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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Middle East Quartet will not appoint a new envoy to replace James Wolfensohn, who resigned this week. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that there is no need for a special envoy following the election of the Hamas to lead the Palestinian Authority.
"If we believed that conditions were such that a special envoy could really do his work at this particular time, we wouldn't be seeking a replacement. Jim Wolfensohn, I hope, would be staying. And so that's why there isn't a replacement," Rice said at a joint press conference with Wolfensohn at the State Department.
Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, stepped down after voicing frustration at the Hamas leadership and the international decision to cut funds to the PA.
"It's a very difficult moment to be able to try to negotiate any independent type of arrangements that would affect the future of Gaza and the West Bank, because of the emphasis that Hamas puts on the destruction of the State of Israel and the less than communicative relationship with that state," he said.
He also stressed the need for the international community to make sure that the Palestinian people do not reach a humanitarian crisis due to the lack of foreign funding.
"It would surprise me if one could win by getting all the kids out of school or starving the Palestinians. And I don't think anyone in the Quartet believes that to be the policy, although sometimes it is made to appear that that's what it is. I think that's a losing gambit," he said. Rice assured Wolfensohn that the US would increase its assistance to humanitarian needs in the West Bank and Gaza, since "we do not want the Palestinian people to suffer".
Wolfensohn also issued his final report Tuesday, saying that overall implementation of one of his office's main achievements, the November 15 Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA), "has been disappointing." He wrote that "each side bears responsibility for this situation, which has ultimately meant that the benefits we had hoped would accrue to the Palestinian economy - and ultimately to the security of both peoples - have not materialized."
Wolfensohn provided an update on the major issues of this agreement, and their non-implementation.
Regarding the issue of border crossings, he said that "prolonged and repetitive closure of Karni, attributed to IDF warnings of security threats, has been extremely damaging."
According to his report, the Karni crossing, the target of an unsuccessful terrorist attack last week, has been closed 50 percent of the days it was scheduled to operate. While the target set by the November agreement was for 150 truckloads to pass through per day, the average now is 23 trucks per day.
Regarding the Erez crossing, Wolfensohn said that it has been closed since March 12. Before its closure, he said 2,800 Palestinian workers and businessmen were entering Israel through the crossing each day, a "significant increase" compared to the average of 1,841 daily during the 18 months prior to disengagement.
As to another major element of the AMA, creation of a connecting link between Gaza and the West Bank, neither bus nor truck convoys have been set up, and discussions on a permanent territorial link ceased after violence erupted in the Gaza Strip at the end of 2005.
Wolfensohn also said a target set for a decrease in IDF roadblocks in the West Bank has not been met, and that - according to UN numbers - the number of West Bank roadblocks have risen from 411 to more than 500.
Regarding the Rafah crossing into Gaza, Wolfensohn wrote that it has operated "more or less continuously" under the supervision of the EU Border Assistance Mission and that 200,000 people have moved through since it became operational last November.
He said that in recent weeks an understanding was reached between Egypt and the PA on the export of goods through the crossing and that the hope was that "in the near future" agricultural produce would exit through Rafah for export to the Gulf using the El-Arish airport in Sinai.
Wolfensohn was also instrumental in dealing with a number of disengagement-related issues, including the removal of the rubble from the settlements and the purchase of the greenhouses settlers left behind. (Wolfensohn himself was part of a group that bought the greenhouses and transferred them to the Palestinians.)
According to this report, Israel and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) signed an agreement in December whereby Israel would pay the UNDP to clear, sort, shred and store the rubble. Work on the first site will begin in May, and the UNDP estimates that the rubble from all the settlements (around 1.2 million tons) will be cleared by the end of the year.
In addition, some of the recycled rubble will be used in the development and construction of roads throughout the Gaza Strip. There has been no progress regarding the final destination of rubble that cannot be recycled.
As for the greenhouses, Wolfensohn wrote that Karni's intermittent closure has devastated Gaza's agricultural sector, and that the greenhouses that were bought and transferred to the Palestine Economic Development Company (PEDCO) have not been spared the economic effects.
Wolfensohn said that according to USAID estimates the daily revenue losses to the former settlement greenhouses resulting from the closure of Karni during the peak harvest season were more than $150,000 a day, and that the losses to the whole agricultural sector were $450,000 a day. PEDCO, he said, was now looking to divest the greenhouses.
Turning to PA fiscal problems resulting from Hamas's victory and its failure to accept the Quartet's three conditions for legitimacy - recognizing Israel, renouncing terrorism and accepting previous agreements - Wolfensohn said PA salaries for March have not been paid and were now a month overdue.
"It remains unclear how funding to pay these salaries, as well as some $20 million in outstanding payments for operations in the month of February, will be secured," he wrote.
He said pledges of assistance from the Arab world would provide only "temporary relief." He said the PA's financial problems were made worse because "banks presently are not willing to do business with the Hamas-led government for fear of sanctions and litigation in the United States.
Thus, even if the funds were available, it is as yet unclear how the financial transactions involved in the transfer of funds and distribution of salary payments would be carried out."
Wolfensohn wrote about attempts to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, while bypassing the Hamas led government.
For example, he wrote, the Russian government has agreed to provide $10 million in budget support "although it will not be directed to the PA but instead specifically earmarked for identified institutions and projects, including avian influenza prevention and compensation to farmers, the Red Crescent Society, six hospitals and health centers, pharmaceutical supplies and to the tawjihi (high school diploma) examination."
Wolfensohn said that the cutback in the international aid flow to the PA, coupled with Israel's decision to withhold revenue transfers, has led to a situation where the "absence of the spending power of up to 150,000 PA employees is already felt. Business is reduced, tax revenues are decreasing and banks are calling in outstanding private loans."
According to his estimates, if this scenario continued to play itself out, by 2008 unemployment would reach 47% and poverty 74%.
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