Following the Gaza escalation, which last week brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the “brink of a crisis that could have engulfed the region”, it was more vital than ever not only to bring a sustainable end to violence, but to achieve a fair and lasting peace, the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Representative told the Security Council Tuesday morning.
“We should take this as a wake-up call that we are all challenged to work together to restore prospects for a durable regional peace,” Robert Serry, who is also the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said in the regular monthly briefing on the issue.
He noted that as efforts continued to consolidate a long-term truce in Gaza, following the 21 November Egyptian-brokered truce, this week the Palestinians were expected to approach the General Assembly seeking the status of non-member Observer State and the conflict in Syria was “reaching new and appalling heights of brutality and violence”. Given those factors, he said it was all the more vital to identify a way ahead to urgently put the peace process back on track.
“The region is headed for an unpredictable future with multiple sources of uncertainty. What is certain though is that the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be ignored in shaping the future constructively,” he added, stressing that reaching a negotiated two-State solution was the best contribution that could be made at this time to regional stability.
On Gaza, he said that Israeli and Palestinian factions had agreed to stop “all hostilities” and, after an initial calm of 24 hours, to begin discussions on issues for a broad, durable ceasefire. That had, in fact, begun intensively, with Egyptian mediation and the United Nations, present on the ground, working closely with the latter country in providing inputs and suggestions.
He said that the calm had largely held despite “a few rockets” fired in the hours following the agreement and shooting incidents during a demonstration along the fence inside Gaza, which claimed the life of one Palestinian demonstrator. “It is now paramount that parties respect the calm and allow time for other elements of the understanding to be worked out. Yet we know this will not be easy,” he said.
For a durable ceasefire, he said, Israel’s legitimate security concerns and Palestinian concerns over the closures must be addressed through full implementation of Council resolution 1860 (2009). Core elements that had not yet been implemented included an end to weapons smuggling and a full opening of the crossings. The ceasefire understanding provided a framework to address the closures, the movement of people and goods and the targeting of residents in border areas. Efforts to prevent arms trafficking and put in place long-term security arrangements should also be part of the discussion, he maintained.
“Implementation has started in earnest,” he was pleased to note, with Israel agreeing in principle to extend the maritime fishing limit to six nautical miles. Next, he hoped for a liberalization of imports of construction material, with exports from Gaza, as well as their transfers to the West Bank. Tangible steps towards Palestinian reconciliation were also necessary.
Recounting the devastation of the fighting and the Secretary-General’s condemnation of “excessive use of force that endangered civilian lives” along with indiscriminate rocket fire, he said an estimated 158 Palestinians had been killed during the eight days of escalation, including 103 civilians, 33 of whom were children. Six Israelis, four civilians and two soldiers, had reportedly been killed by rocket fire and hundreds were injured on both sides.
Describing damage to buildings, which he had seen first-hand, he said that included a school of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). However, the end of hostilities had prevented a large-scale humanitarian emergency, although, at its peak, the number of displaced had reached 12,000. The United Nations and its partners were able to rapidly respond to their needs, he was pleased to report, and by Saturday, 24 November, pre-existing humanitarian operations were fully resumed. Virtually all families had returned home, schools had re-opened and rubble was being removed.
He also had visited a Tel Aviv suburb, he added, where rocket fire had destroyed parts of an apartment building. He expressed sympathies to the Israelis affected, who had impressed on him that the recent escalation had threatened millions of Israeli citizens far into the centre of the country.
Turning to the Palestinian intention to table a resolution later this week in the General Assembly related to the status of Palestine, he said the passion generated by that potential move showed the distance between the parties. He noted that the United Nations Charter was clear that the status of a State was for Members and United Nations inter-governmental bodies to decide, and not the Secretariat. The Secretary-General, on several occasions, had said the Palestinians should have an independent State side by side with Israel, he added.
Regardless of the outcome in the Assembly on 29 November, he said it was important to plan for the day after, including protecting crucial achievements of the Palestinian Authority in building robust State institutions. The diplomatic Quartet must take stock of the events of the past months and reassess its role in shaping the way forward, given the risk of a prolonged stalemate in the peace process for a two-State solution.
Meaningful negotiations must remain the collective priority, he reiterated. Unfortunately, that effort remained undermined by actions on the ground, including settlement expansion and clashes between Palestinian and Israeli security forces.
Meanwhile, in Syria, the winter months would worsen the humanitarian crisis in that 21 month old conflict and potentially affect 4 million citizens by year’s end. Against a backdrop that had seen almost half a million Syrian refugees, the Secretary-General and Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi were continuing efforts aimed at finding a political solution.
As a result of the Syrian conflict, the volatile situation in the area of operation of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) included daily violent clashes between the Syrian Arab Armed Forces and armed members of the opposition. Fire across the ceasefire line showed potential for an escalation between Israel and Syria, jeopardizing regional stability.
The Syrian conflict had also left Lebanon vulnerable, with reports of cross-border shelling, arms smuggling and clashes in the southern city of Sidon between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime. The October assassination of the head of the information branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces had triggered violence across the country, with the opposition calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Government.
Turning to the situation in Lebanon, he urged support for President Michel Sleiman’s continuing consultations with political leaders to find a path forward, and emphasized that it was in the interest of that country’s stability that all parties continued to exercise restraint, avoid provocative rhetoric and work together as preparations began for the 2013 elections.
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon’s (UNIFIL) area of operation had remained quiet, and together with the Lebanese Armed Forces, the level of alert had been heightened. Efforts to ensure calm against a backdrop of violence had received broad political backing, including from Hizbullah.