Reports from the Middle East are not encouraging. While the world has given its full attention to the disaster in Syria, the relations between Israelis and Palestinians have reached a new low. The Israeli government has taken further steps to expand settlements on the West Bank and Palestinians have given up on the possibilities to reach a peace agreement through talks. Extremists are gaining ground on both sides. Violence has been spread during the last six months. 30 Israelis have been killed, several of them through knife attacks, while 198 Palestinians have lost their lives through the Israeli counter measures.
However, the international community has not been totally passive. The French government is trying to convene an international conference in order to start a peace process and the so called Middle East Quartet (with the US, the Russian Federation, the EU and the UN secretariat) is working towards a Security Council resolution with the same intention.
The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Process, Bulgarian diplomat Micholay Mladenov, has asked for new efforts by the international community to stop the negative spiral. His speech to the Security Council on 24 March gave a clear message based on an analysis which ought to be widely understood.
I quote below key passages of his presentation.
“We in the international community must also be clear both in our understanding of the conflict and our role in how to help resolve it. Our immediate priority must be ending the violence which is tearing Israelis and Palestinians apart when both face the rise of radicals among their own constituents. We only need to look at the rest of the region to see the dangers of religious extremism, sectarianism and terrorism.
But let us be also abundantly clear that the current security challenges cannot be addressed if we lose sight of the fundamental problems that have led us here — the persistent inability to achieve a just and lasting solution that meets the national aspirations of the Palestinians and Israelis and allows them to live in two states, side by side, in peace, security and mutual recognition. This is why today we must once again play an important role by saying no, the prospect of a two-state solution is not dead, it remains the best pathway for peace.
The time has come to ring the alarm bells that the two-state solution is slipping from our fingers, that it is disappearing as the realities on the ground – driven by the ongoing settlement activities and confiscation of Palestinian land, as well as the continued lack of genuine Palestinian unity – make the prospect of a viable and independent Palestinian state less possible and less likely. The time has come for us to speak clearly as to the risks that undermine the two-state solution but also point to the way forward to a return to meaningful negotiations.
This is why the United Nations Secretary-General, the EU, the Russian Federation and the United States ofAmerica — all members of the MiddleEast Quartet, have stepped up their efforts to break the political impasse. The Quartet Envoys have started our work on a report which will review the situation on the ground, identify the dangers to a two-state solution, and provide recommendations on the way forward. We remain seriously concerned that current trends – including continued acts of violence against civilians, incitement, ongoing settlement activity, and the high rate of demolitions of Palestinian structures – are dangerously imperiling the viability of a two-state solution.
While the international community explores avenues for constructive engagement, there are trends that raise questions about the commitment of the parties to seriously address the main challenges blocking the progress towards peace.
Israel’s settlement enterprise continues, despite broad international condemnation. In a particularly troubling development, on March 10th Israel classified 580 acress out of the city ofJericho, in the West Bank as so-called ‘state land’. The area includes the 378 acres, reportedly approved, and widely condemned, in January of this year. This is evidence of a continued policy of systematic consolidation of Israeli control of the occupied West Bank, in direct contravention of international law.
Since the early 1980s, Israeli authorities in the West Bank have adopted, based on a controversial interpretation of the Ottoman Land Law, a policy of declaring as “state land” land that is not otherwise registered as private. This has resulted in the State seizing control over certain areas where Palestinians claim ownership and has proved to be a precursor for settlement construction. Any such declaration, particularly of a large scale, raises justified concerns over further settlement expansion. Settlements are illegal under international law and I urge Israel to halt and reverse such decisions.
The demolition and confiscation of Palestinian structures across the West Bank has also surged in 2016 withsome 468 houses and other structures demolished since the beginning of the year. On March 23, Israeli authorities demolished 53 structures in Khirbet Tana, including 22 homes, the third demolition this year in this particular community because Israel has declared by Israel as a firingzone. The total number of structures demolished or confiscated in these first 12 weeksof 2016 has now reached 85 per cent of the total number demolished or confiscated in all of 2015. As Palestinians are consistently denied permits to build legally, residents in the affected areas are left with few options but to build without permits, leaving them in constant fear of their homes and livelihoods being destroyed. I urge Israel to respect international humanitarian law and cease such unfair and unjust planning processes in the West Bank.”