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Middle East: top UN official 'heartened' by positive steps towards peace

22 July 2008 – The top United Nations political official today welcomed recent positive moves towards peace that have been made in the Middle East, but sounded the alarm on the lack of progress in the West Bank.

“During a month that saw a number of encouraging developments across the Middle East, we are particularly heartened by the progress in Lebanon, where a major step forward was taken with the announcement of a national unity Government,” Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe said in his briefing to the Security Council on the latest developments in the region.

He also cited the indirect talks between Israel and Syria, along with the continued ceasefire and drop in violence in Gaza, as hopeful developments.

“We are concerned, however, about the lack of improvement in the situation on the ground in the West Bank,” Mr. Pascoe told the 15-member body at a periodic open debate on the region.

In parallel with the consolidation of the cessation of hostilities in Gaza, he said it is important to speed up progress in the West Bank, where he said that Israeli military operations have intensified since 19 June.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have shut down institutions – such as schools, medical centres and media outlets – in Nablus that are allegedly affiliated with Hamas, while Israel have banned dozens of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) it has accused of fundraising for Hamas.

The Under-Secretary-General voiced concern “about the effects of Israeli raids on the efforts of Palestinian security forces to operate effectively in areas under their control.”

On the humanitarian front, he said he was pleased that the number of truckloads entering Gaza from Israel has surged over 50 per cent in the four weeks following the ceasefire.

“We welcome this improvement, but note that current import levels stand at 30 per cent of the level before June 2007,” with the continuing lack of raw materials and banning of exports holding back economic recovery, Mr. Pascoe said at the meeting, which heard from nearly 30 speakers.

Also inhibiting growth is the fuel supply to Gaza, which is significantly lower than what is needed, and he welcomed Israel’s announcement on 17 July that it will increase the amount of fuel allowed into the area.

“The reduction of violence in Gaza is a significant, but fragile, achievement,” the Under-Secretary-General said. “We hope that this calm can be sustained and, together with internal Palestinian dialogue, lead to other positive steps: the return of the legitimate Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip, the re-openings of crossings, the release of Gilad Shalit and a number of Palestinian prisoners and reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under the legitimate Palestinian Authority on a basis which allows the peace process to move forward.”

Regarding Lebanon, he applauded the “major step forward” taken on 11 July when President Michel Suleiman said that agreement had been reached on a national unity Government. “The United Nations looks forward to working closely with the new Government,” he said.

Mr. Pascoe told the Council that the implementation of the key humanitarian elements of resolution 1701 – which helped end the fighting between Israel and Hizbollah two years ago – is an “important achievement” of the reporting period, noting last week’s exchange of the bodies of two Israeli abducted soldiers for Lebanese detainees and remains.

But he warned that the clashes in and around the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli could have implications for the country’s stability and security.

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