Stressing the concern of the United Nations over Israel’s failure thus far to dismantle settlement outposts and freeze settlement expansion, Kieran Prendergast, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, told the Security Council this morning that Israeli settlement policy could not be separated from the issue of the barrier under construction in the West Bank.
Delivering his monthly briefing on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, he said that the approved route of the barrier still incorporated a significant percentage of Palestinian land and had a negative effect on the livelihoods of many Palestinians. While Israel had stated that the barrier was a temporary structure to meet security needs, no one could observe its scope and route without being concerned over possible implications for the contiguity of the future PalestinianState.
Recalling that the Israeli Government’s recent report on outposts had found that various ministries, as well as the Israeli Defence Force and the World Zionist Organization, had supported construction of unauthorized outposts, he noted that the Cabinet had approved that report on 13 March, including the core recommendation that the Government take into its hands responsibility for what was happening in the outposts and not sit on the sidelines watching the settlers do whatever they wished. Yet, there had also been unofficial reports this week of a government decision to approve the building of at least 3,500 new settlement housing units this year, linking the major settlement of Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem.
Emphasizing that the Road Map stated clearly that Israel should dismantle outposts and freeze settlement activity, he noted also that the 25 February suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which had left five Israelis dead and injured more than 50, was a tragic reminder of the fragility of the peace process. The Secretary-General had condemned this attack and had called on the Palestinian Authority to take action against those organizing and perpetrating terror and violence.
The Quartet position was that neither the Israelis nor Palestinians should undertake actions that threatened to prejudge final status talks, he continued. While reiterating that Israel should abide by its legal obligations as set forth in the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice and the General Assembly’s resolution ES-10/15, and find alternative ways to address its legitimate security concerns, he also noted that a halt to violence and military operations, as announced by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at their 8 February Sharm el-Sheikh Summit, would be difficult to achieve, especially with militant extremists whose agenda was to derail the peace process.
Implementation of the commitments made at Sharm el-Sheikh continued, but not as quickly as the initial steps reported in last month’s briefing, he said. Only on 16 March had outstanding issues related to the handover of Jericho –- the first of five West Bank cities and their environs to be transferred to Palestinian control –- been fully resolved. Tulkarem had been handed over on 21 March after similar delays. Difficulties remained regarding negotiations on the transfer of Bethlehem, Qalqiliya and Ramallah, while the transfer of Nablus, Jenin and Hebron had been left for discussion at a later date.
He said that the Secretary-General’s recent visit to the region had confirmed his belief that Palestinians and Israelis had taken the first steps along the road towards a full resumption of the peace process. He had come away with feelings of cautious hope and optimism, but also with the sense that setbacks and delays were inevitable. The Israeli Government had emphasized that its overriding concern was for the Palestinian Authority to move from words to action in taking steps to bring to justice those who organized and perpetrated terrorist acts. On the other hand, Palestinian leaders had stressed equally strongly the urgent need to ease the daily suffering of their people and expressed frustration over Israel’s refusal to cease closures significantly or to release large numbers of prisoners, particularly those who carried weight and significance among Palestinians. Without such confidence-building steps, they would be unable to consolidate popular support for the peace process.
The Israeli disengagement plan had been the subject of much discussion, he said, adding that the Secretary-General had been left with a strong impression of Prime Minister Sharon’s determination to proceed with the plan, even in the face of serious domestic opposition. The United Nations continued to welcome and support the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank. The Secretary-General had reiterated the position of the United Nations and the Quarter that withdrawal was not an end in itself, but an important step in a broader process, and should be consistent with the Road Map and its goals.
Turning to the situation in Lebanon, he said the country had been beset by political uncertainty following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 19 others on 14 February. Ten days after the 28 February resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami’s Government, President Emile Lahoud had asked Mr. Karami to form a new government, but he had not yet been able to meet his goal of forming a government of national unity with the opposition.
With regard to the situation in southern Lebanon, he said, the last two months had been relatively calm, though Israeli air violations of the Blue Line had regrettably continued to occur. On 17 March, there was a sudden increase in the number of over-flights when nine air violations, involving 10 jets, were recorded and reported to have covered wide areas of southern Lebanon.
The meeting began at 10:25 a.m. and ended at 10:45 a.m.