11/08/2004
Press Release
SC/8166



Security Council                                           

5019th Meeting (AM)                                         


DURING PAST MONTH, NO TANGIBLE PROGRESS MADE TOWARDS RESUMING


MIDDLE EAST PEACE PROCESS, SECURITY COUNCIL TOLD


In Briefing to Council, Under-Secretary-General Says

Both Sides in Breach of Their International Legal Obligations


In the past month, there had been no tangible progress towards resuming the peace process in the Middle East; violence had continued to claim innocent lives; neither side had taken adequate steps to protect civilians; and both were in breach of their international legal obligations, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast told the Security Council this morning.


Israel, as the occupying Power, had obligations to protect Palestinian civilians and not to destroy their property unless that was rendered absolutely necessary by military operations, he continued.  The scale of destruction of Palestinian property by the Israeli military raised concerns about collective punishment. 


For its part, the Palestinian Authority had obligations under agreements reached with Israel, international humanitarian law, and its commitment to the “Road Map” to protect Israeli civilians from attacks emanating from territories in its control, he said.  It had failed to live up to its obligations, and Israeli civilians continued to suffer attacks from Palestinians.  For each side to cite actions of the other did not in any way excuse it from fulfilling its own obligations.


Over the last month, 54 Palestinians had been killed and 400 Palestinians and 23 Israelis injured, he said.  Since September 2000, 3,553 Palestinians and 949 Israelis had been killed, bringing the total number of Palestinian casualties to 34,770 since the eruption of the intifada, and the total number of Israeli casualties to 6,102.


The continuing violence on the ground came as a direct consequence of occupation and the absence of any real hope of progress towards a peaceful settlement of the dispute through negotiations, he said.  The Quartet’s Road Map for peace represented a realistic and viable to move out of the current hopeless situation and resume political dialogue.  Both parties, however, had failed to meet their minimum obligations under the Road Map.


Progress on the implementation of Palestinian reform continued to be slow, and mostly cosmetic, he said.  In addition, the security measures taken by the Palestinian Authority were still limited and unclear.  The required elements of reform were clear to all:  the consolidation of all security services into three main bodies, with a professional leadership, and putting them under the authority of an effective Interior Minister who reported to an empowered Prime Minister.


Prime Minister Sharon’s initiative to withdraw the Israeli armed forces from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and to evacuate all settlements in the Gaza Strip, as well as four settlements in the northern West Bank, was gaining momentum within Israel, he said.  A withdrawal should be full and complete; it should lead to an end of the occupation of Gaza, and be accompanied by similar steps in the West Bank; it should take place within the framework of the Road Map and the vision of two States; and it should be fully coordinated with the Palestinian Authority and the Quartet.


He hoped both sides would focus on the tasks at hand to make withdrawal and its aftermath a new beginning of the peace process, not a new low point in the long history of their conflict.  The United Nations, and the international community at large, was ready to assist the parties in that endeavour, if they made the right choices.  The Quartet principals were planning to meet at the United Nations in September to assess the situation on the ground and examine appropriate courses of action.


On the economic front, he reported that the picture remained grim.  The Palestinian economy was in tatters and stood little chance of recovery, unless immediate action was taken.  A recent World Bank study found that the deep economic crisis in the West Bank and Gaza was one of the worst recessions in modern history.  The primary cause of that crisis was the closure regime imposed by the Israeli Government.


It was particularly disquieting, he said, that Israel announced its intention to phase out completely Palestinian employment inside Israel by 2008.  Should Israel insist on ending Palestinian employment and implement the Disengagement Plan without accompanying measures to ease internal and external closure, unemployment and poverty would continue to soar among Palestinians, with one certain outcome:  more popular support for militant groups, and an ever weaker Palestinian Authority that would not be able to maintain law and order.


The meeting began at 10:12 a.m. and ended at 10:50 a.m.


Summary of Briefing


KIERAN PRENDERGAST, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said he regretted that since the Secretariat’s last briefing to the Council, there had been no tangible progress towards resuming the peace process in the Middle East, and that violence had continued to claim innocent lives.  Neither side had taken adequate steps to protect civilians, and both were in breach of their international legal obligations.  Israel, as the occupying Power, had obligations to protect Palestinian civilians and not to destroy their property unless that was rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.  The scale of destruction of Palestinian property by the Israeli military raised concerns about collective punishment.


