Published on Wednesday, December 6, 2000 in the Guardian of London
UN Mediator Tells Israel:
Lift Blockade or Risk War
by Brian Whitaker
 
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict could rapidly deteriorate into a regional war, the United Nations special envoy to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, warned yesterday.

He urged Israel to lift its blockade of Palestinian areas. "The situation as it is now is not tenable," he said. "It may continue the way it is right now for a few more weeks ... It could deteriorate sharply, dramatically and tragically, which may produce regional spillovers, so we will face a regional war."

Israel imposed the blockade in October, citing security reasons, but Palestinians say it is a collective punishment which has put thousands out of work.

Mr Roed-Larsen, a Norwegian, was a key figure in the secret talks between the PLO and Israel which produced the Oslo accords in 1993, and is a mediator whose views are respected by both sides.

"Palestinian living conditions are falling fast, and safety nets are wearing thin," he said. A "stark increase" in poverty since the beginning of the intifada had left almost half the Palestinians living on less than nine shekels (£1.63) a day, he added. "We need a massive opening up of the Palestinian territories, and we need it very quickly."

He said the Palestinians had succeeded in cutting unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 30% in 1996 to 12% last year, but it had risen to 40% - more than 260,000 people - as a result of the blockade.

"Three years of progress have been wiped out in two months of conflict."

Because each worker supports several people, Mr Roed-Larsen estimated that more than 1m Palestinians had suffered a serious loss of income. The Palestinian Authority was no longer able to pay public employees, he added.

He estimated that the Palestinian economy had lost more than £345m in the first 60 days of the crisis, and the losses were continuing at £6.8m a day.

The figures do not include the cost of caring for more than 9,000 wounded Palestinians, nor lost taxes, which are likely to run into the hundreds of millions of pounds, nor the damage to infrastructure.

The al-Mazen Centre for Human Rights in Gaza claims that Israeli heavy weapons partly or totally destroyed 431 houses, 13 public buildings, 10 factories and 14 religious buildings in the first six weeks of the conflict.

The uprooting of trees - which will take years to replace - will also have a lasting impact on livelihoods. The Palestinian agriculture ministry estimates that the Israeli army and settlers have destroyed more than 44,000 trees, mainly grapevines and other agricultural trees.

The Israelis say such measures are necessary for security, though they are also a way of pressuring Palestinians.

Some Israelis want tougher measures, including further economic isolation. There have also been hints that the Israel Electric Corporation, which says it is owed £2.8m by the Palestinian Authority, may cut off power supplies.

Others, including the Shin Bet intelligence service, say a tougher line would make people more desperate and encourage attacks in Israel.

Calling the blockade "completely counter-productive", Mr Roed-Larsen said yesterday: "This policy is fuelling anger and is the major instrument for the radicalisation of the population. The risk here is that one produces through these policies a new generation of Palestinians where hatred, anger and resentment will stay for decades.

"This, in the longer and shorter term, is the greatest threat to the security situation."

Yesterday, some 30,000 Palestinian mourners attended a funeral in Gaza City for Awad Selmi, a senior activist in the armed wing of Hamas who was killed in an explosion, allegedly while planting a bomb. Hamas vowed revenge for his death and dismissed negotiations as an option for peace.

Despite such mass protests, Mr Roed-Larsen believes it "possible to repair the situation and bring the Oslo process back by reviving talks."

"The most important steps on the economic front rest with the Israeli government."

His remarks came after the Israeli group Peace Now called for the immediate evacuation of the 6,500 Israeli settlers in Gaza, followed by the gradual, but not prolonged withdrawal of a further 100,000 settlers from West Bank areas with a large Palestinian population. It also proposed a territorial exchange with the Palestinians of areas in the West Bank with a high Jewish population, such as Gush Etzion.

The plan, reported yesterday in Ha'aretz, said: "The evacuation should take place by offering alternative housing inside Israel, in areas which will be agreed upon with the settlers."

•Gun battles continued to rage in the West Bank and Gaza late last night, capping a day in which soldiers shot dead two Palestinians who took part in rock-throwing protests.

Meanwhile, in the Jordanian capital, Amman, unidentified gunmen shot and wounded an Israeli embassy employee as he left a shop in an upmarket area of the city last night. The police said he suffered a gunshot wound to his left foot.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000

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