Friday, January 21, 2011

Middle East: "Extreme Concern" Over Persisting Deadlock in Israeli-Palestine Talks

By J. Chandler Courtesy
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis


TORONTO (IDN) - As the Middle East Quartet prepares to meet on February 5 in the southern German city of Munich to end the agonising deadlock in Israeli-Palestine peace talks, a high-ranking United Nations official has expressed "extreme concern" about the precarious situation in the tension-ridden and war-torn region.

The Quartet comprising the UN, European Union, Russia and the U.S. champions the internationally endorsed plan for two independent States of Israel and Palestine.

The very credibility of the Quartet is at stake because despite the international community's efforts to resume stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have yet to produce any results, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe warned.

"We are seriously concerned at the continuing lack of progress in the search for a negotiated settlement," Pascoe said on January 19 as he briefed the Security Council on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.

"As a new year begins, hopefully one of progress in Middle East peacemaking, several challenges are present," said Pascoe, adding: "We will continue to do all we can to promote dialogue and preserve the stability and security of the region as a whole."

Pascoe expressed appreciation and support for U.S. efforts to engage in parallel talks on substance with the parties and its intention to be a proactive participant offering ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate.

However, he voiced concern over the target dates supported by the Middle East Quartet for reaching an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement on permanent status and for completion of the Palestinian Authority's two-year state-building programme.

He expressed the hope that February 5 meeting in Munich would further the talks between Israelis and Palestinians. "Efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians to engage seriously on final status issues will be at the top of the agenda when the Quartet meets," the UN political affairs chief said, while pointing out that the time-frame for reaching the Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement ends in close to nine months.

"In this regard, the viability of the political process and the credibility of the Quartet are also at stake this year," Pascoe said. "We are seriously concerned at the continuing lack of progress in the search for a negotiated settlement. Peace and Palestinian statehood cannot be further delayed."

Referring to the continued sharp increase in Israeli settlement construction activity, Pascoe said further settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, continues to undermine trust and prejudices final status discussions.

He cited the Secretary-General's recent statements deploring the demolition of the Shepherd's Hotel in the heart of a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem and reiterated the Secretary-General’s call on Israel to freeze all settlement activity in conformity with international law and the so-called 'Roadmap,' a path for a permanent solution to the conflict, devised by the Quartet.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State on January 9, 2011: "We are very concerned about the initiation of demolition of the Shepherd's Hotel in East Jerusalem. This disturbing development undermines peace efforts to achieve the two state-solution. In particular, this move contradicts the logic of a reasonable and necessary agreement between the parties on the status of Jerusalem."

Pascoe voiced extreme concern over the situation in Gaza in the previous month, including an increase in tensions. He said that recent violence has included Palestinian militants firing 31 rockets and 47 mortar shells into Israel -- representing approximately a four-fold increase from the previous reporting period -- and Israel conducting 11 incursions and 26 air strikes in Gaza.

"We condemn the indiscriminate firing of projectiles towards Israeli civilian areas by Palestinian militants," Pascoe told the Security Council members. "We equally stress that all parties must refrain from actions contrary to international humanitarian law which target or endanger civilians."

Noting that the de facto Hamas authorities in Gaza recently stated publicly their commitment to maintaining calm, Pascoe added that all responsible parties should cease acts of violence as "a new outbreak of major hostilities would be devastating and must be avoided."

The Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs told the Council that a fundamental goal of the United Nations continues to be the re-vitalization of Gaza's economy and seeking the end of the Israeli closure policy. He added that import and export levels have improved from the period before Israel's June 2010 policy adjustment, but are still significantly below pre-2007 levels.

Pascoe noted that several Latin American countries had recognised an independent Palestinian state based on borders before the 1967 Six-Day Middle East war when Israel captured Palestine and other Arab lands.

The Latin American countries that have recognised an independent Palestine state since December 3, 2010 are: Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Guyana. Paraguay and Peru are expected to do so soon. Venezuela had already recognised Palestine in the mid-2000s.

Pascoe also took note of the fact that the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had reiterated his country's long-standing support for statehood during a recent visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

However, the sharp increase in settlement expansion on the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, following last September's lifting of Israel's ten-month partial freeze on building, continued to undermine trust and prejudice final-status discussions, he said. Already, work had begun on 2,000 new West Bank units.

Pascoe blatantly pointed out that the demolition of 30 structures in East Jerusalem and 41 in Area C of the West Bank had displaced 148 Palestinians, giving rise to serious humanitarian concerns and increased tensions.

"UNIMAGINABLE"

Joining the debate, Ambassador Riyad H. Mansour, the Permanent Observer of Palestine, said it was "unimaginable" that two years after Israel's military aggression in Gaza, Palestinians were still not allowed to rebuild their communities, Israel had yet to be held accountable for its crimes and Council resolution 1860 (2009) had not been implemented. He called on Israel to lift, immediately and completely, its blockade of Gaza and to allow goods and people to flow freely in and out of the enclave.

He went on to state that Israel’s ongoing aggressive illegal campaign to alter the demographic composition, status and Palestinian Arab character of East Jerusalem was destructive and threatened peace. Israel's settlements were an "existential threat" to the two-State solution, seriously jeopardizing almost all other final-status issues, particularly Jerusalem, borders, security and water.

"After years of silence on illegal Israeli settlement activities, the Security Council, mandated to address such issues endangering international peace and security, is duty-bound to redress this matter at this critical juncture," a Security Council media release quoted Ambassador Mansour.

Emphasizing the commitment of the Palestinian people and leadership to peace, he said the second phase of the state-building plan launched by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in August 2009 should be completed by August 2011. He thanked the 107 member states that had recognized the State of Palestine, calling on the international community to help end the conflict and usher in an era of peace, security and coexistence.

Among the more than 40 speakers taking the floor, Lebanon's representative said that despite international law prohibiting the transfer of populations by an occupying Power and the Council's long-standing declaration that Israeli settlements were illegal, the settler population had doubled in the almost two decades since the Oslo Agreement, destroying the land and undermining the basis for a two-State solution.

While recognizing the value of international efforts, particularly those of the United States, to encourage negotiations, he warned that if the Council remained ineffective on settlements, its credibility would be damaged since it would be seen to act under a double standard. That was why Lebanon had submitted a draft resolution on settlements, he said, thanking the text’s 120 co-sponsors and calling on the Council to adopt it unanimously.

Several speakers condemned Israel’s recent demolition of the Shepherd's Hotel, a historic landmark in East Jerusalem, and its plans to expand the Gilo settlement by 138 units. Britain's representative described such actions as "deeply unhelpful".

However, some delegates pointed to positive developments, the Security Council media release said. For example, India's representative said that despite the human suffering and economic distress in Gaza, its economy had expanded 8 per cent in 2010, and there had been fewer violent incidents than in previous years.

He and other delegates noted that, according to the World Bank, the Palestinian Authority would be well positioned to create a Palestinian State in the near future if it maintained its current performance in institution-building and public services.