BRIEFING SECURITY COUNCIL ON MIDDLE EAST, UN OFFICIAL NOTES RESUMPTION OF SUICIDE BOMBINGS, INCREASING CASUALTIES ON BOTH SIDES

17 September 2004
SC/8190

BRIEFING SECURITY COUNCIL ON MIDDLE EAST, UN OFFICIAL NOTES RESUMPTION OF SUICIDE BOMBINGS, INCREASING CASUALTIES ON BOTH SIDES

17/09/2004
Press Release
SC/8190

Security Council

5039th Meeting (AM)


Briefing Security Council on Middle East, UN Official Notes resumption


of suicide bombings, increasing casualties on both sides

 


Says Israel Released Tenders for 1,001 New Housing Units in West Bank

On 17 August; Palestinian Authority Failed to Act to End Violence, Combat Terror


With a marked increase in the number of casualties on both sides of the conflict, a resumption of suicide bombings, and no good news to report on the implementation of the “Road Map”, it had been a bad month in the Middle East, Under-Secretary-General Kieran Prendergast told the Security Council this morning.


As had too often been the case in recent months, there was little positive and much discouraging to note and report, he said.  Especially troubling was the continuing void in terms of an active peace process.  Absence of hope for a peaceful settlement led to despair, strengthened extremists and was a sure recipe for continuing violence and instability.


In terms of specific events, the past five weeks had been overshadowed by the first major suicide-bombing since March this year, as well as by a number of Israeli military operations, incursions and acts of destruction, he said.  In all, 80 Palestinians and 17 Israelis had been killed in the past five weeks, and 630 Palestinians and 133 Israelis had been injured.


Also worrying was Prime Minister Sharon’s public statement that Israel was not following the Road Map, and that it might stay in the West Bank long after any withdrawal from Gaza.  On 17 August, Israel’s Government had released tenders for the construction of 1,001 new housing units in West Bank settlements.  Noting that Israel’s recent drive to expand settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, together with its continued failure to remove all settlement outposts erected since March 2001, stood in clear contradiction to Israel’s Road Map obligations, he called on Israel to meet its obligations under international law and under the Road Map.


For its part, the Palestinian Authority had failed to make progress on its obligation to take immediate action on the ground to end the violence and combat terror, and to institute meaningful measures of reform, he said.  Progress on the implementation of reform continued to be slow and uncertain, which could not be explained other than by a lack of political will to advance along that road.


The Israeli initiative to withdraw all armed forces from Gaza and from parts of the West Bank and to evacuate all settlements in the Gaza Strip, as well as four settlements in the northern West Bank, had considerable backing in Israel and practical preparations for its implementation were progressing.  If moved forward in the right way, he stressed, the Israeli withdrawal could lead Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.


Reform was a priority item on the Palestinians’ domestic agenda, he added, noting that the Palestinian Legislative Council had announced that it would suspend its sessions from 7 September to 7 October in protest against President Arafat’s refusal to sign 12 laws passed by the Council.  He was encouraged, however, that, despite the difficult circumstances and limited freedom of movement, the voter registration process had begun on 4 September under the auspices of the Central Elections Commission, as the international community had persistently demanded.


Only a negotiated settlement could ultimately put an end to the conflict, halt the violence and stop the suffering of both peoples, he said, noting that, in the absence of any political dialogue between the two parties, the Quartet’s Road Map for peace was the only realistic and viable path out of the current hopeless situation and back towards the resumption of dialogue and negotiations.


The meeting began at 10:54 a.m. and ended at 11:17 a.m.


Detailed Summary of Briefing


KIERAN PRENDERGAST, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said it had been a bad month in the Middle East, with a marked increase in the number of casualties on both sides and a resumption of suicide bombings.  Nor was there good news to report in terms of a return to the negotiating table through a start on implementation of the Road Map.  On the contrary, Prime Minister Sharon was reported to have said publicly that Israel was not following the Road Map and that Israel might stay in the West Bank long after any withdrawal from Gaza.  Meanwhile, new decisions had been announced on settlement activity, and Palestinian reform remained stalled.


