19 May 2005 - AFTER MIDDLE EAST VISIT, NATO PA PRESIDENT PIERRE LELLOUCHE PESSIMISTIC ABOUT PEACE PROCESS [PRESS RELEASE]
“The grim situation in the West Bank indicates that violence might explode again after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza” declared Pierre Lellouche, President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and member of the French parliament, after traveling in the West Bank and Israel from 14-17 May together with Assembly Vice Presidents Lorenzo Forcieri of Italy, Pierre Claude Nolin of Canada, and Vahit Erdem of Turkey. The purpose of the visit was to assess the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and see where the parliamentary side of NATO could be helpful in increasing confidence between the two sides.
Recent developments ‑ notably the election of Mahmud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, the decision of the Israeli government to unilaterally disengage from Gaza, and a renovated determination of the US administration to engage in the Middle East peace process ‑ had sparked a fair degree of optimism in the West concerning the possibility of a negotiated agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. On the contrary, NATO parliamentarians left the region deeply concerned with what they have found. “I see a rise in tension,” Lellouche declared, “which is very disturbing”.
NATO PA President explained that, while international attention is currently focusing on the disengagement from Gaza (scheduled by mid August), many questions remain as to how this is going to be carried out, with what degree of resistance, and what will be left behind to allow the Palestinians to function as an economic and social entity. Palestinian officials have described the future status of Gaza as “the largest prison on earth, with no free access from land, air, or sea”. Israeli authorities confirmed that, under the terms of their unilateral disengagement plan, they will continue to retain control over Gaza’s airspace, borders and vital infrastructures, such as water, electricity and fuel. Moreover, meetings with members of the Knesset highlighted disagreements within the current governing coalition about whether the Gaza disengagement will be followed by the withdrawal from some areas of the West Bank, or whether Gaza first will actually be Gaza last. It was clear nonetheless that the disengagement will be a unilateral Israeli move and that while to the two sides have tried to establish some form of basic cooperation on it, there is no real coordination. Palestinian officials see this as a precise strategy: “They know what they are doing” commented Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator.
But NATO parliamentarians were even more concerned about the developments in the West Bank, where towns, settlements, and outposts are being expanded and created by Israelis with a resulting appropriation of Palestinian land. This and the parallel imposition of road blocks, check points, IDF military bases, restrictions on access and an alternative road network is slowly but surely undermining the viability of a future Palestinian state.
Likewise, the Israeli security fence (or wall, according to the Palestinians) ‑ however understandable as a means of protection against suicide bombers – is not built along the internationally recognized Green Line, but incorporates several substantial settlements beyond it. According to Palestinians, the wall and planned colony expansion will enable Israel to control 46% of the West Bank, leaving them only 9% of the original Palestine at the end of the British Mandate in 1948. Israeli officials dispute such figures, indicating that the fence will only take 7 to 8% of the West Bank, which could be compensated by land swaps.
NATO parliamentarians visited several Palestinian towns, such as Abu Dis and Bethlehem, literally strangled by surrounding Israeli settlements and the security wall. Satellite photographs clearly illustrated the gradual land grab operated by expanding settlements and outposts. Representatives of the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department also documented the daily harassment, property destruction, humiliation and violence perpetrated by Israeli settlers against the Palestinian population. As a consequence, frustration is growing fast among Palestinians, especially the large young population, which can hardly see a future in their homeland.
This strategy was particularly evident around the town of Qalqilya, which was visited by members from both the Palestinian and the Israeli side (guided in the latter by an IDF officer). Because of the existence and expansion of the neighbouring Israeli settlements of Alfe Menashe and Zufin – both built in the West Bank ‑ the Palestinian town is now encircled by the security wall. This situation has meant a serious deterioration in the economic conditions of the town, which lives mainly on agriculture and commerce. Once a thriving town used by Palestinians and Israelis alike, commercial activity has been dramatically reduced. Israelis contended that the wall was justified by continuing suicide bombing attacks from Qalqilya to the Israeli city of Natanya causing hundreds of casualties. As a result of the encirclement, however, Qalqilya’s population, traditionally moderate, has overwhelmingly voted for Hamas candidates in the recent municipal election.
Israeli parliamentarians, asked by NATO PA members about this policy, explained that the security fence was a “temporary measure” against suicide bombers and that it had proven successful, because in the past year Palestinian terrorism had decreased dramatically. Israeli parliamentarians who opposed the fence did so because they did not want, at this stage, to define future borders. No clear explanation, however, was offered by Israeli legislators for the expansion of the settlements in the West Bank, other than the fact that it represented a “natural growth” of existing Israeli communities. Moreover, there appears to be very little awareness, or interest, among the majority of the Israeli population (70%) about the situation in the West Bank.
With regard to the role of the Palestinian Authority, all Israeli politicians insisted that, although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) managed to stop terror attacks, he had so far failed to completely disarm terrorist groups and to provide effective and credible security arrangements. The Israeli government considers the elimination of all terror infrastructure as a prerequisite for the implementation of the Road Map. In addition, according to Israeli politicians, after some initial, positive steps, President Abbas still appeared unable or unwilling to implement the necessary democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei strongly rejected such allegations and indicated that the presidential elections in January 2005 and the recent municipal elections were a demonstration of Palestinian strong willingness to reform.
NATO parliamentarians also discussed with members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) the forthcoming legislative elections. The PLC and the government are still discussing the electoral system: some, including President Abbas and Prime Minister Qurei, support a full proportional system, while others, worried that such system might favour Hamas and other Islamist groups, prefer a mix of proportional and first-past-the-post system. The debate, and the law that would follow it, risk delaying the holding of the elections, which are currently scheduled for July 17.
In meetings with both Palestinians and Israelis, President Lellouche strongly urged the taking of several initial steps: (a) Israel should immediately freeze the settlement expansion process and clearly define its borders; (b) the Palestinians must be realistic on the principle of the right of return for their refugees; (c) both sides should immediately resume talks at all levels and start negotiating on the basis of what was achieved in Taba in January 2001.
Following a request by the PLC, President Lellouche has offered to send members of the NATO PA to monitor the elections. He also invited representatives of the PLC to attend the Spring session of the NATO PA in Ljubljana, 27-31 May, as a first step to further involvement in Assembly’s activities. For its part, the Knesset confirmed its wish to become a Mediterranean Associate member of the NATO PA, joining Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Jordan.As a result of the meetings with Palestinian and Israeli legislators, President Lellouche has invited the two parliaments to send members to the forthcoming Mediterranean seminar in Naples (24-26 June). The bureau of the NATO PA has also offered to provide a platform for discussion to parliamentarians from both sides. To this end a special meeting may be arranged following its Naples seminar to encourage a frank exchange of views and the development of a common basis of understanding.