Briefing the Security Council this morning on the situation in the Middle East, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast said he regretted to have had to deliver such a melancholy briefing, full of death and destruction and human misery, adding that surely the people of Israel and Palestine deserved better news.
The statistics were grim, he reported, noting that over the last month, 128 Palestinians and 19 Israelis had been killed and hundreds more injured. The Israeli army had demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes, in breach of its international obligations. Economic conditions continued to worsen still further, bringing yet more suffering and deepening the prevailing despair. The humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, although stable, was at a very low point, with visible signs of donor fatigue and a severe shortage of finances for humanitarian assistance efforts. Elsewhere in the region, along the Blue Line, violations had threatened to disrupt a precarious stability.
Deadlock still prevailed at the political level, he said. In the last briefing, Terje Roed-Larsen, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Special Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority, had described the political crossroads ahead of the parties, whose choices would determine the foreseeable future of the peace effort in the Middle East. There was a better way, and that was the Road Map. It was not new, but it was viable, once the leadership on both sides had the vision and courage to start following it in good faith and with determination, and to continue along it to the very end.
He suggested some points relevant to a way out of the impasse. First, the idea of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip seemed to have gained momentum and looked more likely now than before. Second, there was agreement in the international community that withdrawal from Gaza should be carried out in a way that made it an end of the occupation and signalled a new beginning for the peace process. Third, all parties had a stake and responsibilities in that regard; the Government of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, regional players, the Quartet and the Security Council. Their roles and responsibilities had been detailed in the last briefing by Mr. Roed-Larsen.
If Israel pulled out from the Strip while retaining control over the crossings and sealing off Gaza, while at the same time, a weakened Palestinian Authority failed to maintain law and order, and the international community refrained from footing the bill for the consequences of such a scenario, nothing less than a humanitarian disaster would hit Gaza, which could then become a hub for terror and chaos, he said. No doubt, that was a worst-case scenario - but that was one that should be kept in mind while urging the parties to follow the right path, he warned.
He said the Quartet had set out principles for the success of the Gaza withdrawal initiative; namely, that it should be complete, it must lead to an end to the occupation of Gaza, and that it must be accompanied by similar steps in the West Bank as a beginning, not an end, of a process carrying the potential of restarting the peace process. The Quartet had expressed its readiness to engage with a reformed, reorganized and accountable Palestinian Authority, with an empowered Prime Minister and Cabinet, which was committed to reforming and to combating violence and terrorism. None of those requirements was new or imposed. They were requirements of the Road Map, embraced by the Palestinian Authority and President Yasser Arafat himself.
The meeting began at 10:16 a.m. and adjourned at 10:43 a.m.
EXTENDED SUMMARY OF BRIEFING
KIERAN PRENDERGAST, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said that since the Secretariat’s last briefing to the Council on 23 April, the situation in the Middle East had been characterized by growing violence, destruction and despair. On Wednesday, the Council had addressed the crisis in its resolution 1544 (2004). Two points to emphasize from that text were the need for the Government of Israel to ensure that it stayed within the parameters of international law in defending its citizens, and the need for both parties immediately to implement their obligations under the Road Map.
Over the last month, 128 Palestinians and 19 Israelis had been killed and hundreds more injured, he said. The Israeli army had demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes, in breach of its obligations under international law. Economic conditions continued to worsen still further, bringing yet more suffering and deepening the prevailing despair. The humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, although stable, was at a very low point, with visible signs of donor fatigue and a severe shortage of finances for humanitarian assistance efforts. Elsewhere in the region, along the Blue Line, violations had threatened to disrupt a precarious stability.
He said that the international community, led by the Quartet, had recently reiterated its commitment to finding a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to assisting both Israelis and Palestinians out of the current morass through the implementation of the Road Map. The Quartet’s meeting at United Nations Headquarters on 4 May had articulated that strong commitment. The Quartet Principals had reiterated that the parties must negotiate all final status issues such as borders and refugees, and that such negotiations must be based on the terms of reference of the peace process, including relevant Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.
The Quartet had urged the Government of Israel to dismantle, immediately and without further delay, all settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and to move towards a full settlement freeze, including a freeze on natural growth. The Quartet had expressed its grave concern over the course and the consequences of the barrier, despite Israel’s pledge that it would be temporary and for security - not political - purposes. Finally, the Quartet Principals had started discussion of an action plan designed to move the parties ahead to help them in meeting their obligations.
