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Renewed violence undercutting Middle East diplomatic efforts – UN official

Renewed violence undercutting Middle East diplomatic efforts – UN official

USG Lynn Pascoe
Diplomatic initiatives to rejuvenate the Middle East peace process are making some progress, but they are being undermined by the deteriorating security situation on the ground, the United Nations political chief told the Security Council today, urging Israeli and Palestinian leaders to do their utmost to prevent the violence from escalating further.

Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe told an open Council meeting on the issue that the situation in the region is fragile, capable of either moving forward based on fresh negotiations or becoming caught in a spiral of tit-for-tat violence.

“Actions and inactions on the ground remain real obstacles to progress, and have the potential to lead to paralysis or even a rapid deterioration,” Mr. Pascoe said in his statement to the Council debate, which saw the participation of over a dozen speakers. “The renewed violence of the past few days shows how precarious the situation is.”

Between 14 March and 17 April, at least 43 Palestinians have been killed, 22 as a result of intra-community fighting and 21 by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). More than 200 other Palestinians and 13 Israelis have also been injured, while 54 rockets and mortars were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel.

Mr. Pascoe called on the Palestinian Authority to take steps to counter the rocket fire and the smuggling of weapons, as well as to implement the internal security plan to restore law and order within Gaza.

He added that the UN remains deeply concerned about the fate of the kidnapped British journalist Alan Johnston and reiterated Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recent call for his immediate release. Mr. Johnston, who works for the BBC, was abducted on 12 March near his office as he was returning from the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel.

Releasing Corporal Gilad Shalit of Israel, who was kidnapped by Palestinian militants last June and taken into Gaza, “is also crucial to forward movement” in the peace process.

Mr. Pascoe urged Israel to play its part to calm the situation, especially with its settler community in the West Bank. He noted widespread recent reports that groups of settlers had attacked Palestinian children and a mentally disabled man.

Israel continues to construct new housing units in some 75 of its 121 settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, he added, despite the Road Map plan calling for a freeze on settlements.

All security measures must be proportionate, the Under-Secretary-General stressed, warning that Israeli operations in Palestinian population centres result almost inevitably in civilian casualties and are “a matter of great concern.”

Israeli authorities are also subjecting UN staff members and other humanitarian workers crossing from Gaza into Israel to “increasingly arbitrary treatment” and searching their vehicles and property, including laptop computers, out of sight of UN staff.

“This practice violates UN security standards, as well as UN privileges and immunities. We continue to work closely with all relevant Israeli authorities to correct the situation, but with little progress so far.”

But Mr. Pascoe said there were some hopeful signs of progress on the political and diplomatic efforts, particularly the face-to-face meeting in Jerusalem on 15 April between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The two men discussed immediate humanitarian and security issues and reportedly also exchanged views on aspects of a future Palestinian State and how and when it could be achieved, Mr. Pascoe said, encouraging the leaders to build on those discussions.

He was also heartened by “the greater public awareness of the potential of the Arab Peace Initiative,” adding that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was supporting all regional or international initiatives towards peace in the Middle East.

Turning to Lebanon, Mr. Pascoe observed that despite intensive efforts to ease the country’s political stalemate, there has been no breakthrough regarding a national unity government or the formation of a special tribunal to try the suspected killers of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

While Lebanon has said it is committed to moving ahead on political and socio-economic reform as agreed, only a small percentage of pledges from international donors have been disbursed so far.

Israeli air violations of the Blue Line have continued, as have claims that arms are being transferred into Lebanon in direct breach of the Security Council-imposed embargo. But the total strength of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has reached 13,000 peacekeepers, and there has been “near total calm” in the area in the past two months.