BRIEFING SECURITY COUNCIL ON MIDDLE EAST, UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR PARTIES TO AVOID ACTION THAT COULD PRE-JUDGE FINAL STATUS ISSUES

18 May 2005
SC/8389

BRIEFING SECURITY COUNCIL ON MIDDLE EAST, UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR PARTIES TO AVOID ACTION THAT COULD PRE-JUDGE FINAL STATUS ISSUES

18/5/2005
Press ReleaseSC/8389

Security Council

5181st Meeting (AM)

BRIEFING SECURITY COUNCIL ON MIDDLE EAST, UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL HIGHLIGHTS

NEED FOR PARTIES TO AVOID ACTION THAT COULD PRE-JUDGE FINAL STATUS ISSUES

Says Israeli Withdrawal from Gaza, Northern West Bank

Marks Important Landmark in Israeli-Palestinian Relations

The people of the Middle East were now approaching a number of important turning points, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast told the Security Council this morning, adding “it is our sincere hope that recent events in the region will be remembered as a new start on the road towards peace, rather than slide back into conflict and violent confrontation”.

Reporting on the Quartet (European Union, Russian Federation, United States, United Nations) meeting in Moscow on 9 May, he said the discussion, which sought to review the current situation in the Middle East, with a particular attention to Gaza engagement, had focused on how best to help the parties maintain the momentum at “this fragile moment of opportunity”.  Both parties were reminded of the need to avoid unilateral actions that might pre-judge final status issues, and urged to implement their obligations under the Road Map. 

Also present at the Moscow meeting was James Wolfensohn, the Quartet’s Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement, who briefed the principals on his first round of talks with the parties in the region, as well as the new United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, Alvaro de Soto, who brought to his new position a very wide range of experience in United Nations peacekeeping. 

On 9 May, Mr. Prendergast stated, Prime Minister Sharon had announced that the Gaza disengagement would be delayed by three weeks from the original start date, to avoid a traditional Jewish period of mourning.  The practical preparations for the withdrawal, however, were progressing, as were the Government’s efforts to find acceptable solutions to the relocation of settlers. 

Stressing the importance of dialogue and coordination, he said the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank marked an important landmark in Israeli-Palestinian relations.  The evacuation of settlements in the OccupiedPalestinianTerritory set an important precedent.  Continued bilateral coordination would be one way to ensure that disengagement proceeded successfully and contributed to the momentum for peace.  The Israeli pullout should be seen as a highly significant step along the road towards realizing the vision of two States, Israel and a sovereign, viable, and contiguous Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

He noted that the level of violence between Palestinians and Israelis still remained far below that which had prevailed before the Sharm el-Sheikh summit.  However, he was concerned by reports of a slow but steady increase in violent incidents, compounding a corresponding deterioration in trust and confidence between the two sides.  Also, despite the relative calm and slight improvement in terms of closure conditions over the past two months, there had been little change in the dire Palestinian economic situation.

Regarding Lebanon, he said that the situation there remained fragile, despite some hopeful recent signs.  The country was now preparing for parliamentary elections later this month, for which a United Nations team had begun work to prepare the provision of support and technical assistance.  The Organization had also continued its efforts to establish the International Independent Investigation Commission into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri.  Among other things, it planned to deploy investigators and other substantive personnel on a rolling basis in the coming weeks to enable the work of the Commission to proceed as quickly as possible.

The meeting began at 10:15 a.m. and ended at 10:32 a.m.

Extended Summary of Briefing

KIERAN PRENDERGAST, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said that the aim of the Quartet meeting in Moscow on 9 May was to review the current situation in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Gaza engagement.  The principals reminded both parties of the need to avoid unilateral actions that might pre-judge final status issues, and they urged the parties to implement their obligations under the Road Map.  The Quartet’s substantive discussion had focused on how best to help the parties maintain the momentum at “this fragile moment of opportunity”. 

He said James Wolfensohn, the Quartet’s Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement, had briefed the principals on his first round of talks with the parties in the region.  His priority was a Rapid Action Programme, aimed at bringing about immediate and tangible improvement for Gazans in the situation on the ground prior to the pullout, and simultaneously to build momentum for Palestinian economic recovery and a more viable future State.  Mr. Wolfensohn stressed that his mission would support and strengthen the role of the Palestinian Authority.  He also emphasized that he would be working with, and complementary to, existing donor structures. 

