UN chief Ban Ki-moon began a visit to the Palestinian territories and Israel on Saturday, saying the Middle East Quartet “strongly supports” Palestinian efforts to create their own state.
He kicked off his two-day visit by meeting Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank political capital of Ramallah.
He is also expected to meet senior Israeli officials and to visit the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, still largely in ruins following an Israeli military campaign at the start of last year.
Ban arrived in Ramallah a day after the Quartet called for Israel to halt all settlement construction and for a peace deal with the Palestinians 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 formal talks.
Before those talks, Fayyad had taken Ban to a vantage point above Ramallah to show him a large swathe of West Bank territory under exclusive Israeli control and off limits to Palestinian development.
‘Living under restriction’
Ban “will see for himself how difficult it is,” Fayyad said before the UN secretary general arrived, “but he will also see how determined we are to create positive facts on the ground”.
Fayyad claims 60% of the West Bank consists of land in so-called Area C, under exclusive Israeli control, and that 70 000 Palestinians live in such zones.
Following the tour, Ban said: “I have seen for myself plainly and clearly how Palestinians are living under such restriction and limitation. Even in your territory your are not able to develop or even maintain a normal economic life.”
On 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,” he said.
It also urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks on final status issues — security, borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem — to find a settlement within 24 months.
Such a deal would end “the occupation which began in 1967 and result in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel,” Ban said.
Israel irked by deadline
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was particularly irked by the two-year deadline.
“Peace cannot be imposed artificially and with an unrealistic calendar,” he was quoted as saying in an address to the Jewish community 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 “make sure that Israel does effectively halt completely all settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem”.
And speaking before his meeting with Ban, Fayyad said of the Quartet statement: “we regard it as a progressive statement encompassing all the key elements that should govern how the political process proceeds.”
Last week, Israel announced plans to build 1 600 new settler homes. That infuriated its chief ally Washington, coming as US Vice-President Joe Biden visited the country.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Clinton late on Thursday following a tense call last week during which she urged him to halt the settler plans.
Clinton said Friday the strong US reaction to Israeli settlement plans was “paying off”.
The Palestinians had refused to return to the negotiating table until all construction was halted, but were persuaded by Washington to enter into indirect talks. It is not now clear what their stance is, and Ban might be planning to encourage them to do so.
The flurry of diplomatic activity comes as tensions remain high between the two sides and have spilled over into deadly violence. – AFP