For its part, the Palestinian Authority had obligations under agreements reached with Israel, international humanitarian law, and its commitment to the “Road Map” to protect Israeli civilians from attacks emanating from territories in its control, he said.  It had failed to live up to its obligations, and Israeli civilians continued to suffer attacks from Palestinians.  For each side to cite actions of the other did not in any way excuse it from fulfilling its own obligations.


Over the last month, 54 Palestinians had been killed, and 400 Palestinians and 23 Israelis injured, he said.  Since September 2000, 3,553 Palestinians and 949 Israelis had been killed, bringing the total number of Palestinian casualties to 34,770 since the eruption of the intifada, and the total number of Israeli casualties to 6,102.


A new and worrying pattern had emerged, he said, namely, the launching by Palestinian militants of Qassam rockets into Israel, followed by Israeli helicopter missile strikes into the Gaza Strip and ever deeper incursions into areas adjacent to Israel.  The northern Gaza Strip had been the focus of a large-scale Israeli operation “Forward Shield” around the city of Beit Hanoun, which had begun on 29 June in the wake of last month’s Qassam attack on Sderot.  While Israeli troops had now been redeployed to the fringes of the city, many areas of the city remained under a complete siege.


During the current reporting period, more than 60 rockets had been launched from Beit Hanoun at Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip, causing injury and property damage.  While no deaths had resulted from the current wake of rocket attacks, the increasing number of them was a real danger to civilians.  As of 6 August, the United Nations had recorded a total of 106 attacks from the Gaza Strip during the same period, approximately 90 per cent of which would have been from Qassam rockets.  He called on the Palestinian Authority to take all steps necessary to bring those attacks to a halt.


Access to Beit Hanoun had been restricted to just one route and all entry and exit required prior coordination with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), resulting in shortages of water, food and medical supplies in some areas, he continued.  After protests from the international community, IDF redeployment from those areas had started at 1 a.m. on Thursday, 5 August.  Even as Israel strove to increase her security from attacks from the Gaza Strip, she had to act in keeping with her international humanitarian law obligations.  Israel must protect Palestinian civilians and their property by carrying out operations in a manner proportionate to the threat she was trying to alleviate.


During operation “Forward Shield”, there had been five incidents where, despite prior coordination, the IDF had fired on areas where United Nations staff had been present, and two incidents where the IDF had refused to allow United Nations staff caught in an exchange of fire at Erez to move to safety.  From January to June 2004, there were 44 recorded incidents where United Nations buildings were fired upon by Israeli security forces, while United Nations staff were in them.  He was deeply concerned over the unacceptably high number of security incidents involving United Nations staff that had been caused by IDF action over the last few weeks.  Israel had an obligation to protect humanitarian workers.


An especially worrying phenomenon was the number of children directly harmed by the ongoing violence, he said.  Noting also that Israel had carried out extrajudicial killings, he called again on Israel to cease the illegal practice.  Search and arrest campaigns through the West Bank and Gaza Strip had continued with unaltered frequency and had at times been stepped up.  Curfews continued to be imposed in many Palestinian towns and villages.  In the Gaza Strip, movement and access remained severely restricted, especially in the northern area affected by the ongoing operation around Beit Hanoun.


Numerous flying checkpoints had been erected throughout all districts of the Palestinian territory, he added.  Jericho remained a closed military zone. and the northern districts of Tulkarem, Qalqiliya and Salfit had also been severely affected by the establishment of flying checkpoints between 23 and 26 July.  The closure of the Rafah crossing to Egypt had caused increasing hardship to more than 3,500 Palestinians stranded on the Egyptian side.


During the last month, Israel had continued demolishing Palestinian houses, despite repeated calls by the international community to halt the practice, he said.  The Israeli Government had continued the practice of demolishing the homes of the families of persons connected to suicide bombing attacks.  Such punitive demolitions affecting persons not charged with a crime were a form of collective punishment.


The continuing violence on the ground came as a direct consequence of occupation and the absence of any real hope of progress towards a peaceful settlement of the dispute through negotiations, he said.  The Quartet’s “Road Map” for peace represented a realistic and viable way to move out of the current hopeless situation and resume political dialogue.  Both parties, however, had failed to meet their minimum obligations under the Road Map.


