinian Legislative Council had passed, with a significant majority, a new election law introducing the amendments proposed by President Abbas. The President had asked the Council, on 27 June, to amend the Basic Law in order to create the position of Vice-President. No official decision had yet been announced concerning the date of the elections for the legislature, but the target appears to be January 2006.

Concerning Israeli disengagement preparations, he said domestic preparations for withdrawal continued at rapid pace. The Israeli authorities had had to deal with protest and demonstrations, efficaciously clearing a building in Gaza taken over by extremists opposed to disengagement. On 3 July, the cabinet had overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to postpone the withdrawal, thus underlining again that the Government remained committed to the implementation of its plan, without delay. Following that vote, the Knesset, with an equally clear majority, had rejected three bills calling for a delay of the withdrawal on 19 July, amidst prolonged protest and demonstrations by those opposing disengagement and attempting to march on the Gaza settlement block of Gush Katif.

On settlement activity, he said there was considerable evidence that settlement activity continued. New tenders had been published, most recently on 6 July, when the construction of 18 housing units in Elkana had been publicized. Concerning barrier construction, Israel had shown continued and accelerated construction of its barrier in the West Bank. On 10 July, the Israeli cabinet had approved the remaining details of the route of the barrier around Jerusalem, which was projected to cut off some 55,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from the rest of the city. The Government had also decided on 1 September as the new deadline for the completion of the barrier around Jerusalem.

Providing personal observations, barely six weeks after taking up his current assignment, he said Israel’s disengagement from Gaza dominated the agenda less then one month before the announced starting date. Some commentators had struck an incongruous parallel between rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian militants in Gaza against Israelis and the less lethal, but particularly strident, physical effort of Israeli disengagement opponents to impede the implementation of the decision. They had only in common only that they were rear-guard efforts at obstructing a move that was viewed positively by clear majorities on both sides.

The driving force behind the Israeli Government’s decision to remove settlers from Gaza and to end the Israeli presence there was Israel’s own interest, he said. Prime Minister Sharon described Gaza evacuation as “vital” to Israel. In the classic calculus that a win for one side was a loss for the other, satisfying an Israeli interest might strike some Palestinians as a loss, judging from their efforts to jeopardize it. How could the dismantling of Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian territory — the first ever — be anything but a gain for the Palestinian side, offering as it did, the prospect of an early and tangible improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians and a return, via the
Road Map, to substantive peace efforts? he asked.

While the deterioration of the informal ceasefire was profoundly disquieting, there had been encouraging developments since late last week, consisting of the actions of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces to take vigorous action to restore law and order and to intercept militants preparing to attack Israelis. President Abbas’ forceful address to his people last week was a most welcome display of leadership. He had no doubt regarding the determination of Israel’s Government to proceed unswervingly with disengagement. Israeli authorities had been given clear evidence that they would not allow Israeli extremists to prevent the plan from being carried out. At the current time, it was essential not to lose sight of the overall goal.

The unease, suspicion and cynicism that had bedevilled Israeli-Palestinian relations could be attributed, in large part, to the fact that the disengagement was not taking place within an unequivocally agreed framework for the next steps towards the overall solution to which both sides claimed adherence, that was, two States living alongside each other in peace. Israelis needed to be assured of their security, while Palestinians needed to be provided with hope. Beyond the tangible improvement in their daily lives, the intangible element of a perspective for the future would be critical to instilling that hope.

It was of paramount importance that stability be preserved and that the Palestinian Authority be empowered to successfully counter militancy and extremism, he said. Such empowerment would also be an element of central significance in the preparations to take control over the areas from where Israel was withdrawing. Israel could do more to support the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to reign in militants. Both the Authority and Israel had homework to do: the Authority had to continue exerting control; while Israel had to strengthen the hand of the moderate forces and enable the Authority to impose itself successfully. One area in which Israel could take the initiative was meeting its parallel obligations under the Road Map, in accordance with which Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including through natural growth, and immediately dismantle all settlement outpost erected since March 2001.

It was equally important, he added, that Israel take steps to meet its legal obligations related to the barrier. The broader implementation of the Road Map and the eventual realization of the two-State solution, as outlined in Council resolution 1397 (2002), must remain the goal. In sum, while there had been a perilous turn back to the abyss in the past month, there were some glimmers in the last week that might point to a new beginning.