In addition, he said the new United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, Alvaro de Soto, was also at the meeting.  Mr. de Soto, whose duties included acting as the Secretary-General’s Envoy to the Quartet, brought to his new position a very wide range of experience in United Nations peacekeeping. 

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, Mr. Prendergast stated, announced on 9 May that the Gaza disengagement would be delayed by three weeks from the original start date, to avoid a traditional Jewish period of mourning.  The practical preparations for the withdrawal, however, were progressing, as were the Government’s efforts to find acceptable solutions to the relocation of settlers.  That despite escalating opposition from a vocal minority of the Israeli public, as witnessed in the widespread protests and demonstrations of 16 May and 27 April. 

Fortunately, the stated readiness of Israelis and Palestinians to coordinate the Israeli disengagement had begun to be reflected in practice, he continued.  On 21 April, direct talks had been renewed between the parties after a gap of more than a month.  The various players included the Israeli Vice-Prime Minister and Defence Minister, as well as Prime Minister Sharon’s senior advisor, and, on the Palestinian side, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Civil Affairs, and the Palestinian Chief Negotiator.  He hoped that in the near future Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas would continue the dialogue they began in Sharm el-Sheikh in February. 

He stressed again the importance of dialogue and coordination.  The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank marked an important landmark in Israeli-Palestinian relations.  The evacuation of settlements in the OccupiedPalestinianTerritory set an important precedent.  Continued bilateral coordination would be one way to ensure that disengagement proceeded successfully and contributed to the momentum for peace.  Combined with the efforts of the Quartet’s Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement, in particular on the economic front, the Israeli pullout should be seen as a highly significant step along the road towards realizing the vision of two States, Israel and a sovereign, viable, and contiguous Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

In recent weeks and months, he noted, the Palestinian Authority continued to take specific steps towards reforming the structures on the security services.  There was ongoing work to consolidate the fragmented Palestinian security services into three agencies under the authority of the Ministry of Interior.  New heads of the security services had been appointed; and the security retirement law was being implemented.  Furthermore, both President Abbas and Interior Minister Yousef had issued strong statements concerning the illegal possession of arms. 

The Quartet had welcomed those developments at its 9 May meeting, but emphasized the need for the Palestinian Authority to continue implementing such reforms in order to reinstate law and order in Gaza and the West Bank, and meet its Road Map obligation to end violence and terror.  He added that reform was an urgent priority for the short- and long-term success of the Gaza disengagement process, as the Palestinian Authority must be able to secure its borders, assets and crossing points. 

Events on the ground, he said, could be an accurate indicator of the underlying dynamics of a situation.  The level of violence between Palestinians and Israelis still remained far below that which prevailed before the Sharm el-Sheikh summit.  However, as he pointed out last month, he was concerned by reports of a slow but steady increase in violent incidents, compounding a corresponding deterioration in trust and confidence between the two sides.  The violence included attacks by Palestinian militants against Israelis, clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protestors, and Israeli arrest operations against wanted militants.  Eight Palestinians had been killed, and some 133 Palestinians and 25 Israelis injured.  It was also cause for grave concern that the Israeli security forces had reported intercepting a number of would-be suicide bombers in the West Bank.

There was no doubt as to the legitimacy of Israel’s security concerns, he said.  The Palestinian Authority must strengthen its efforts to end all violence activity, and produce tangible results on the ground.  Meanwhile, Israel should do more to support the Palestinian leadership in its difficult task.  The doubts and suspicions on both sides might be understandable.  But they needed to be addressed through constructive engagement and sustained bilateral contacts. 

Specifically, he urged Israel to work directly with the Palestinians to find a way to implement the commitments made at Sharm el-Sheikh.  Further delays in handing over the remaining three Palestinian cities and in releasing prisoners threatened seriously to undermine President Abbas.  It would be difficult for the Palestinian Authority to undertake sustained, and sustainable, action on security unless it was aided and supported in its efforts to rein in the militants.  A significant and positive step forward in that context was Israel’s reported approval of the deployment of hundreds of armed Palestinian police in all West Bank cities, in order to strengthen the Authority ahead of a transfer of further areas to Palestinian security control.

