Gaza is not occupied, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, rebutting accusations from visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Israel was to blame for this summer’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza.
Ban made a whirlwind trip to Jerusalem, meeting with its top politicians to call for a renewal of the frozen peace process with the Palestinians, to urge Israel to lift restrictions on the Gaza Strip and to halt settlement activity and Jewish building in east Jerusalem. He also met in Ramallah with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and is scheduled to visit Gaza on Tuesday.
“I’m very concerned about the recent announcement of plans to advance settlements in east Jerusalem, which are in clear violation of international law,” Ban told Netanyahu. “This does not send the right signals, and I urge the government of Israel to reverse these activities.”
There were polite moments during Ban’s visit. The soft-spoken secretary-general was careful to drop Hebrew words such as “toda” for thank-you and “hag sameah” for happy holidays. He acknowledged the harm caused to Israel by Hamas rocket attacks against it.
But the sharp policy differences between Israel and the UN were evident, particularly during Ban’s meeting with Netanyahu, where both men accused each other of harming the renewal of the peace process.
The Palestinians have asked the United Nations to take charge of ensuring that Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 lines rather than proceed with US-brokered negotiations to set a permanent border between them and Israel.
Netanyahu warned Ban against supporting Palestinian unilateral moves for statehood recognition at the UN.
“I believe that unilateral steps by the Palestinians at the United Nations will not advance peace,” the prime minister said. “I think they’ll do the very opposite. They’ll bring about a further deterioration in the situation – something none of us want. If the UN wants to support a genuine reconciliation, it must avoid any steps that could undermine peace.”
Ban said he supported a negotiated two-state solution but that the summer’s Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas showed the dangers of allowing the current situation to continue.
“As the rounds of hostilities indicate, the status quo is not tenable,” he said. “It is clear that the sides must quickly return to the negotiation table with the readiness to make the tough and necessary compromises. This is the time for leadership, Mr. Prime Minister, for the resumption of talks, for an end to polarization.”
On Sunday in Cairo, at a donor conference that raised $5.4 billion for the Palestinians, Ban charged that the root causes of the Gaza conflict were “a restrictive occupation that has lasted almost half a century, the continued denial of Palestinian rights and the lack of tangible progress in peace negotiations.”
Netanyahu on Monday rejected that characterization.
“The root cause of the violence that burst from Gaza is not Israel’s occupation in Gaza, for a simple reason: Israel doesn’t occupy Gaza,” Netanyahu said.
He explained that Israel had withdrawn its military and civilians from Gaza in 2005. “So there is no Israeli occupation of Gaza.”
Hamas violence against Israel, including the rockets it launched against Israeli civilians and cities, was the cause of the conflict this summer, he said. The terrorist group exploited UN neutrality by using its facilities to store weapons, Netanyahu said.
“And when rockets were discovered inside UN schools, some UN officials handed them back to Hamas – that very same Hamas that was rocketing that very same time Israeli cities and Israeli civilians,” the prime minister said.
Hamas wants to destroy Israel and “doesn’t give a hoot for the 1967 lines,” Netanyahu said. “They’re committed to killing every Israeli and every Jew. You just have to read their charter – they say that very plainly.”
Ban said that he had “consistently condemned the rockets fired from Hamas and other armed groups, the tunnels and breaches of the cease-fire.”
He welcomed steps taken by Israel to ease movement and access for Palestinians in Gaza, but said that much more needed to be done.
He said he was hopeful that a new monitoring mechanism agreed upon by Israel, the PA and the UN would allow building material into Gaza in the near future so it could recover from destruction it incurred during the summer’s conflict.
“I urge both sides to implement this mechanism in good faith,” Ban said. “Large-scale reconstruction must start without delay.”
When she met with Ban, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni also urged him to support negotiations rather than unilateral actions.
“The only way to achieve and establish a Palestinian state goes through negotiations with Israel,” she said. “By having these kind of unilateral decisions in different parts of the world, [we] give [PA President] Mahmoud Abbas the understanding that there is no need to negotiate the Palestinian state, and I believe that this is a mistake.”
President Reuven Rivlin told Ban the best way to end the Gaza border restrictions was to make it impossible for Hamas to carry out terrorist activities.
“We Israelis understand that the solution should be found regarding the closure on the Gaza Strip,” Rivlin said. “Over 1.5 million Palestinians cannot continue living under closure. We are not blind to the difficult conditions in which they are living.
“Having said that,” he continued, “lifting the closure can take place only after the Palestinian leadership and the international community will find a way to dismantle the terror capability of Hamas and will assure that Israeli citizens will be able to live in safety.”
Both before his visit and during it, Ban called on Israel to lift all its restrictions on Gaza. Israel has imposed a naval and aerial blockade of the area to prevent weapons from entering the Strip. Israel also controls two of Gaza’s three crossings, where it heavily restricts travel and the passage of goods out of the area. Food and humanitarian supplies can enter. It is expected that in the near future building material will be able to enter, now that Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the UN have agreed on a monitoring mechanism to prevent Hamas from using it to build infiltration tunnels.
Israel imposed many of the restrictions in 2007, after Hamas ousted its rival Palestinian party, Fatah, from Gaza and took over the area in a bloody coup.
“Our Palestinian neighbors in Gaza are held captive by Hamas, they deserve a better and safe life,” said Rivlin, adding that disarming Hamas would improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
Turning to Ban, he said Israel regards him as a friend and one who could help renew the peace process.
During the visit, Ban wrote a message in the presidential guest book, which said, “Israel is an important member state of the UN and I am committed to work together with Israel for peace, development and human rights as enshrined in the UN charter.”