UN head speaks out over Israel's 'Separation Wall'

By staff writers
March 26, 2007

The secretary-general of the United Nations yesterday toured a Palestinian refugee camp and spoke of the "very sad and tragic" results of the controversial security wall erected by Israel.

Ban Ki-Moon also praised the "resilience" of the Palestinian people and the "unwavering commitment" to independence of the president, Mahmoud Abbas.

In his first trip to the Palestinian territories, Mr Ban visited the Aida refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the West Bank, just south of the Israeli wall.

In December last year, church leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury also visited Bethlehem. They suggested that the Israeli separation wall was "a sign of all that was wrong in the human heart".

The Wall has been the target of campaigns by many Christians and others who draw attention to the desperate economic impact that it is having on Palestinians.

The number of tourists visiting Bethlehem has dropped from nearly 92,000 in 2000 to just a few thousand. In the last five years an estimated ten percent of the Christian population of Bethlehem has emigrated.

Mr Ban said: "I have deep admiration for these people, for the resilience of Palestinian people, to make their lives better.

"This has strengthened my resolve and commitment to work for peace in the Middle East."

Senior UN officials and Salah Tameri, the Palestinian governor of Bethlehem, explained to Mr Ban the difficulties caused by Israeli travel restrictions and the barrier.

Mr Ban said it was "a very sad and tragic thing to see many suffering from the construction of this wall, depriving opportunities for basic living".

Later Mr Ban praised Mr Abbas, saying they shared a vision of a comprehensive peace deal with Israel. At a joint news conference with the Palestinian leader, following a meeting at Mr Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank, Mr Ban said: "You have shown an unwavering commitment to reaching self-determination and an independent state for the Palestinian people."

Such warm remarks were not extended to the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, or to other Hamas party officials.

Hamas, branded a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, joined Mr Abbas's more moderate Fatah party in a coalition government last week, but while Mr Ban welcomed the new government, he said "the atmosphere is not ripe" for talks with Hamas.

"At this time, I do not have plans to meet with prime minister Haniyeh or other Hamas cabinet ministers," he said.

Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said she would try to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by talking to both sides. She said she hoped to find a common agenda that would eventually lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The strategy appeared to set the stage for her to undertake shuttle diplomacy between Mr Abbas and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister.

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