On 5 May, Palestinians had held a second round of local elections in 84 municipalities in Gaza and the West Bank, he said.  Hamas had won a substantial share of the vote and of the municipal councils.  That was an indication of the support the militants enjoyed among the Palestinian population, partly as a result of their engagement in social welfare activities.  It also reflected popular frustration with the Palestinian Authority.  Preparations also continued for the legislative elections scheduled for 17 July.  On 20 April, the Palestinian Legislative Council had given its preliminary approval to a revised electoral law for the legislative vote, which envisaged a 2:1 mix of constituency-based and national representation.  A date for the third and final reading of the law had not yet been set.

Additional voter registration in preparation for the elections had begun on 7 May and would last until 21 May, he continued.  Regrettably, on 10 May, the Israeli authorities had closed two voter registration centres and briefly detained two Palestinian Central Elections Commission staff in East Jerusalem.  In that connection, he reiterated the Quartet’s call on both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to undertake all necessary steps to ensure free, credible and transparent multiparty legislative elections in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, including through facilitation and conduct of voter registration.

Turning to the Palestinian economic situation, he said that, despite the relative calm and slight improvement in terms of closure conditions over the past two months, there had been little change in the dire Palestinian economic situation.  Unemployment remained high and had even increased slightly to 32 per cent during the first quarter of 2005.  Protest marches by unemployed workers in Gaza on 1 May highlighted the need for urgent action to generate employment.  He hoped that the programme now in preparation by the Quartet’s Special Envoy would make a contribution to alleviating the effects of the continuing crisis.

He expressed concern about the continued construction of Israel’s Barrier in the West Bank.  On 16 May, the Israeli High Court of Justice had rescinded the temporary injunctions it had previously imposed on the construction of the Barrier around the settlement of Ariel.  The route of the Barrier in that area cut deeply into OccupiedPalestinianTerritory.  That was worrying not only because of the effects of the Barrier on the daily lives of Palestinians, but also because it threatened unilaterally to pre-judge the eventual outcome of negotiations between the parties.

On Lebanon, he said that the situation remained fragile, despite some hopeful recent signs.  On 6 May, another bombing in a Christian neighbourhood, in the city of Jounieh, had killed one person and wounded several others.  He reiterated his condemnation of such attacks and stressed the belief, shared by the international community, that Lebanon must be free of such acts of violence and intimidation.  Lebanon was now preparing the parliamentary elections later this month.  A United Nations team had begun its work in Beirut on 9 May to prepare the provision of support and technical assistance for those elections.  The Organization would also support international observers from other countries and organizations.  The United Nations had also continued its efforts to establish the International Independent Investigation Commission into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri.  Among other things, it planned to deploy investigators and other substantive personnel on a rolling basis in the coming weeks to enable the work of the Commission to proceed as quickly as possible.

Listing a series of incidents last week that had “escalated tensions along the Blue Line to an alarming degree”, he mentioned an accidental firing of a shell into Lebanon by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) on 9 May; the firing of a Katyusha rocket from Lebanon that landed in the Israeli town of Shelomi; and the exchange of fire on 13 May between Hizbollah and the IDF.  Hizbollah had claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it had come in retaliation for several acts by the IDF.  Subsequently, the IDF had launched tank and artillery rounds, six aerial bombs and several rockets into a broad swath of Lebanese territory from Kafr Kila to Shaba.  Fortunately, no casualties had been attributed to any of those incidents.

Hostile acts and infractions across the Blue Line must stop, he said.  While last week’s firing incidents had been ultimately contained, the risk was great that events would spiral out of control.  One violation could not justify another.  Stability in south Lebanon depended to a large extent on the Government of Lebanon exercising its authority over all of its territory.  The Secretary-General had reiterated his call upon the Lebanese authorities to exercise effective control throughout the country, to exert its monopoly on the use of force and to put an end to all attacks emanating from Lebanese soil.

During the past month, Israeli air violations of the Blue Line had also continued, he added, albeit less frequently.  The Secretary-General had reiterated his concern regarding those violations and reminded all parties of the commitment to fully respect the Blue Line, which had been unanimously endorsed by the Council.

The people of the Middle East were now approaching a number of important turning points, he said in conclusion.  “It is our sincere hope that recent events in the region will be remembered as a new start on the road towards peace, rather than slide back into conflict and violent confrontation.”

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For information media. Not an official record.