As new indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians get under way, a senior United Nations official warned today that rapid progress is vital in light of multiple challenges, including efforts by militants on both sides to derail the process.
“After many setbacks and delays, we are entering a new phase in the efforts for Israeli-Palestinian peace,” Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry told the Security Council in a regular monthly briefing on the crisis in which he repeated calls for Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and urged international donors to make up for deep shortfalls in both Palestinian and UN budgets for the region.
“But let us all realize that we do not have the luxury of time,” he said of the talks initiated last week under United States mediation after an 18-month gap in negotiations following Israel’s military offensive against Gaza. “There is distrust and scepticism among peoples on both sides. Their leaders face multiple challenges. And there are powerful elements who will seek to derail progress. Negotiations need to address core issues and cannot be allowed to stagnate.”
Speaking to reporters later he voiced cautious optimism at the renewal of talks, albeit indirect. “It is not always that often that I come here to bring at least some good news from the region,” he said. “After all it is since a long time, I think 15 months, that I was able now to announce the beginning of proximity talks which we hope, if they are held in a serious manner, should soon also transition onto direct talks.”
In order to make the indirect talks successful, “it is essential for the parties to indeed address the core issues. That means that Jerusalem, the refugee issue, security, all these issues now will have to be addressed earnestly by the parties,” he added.
Mr. Serry called for positive actions on the ground, including the flashpoints of Gaza and Jerusalem. In the Gaza Strip, subject to a three-year-long Israel blockade after Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority, the UN is seeking to be a catalyst for a new strategy, he added, noting some easing in Israeli restrictions and an increase in permitted imports but warning that much more is needed.
He cited urgent needs in water, sanitation, school and health services construction and restoration of market conditions. He condemned continuing indiscriminate violence in Gaza over the past month, noting that militants fired 12 rockets towards Israel – the reason Israel cited for its offensive 18 months ago – while Israeli forces conducted 19 incursions and eight air strikes, injuring nine Palestinians and killing three.
He also condemned five recent extra-judicial executions by Hamas, calling for an end to any further such killings.
On East Jerusalem, Mr. Serry noted that no new settlements had been approved or tendered and Israel had publicly stated that there would be no construction in the Rarnat Shlomo settlement for two years, but the Government continued to state its intention to build settlements there and settlement activity was continuing.
“Construction in existing Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem is particularly provocative,” he warned. “I stress the utmost importance of all parties showing restraint and responsibility in words and actions regarding Jerusalem.”
On the West Bank, Mr. Serry cited “worrying trends, in particular a rise in [Israeli] settler violence,” noting that two mosques were vandalized by unidentified assailants. While Israel has condemned these incidents and ordered investigations, no one has yet been held accountable. “I strongly urge Israel to do more to combat violence by settler extremists,” he added.
In Lebanon, he noted Israeli concern over alleged transfers of sophisticated weaponry to Hizbollah. Meanwhile, Israeli air violations of Lebanese airspace continued on an almost daily basis, sometimes more than 30 over-flights a day, mostly by fighter jets.
Turning to the financial situation, Mr. Serry urged increased support for the Palestinian Authority, which has so far only received $380 million out of the $1.24 billion required for 2010.
Meanwhile, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which cares for some 4 million Palestinian refugees in the Near East, also faces a $90-million deficit, “a financial crisis that threatens the sustainability of essential operations, from employing teachers to providing medical care to improving precarious camp conditions,” he said.
“I urge all those in a position to assist, in particular countries in the region, to provide additional support to UNRWA this year.”