Sunday, March 21, 2010

United Nations Chief Backs Palestinian Cause

UN chief backs Palestinian cause


RAMALLAH. UN chief Ban Ki-moon yesterday said the international community “strongly supports” Palestinian efforts to build a viable state at the start of a visit aimed at reviving peace talks.

He kicked off his two-day visit by meeting Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank political capital of Ramallah and praising his plan to build the institutions of an independent Palestinian state by mid-2011.

Ban is also expected to meet senior Israeli officials and to visit the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, still largely in ruins following a 22-day Israeli military campaign launched in December 2008.

Ban arrived in Ramallah a day after the Middle East diplomatic Quartet called for Israel to halt all settlement construction and for both sides to reach a peace deal by 2012.

“The Quartet has sent a clear and strong message: we are strongly supporting your efforts to establish an independent and viable Palestinian state,” he told Fayyad ahead of the formal talks.

At a joint Press conference after the meeting Ban called on both sides to revive talks suspended after the start of the Gaza war, saying “we have to get negotiations under way”.

The Palestinians grudgingly agreed to US-led indirect talks earlier this month but those efforts largely fell apart two days later when Israel announced plans to build 1 600 new settler homes in mostly Arab east Jerusalem.

Ban “condemned strongly” the decision to build the homes and warned that, “for the negotiations to succeed, it is vital that the parties act responsibly on the ground.

“All settlement activity is illegal anywhere in the occupied territories, and this must stop,” he said.

Fayyad had earlier taken Ban to a vantage point outside Ramallah to show him a large swathe of West Bank territory known as Area C which is under exclusive Israeli control and off limits to Palestinian development.

From the observation point Ban could see Israel’s controversial separation fence, a Jewish settlement and the skyline of Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to locate their future capital.

“The visit to Area C was an opportunity for the Secretary-General to see the difficulties that we face on a daily basis in our efforts to develop and build in preparation for our state,” Fayyad said at the Press conference.

As part of his state-building plan, Fayyad has vowed to establish “positive facts on the ground” in Area C, which he said makes up some 60 percent of the occupied West Bank.

Fayyad, a former World Bank economist, hailed the Quartet’s statement as “positive and comprehensive” but said more must be done, including allowing Palestinian security forces to operate throughout the West Bank. Last Friday, the Quartet (the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States) issued an ambitious statement after a meeting of senior officials in Moscow aimed at getting moribund peace talks back on track.

“The Quartet urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity . . . to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001 and to refrain from demolitions and evictions in east Jerusalem,” it said.

It also urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks on final status issues — security, borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem — and to reach a peace deal within 24 months.

Israel has criticised the deadline, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisting that “peace cannot be imposed artificially and with an unrealistic calendar” during an address in Brussels.

“This type of statement only harms the possibilities of reaching an accord.”

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat welcomed the Quartet's call, but asked for a mechanism to insure a complete settlement freeze.

The Palestinians have demanded the freeze apply to mostly Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967 Six Day War and unilaterally annexed in a move not recognised by any other government.

Israel’s announcement regarding the 1 600 new homes in east Jerusalem infuriated the United States, in part because it coincided with a visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has since discussed the matter directly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and last Friday Clinton insisted that the strong US reaction was “paying off”.

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