The Palestinian Authority had made no progress on its core obligation to take immediate action on the ground to end violence and combat terror.  The Israeli Government, despite its commitment, had made no progress on its core obligation to dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and to move towards a complete freeze of settlement activities.  Unless both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government took the necessary first steps to restore momentum towards peace, the stalemate would continue.  The first steps were clear, namely, for the Palestinian side to implement meaningful security reforms and end the use of violence in all its forms, and for the Israeli side to dismantle settlement outposts and implement a full freeze of all settlement activities.


Progress on the implementation of Palestinian reform continued to be slow, and mostly cosmetic.  In his July briefing to the Council, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace process and Special Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, Terje Roed-Larsen, had warned against what he described as “emerging chaos in Palestinian areas”.  A veteran of the Middle East peace process, an impartial observer and a friend to both the Palestinian and the Israeli people, Mr. Roed-Larsen had a duty to draw attention to the challenges that could hamper the international community’s efforts to restart the peace process.  In responding to the warnings and challenges, the focus should be on the message, not the messenger.


As Mr. Roed-Larsen had pointed out, demands for Palestinian Authority reform did not come solely from the Quartet, but also from the Palestinian people, he said.  The stalling on much needed reforms and the lack of responsiveness from the Palestinian Authority to internal demands had led to an outbreak of protests and a real danger of chaos.  Indeed, on 17 July, Prime Minister Qurei had submitted his resignation, citing as a reason “the state of unprecedented chaos”.  While President Arafat had announced a series of security measures to prevent further deterioration, those measures had led to further unrest as thousands had taken to the streets in GazaCity in protest.


The demonstrations had continued on 18 July, involving clashes among the different factions of Fatah, he said.  Unknown gunmen had shot a former Palestinian information minister and a well-known critic of the Palestinian Authority’s very limited steps on reform.  After that attack, manifestations of unrest, popular discontent and chaos had increased.


He said that the security measures taken by the Palestinian Authority were still limited and unclear.  The announced intention of President Arafat to regroup security services from nine into three as required by the Road Map was welcome.  However, that had yet to be reflected in real change on the ground.  Over the last 12 months, President Arafat had consistently been called on to take decisive action to reform, refocus and rehabilitate the Palestinian security services.  Decisive action in that regard would help to restore law and order, as well as the Palestinian Authority’s diminished credibility.


The required elements of reform were clear to all:  the consolidation of all security services into three main bodies, with a professional leadership, and putting them under the authority of an effective Interior Minister who reported to an empowered Prime Minister.  Another area where reform was needed was elections, he continued.  Concerns remained in the international community that Palestinian Authority preparations for local elections must meet international standards to be deemed free and fair, especially as regards giving the Central Elections Commission a mandate to conduct voter registration.


Israel too had failed to implement her core commitments under the Road Map, he noted.  Settlement expansion and lack of action on removing the outposts erected since 2001 severely undermined Palestinians’ trust in Israel’s intentions and contributed to strengthening hardliners among Palestinians.  Despite repeated promises by the Israeli Government, settlement activities continued.  Substantial growth in those settlements slated for evacuation under the Israeli Disengagement Plan was particularly worrying.


Government-sponsored settlement activity, such as that along the land-bridge connecting Jerusalem and Maale Adumim under the controversial E1 Plan, would have serious effects on the territorial contiguity of the Palestinian territory, resulting in the creation of two more or less completely separated Palestinian cantons in the West Bank.  While he welcomed Prime Minister Sharon’s instructions to halt and re-examine tenders for construction in those settlements, what he was looking for was a comprehensive and sustained freeze on settlement activities as called for by the Road Map.


On 20 July, the General Assembly had adopted a resolution that acknowledged the advisory opinion rendered by the International Court of Justice on Israel’s Barrier, demanded that Israel comply with its legal obligations and called on Member States to comply, as well.  In addition, the resolution asked the Secretary-General to establish a register of damage.  The Secretary-General had called on the Israeli Government to abide by its legal obligations, he added.  The Secretariat was currently studying how best to carry out the task entrusted to it by the Assembly.