In terms of specific events, the past five weeks had been overshadowed by the first major suicide-bombing since March this year, as well as by a number of Israeli military operations, incursions and acts of destruction, he said.  On 31 August, 16 Israelis had been killed and more than 100 injured as a double suicide-bombing hit two buses in the southern Israeli city of Beer Sheva.  Responsibility for that terror attack had been claimed by Hamas, stating that it had been an act of revenge for Israel’s assassinations of its spiritual leader and his successor in the spring.  The Secretary-General had repeatedly and unreservedly condemned such acts of terror.  He called on the Palestinian Authority to bring those implicated in terrorist acts to justice and to fulfil its obligations under the Road Map, as well as under international law, to do their utmost to prevent such attacks.


In all, 80 Palestinians and 17 Israelis had been killed in the past five weeks, and 630 Palestinians and 133 Israelis had been injured, he said.  The latest toll means that, since September 2000, 3,633 Palestinians and 966 Israelis had been killed.  35,400 Palestinians and 6,235 Israelis had been injured since the eruption of the intifada.  Israeli military operations continued to result in death and injury to Palestinian civilians, including that of a nine-year old Palestinian girl who had been injured when a missile hit her home instead of a car during a targeted killing operation in GazaCity.


He said violence in and around Gaza had continued during most of the reporting period.  On several occasions, Palestinian militants had launched Qassam rockets and mortar shells against Israeli settlements in Gaza, as well as against the town of Sderot inside Israel, causing damage and requiring a number of people to be treated for shock.  On 6 September, Israeli helicopter gunships, tanks and warplanes had attacked a Hamas training site in GazaCity, killing 14 Palestinians, mostly militants, and injuring 30.  Palestinian militants then fired a number of Qassam rockets.  On 15 September, 11 Palestinians had been killed, among them an 11-year-old girl, in Israeli operations in Nablus and Jenin in the West Bank.


Israel had carried out targeted assassinations during the reporting period, killing five Palestinians and injuring seven in an explosion that was set off in the house of a Hamas activist in Gaza city on 18 August, he continued.  On 13 September, an Israeli helicopter strike had killed three Palestinian militants as they travelled in their car in the Jenin area.  Having repeatedly stated that extrajudicial killings were illegal, he called again on Israel’s Government to cease such acts immediately.


The widespread destruction of Palestinian property by Israeli forces raised concerns about collective punishment and fuelled more violence and bloodshed, he said.  Between 11 August and 14 September, Israeli forces had demolished 63 houses and several multi-storey buildings, leaving hundreds of Palestinians homeless.


Worryingly, ambulances and medical teams operating in the occupied Palestinian territory continued to be delayed and subjected to searches, and sometimes even physical assault, by Israeli forces, he said.  United Nations agencies were affected by Israeli restrictions on movement.  During an especially strict closure of the Erez crossing, which had begun on 31 August, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Commissioner-General Peter Hansen had been unable to leave the Gaza Strip for the West Bank, violating Israel’s obligations to guarantee United Nations personnel freedom of movement.


Since March, he added, United Nations national staff had not been permitted to cross Erez in vehicles, even though crossing Erez on foot had been determined to be unsafe.  He called on Israel to allow national staff to pass the crossing safely, as do international staff.


It was the Palestinian civilians, however, who had suffered by far the most under the severe movement restrictions Israel imposed, he said.  Israel had instituted a complete closure on the entire occupied Palestinian territory from 9 September onwards, ahead of the Jewish holidays, bringing to a virtual standstill life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and effectively undermining all efforts to resuscitate the ailing Palestinian economy.


He added that the Israeli policy of confiscating and/or levelling Palestinian land had continued.  In the past month, several hundred more dunams of olive groves, fruit trees and other agriculture in the West Bank and Gaza land had been uprooted by Israeli forces in the context of military operations and for the construction of Israel’s Barrier.  Israel was currently revising long sections of the Barrier route in accordance with a ruling of the Israeli High Court of Justice, which had also instructed the Government to respond to the advisory opinion rendered by the International Court of Justice on 9 July.


