Written by Matthew Kalman
THE MEDIA LINE Wednesday, July 29, 2009
The United Nations’ senior diplomat in Jerusalem has urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to join the US-led drive to restart peace talks and called for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Robert Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, called for a halt to Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and condemned the fact that “not one spade has been put in the ground” to help Palestinians in Gaza reconstruct their homes after the war there last January.
“Time is not on our side here,” Serry told The Media Line in an exclusive interview at UN headquarters in Jerusalem.
“It may be five to midnight,” Serry warned. “I think the international community is aware of that – you see this determined drive on the part of the international community. I hope the parties are also ready for it.”
“Sometimes when I drive around here in the West Bank or in Jerusalem, see how Palestinians and Israelis are living very near to each other but also in a continued situation of conflict, it is almost as if the situation resembles two Siamese twins deeply unhappy to live in one body and increasingly unable to separate,” he said. “That’s why I believe it is very important that there is a determined drive this time.”
Earlier in the week, Serry condemned the eviction of Palestinians from a disputed home in East Jerusalem whose ownership is claimed by Israelis.
“Jerusalem is of course dear to the hearts of both Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.
“Israelis and Palestinians are living together in this beautiful city. What we have seen lately is an upsurge of house demolitions, eviction orders either imposed or actually already carried out, and also some Israeli activities, construction activities, in the city. This comes right at the time when the international community, under the renewed, vigorous leadership of the United States is trying actually to resume negotiations.”
“In that situation, to have these kinds of things in Jerusalem which can easily inflame the tensions here - which according to the UN also have no basis in international law - that’s just very unhelpful,” he added.
Serry said he was encouraged by the efforts of US envoy George Mitchell to hammer out an Israeli agreement to freeze West Bank settlements in return for confidence-building measures from Arab states.
“We have to convince that government that it is in the interests of all Israelis to have a peace process leading to the two-state solution. Netanyahu has accepted that goal now I think, which is important. There are important discussions ongoing now on the need for a credible settlements freeze and based on that I think parties will have to resume the negotiations and conclude them soon,” he said.
“We don’t want a process for the sake of a process, which we have seen too often here in the Middle East. So I very much welcome the American initiative to re-commit the parties to their commitments.”
But Serry said he was disappointed at the stalemate over efforts to begin the reconstruction of Gaza, where thousands of Palestinian homes and facilities were damaged during Operation Cast Lead last January.
“The present situation for us is completely unacceptable,” he said.
“What is it – six months now that we’ve had a devastating war in Gaza and not one spade has been put in the ground to help thousands of Gaza families actually to rebuild their affected homes. We have put on the table a very practical proposal to kick-start some reconstruction, doing it also under the flag of the United Nations. We believe that we can also then reassure everybody that the materials imported will be used for their intended purpose.”
He said a proposal put forward months ago by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has not yet been adopted and suggested that Israel was holding out for the release of Gilad Shalit, the soldier captured by Hamas more than three years ago and held incommunicado in Gaza.
“I met yesterday with President Abbas who reassured me of full Palestinian support,” he said. “I think we also have very important backing from the Quartet and certainly also Egypt would like to see an improvement. If you ask me what is the real issue on the Israeli side, I think it is Gilad Shalit. We are aware of a kind of cabinet decision that Israel will allow humanitarian goods to pass the crossings into Gaza and that is indeed happening – although also not really very satisfactory to us. But they will not allow any serious amounts of construction materials to go into Gaza as long as that issue is not resolved.”
“Let me make it very clear that at the United Nations every month when I brief the security council we are calling for his release,” said Serry. “Of course the very fact that Hamas is holding him is a human rights violation. The very fact that he hasn’t been visited by for instance the ICRC for over three years now. I’m aware that negotiations are ongoing. I very much hope that both parties will be able to resolve this issue and I really call also on Hamas to negotiate now in good faith so that we hopefully see his release very, very soon in the context of a prisoner exchange.”