UN urges Israel to ‘immediately’ halt settlement expansion

UN Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland says he is ‘deeply troubled’ by Israel’s plan to expand illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

Settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are regarded as illegal under international law and by much of the international community [File: Hazem Bader/AFP]

The United Nations on Thursday accused Israel of flagrantly violating international law by expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, urging the country’s new government to halt their enlargement immediately.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UN Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland reported on the implementation of a 2016 Security Council resolution that declared settlements have “no legal validity”. The global body demanded a halt to the settlement expansion, which jeopardises the possibility of a future Palestinian state.

Wennesland said in a briefing to the council on Guterres’ 12-page report that he was “deeply troubled” by Israel’s approval of a plan to add 540 housing units to the Har Homa settlement in East Jerusalem as well as the establishment of settlement outposts. He said that is “illegal also under Israeli law”.

“I again underscore, in no uncertain terms, that Israeli settlements constitute a flagrant violation of United Nations resolutions and international law,” the UN envoy said.

“They are a major obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”

“The advancement of all settlement activity must cease immediately,” Wennesland said.

Settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are regarded as illegal under international law and by much of the international community. Between 600,000 and 750,000 Israeli settlers live in more than 250 illegal settlements (130 official, 120 unofficial) in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Israel disputes its settlements are illegal.

Both Guterres and Wennesland also called on Israeli authorities to end the demolition of Palestinian homes and other property and the displacement of Palestinians – another flashpoint – “and to approve plans that would enable these communities to build legally and address their development needs”.

The Israeli plan to forcefully displace Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods in occupied East Jerusalem last month sparked protests across Palestinian territories, as well as inside Israel by its Palestinian citizens.

Hamas, which governs the besieged Gaza Strip, fired rockets in Israel against the displacement of Palestinians and the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque – Islam’s third holiest site – by Israeli forces after Israel ignored a deadline to remove its forces from the mosque compound. Israel then launched an 11-day war on the enclave of two million people which has been under a 14-year-old land, air and sea blockade.

Ending violence against civilians

The December 2016 resolution, which the United States abstained on in the final weeks of the Obama administration, also called for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, and urged Israel and the Palestinians to exercise restraint and refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric.

It also called on all parties to launch negotiations on final status issues and urged intensified international and regional diplomatic efforts to help end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict and achieve a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace.

Guterres and Wennesland made clear that four and a half years after the resolution’s adoption, none of these appeals has been met.

Wennesland said the period between March and June covered in the report “witnessed an alarming increase in the level of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, including hostilities between Israel and factions in Gaza at a scale and intensity not seen in years”.

Fragile ceasefire

The UN Mideast envoy said the cessation of hostilities after last month’s 11-day Israeli assault on Gaza “remains very fragile,” adding that the United Nations is working closely with Israel, the Palestinians and partners including Egypt “to solidify a ceasefire, allow the entry of urgent humanitarian assistance and stabilise the situation in Gaza.”

The Israeli military offensive on Gaza – the worst escalation of hostilities since 2014 – killed at least 256 Palestinians, including 66 children. Thirteen people were killed in Israel, including two children.

The Israeli attacks also destroyed 1,148 housing and commercial units in Gaza and partially damaged 15,000 others, leaving more than 100,000 civilians displaced in UN-run schools and other hosting communities.

Hamas has demanded a significant easing of the 14-year-old Israeli blockade on the enclave of two million people, dubbed as an “open-air prison” by the UN. Half of the population in Gaza lives in poverty.

Israel has said it will not tolerate even relatively minor attacks from Gaza, including the launch of incendiary balloons, which triggered Israeli air strikes last week.

“I urge all sides to refrain from unilateral steps and provocations, take steps to reduce tensions, and allow these efforts to succeed,” Wennesland told the council. “Everyone must do their part to facilitate ongoing discussions to stabilise the situation on the ground and avoid another devastating escalation in Gaza.”

He called on all Palestinian factions “to make serious efforts to ensure the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under a single, legitimate, democratic, national government,” saying that Gaza must remain part of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.

During the March to June reporting period, Guterres said 295 Palestinians, including 42 women and 73 children, were killed by Israeli security forces and 10,149 were injured during demonstrations, search-and-arrest operations, air strikes, shelling and other incidents in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The UN chief said 90 members of the Israeli security forces and 857 Israeli civilians were injured by Palestinians during the same period in incidents in which stones and fire bombs were thrown, the indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortars and other incidents.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies