A climate of mistrust between Israel and Palestinians over settlement expansion, forced evictions, military incursions, rocket fire and the closure of border crossings remains at the heart of the stalled peace process in the Middle East, a top United Nations official warned today.
“We remain deeply concerned at the current stalemate,” Assistant-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco said during an open debate on the Middle East in the Security Council that is slated to hear from more than 40 speakers.
“If we cannot move forward decisively towards a final status agreement, we risk sliding backwards, with potentially profound and negative implications,” Mr. Fernandez-Taranco told the 15-member Council.
He urged both sides to implement their obligations under the Roadmap for peace, the plan for a two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict endorsed by the so-called Quartet, comprising the UN, the European Union, Russia and the United States.
Mr. Fernandez-Taranco pointed to the nearly weekly protests by both Israelis and Palestinians against Israeli actions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, where several families have been evicted and a further 25 face the same threat, among the growing tensions at the root of the impasse.
“Seventeen demonstrators arrested on 15 January were released the following day after the Israeli court ruled their arrests illegal, but a further 20 were detained on 22 January,” he said.
“There continue to be official announcements of intent to expand settlement construction within the Israeli-determined municipal boundaries of occupied East Jerusalem, in areas of existing settlement and in Palestinian neighbourhoods,” Mr. Fernandez-Taranco said.
He noted that the construction of some 692 new housing units in three existing settlements was announced at the end of December, and plans to house 24 settler families in the Mount of Olives and to build 50 new settler housing units in Shaufat – both Palestinian neighbourhoods – were made public earlier this month.
“We urge the Israeli Government not to finalize approvals of these plans,” he said. “The international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and the status of the city remains a final status issue for negotiations through which a way must be found for Jerusalem to emerge as the capital of two States.”
Mr. Fernandez-Taranco said that the policy of partial temporary settlement restraint in the remainder of the West Bank is being broadly followed, but cited exemptions in the policy, including continued construction in several settlements.
“Settlement activity throughout the territory occupied in 1967 is illegal and its continuation is contrary to the Roadmap,” said Mr. Fernandez-Taranco. “We once again urge full implementation of Israel’s obligation to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, and to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001.”
Turning to Gaza, he said that the failure to address the issues that led to Israel’s military operation last year and its aftermath has created an unsustainable situation and a “sense of hopelessness” for the population, over half of which are under the age of 18.
“There was a notable increase in the number of projectiles fired from Gaza by militant groups during this reporting period,” said Mr. Fernandez-Taranco, with over 70 rockets fired and 19 landing in Israel. “Reports of weapons smuggling continue to cause concern.”
He added that there were also 20 Israeli incursions and 11 air strikes in the Strip, leading to 11 Palestinian deaths, including six civilians. “We urge all parties to refrain from violence and respect international humanitarian law.”
In addition, he noted that the area of operation of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), deployed since 2006 in the wake of that year’s war between Israel and Hizbollah, remains quiet but fragile.
On 26 December a patrol of UNIFIL blue helmets spotted several men digging a hole in the vicinity of Sarda, where they found 250 kilograms of explosives, but were unable to apprehend the men. He also noted Israeli air violations continue on a daily basis, with a marked increase this month.