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26-Jan-2021 03:01:53
Decree ordering long-awaited Palestinian elections ‘crucial step’ towards building democratic state, Special Middle East Coordinator tells Security Council.

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Despite reprisals between Palestinians and Israelis, and the ongoing ravages of COVID-19 on a region struggling to staunch its spread, achievement of an elusive two-State vision remains possible, the senior United Nations official for Middle East peace told the Security Council today, hailing a 15 January decree announcing the conduct of Palestinian elections in 2021 as “a crucial step” towards Palestinian unity and the building of a democratic State.

“There are opportunities unique to this moment that should not be missed,” said Tor Wennesland, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, briefing the Council’s video conference meeting from Jerusalem for the first time since assuming his role in December 2020. Upcoming talks in Cairo to resolve outstanding issues concerning the polls will be important for the preparatory process, he observed.

According to the long-anticipated decree, issued by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, legislative elections will take place on 22 May, he said, followed by presidential elections on 31 July and voting for the Palestinian National Council on 31 August. An amendment to the elections law, meanwhile, raised the quota for female representation from 20 per cent to 26 per cent. In a separate development, he noted that Israel’s Knesset dissolved on 23 December 2020 after failing to pass a budget, with general elections now slated for 23 March 2021.

Turning to the issue of settlements, he expressed concern over Israel’s advancement on 17 January of 800 housing units in Area C settlements, as well as its publication of tenders for 1,900 units in that Area, and 210 units in East Jerusalem, a day later. Of the units advanced and tendered, most are in settlements in outlying locations, deep inside the occupied West Bank, he said. More than 200 are located in illegal outposts that Israel is retroactively regularizing under its law.

On 19 January, the Jerusalem District Court denied a request for an interim injunction to freeze the tendering process for 1,200 units in Givat Hamatos, he continued, stressing that “settlements are illegal under international law”. He went on to detail Israel’s moves to demolish, seize or force owners to demolish 71 Palestinian-owned structures, with the Magistrate Court in Jerusalem on 23 December 2020 upholding an eviction order against four Palestinian families in the Batan al-Hawa section of the Silwan neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

More broadly, he said violence persists, marked by rocket fire from militants in Gaza on 25 December 2020, followed by three additional firings from Gaza towards Israel on 18 and 19 January 2021. A month earlier, on 21 December 2020, a 52-year-old Israeli woman was found killed near the Tal Menashe settlement in the occupied West Bank, having been attacked with a stone. And on 24 December 2020, a Palestinian man in the village of Tura, near Jenin, was arrested on suspicion of the killing. Settler-related violence also increased, notably following the death of a 16-year-old boy from the Bat Ayin settlement, he added.

On the political front, he said the Envoys of the Middle East Quartet met virtually on 23 December 2020 to discuss the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Noting that the foreign ministers of Egypt, France, Germany and Jordan likewise met in Cairo on 11 January, he said their joint statement emphasized support for the two-State solution and urged all parties — including the Quartet — to work towards launching negotiations.

In the wider region, he described conditions in the Golan, where the ceasefire between Israel and Syria has been generally maintained despite violations of the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement by the parties. There were also reports of air strikes attributed to Israel on locations in Syria on 25 and 30 December 2020 and 6, 13 and 22 January 2021, resulting in casualties.

In Lebanon, he said consultations to form a Government continue, with participants at the 2 December 2020 Paris Conference, co-chaired by the United Nations and France, expressing concern about the political deadlock. While the situation in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) area of operations was generally stable, there were increased violations of Lebanese airspace by Israel.

“As we contend with one urgent crisis after another, we must not lose sight of our overarching goal: supporting Palestinians and Israelis to resolve the conflict,” he said, by ending the occupation and achieving the vision of two States living side by side in peace and security, based on the 1967 lines. In that context, he welcomed the agreement signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, expressing hope that recent accords penned between Israel and Arab countries will lead to a more peaceful Middle East. That outcome, however, requires leaders “on all sides” to re-engage and return to the path of negotiations.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, noted that Palestinians suffered unprecedented pressure during the past four years from the former Administration of the United States, which chose to adopt dangerous, unjust measures and to freeze funding for UNRWA. Recalling that country’s decades-long role of mediator in efforts to end the occupation and establish an independent Palestinian State, he said that settlement was sidelined by the main actor in the peace process. Instead, Israel increased its settlement activities and annexed territory, as the former United States Administration laid the foundation for a new settlement based on imposing the status quo, he added.

The Council continues to believe, by consensus, that the two-State solution is the only way forward, and that settlements and the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital are illegal, he continued. Going forward, there must be concerted efforts to reaffirm the two-State formula and resolve the conflict in a comprehensive way, he stressed. The Arab League anticipates that the new United States Administration will correct unhelpful measures and policies and relaunch the political process, he said. That would give Palestinians hope. Welcoming the announcement of elections, he said that step will unify Palestinians and deserves international support.

Riyad al-Malki, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, Observer State of Palestine, warned that the countdown to the demise of a two-State solution is under way, pointing out that some critics say that time has already elapsed. They point to the responsibility to salvage the process before it is too late, he said, noting that others wonder if this is even the right time for peace. However, the reasons for the difficulty of the task at hand — mistrust and unilateral actions — should motivate international involvement “since we all agree, we are running out of time”, he emphasized.