Reminding the Council that action by the international community or the Quartet was no substitute for steps by the parties, he said that solutions were implemented only when the parties themselves decided to do so. In the case at hand, deadlocks and paralysis continued to prevent the parties from taking the courageous decisions needed to being moving along the Road Map.
In Israel earlier this month, he recalled, a majority of the Likud Party had voted against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s initiative to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. Support for the withdrawal had been demonstrated by the tens of thousands of Israelis who had taken to the streets of Tel Aviv and by opinion polls that showed strong support for a Gaza pull-out. Unfortunately, the ensuing internal debate had cast a shadow over the more fundamental issues: the nature, scope and terms of a Gaza withdrawal and its relationship to the implementation of the Road Map.
During that period, he said, Israeli settlement expansion had continued unabated in Gaza and the West Bank, prompting Palestinians to wonder if all the talks about settlement evacuation had been a cover-up for more expansion. Reports estimated the number of inhabitants of the outposts erected since March 2001 at 2,000, with some of the outposts connected by roads, electricity and water supplies. Those outposts should have been dismantled upon the release of the Road Map.
Together with settlement expansion, the construction of the barrier continued to erode Palestinian territory and Palestinian hope, he said. According to the best estimates of the latest Israeli construction plans, the barrier would put more than 12 per cent of the West Bank - plus occupied East Jerusalem - on the Israeli side of the barrier. Although Prime Minister Sharon had stated that the barrier was temporary, it was equally clear that Palestinians saw it as the greatest single threat to the viability of their future State.
It was essential that the Palestinian Authority grasp the nettle of reform without further delay, he stressed. First of all, the Palestinian Authority needed to provide effective rule of law and government services in the event of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Moreover, the Quartet needed a reformed Palestinian Authority as a full and effective partner.
He said that while the parties stalled and deferred the critical decisions facing them, the situation on the ground deteriorated quickly. On 2 May, a Palestinian gunman killed a pregnant Israeli woman and her four children in cold blood near a settlement in the Gaza Strip. On the same day, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) destroyed 12 houses in the neighbouring Azirr area in Khan Younis. On 3 May, one house was destroyed and another partially damaged in the neighbouring Abu Alajeen area. A few days later, the mourners for the mother and her four children were shot at during the funeral. The IDF demolished the house from where the shooting originated, and, on 9 May, demolished nine other houses. In the same area, the IDF began constructing a seven-kilometre barrier and installed a barbed wire fence running from the Kfar Darom settlement to the Qissufim road.
Also on 9 May, Israeli forces carried out a large-scale incursion into the densely populated Az-Zaytoun neighbourhood of GazaCity. During the incursion, Palestinian militants ambushed and destroyed an armoured personnel carrier (APC), killing six soldiers. Heavy fighting ensued, resulting in the deaths of 13 Palestinians, among them four children and a 60-year-old man, and the injuring of more than 100 people, among them at least 25 children. The IDF also shelled buildings in the neighbourhood, inflicting extensive material damage. Palestinian militants belonging to the Islamic Jihad and Hamas took away the body parts of the dead soldiers, adding a gruesome new dimension to an already ugly situation. The IDF announced that it would continue besieging the neighbourhood until the body parts were restored, effectively taking the civilian population hostage and punishing them for actions committed by the militants.
He said that, three days later, on 12 May, just as the Government of Egypt had negotiated a restitution of the slain soldiers’ bodies to the IDF and the end of the siege, a landmine in Rafah destroyed a second APC, killing five soldiers and injuring three others. Another round of heavy fighting ensued, resulting in the death of 24 Palestinians and injury to 200 others. Since then, the IDF had demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes in Rafah. In just the two days following the 12 May attack, more than 1,000 people in Rafah were rendered homeless. The Government of Israel said that the destruction was part of an effort to stem the flow into Gaza of arms used to attack Israelis. The Secretary-General had condemned such actions and reminded Israel both of its obligations under international law and that collective punishment was a grave breach of international humanitarian law.
In total, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported that more than 18,000 people had lost their homes in Gaza since the outbreak of the uprising in September 2000, he noted. The Agency estimated that it would cost $32 million to re-house then. To date, UNRWA had managed to re-house only 1,000 homeless people.
