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UN political chief warns Security Council of heightened tensions in Middle East

The United Nations political affairs chief today warned the Security Council of developments in Israeli-Palestinian talks, the occupied Palestinian territory and in Lebanon which have heightened tensions in the region of late.

“As a new year begins, hopefully one of progress in Middle East peacemaking, several challenges are present,” said the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, at an open debate of the Council on the situation in the Middle East. “We will continue to do all we can to promote dialogue and preserve the stability and security of the region as a whole.”

On Israeli-Palestinian talks, Mr. Pascoe expressed appreciation and support for US efforts to engage in parallel talks on substance with the parties and its intention to be a proactive participant offering ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate.

However, he voiced concern over the target dates supported by the Middle East Quartet – a group made up of the UN, European Union, Russian Federation and US which champions the internationally endorsed plan for two states – for reaching an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement on permanent status and for completion of the Palestinian Authority’s two-year state-building programme.

The Quartet’s principals are due to meet in Munich, Germany, on 5 February to try to further the talks between Israelis and Palestinians. “Efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians to engage seriously on final status issues will be at the top of the agenda when the Quartet meets,” the political affairs chief said – while noting that the time-frame for reaching the Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement ends in close to nine months.

“In this regard, the viability of the political process and the credibility of the Quartet are also at stake this year,” Mr. Pascoe said. “We are seriously concerned at the continuing lack of progress in the search for a negotiated settlement. Peace and Palestinian statehood cannot be further delayed.”

Noting the continued sharp increase in Israeli settlement construction activity, Mr. Pascoe said further settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, continues to undermine trust and prejudices final status discussions.

He cited the Secretary-General’s recent statements deploring the demolition of the Shepherd’s Hotel in the heart of a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem and reiterated the Secretary-General’s call on Israel to freeze all settlement activity in conformity with international law and the so-called “Roadmap,” a path for a permanent solution to the conflict, devised by the Quartet.

Regarding Gaza, Mr. Pascoe voiced extreme concern over the situation in the past month, including an increase in tensions. He said that recent violence has included Palestinian militants firing 31 rockets and 47 mortar shells into Israel – representing approximately a four-fold increase from the previous reporting period – and Israel conducting 11 incursions and 26 air strikes in Gaza.

“We condemn the indiscriminate firing of projectiles towards Israeli civilian areas by Palestinian militants,” Mr. Pascoe told the Council members. “We equally stress that all parties must refrain from actions contrary to international humanitarian law which target or endanger civilians.”

Noting that the de facto Hamas authorities in Gaza recently stated publicly their commitment to maintaining calm, Mr. Pascoe added that all responsible parties should cease acts of violence as “a new outbreak of major hostilities would be devastating and must be avoided.”

The political affairs chief told the Council that a fundamental goal of the United Nations continues to be the re-vitalization of Gaza’s economy and seeking the end of the Israeli closure policy. He added that import and export levels have improved from the period before Israel’s June 2010 policy adjustment, but are still significantly below pre-2007 levels.

On recent developments in Lebanon, where divergent views over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon recently precipitated the collapse of the government, Mr. Pascoe noted the Secretary-General’s call for continuing dialogue and respect for Lebanon’s constitution and laws.

“Let me comment here that it is essential for all Lebanese leaders to continue to address the current political situation through dialogue, within the parameters established by the constitution of Lebanon,” Mr. Pascoe said, while pointing to the country’s impact on the region.

“Preserving the stability of Lebanon and ensuring an end to impunity there is essential, if only because the Lebanese themselves have a right to both,” the political affairs chief said. “But it is also critical to the broader fate of a region which needs, more than anything else, all elements to be conducive for progress towards comprehensive peace.”

On relations between Israel and Syria, Mr. Pascoe expressed regret over the lack of progress in the effort to promote peace between the two countries, despite continuing contacts by diplomatic actors, and noted that resolution of the conflict between the two countries is critical for regional stability.

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