Asking the Council to consider how much trust existed 30 years ago, when the parties met in Madrid, he wondered how willing Israel’s Prime Minister was to make peace or how pleased the Palestinians were that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) could not send its own delegation. “The world decided it was time to solve this conflict and was not going to take no for an answer,” he recalled, asserting: “Without Madrid, we would not have made it to Oslo.” He stressed that momentum is something people create — not wait for — and reiterated the call for a collective approach that mobilizes the international community and demonstrates resolve. He likewise called for the revival of the Quartet on the Middle East, its engagement with partners and parties, mobilization by the Council and the holding of an international peace conference to signal, as in Madrid, a turning point in the conflict. Final status negotiations, based on international parameters, also must be launched.

He went on to question whether anyone believed that Israel had dropped its annexation plans, or instead, was advancing them through accelerated demolition of Palestinian homes and record high settler violence. Israel’s goal has always been the same: grabbing maximum Palestinian geography with minimum Israeli demography. “Who would accept that?”, he asked, stressing: “We cannot.” The central question hinges on convincing Israel to choose peace over annexation. He pointed to the adoption of resolution 2334 (2016), outlining a road map for salvaging a two-State solution, and warned against the risks and narrowed choices borne from passive resignation. Noting that the last four years have tested collective resolve, he said the international community faced the challenge by standing up against annexation, reaffirming support for Palestinian rights and supporting UNRWA.

“Now is the time to heal and repair the damage left by the previous United States Administration,” he said, expressing hope for resumed engagement with Washington, D.C., reversal of the hostile measures taken by the previous administration and working together for peace. He welcomed the United States decision to rejoin the international law-based order and voiced his expectation that it will play a key role in creating peace in the Middle East. “This is not the time for passive resignation,” he said. Resolute action is needed, without which reversing trends on the ground and resuming final status negotiations will be impossible.

He went on to question whether the world had used the tools available to end the occupation and the conflict, proposing that international observers be deployed to assess compliance, and questioning why one side should fear the consequences of breaching commitments or reject the idea of binding timeframes. “This is the path towards changing the dramatic reality under way in Palestine,” he said. Palestinians will continue to fulfill their obligations. “An entire nation is yearning for freedom and its calls must be answered,” he said. They are asking for nothing more than what is outlined in the Charter of the United Nations — nor will they accept anything less, he said, stressing: “We cannot accept a future of walls and of blockades.”

With that, he advocated for the creation of a sovereign, viable, contiguous and democratic State of Palestine, based on 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, through peaceful means. He also called for immediate protection for Palestinians, until such time the Government can protect them as a sovereign State, and support to ensure the integrity of Presidential and legislative elections, notably by helping to remove any obstacles to their conduct foisted by Israel. “With your help, may our future be one of freedom, security and prosperity for all,” he said.

The representative of Israel said he hoped the new Special Coordinator will bring fresh energy to help to resolve the issue and recognize Iran for its role as the real threat to the region, including Tehran’s call for the destruction of Israel and denying the Holocaust. Indeed, the Council should be focusing on Iran today, as that regime has made its nuclear-weapon aspirations clear, he said, noting a recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report and stressing that the most dangerous regime in the world must not be allowed to possess atomic weapons. Emphasizing that Israel has no grievances with the Iranian people, who are victims of the regime’s ideology and actions, including the recent death sentence of a journalist, he said thousands of Iranians are paying the price of the international community’s complacency.

The reality in 2021 is not the reality of 2016, he said. Iran did not use the removal of sanctions to improve conditions for its people, but has built an arsenal of missiles, funded terrorism and is threatening regional and international peace and security. A recently discovered secret archive has demonstrated that Iran failed to disclose its massive nuclear weapon programme, deceiving the world when it signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The Council must not give in to this nuclear extortion, he said, adding that measures should ensure that Iran truly abandons its atomic weapon aspirations. Appreciating the international community’s efforts to block Iran’s intention of developing nuclear weapons, he warned that lifting sanctions will prevent the achievement of this goal. Israel knows how to protect its citizens. It will never allow Iran to become a nuclear‑weapon country and will work with the United States to achieve this goal.

He expressed hope that the Council’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will change and focus on the real threat to the process — Palestinian incitement and terrorist attacks. Israel remains ready to negotiate to resolve the conflict and will make peace when there is a willing partner, which can be seen in agreements signed with Egypt, and more recently, other countries in the region. If President Abbas was truly serious about peace, he would stop inciting violence and come to the negotiating table instead of calling for another international conference. He said that, after 15 years of avoiding elections, President Abbas has now coincidentally announced elections at the dawn of a new United States Administration.

However, the Middle East of today is no longer the old Middle East held hostage by the Palestinians, he continued. The new peace accords with several countries bring stability and new hope for the region, he said, asking Palestinians to explain why they call these agreements a “stab in the back”. Addressing false claims about Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination programme, he said a successful campaign involves including all parts of society, and Israel’s experiences will be shared with other countries in addition to contributions of millions of dollars and cooperation with United Nations agencies. The Palestinian Authority is responsible for the health care of its people and has requested vaccines from the Russian Federation, he said, adding that Israel will provide whatever assistance it can in this endeavour.

In the ensuing dialogue, ministers and representatives from around the world affirmed their support for a two-State solution and condemned the violence by both sides. Many denounced Israel’s settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territory as illegal under international law, called for upholding the spirit and letter of resolution 2334 (2016) and pressed parties to re-engage in meaningful peace negotiations.

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