UN: Peace is hampered by West Bank growth

The humanitarian outlook for the 2.3 million Palestianians is 'dismal' if the rising numbers of Israeli settlers are not curbed, says a hard-hitting report
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The Independent Online

The United Nations has issued a stark warning on the eve of Tony Blair's first full working trip as international Middle East envoy that the steady growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is undermining the prospects for peace.

The hard-hitting report by some of the UN's top Middle East experts suggests that the break-up of the West Bank into dozens of enclaves because of the settlements – which, along with the roads and military apparatus that serve them, take up almost 40 per cent of the West Bank – is making a two-state solution "elusive". And it underlines the daunting task facing Tony Blair – who is partly charged with reviving a Palestinian economy close to collapse – by warning that unless the settlement issue is tackled "the dismal humanitarian outlook" for the West Bank's 2.3 million Palestinians "will intensify".

Mr Blair is due here shortly for talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and to begin work as the new Middle East envoy of the international "Quartet", made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN itself. He is also expected to meet other Arab leaders in the region.

The new report by the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem is the last to be produced under the leadership of its head, David Shearer, who briefed Mr Blair for more than two hours during the former prime minister's familiarisation trip to the region at the end of July. Mr Shearer, a New Zealander, has been promoted to become the UN's deputy special envoy to Iraq.

The report points out that the population of the Jewish West Bank settlements – illegal under international law – is growing at a rate of 5.5 per cent annually, three times the rate in Israel itself. Unchecked, it will lead to unsustainable competition, for resources such as water and land, with a Palestinian population that is itself growing at a rate of 2.5 per cent per year.

The report says that closures which have prevented Palestinians from using many West Bank main roads since the beginning of the uprising in 2000 are justified by the Israeli government "as protecting Israeli citizens from terrorist attacks". But the report adds: "These measures are also intimately linked to maintaining settler access and their quality of life."

It says the roads have become "corridors to link settlements to Israel" and "have fragmented the West Bank into a series of enclaves, isolating Palestinian communities from each other." And it warns that while a network of checkpoints, alternative roads, tunnels and bridges bypassing settler-reserved roads provides a "measure of transport contiguity" which may satisfy "short term humanitarian needs", this cannot lead "to a sustainable economy" or "provide the basis for a two-state solution."

The report points out that the fastest growth in settlers – who currently total 450,000 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – are in the large settlement blocs, west of the military's separation barrier. Israel is counting on those blocs remaining in Israel as part of any peace deal with the Palestinians. And the report says the construction of the barrier – which cuts deep into Palestinian territory at points – "has further fragmented the West Bank".

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has reacted angrily to Hamas's use of force against Fatah demonstrators in Gaza on Friday. About 20 people were wounded during the protests when Hamas fired into the air, and beat and arrested demonstrators after stones and pipe bombs were thrown at Hamas-controlled buildings. Hamas said that the car of one if its members had been ripped by an explosion early yesterday. Reporters were also hurt.

The Fatah protesters had earlier held an open-air prayer meeting in the centre of Gaza City after complaining against incitement aimed at the organisation in Gaza mosques.

Mr Abbas's office said the crackdown by Hamas – whose d efacto control of Gaza since the bloody infighting last June has been outlawed by Mr Abbas – exhibited "a blind dictatorship and extremist culture that contradicts the values of our people and their heritage".

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