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Recent events in Middle East starkly illustrate obstacles in way of progress towards peace, Security Council told


Security Council
5683rd Meeting (AM)

Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Says Immediate Concern Must Be Ending Violence in Gaza Strip, Southern Israel

Recent events in the Middle East starkly illustrate just how sizeable the obstacles were in the way of progress towards peace, Lynn Pascoe, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, told the Security Council this morning, stressing that the immediate concern must be ending the violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel.

In a briefing on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, he said that the longer the violence continued, the greater the risk of escalation and the greater the threat to both the survival of the Palestinian National Unity Government and to the prospects for any fruitful Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

He said the factional fighting that had erupted in Gaza soon after the 14 May resignation of Palestinian Interior Minister Hani Kawasameh had pitted Hamas militants and Executive Force members against Palestinian Authority security forces and Fatah armed gangs. Their brutal urban battles in residential areas had left 68 Palestinians dead and more than 200 wounded in the past month. Meanwhile, rocket fire against Israel had escalated significantly, killing an Israeli woman and forcing the evacuation of many residents.

In response, Israeli tanks had entered the Gaza Strip for the first time since last November's ceasefire, he said. Israeli air strikes aimed at militants and facilities had resulted in civilian casualties, including six family members of a Hamas Legislative Council member killed in a single strike on their home. All told, militant rocket fire had killed one Israeli and injured 16, while Israeli air strikes and ground incursions had killed 57 Palestinians, including six children, and injured at least 175.

With rocket fire continuing, militants threatening to resume suicide bombings and the Israeli Government announcing its determination to intensify its actions, there was a great danger of escalation, he said. United Nations operations and personnel faced also real dangers. On 7 May, an internal Palestinian clash outside a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in Rafah had left one person dead and eight injured, including two children.

He said the Secretary-General, while recognizing its right to defend itself, had called on Israel to ensure its actions did not target civilians or put them at undue risk, while stressing that all parties must abide by the basic tenets of applicable international law. The Secretary-General had urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to calm the situation and exercise control and restraint, respectively.

Turning to other Israeli-Palestinian issues, he said there had been no action towards freezing the construction of settlements or dismantling outposts, and neither had the settlers mentioned in last month's briefing been evicted from central Hebron, despite an order by the Defence Minister. In early May, a plan to build three further settlements in East Jerusalem, comprising another 20,000 housing units, had received preliminary approval. The Secretary-General had expressed his concern about those plans, noting that halting settlement expansion was one of the basic obligations of the Quartet's "Road Map" and that, as occupied territory, East Jerusalem's final status was subject to negotiations between the parties. Meanwhile, construction of the wall had continued throughout the reporting period, contrary to the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice.

With respect to access and movement, he said there had been a slight increase in physical obstacles from last month, and closure levels had doubled since the Agreement on Movement and Access 18 months ago. The Karni crossing had been closed between 15 and 20 May, and the Rafah crossing had been open for only five days during the month. However, it was good that the European Union Border Assistance Mission there was being renewed. Meanwhile, United Nations staff members and humanitarian workers crossing into Israel continued to face arbitrary arrest and humiliating treatment by Israeli authorities.

Regarding financing for the Palestinian Authority, he said the recent decision by the United States not to block bank transfers to its accounts, the re-establishment of the single treasury account, and ongoing efforts by Finance Minister Salaam Fayyad to restart a transparent and accountable budget process should be welcomed and supported by all. However, the major step required was the resumption of the transfer of tax revenues withheld by Israel, now amounting to approximately $1 billion.

As for efforts to promote the Arab Peace Initiative, he said a dialogue had taken place between Foreign Minister Livni and her Jordanian and Egyptian counterparts, and Prime Minister Olmert and King Abdullah of Jordan on 15 May. A ministerial-level meeting was anticipated in the coming weeks. Quartet members, for their part, had held an informal exchange of views at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, with members of the Committee of the Arab League tasked with implementing the Initiative. The Secretary-General planned to convey to his fellow Quartet members, in Berlin next week, the importance of using the Initiative as a framework to establish a comprehensive settlement.

On Israeli political developments, he said the Winograd Report criticizing the conduct of last year's conflict with Hizbullah had dominated the country's politics during the reporting period. It noted that inadequate efforts had been made to reach peace agreements with Israel's neighbours. As for efforts to advance political dialogue, there had been no further bilateral meetings between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Abbas since 15 April. Their next meeting was tentatively scheduled for 11 June.

Turning to events in Lebanon, he said a dangerous outbreak of violence, featuring armed clashes between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Fatah al-Islam gunmen in and around a Palestinian refugee camp had added a new and explosive element to an already tense situation. The heavy fighting that had erupted on 20 May, between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Fatah al-Islam gunmen around a Palestinian refugee camp in the northern port city of Tripoli had continued through Monday and Tuesday, resulting in the deaths of 32 Lebanese soldiers and 22 Fatah al-Islam members.

He said at least 27 civilians had been killed and approximately 70 wounded, since the fighting had erupted, though those reports had not been independently confirmed. Initially, thousands had fled their homes to shelter inside the Nahr el-Bared camp, but during a truce on Tuesday and Wednesday, 15,000 refugees had then fled the camp. Homes had been destroyed, and the camp's medicine, water and electricity supplies had reportedly been interrupted. Major Palestinian factions in Lebanon had disassociated themselves from Fatah al-Islam, and the Lebanese Government had expressed its determination to confront the group. However, there were "real concerns" that the instability might spread to other camps.

The Secretary-General had deplored an attack that had destroyed or damaged half of a six-truck UNRWA humanitarian convoy, calling on all sides to protect civilians, he said. The Secretary-General had been in close contact with Prime Minister Siniora of Lebanon and had talked on the phone with King Abdullah of Jordan; the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria; and Amre Moussa, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States.

In addition to the events in northern Lebanon, a large explosion had occurred in Beirut on 20 May, killing one person and injuring 18, he said. On 21 May, another "powerful terror attack" had taken place in a second Beirut neighbourhood, and on 23 May, 16 more people had been injured in a third explosion. In the south, meanwhile, the overall situation along the Blue Line was calm, although there had been a number of tense stand-offs between the Israel Defence Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces at various points. The presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) had helped de-escalate tensions.

Ongoing tensions were also reflected in provocative billboards erected by Hizbollah, while Israeli aerial violations of the Blue Line continued on a regular basis, he said. Meanwhile, an independent mission to assess the monitoring of the Lebanese-Syrian border would be dispatched to Lebanon next week, security circumstances permitting. Also, Michael Williams, the new Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority was in the region to begin consultations with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials. He was also expected to meet with the Arab League and the Egyptian Government.

Today's meeting began at 10:05 a.m. and ended at 10:25 a.m.

For information media - not an official record