When the fighting was taking place in and around Gaza, between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, the civilian population of Gaza and southern Israel bore the biggest burden of the violence, destruction, and widespread suffering. As a result, Gazans, who had already endured a lot of suffering for many years, have been subjected to even greater misery and are now facing an uncertain future with feelings of worry and despair. Death, destruction, and displacement are knocking on their door. This is in addition to the harmful effects of occupation, siege, and civil war, not to mention the economic collapse. When I visited Gaza only two days after the declaration of cease-fire there, I saw the extent of the humiliation to which the people were being subjected. I was deeply touched by what I saw and heard.
The people of Gaza and southern Israel have not been the only victims. The political process that has been underway since the Annapolis Conference in November 2007 has also been affected. At a time when we are addressing the challenge ahead of us to provide humanitarian aid and take part in early recovery and reconstruction, we are also facing the need to recover and rebuild political processes among the Palestinians themselves, between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and between Israel and the Arab world.
Three weeks of fierce fighting came to an end with both sides declaring a unilateral cease-fire on 18 January. The situation has been fragile since, with further violence and continued closure. This emphasizes the need to maintain a durable, lasting, and fully respected cease-fire, as called for by the UN Security Council.
Egypt has laudably led the efforts to reach such a cease-fire. It has also worked towards addressing several other related issues, such as the full reopening of the crossings into Gaza, the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Corporal Shalit, and the reunification of the Palestinians. Egypt has also taken the initiative to host a major meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh this week to fulfill the economic needs of the Palestinians, particularly the recovery and reconstruction needs in Gaza.
The opening of crossings, as envisioned in international agreements, is a central issue in order for a cease-fire to hold and humanitarian and reconstruction aid to be delivered to those who are in dire need for it. If we are to restore a soundly operating crossings system, we must address Israel’s legitimate security concerns. The PNA should be in a position to assume its responsibilities in accordance with these agreements. This in turn requires that the Palestinian people regain their unity under one government that is committed to PLO principles. As I mentioned earlier, the United Nations will work with a unified government that places the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under President Abbas’s authority. I urge all Palestinian parties and all regional and international players to support the Palestinian reconciliation process.
If it has emphasized anything, the crisis in Gaza has called attention to the deep political failures of the past and the dire need to achieve a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace for all the peoples in the Middle East. Just as we need a unified Palestinian government that is committed to the peace process, we need an Israeli government that will fulfill its obligations. Moreover, just as we need the Palestinians to address their security issues – similar to how the PNA is admirably doing so in the West Bank – we need the Israelis to truly halt their settlement activity. Settlement expansion is illegal and unacceptable. It contributes to destroying trust in the political process throughout the Arab world. I urge all the international partners to make this issue the core of the renewed international efforts to achieve peace.
In the meantime, the United Nations must continue to provide humanitarian aid for Gaza and wherever there is need for it. We launched an appeal for help after the fighting was over and I hope that the donors will continue to make generous contributions in response to this appeal. The United Nations must also continue to support the PNA, whose budget is paying the wages of thousands of civil servants in Gaza, in an effort to provide some basic services. I called on all parities to enable the provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza without any impediments. I also called on them to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian workers and fully respect international humanitarian law. There must not be any obstacles or interference when providing humanitarian aid.
We must also ensure a timely shift from the stage of emergency humanitarian assistance to the stage of early recovery and reconstruction. Without this shift, thousands of Gazans will find themselves caught in a situation of survival and dependency on others. In the long run, prospects for growth and stability will decrease. A certain level of normal life needs to be restored to Gaza. We must also work hand in hand with the PNA, which is setting its early recovery and reconstruction priorities, driven by a unified goal among regional players and the international community. As we do this, we cannot neglect the West Bank, where we must continue to assist the PNA in its ongoing reform efforts. In order for ordinary Palestinians to see a tangible improvement in their daily lives, Israel must take immediate measures to improve movement and the ability to access vital resources, such as land and markets.
Returning to the situation that prevailed in Gaza or in the peace process before 27 December 2008 should not be our only goal. Now is the suitable time to achieve a full and comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors more than any other time. At a time when we are making tireless efforts to provide urgently the required aid and reconstruct Gaza, we must also work hard to achieve the goals that have long united us, but which we have been unable to achieve, namely, the goals of ending the occupation that began in 1967, and establishing the State of Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank – including East Jerusalem – that is living side by side with Israel in peace and security. This is in addition to the goal of achieving a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors.
I pledge to make every effort as UN secretary general to achieve such comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in this vital region. The international community must assume its responsibility to facilitate progress and insist on it where necessary. As a consequence of the tragic conflict in Gaza, this issue has become more urgent than any other time.