Meanwhile, however, Israel continued to construct the Barrier to the east of Jerusalem, he said.  He called on Israel to abide by its legal obligations as expressed in the International Court of Justice advisory opinion and the General Assembly’s resolution of 20 July, which had demanded that Israel cease construction work, dismantle the wall, and compensate the affected population.  The Secretariat was currently working on detailed terms of reference for the establishment of a registry of damages.  The Secretary-General hopes to present his plans to the Assembly by the end of the month.


He reiterated that only a negotiated settlement could ultimately put an end to the conflict, halt the violence and stop the suffering of both peoples.  In the absence of any political dialogue between the two parties, the Quartet’s Road Map for peace was the only realistic and viable path out of the current hopeless situation and back towards the resumption of dialogue and negotiations.  The Council had endorsed the Road Map in its resolution 1515.  The Secretary-General was convinced that implementation of the Road Map was the only way forward.  Both parties, however, continued to fail to meet their minimum obligations under it.


On 17 August, the Government of Israel released tenders for the construction of 1,001 new housing units in West Bank settlements, he said.  Only a few days later, media reports had indicated that the Israeli Government had also approved the rezoning of land to allow for the construction of a further 533 housing units.  That recent drive of the Israeli Government to expand settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, together with its continued failure to remove all settlement outposts erected since March 2001, stood in clear contradiction to Israel’s Road Map obligation for freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, and to the report of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Commission, as well as the Mitchell Report.  He called on Israel to meet its obligations under international law and under the Road Map.


For its part, the Palestinian Authority had failed to make progress on its obligation to take immediate action on the ground to end the violence and combat terror, and to institute meaningful measures of reform.  Progress on the implementation of reform continued to be slow and uncertain, which, as he had been stressing, could not be explained other than by a lack of political will to advance along that road.  In a speech he delivered before the Palestinian Legislative Council on 18 August, President Arafat had acknowledged past mistakes and reiterated the Authority’s commitment to reform, pledging that more support would be given to the security organizations and Prime Minister AbuAla.  Such statements were welcome, but they should be translated into tangible action.  The existing system should be consolidated into three main services and be supervised by professional leadership under the authority of an effective Interior Minister.  The Interior Minister, in turn, should report to an empowered Prime Minister.  Real progress could not be postponed any longer, he emphasized.


It was important to note that reform was a priority item on the Palestinians’ domestic agenda, he said.   The Palestinian Legislative Council had announced that it would suspend its sessions from 7 September to 7 October in protest against President Arafat’s refusal to sign 12 laws passed by the Council.  Nevertheless, it was encouraging to see that, despite the difficult circumstances and limited freedom of movement, the voter registration process had begun on 4 September under the auspices of the Central Elections Commission, as the international community had persistently demanded.  Much work remained to be done, however, to ensure that the local elections, which were slated to begin in 36 out of 128 cities and municipalities on 9 December, met minimum international standards and could be deemed free and fair by the Palestinian people and the international community.


Even more important, he said he hoped that national elections would soon follow.  At the same time, it was regrettable that the Israeli authorities had closed three registration centres and detained five Palestinian Commission staff on 13 September.  That action was an unacceptable interference with the registration process in East Jerusalem, and he called on Israel to facilitate, rather than hinder, voter registration.


The Israeli initiative to withdraw all armed forces from Gaza and from parts of the West Bank and to evacuate all settlements in the Gaza Strip, as well as four settlements in the northern West Bank, had considerable backing in Israel, he continued.  According to the polls, public support for the plan remained steady at about 60 per cent, despite vocal opposition from segments of the settler community.  Practical preparations for the implementation of the initiative were progressing.  On 31 August, Prime Minister Sharon had underlined his commitment to implement the initiative and outlined a detailed timetable for the legislative process arising from the plan, which had already begun.  On 14 September, the security cabinet approved the legislative package for the implementation of the Disengagement Plan, including principles for the evacuation of settlements and compensation for settlement residents.  The Government also approved advance compensation for those settlers relocating voluntarily and was slated to discuss the wider legislation pertaining to the initiative on 24 October, before the Government planned to present it to the Knesset on 3 November.


He said he had consistently made clear the “extreme importance” of the context within which the Israeli withdrawal had taken place.  At the outset of the briefing, he had noted the absence of any progress towards a return to the negotiating table or implementation of the Road Map.  Accordingly, he had been extremely concerned by recent remarks by Prime Minister Sharon that Israel was not following the Road Map, and that Israel might stay in the West Bank long after any withdrawal from Gaza.  As he had said many times before, the Quartet believed that the Israeli withdrawal initiative provided an opportunity to create a new momentum for progress towards peace.  That could be achieved only if the four fundamental requirements that the Quartet had set out in its 4 May statement were met, namely:  the Israeli withdrawal must be full and complete; it must lead to an end of the occupation of the Gaza Strip and must be accompanied by similar steps in the West Bank; it must take place in the framework of the Road Map and the two-State vision; and it must be fully coordinated with the Palestinian Authority and the Quartet.  Those requirements were the very same elements that laid the basis for successful implementation of the Road Map.


The Quartet principals were due to consult informally next week here at the United Nations, in order to discuss the withdrawal initiative and review developments on the ground, he noted.  A few days ago, the Quartet envoys had met to prepare for that meeting.  The Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, which was the main donor coordination body, had decided to delay its meeting scheduled for later this month in close consultations over how the donor community could assist the parties to turn the Israeli withdrawal initiative into a significant step forward; and how to enable it to contribute to a sustained recovery of the Palestinian economy and begin the long awaited process of State-building.


He said that the revitalization of the Palestinian economy was an indispensable element on the path towards peace and remained the chief concern of the donor community at that extremely critical stage.  Forty-seven per cent of the Palestinian population currently lived in poverty.  Unemployment among Palestinians stood at 34.3 per cent, according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics.  Presently, UNRWA and the World Food Programme (WFP) were providing regular food aid to as many as 1,480,000 beneficiaries -– 39 per cent of the total Palestinian population in the occupied territory –- and UNRWA was now supplying 10 times more food than it was before September 2000.  In the absence of access to other employment opportunities, the Palestinian Authority employed 41 per cent of all waged workers, each with a large number of dependent relatives.  Even with the currently large-scale external support for the Authority, it faced budget problems and might be unable to continue paying wages soon.  The consequence would be a complete economic collapse throughout the Palestinian areas.


Regarding the situation on the “Blue Line”, he said that a number of Israeli air violations had taken place.  After an initial period of calm following last month’s briefing, two air violations were recorded on 30 August.  On 8 and 9 September, a total of 13 air violations had taken place.  He reiterated his call on Israel to cease those violations, and he reminded all parties that one violation could not justify another.  Regarding Council resolution 1559, the Secretary-General had started contact and consultations on its implementation, and he would report back to the Council within the 30-day period set out in the text.


Mr. Prendergast said he regretted to report that no progress had been achieved on the Syrian-Israeli track.  Tension had increased in the aftermath of the double suicide-bombing in Beer Sheva on 31 August, but he hoped that neither side was tempted into any action that might raise the risk of instability throughout the region.  On a more positive note, President Assad was reported in the media again to have expressed interest in renewing negotiations with Israel.  It remained of utmost importance that Israel and Syria resume their suspended peace negotiations, so as to implement resolutions 242 and 338.  The objective must remain a just, lasting and complete settlement in the Middle East.


As had too often been the case in recent months, he said there was little positive and much discouraging to note and report.  The continuing void in terms of an active peace process was especially troubling.  Absence of hope for a peaceful settlement led to despair, strengthened extremists and was a sure recipe for continuing violence and instability.  Nevertheless, the Israel withdrawal initiative, if –- and he repeated, if -– it moved forward in the right way, could lead Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.  If so, that could become a turning point and ultimately also lead to progress on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks.  For that to happen, the parties would no doubt need much encouragement and support from the international community.


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For information media. Not an official record.