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Middle East peace hopes more unstable after volatile month - UN official

24 May 2007 The recent eruption of violence in the Gaza Strip and its extension into southern Israel illustrates the volatility of the Middle East conflict, and the longer it continues, the greater the long-term threat to prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the United Nations’ political affairs chief told the Security Council today.

B. Lynn Pascoe, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, also warned that this week’s deadly clashes at a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon “have added a new and explosive element to an already tense situation.”

Briefing the Council on the latest events in the region, Mr. Pascoe said the surge in inter-factional violence in Gaza over the past month – Hamas militants and Executive Force members have clashed repeatedly with Palestinian Authority security forces and Fatah armed groups – has left 68 people dead and more than 200 others wounded.

“The longer it continues, the greater the risk of escalation and the greater the threat to both the survival of the [Palestinian] National Unity Government and to the prospects for any fruitful Israeli-Palestinian dialogue,” Mr. Pascoe said. “Leaders on all sides have a responsibility to do their utmost to rein in the violence.”

He noted that the volume of rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel has escalated significantly during the month since his last report, with more than 270 rockets fired, with many hitting homes and schools in the town of Sderot and one killing a woman on Monday.

In the past week Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stressed the need for the rocket fire to cease and for an end to the intra-Palestinian violence as well.

Israel’s response to the rocket attacks, in the form of air strikes aimed at militants and their facilities as well as the first tank incursions into Gaza since a ceasefire was struck last November, have killed 57 Palestinians and injured 175 others.

“While recognizing the right of Israel to defend itself, the Secretary-General has called on Israel to ensure that its actions do not target civilians or put them at undue risk,” Mr. Pascoe said.

Mr. Ban has spoken with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, urging them to do all possible to calm the situation, Mr. Pascoe added.

“With rocket fire continuing, militants threatening to resume suicide bombings, and the Government of Israel announcing its determination to intensify its actions, there is a great danger of escalation.”

There have been no bilateral meetings between Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert since 15 April, and their next meeting is tentatively scheduled for 11 June, the Under-Secretary-General noted, adding that United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has had to postpone a planned trip to the region as well.

But US-proposed benchmarks on security and easing Palestinian access and movement have been shared with the parties, he said, efforts to promote the Arab Peace Initiative have continued and the diplomatic Quartet is meeting in Berlin next week.

Israel has taken no steps towards freezing settlement construction or dismantling settlement outposts, while a plan for three settlements in East Jerusalem comprising 20,000 housing units has received preliminary approval.

“The Secretary-General has expressed his concern about these plans, and stated that a halt to settlement expansion is one of the basic obligations in Phase One of the Quartet’s Roadmap,” Mr. Pascoe said, referring to the blueprint which lays out mutual steps to achieve a two-State solution to the conflict, with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace.

He also said that construction on the barrier in the occupied Palestinian territory has continued during the reporting period, contrary to the advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in July 2004.

Although there was a slight improvement in movement in the Jordan Valley, the Israeli commitments to ease movement and access in the West Bank were not met, with 549 physical obstacles to movement in place as of 15 May.

“Closure levels have doubled since the Agreement on Movement and Access 18 months ago. Serious action is long overdue,” Mr. Pascoe said, noting also that UN staff members and other relief workers crossing into Israel “continue to face arbitrary and sometimes humiliating treatment by Israeli authorities.”

Turning to Lebanon, the Under-Secretary-General said the security situation there” has deteriorated drastically” over the past month, particularly since heavy fighting between the Lebanese armed forces and Fatah el-Islam gunmen broke out on Sunday at the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp.

Media reports indicate at least 80 people, including 27 civilians, have been killed in the clashes, and the violence has forced about 15,000 people – or half the camp’s population – to flee.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported today that it has successfully relocated 2353 Palestinian families from Nahr el-Bared to either the nearby Beddawi refugee camp or to the cities of Beirut, Saida and Tyre.

At Beddawi, UNRWA has opened its seven schools and other installations to accommodate the displaced, as well as providing more than 2000 mattresses and basic food supplies. An emergency assessment team is also gauging what quantities of food, water, sanitation and shelter supplies are now needed.

Noting the widespread condemnation of the actions of the Fatah al-Islam gunmen, both internationally and within Lebanon, Mr. Pascoe said the Government has also expressed determination to confront and defeat the group.

“There has been general Lebanese and Palestinian support to this approach. However, there are real concerns in Lebanon that instability may spread to other camps.”

Aside from the events at Nahr el-Bared, he said there have been three serious explosions in civilian areas since Sunday, including two in Beirut, one of them deadly.

In southern Lebanon, where the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is based, its troop strength stands at just over 13,000 and the overall situation along the Blue Line has remained calm. But Mr. Pascoe noted that UNIFIL had to defuse several tense situations between Israeli and Lebanese soldiers at points along the Blue Line, that Hizbollah had erected a number of provocative billboards and that Israeli air violations have continued.

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