Kerry talks peace while Israel bars UNESCO mission [May 19 - May 25]
President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both met with US Secretary of State John Kerry this week in the latter’s fourth visit to the region since he assumed office.
After meeting with the two to ostensibly find ways to restart stalled negotiations between the two sides, Kerry urged on May 24 both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take "hard decisions" to revive the peace process.
"We're getting toward a time now when hard decisions need to be made," he said at the end of his visit.
Kerry admitted a day before after meeting with the two leaders that there was skepticism and cynicism about his efforts to revive talks.
"I know this region well enough to know there is skepticism, in some quarters there is cynicism, and there are reasons for it. There have been bitter years of disappointment," he said. Still, he maintained: "It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient, but detailed and tenacious, that we can lay on a path ahead that can conceivably surprise people and certainly exhaust the possibilities for peace."
British foreign secretary William Hague was also in the region visiting with leaders on both sides and even visited the Bedouin community of Khan Al Ahmar between Jerusalem and Jericho, whose residents are under the threat of displacement.
On May 23, Hague was poignantly clear on where his country stands on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. "Israel has lost some of its support in Britain and in other European countries over time - this is something I've often pointed out to Israeli leaders -because of settlement activity, which we condemn,” he said.
"We strongly disagree with settlements on occupied land. Israel is a country we work with in many ways but we do disapprove of settlements,” he maintained, adding that: "We want to see both Israelis and Palestinians really commit themselves to the peace process while there is still a chance of a two-state solution."
In Khan al Ahmar, Hague listened to the residents’ grievances from Israeli efforts to push them out to make way for more settlement expansion. "We (in Britain) strongly condemn the building of settlements and recognise they are a severe threat to a two-state solution,” he told the people there.
On March 21, Israeli forces demolished two residential buildings in the Jabal al-Mukabbir in East Jerusalem. Earlier, they demolished two Palestinian homes in al-Tur, all under the pretext of unlicensed construction. Dozens of people have been left homeless from the demolitions.
A UNESCO fact-finding mission was supposed to arrive this week to look into Israeli measures in the Old City of Jerusalem and their impact on the archeological, cultural and heritage significance of the place, but was denied entry by Israel on May 20. Israel justified its decision by saying Palestinians were trying to politicize the visit.
"The Palestinians were not respecting the understandings,” an Israeli foreign ministry official said. “The visit was supposed to be professional, (but) they were taking measures that showed they were politicizing the event and not letting the delegation focus on professional sides of it," the official said.
UNESCO maintained that the mission was not cancelled, but postponed, the agency’s spokeswoman Sue Williams said.
The Palestinians said they expected Israel to pull something like this. “We weren't surprised by this decision because we believed that Israel's agreement to (allow the mission) was not convincing," minister of foreign affairs Riyad Al Malki said.
The Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt was reopened on May 22 after a five day closure. Egyptian soldiers and policemen closed the crossing following the kidnapping of seven Egyptian soldiers in Sinai, only reopening it after the soldiers were freed. Over 2,400 Palestinians had been stranded on both sides of the crossing during the days of the closure.
Extremist Israelis extended their attacks this week all the way to the Negev desert. On May 19, residents of the Retamim Kibbutz attacked the nearby Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj and set fire to a tent, according to head of the local village council, Salman Ibin Hamid
"The setters of Retamim are acting like they are in the West Bank," Ibn Hamid said. "These people have the mentality of the occupying settler to attack every Arab."
Finally, on May 23, the US appointed Gen. John Allen as special envoy on security issues in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. According to a US official, Allen will deal with the U.S. position on Israeli security needs and the security arrangements that would accompany the establishment of a future Palestinian state.