Arabs demand UN call for immediate cease-fire

January 3, 2009 7:06:05 PM PST
Arab nations demanded Saturday that the United Nations Security Council call for an immediate cease-fire following Israel's launch of a ground offensive in Gaza, a view echoed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Libya circulated a draft statement to council members before emergency council consultations began expressing "serious concern at the escalation of the situation in Gaza" following Israel's ground assault and calling on Israel and Hamas "to stop immediately all military activities."

The 15-member council then met behind closed doors to discuss a proposed presidential statement that would also call for all parties to address the humanitarian and economic needs in Gaza, including by opening border crossings.

Council diplomats said the United States opposed the presidential statement because it was similar to a press statement issued by members after Israeli warplanes launched the offensive a week ago that was not heeded. Presidential statements become part of the council's official record but press statements are weaker and do not.

The five permanent council members - the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China - along with Libya, the only Arab nation on the council, then met privately to discuss possibly issuing another press statement.

"We need to have from the Security Council reaction tonight to bring this latest addition of aggression against our people in Gaza to an immediate halt," Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. observer told reporters.

The statement, if approved, would become part of the council's official record but would not have the weight of a Security Council resolution, which is legally binding.

Mansour said 3,000 Palestinians have been killed and injured since Israeli warplanes starting bombing Gaza a week ago. More than 480 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and four killed in Israel.

International criticism of the offensive has increased steadily, but Israel maintains the offensive is aimed at stopping the rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza that have traumatized southern Israel.

Before the council met Saturday night, Ban telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and said he was disappointed that Israel launched a ground offensive and "alarmed that this escalation will inevitably increase the already heavy suffering" of Palestinian civilians, the U.N. spokesman's office said in a statement.

"He called for an immediate end to the ground operation, and asked that Israel do all possible to ensure the protection of civilians and that humanitarian assistance is able to reach those in need," the statement said.

Ban reiterated his call for an immediate cease-fire and urged regional and international partners "to exert all possible influence to bring about an immediate end to the bloodshed and suffering," the statement said.

The secretary-general said the Israeli ground operation is complicating efforts by the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers - the U.N., the U.S., the European Union and Russia - to end the violence.

France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert echoed Ban. "We think it's time for both parties to stop fighting and go back to the political track," said Ripert. He said he was speaking as French ambassador not as Security Council president, a job he took over on Jan. 1.

Several Arab foreign ministers are expected at U.N. headquarters on Monday to urge the Security Council to adopt a resolution ending the Israeli offensive. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delayed his arrival until Tuesday so he can meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the West Bank.