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Middle East: UN envoy voices optimism on recent political developments

Middle East: UN envoy voices optimism on recent political developments

Michael C. Williams
The United Nations Middle East envoy today voiced optimism on recent political developments, most notably the re-engagement of the international community and Israel with the Government of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Such developments give “cause for hope,” said UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Michael Williams, addressing an open meeting of the Security Council.

“There has been a promising start to the new relationship of Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert, President [Mahmoud] Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad,” he said.

“Most encouraging is that on 16 July, President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert had a very positive bilateral meeting which touched on final status issues, their first meeting in three months,” Mr. Williams told the 15-member Council.

Also on 16 July, United States President George W. Bush announced, in a key speech, a series of measures and support for the Palestinian Government, which will culminate in a meeting this fall to be chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

All parties must fulfil their Road Map commitments, which will “hopefully be an important step to begin bilateral negotiations for a just and lasting peace,” he said.

While Israel must remove West Bank checkpoints, dismantle outposts and freeze settlement expansion, President Abbas should continue efforts to halt violence, disarm Palestinian militias and reform Palestinian institutions, Mr. Williams noted.

“Fulfilment of these commitments would constitute solid foundations for the international meeting this autumn, which will hopefully be an important step to begin bilateral negotiations for a just and lasting peace,” he said.

Mr. Williams also mentioned last week’s meeting of the diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East – comprising the UN, European Union, Russian Federation and United States – which marked its first gathering with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as its special envoy.

However, in spite of the “impressive diplomatic momentum,” such “positive developments are offset by a problematic and increasingly complex reality on the ground, where violence continues,” he said.

In the current reporting period, Mr. Williams said there were over 20 incidents of Palestinian attacks against the Gaza crossings and into Israel, and noted that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has continually condemned Palestinian rocket fire which causes injuries and damage to civilians and hampers the delivery of assistance to the people of Gaza.

He also told the Council that, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Israeli military actions continued during the reporting period. “The IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] continued targeted killings in Gaza,” the envoy said. He encouraged Israel “to cease these operations, and to hand over security control of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.”

Turning to the humanitarian situation, Mr. Williams said that “it is important that the people of Gaza are not punished for the Hamas takeover,” and that re-opening the crossings to prevent the complete collapse of Gaza’s economy is crucial.

Despite efforts to provide relief supplies, “it is clear that humanitarian assistance alone will not be sufficient to stop the decline in the economy that is currently unfolding due to the interruption of regular commercial flows to and from the Gaza Strip,” he told the Council.

“A solution led by President Abbas is an urgent necessity,” Mr. Williams said.

“In the longer-term, Gaza and the West Bank cannot remain separated,” he added. “There is only one future Palestinian State, and it encompasses both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

He also highlighted the plight of the roughly 6,000 Palestinian refugees who are not able to move back to the Gaza Strip from Egypt, and called on all parties to act promptly to speed the return of the displaced.

On Lebanon, Mr. Williams said the county “continues to face a precarious political and security situation,” with no concrete change in the positions of the parties leading to the political impasse remaining.

The fighting – which started on 20 May – is continuing in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon.

The envoy also cited Israel’s air violations of the Blue Line, and noted that they have “significantly increased” during this reporting period, with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) recording 271 over-flights last month.

“These over-flights are a violation of Lebanese sovereignty,” Mr. Williams said.

Meanwhile, in a related development, OCHA reported that Gaza’s economy is being significantly damaged by the continued closure of the Karni Crossing.

There is a shortage of rice, vegetable oil and baby milk, and rising prices – especially for vegetables, meat and milk powder – are straining households’ abilities to maintain a balanced diet.

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) are sending basic food supplies, animal feed and medicines through other crossings, but OCHA said that the agricultural sector is threatened, as the planting season is getting underway.