During the fighting in and around Gaza between Dec. 27, 2008, and Jan. 18, 2009, it was the civilian populations of Gaza and southern Israel that bore the brunt of the violence, destruction and widespread suffering. As a result, the people of Gaza, who had already endured much hardship for many years, have been subjected to even greater misery, facing an uncertain future with anxiety and despair.
They have been touched by death, destruction and dislocation, layered on top of the deleterious effects of occupation, blockade, civil war and economic collapse. I saw the extent of the indignities facing the people when I visited Gaza only two days after the ceasefire had been declared, and I was deeply affected by what I saw and heard.
The people of Gaza and southern Israel have not been the only victims. Also affected has been the political process underway since the Annapolis, Md., conference in November 2007. As we confront the challenge ahead of us to provide humanitarian assistance and engage in early recovery and reconstruction, we also face the need to recover and reconstruct political processes: among Palestinians, between Palestinians and Israelis, between Israel and the Arab world.
The three weeks of intense fighting ended with unilateral ceasefires announced by both sides on Jan. 18. The situation has remained fragile since, with further violence and continued closure. This only underscores the need for a durable, sustainable and fully respected ceasefire, as called for by the U.N. Security Council.
Egypt has commendably led the effort to reach such a ceasefire, just as it has worked to address several other related issues: the full reopening of the crossings into Gaza; the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Corporal Shalit; and the reunification of the Palestinians. Egypt has also taken the initiative to host a major meeting this week in Sharm el-Sheikh to address Palestinian economic needs, particularly the recovery and reconstruction needs in Gaza.
Open crossings, as envisaged in international agreements, remain essential if any ceasefire is to hold and much-needed humanitarian and reconstruction assistance is to reach the people. If we are to restore a properly functioning crossings regime, Israel's legitimate security concerns will need to be addressed, and the Palestinian Authority should be in a position to assume its responsibilities under these agreements. This, in turn, requires the Palestinian people to be reunited under one government committed to the principles of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
I have stated that the United Nations will work with a united Palestinian government that brings Gaza and the West Bank under the authority of President Abbas. I urge all Palestinian parties, and all regional and international players, to support the process of Palestinian reconciliation.
If anything, the crisis in Gaza underscored the depth of the political failures of the past, and the urgent need to achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace for all peoples in the Middle East. Just as we need a unified Palestinian government committed to the peace process, we need an Israeli government that will uphold its commitments. Just as we need the Palestinians to address security issues--as the Palestinian Authority is doing so commendably in the West Bank--we need the Israelis to implement a genuine settlement freeze.
Settlement expansion is illegal and unacceptable and does so much to undermine confidence in the political process throughout the Arab world. I am urging all international partners to make this issue central to renewed international peace efforts.
In the meantime, the U.N. must continue to provide humanitarian assistance in Gaza and wherever it is needed. We launched an appeal for assistance shortly after the fighting ended, and I hope donors will continue to contribute generously to it while also continuing to support the Palestinian Authority, as its budget pays for thousands of civil servants in Gaza and for the provision of some basic services.
I have appealed to all parties to enable the unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza, ensure the safety and security of humanitarian staff and fully respect international humanitarian law. There must be no impediments or interference with humanitarian aid.
We must also ensure a timely move from emergency humanitarian assistance to the phase of early recovery and reconstruction, without which thousands of Gazans would be stuck in survival and dependency mode, and prospects for long-term growth and stability would be severely undermined. Gaza needs to be brought back to a level of normality.
We must work hand in hand with the Palestinian Authority, which is planning its early recovery and reconstruction priorities, and with unity of purpose among regional actors and in the international community. As we do this, we cannot neglect the West Bank, where we must continue to assist the Palestinian Authority's ongoing reform efforts. For ordinary Palestinians to see a tangible improvement in their daily lives, Israel needs to take immediate measures to enhance movement and access to critical resources such as land and markets.
Our objective should not be merely to return to the situation that prevailed before Dec. 27, in Gaza or in the peace process. Now more than ever is the time for a full and comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. As we strive to provide urgently required assistance and to reconstruct Gaza, we must also tirelessly pursue the goals that have long united but evaded us: the end of the occupation that began in 1967; the establishment of a State of Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to coexist alongside Israel in peace and security; and a comprehensive, just and lasting peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors.
I pledge to do everything in my power, as secretary general of the United Nations, to attain that comprehensive, just and lasting peace in this vital region. The international community must assume its responsibilities to facilitate progress--and, where necessary, insist on it. In the aftermath of the tragic conflict in Gaza, this is more urgent than ever.