Particularly disturbing amid the violence in Gaza had been Israel’s strike that resulted in deaths among a crowd of demonstrators on 19 May in Rafah, he said. At least eight Palestinians, many of them children, were killed as they protested against the military operation. Israel apologized for the deaths, saying that they might have been caused by an errant shell. But that did not excuse the Israeli military for firing heavy weapons near a crowd of civilians. The Secretary-General strongly condemned the tragic event and called on Israel immediately to halt the military operations in Gaza.
Mr. Prendergast reiterated what the Secretary-General said then, that Israel must abide by its obligations as the occupying Power, which included protecting the civilian population and eschewing the disproportionate or indiscriminate use of force.
During the period, Israel continued its policy of extrajudicial killings, he said. On 15 May, the Israel Air Force carried out air strikes against the house and office of an Islamic Jihad leader, Mohammad Hindi, in an attempt to kill him. He again called on Israel to cease immediately that illegal policy. Israel Defence Forces raids and incursions in Palestinian areas continued. Palestinian sources claimed that the number of raids and incursions during the last months numbered 239 in the West Bank and 58 in Gaza Strip. Those raids had been accompanied by arrests in 141 cases.
He said, not surprisingly in those circumstances, the Palestinian economy continued to languish. Following Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announcement in December 2003 that restrictions on movement would be lifted, there had been some signs this year that closures had eased periodically. Despite that, back-to-back platforms continued to restrict commercial traffic between most urban centres. Roadblocks, checkpoints and earth mounds were removed and reimposed at short notice, preventing Palestinians from planning economic and social activity. In addition, the financial position of the Palestinian Authority remained critical.
In the midst of so much destruction and violence, he suggested some points relevant to a way out of the impasse. First, the idea of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip seemed to have gained momentum and looked more likely now than before. Second, there was agreement in the international community that withdrawal from Gaza should be carried out in a way that made it an end of the occupation and signalled a new beginning for the peace process. Third, all parties had a stake and responsibilities in that regard — the Government of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, regional players, the Quartet and the Security Council. Their roles and responsibilities had been detailed in the last briefing by Terje Roed-Larsen.
He said, however, that if Israel pulled out from the Strip while retaining control over the crossings and sealing off Gaza, while at the same time, a weakened Palestinian Authority failed to maintain law and order, and the international community refrained from footing the bill for the consequences of such a scenario, nothing less than a humanitarian disaster would hit Gaza, which could then become a hub for terror and chaos. No doubt, that was a worst-case scenario - but that was one that should be kept in mind while urging the parties to follow the right path.
Turning to the situation in southern Lebanon, he said that troubling incidents in the past month demonstrated the fragility of the situation along the Blue Line. On 5 May, there had been more than 20 Israeli air incursions into Lebanon across the Blue Line. Ensuing anti-aircraft fire by Hezbollah resulted in rounds landing close to the Israeli town of Shelomi. The IDF responded with air raids on two suspected Hezbollah positions south-east of Tyre. Fortunately, no casualties had been reported on either side. Those events ended a six-week period of relative calm.
Following the incidents of 5 May, the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General for Southern Lebanon, Steffan de Mistura, publicly urged both sides to exercise restraint amid a background of high regional tension. The Secretary-General, on 7 May, expressed his great concern about the escalations of that week and strongly urged the parties to exercise restraint. The United Nations had consistently criticized the use of force by either side and called on the parties to abide by their obligations under the relevant Council resolutions. On the instructions of the Secretary-General, Mr. Roed-Larsen met last week with Presidents Katzav, Lahoud and Assad, as well as with other Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian officials, in order to explore ways in which it might be possible to make headway on the Lebanese and Syrian tracks.
He said that those efforts would continue. There was no intrinsic reason why those tracks should remain frozen; the ingredients for peace were in place. What was needed now were political decisions by the parties to move ahead quickly. A Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli peace agreement would radically improve the atmosphere in the region.
He said he regretted the need to deliver such a melancholy briefing, full of death and destruction and human misery. Surely, the people of Israel and Palestine deserved better news, rays of hope. There had to be a better way. In fact, there was a better way, in the shape of the Road Map. It was not new, but it was viable, once the leadership on both sides had the vision and courage to start following it in good faith and with determination, and to continue along it to the very end. As always, that was a question of political will.