Prime Minister Sharon’s initiative to withdraw the Israeli armed forces from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and to evacuate all settlements in the Gaza Strip, as well as four settlements in the northern West Bank, was gaining momentum within Israel.  Despite vocal opposition from segments of the settler community, recent polls showed that 60 per cent of Israelis continued to support the Disengagement Initiative.


The Quartet’s position was clear:  a withdrawal should be full and complete; it should lead to an end of the occupation of Gaza and be accompanied by similar steps in the West Bank.  It should take place within the framework of the Road Map and the vision of two States, and it should be fully coordinated with the Palestinian Authority and the Quartet.  A withdrawal on that basis would create new opportunities for progress towards peace, he said.  It would be a significant landmark in the history of peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians.  He hoped both sides would focus on the tasks at hand to make withdrawal and its aftermath a new beginning of the peace process, not a new low point in the long history of their conflict.


The United Nations, and the international community at large, was ready to assist the parties in that endeavour, if they made the right choices, he continued.  The Quartet principals were planning to meet at the United Nations in September to assess the situation on the ground and examine appropriate courses of action.  The main donor body, known as the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, would also meet to examine ways in which the donor community could assist the parties to turn the withdrawal into a true beginning of a genuine peace process.


On the economic front, he reported that the picture remained grim.  The Palestinian economy was in tatters and stood little chance of recovery, unless immediate action was taken.  The total unemployment rate stood at 34.3 per cent.  Total Palestinian Authority revenues continued to be far below expenditure levels.  Recently released figures showed a $38 million budget deficit in May.


A recent World Bank study had found that the deep economic crisis in the West Bank and Gaza was one of the worst recessions in modern history.  The primary cause of that crisis was the closure regime imposed by the Israeli Government, he said.  Without a significant change in the closure regime, the Palestinian economy would not be revived.  The World Bank had emphasized that Israel’s Disengagement Plan would have limited impact on the Palestinian economy and Palestinian livelihoods if it was not accompanied by a radical easing of closure that encompassed three element:  the removal of internal obstacles to movement in the West Bank, the opening of Palestinian external borders to commodity trade, and a return to a reasonable flow of Palestinian labour into Israel.


If those conditions were met, additional donor money could be raised, he continued.  But donors needed some assurance that their contributions would have a productive impact.  Aid would be provided in the context of a successful comprehensive Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, as a first step in the implementation of the Road Map.  It was particularly disquieting that Israel had announced its intention to phase out completely Palestinian employment inside Israel by 2008.  The Palestinian economy was dependent on the Israeli economy, not only for employment, but also for raw materials and trade.


Although the parties might choose to change that relationship in the long term, a revival of the Palestinian economy in the short term depended on a return to reasonable levels of Palestinian employment in Israel.  Should Israel insist on ending Palestinian employment and implement the Disengagement Plan without accompanying measures to ease internal and external closure, unemployment and poverty would continue to soar among Palestinians, with one certain outcome:  more popular support for militant groups, and an ever weaker Palestinian Authority that would not be able to maintain law and order.


Turning to the situation between Israel and Lebanon, he noted that there had been a grave breach of the ceasefire on 20 July.  Along the western sector of the Blue Line, sniper fire from Lebanese territory, allegedly by Hezbollah sharpshooters, had resulted in the death of two Israeli soldiers in an IDF outpost.  The retaliation by the IDF included tank fire and missiles launched from helicopters at Hezbollah positions.  A tank round had killed a Hezbollah militant.


That evening, he continued, Israeli jets flew over Lebanon, breaking the sound barrier with low-flying incursions over Beirut and other parts of the country.  Those violations contributed to the tension and generated a great deal of anxiety amongst Lebanese civilians.  The coordinated and complementary interventions of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), United Nations senior representatives, and several Security Council member States contributed to reducing tensions and avoiding further deterioration.  The period since then had been generally calm, including a noticeable reduction in the number of air violations.  However, on 9 August, Israeli air violations of Lebanese airspace resumed.


Unfortunately, he said, no progress had been achieved on the Syrian-Israeli track.  It was of considerable importance, given the regional situation, that Israel and Syria should resume their suspended peace negotiations aiming at implementing Council resolutions 242 and 338.


* *** *