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New positive factors favour progress on Middle East peace, but challenges remain – UN

New positive factors favour progress on Middle East peace, but challenges remain – UN

Special Coordinator Alvaro de Soto briefs the Council
A convergence of positive factors, including a new Palestinian unity Government and the first political talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in six years, have the potential to help restore calm and re-energize efforts to achieve a two-State solution, but many immediate and longer-term challenges need to be overcome, a senior United Nations official reported today.

“While we have reason to sound more hopeful today than we have been in previous briefings, no one should under-estimate the enormity of the tasks that would face any new Palestinian Government, or the many difficulties in the way of fruitful discussions between Israel and the Palestinians,” UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Alvaro de Soto told the Security Council.

In the latest monthly briefing to the Council on the Middle East, Mr. de Soto called the agreement on Palestinian Unity Government “a very important step forward” and cited next week’s trilateral meeting with United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as “the first Israeli-Palestinian discussions on the political horizon of the peace process in six years.”

He also pointed to “a newly active Quartet,” referring to the diplomatic of the UN, Russia, European Union (EU) and United States which met earlier this month and will again meet next week in an effort to advance its Road Map plan of two-State solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, originally slated for completion by the end of 2005.

Mr. de Soto noted that members of the Quartet was now awaiting the formation of the new Palestinian Government and “have reaffirmed their support for a government committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Road Map.”

Reviewing the challenges to progress, he cited intra-Palestinian violence which this year alone killed 137 people, including 13 children, and injured 445 others. This contrasted with 146 such deaths for all of 2006, and 11 in 2005.

It is equally important to calm Israeli-Palestinian violence, he added, citing a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed thee people in the Israeli town of Eilat and 36 rockets fired into Israel from Gaza.

“Israel has shown commendable restraint in the face of these unjustified attacks form Gaza,” he said, while calling attention to a 57 per cent increase in Israeli search and detention operations on the West Bank so far this year and an 88 per cent rise in clashes there, with 19 Palestinians including five children killed and 72 inured.

He also voiced “deep concern” over Israeli construction and archaeological work in the Old City of Jerusalem, which has been widely condemned by Arab and Muslim Governments.

Other challenges included the grave deterioration in the Palestinian economy, with truck crossings into Gaza representing only 11 per cent of the number laid out in an agreement on movement and access. There has also been serious degradation of Palestinian institutions such as schools, hospitals and ministries, due to strikes and a cut-off of international funds after Hamas formed a government.

A third set of challenges is posed by “the continued lack of any positive Israeli action to remove settlement outposts and the continued settlement activity and barrier on occupied Palestinian territory,” Mr. de Soto declared. “It is vital that action is taken to ensure that final status issues are not further prejudiced by the creation of facts on the ground.

On the recent exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese forces, he said the UN peacekeeping mission had asked Israel not to go ahead with its plan to open the technical fence to clear mines on its side of the Blue Line separating the two countries.

In the subsequent clash Lebanon violated Security Council resolution 1701 that ended last summer’s war between Israel and Hizbollah by opening fire and Israel then breached it by crossing the Blue Line. “It is of paramount importance that concerns are addressed through the tripartite mechanism chaired by UNIFIL,” Mr. de Soto said, referring to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.

“Our goal is clear: an end to the occupation that began in 1967 and the achievement of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian State, living side by side in peace with Israel,” he said in conclusion.

“The overall goal of a comprehensive peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbours must not be neglected. We must act with the right mixture of firmness and flexibility with all parties to ensure that they move decisively down this path.”