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Gaza Disengagement Update

Gaza Disengagement Update

C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs
Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
August 24, 2005

11:40 A.M. EDTC. David Welch at FPC

MR. MACINNES: Good morning and welcome to a briefing today at the Foreign Press Center in Washington. We're delighted to host Ambassador David Welch, the Assistant Secretary for Near East Bureau at the Department of State, who is going to talk about the Gaza disengagement. We have joining us today from New York via DVC our New York Foreign Press Center. They may be asking some questions. We look forward to about 40 minutes, 45 minutes, of question and answer. I ask you to turn your cell phones off. During the question and answer session, please identify yourself and your organization. We'll start right away because I know some of you have been waiting. And without much further ado, let me introduce Ambassador Welch.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Hi, everybody. I propose to say a few things at the beginning about the process of Israeli disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank and then you can ask questions. Though that's my principal topic this morning, I do other things for a living and you're welcome to ask about any of those. There may be some other issues on your minds as well these days.

As you probably know, I just returned from another trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. I think that's the sixth such trip I have made since late March. I wanted to be there for the beginning of Israeli disengagement from Gaza and to see it start in the northern West Bank as well.

Part of this trip included, of course, meetings with Israeli Government officials, especially concentrating on those responsible for the disengagement process both on the civilian and military side, and to meet with the Palestinian officials who are doing the same thing.

As you know, we have two missions out in the area: one under the leadership of Jim Wolfensohn, who is the envoy for the Quartet; another under the leadership of General Kip Ward, who provides support for the security reform process among the Palestinian security organizations.

Let me just begin then talking about what we've all been watching, the news about disengagement itself. The removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza and these four settlements in the northern West Bank is now complete. The next step of this process will be, in Gaza, the demolition of the settlement housing, and then following that there will be a period after which the Israeli Defense Forces will have withdrawn.

This has been a very challenging, even emotional process for Israelis and also, I have to say, for Palestinians too. A very significant moment offered by the idea of Prime Minister Sharon to disengage from Gaza. It is a very significant moment because this is the first time, really, this has happened in such a magnitude since 1967. And it offers a critical opportunity for further work to be done in the peace process if the confidence can be built between the two parties that can lead to the kind of engagement between them that offers a real chance to reenergize the Roadmap.

The Roadmap, as you know, is the only agreed international standard to see a way forward to building a relationship between Israel and a Palestinian state so that eventually there will be two, living side by side in peace and security with each other.

This idea of disengagement began as a unilateral step on the part of Israel. After politics changed on the Palestinian side, the United States worked intensively with Israel and the Palestinians and others in the international community to support the concept of disengagement and make it a coordinated process between Israelis and Palestinians so that its implementation would be successful. This has been going on now for some months.

Jim Wolfensohn formally started his work at the beginning of June and will continue it, at least, through the end of the year. His purpose there is to support the economic, the non-security parts of disengagement. General Kip Ward has been at this a little bit longer. His purpose is to support security coordination between the two sides and the restructuring and reforming the Palestinian services.

If this moment of opportunity can be built upon, it offers another positive step in the region as a whole. It could bring an atmosphere of greater stability and security throughout the area. We believe that it's important for members of the international community at large, including some of those whom you are part of the media for, to mobilize to make this development a success.

As you know, when Jim Wolfensohn met at the Gleneagles summit of the G-8 leaders, they committed themselves to helping secure up to $3 billion per year for three years in funding from the international community, including the private sector, to help support revival of the Palestinian economy. The United States is a leader in that effort. We, the U.S., are the single largest donor of assistance to the Palestinian people. We have this year, and if you count the regular assistance budget to the Palestinians, plus supplemental assistance, we are devoting approximately $350 million to this.

This is an important effort on our part to help rebuild the Palestinian economy and infrastructure. We believe continuing political and economic reform on part of the Palestinians is absolutely essential, not just because it's useful to building confidence between the parties but because it's the right thing to do for the Palestinian community itself. We are deeply engaged with the Palestinian Authority for that purpose.

This is, as I said, an important chance. We think it's worth extraordinary steps. With that in mind, during this last visit when I was in the area, I went twice to Gaza: first, to have a meeting with the responsible people in the security area, the Palestinians; and then, second, to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas in his offices in Gaza City. When I went there, I delivered the commitment, not only the commitment but the fact of $50 million in American assistance to support the infrastructure projects in Gaza, new infrastructure projects, which we think will be very helpful as Palestinians assume authority for this area to have access to.

This required an exceptional decision by President Bush. He made the commitment during his meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas in the spring. And now we've actually delivered the money, becoming the first, I believe, to put cash on the table in support of jobs for the Palestinian people.

We also have decided to move ahead with a significant water project. As you know, water is a major issue in all the area, but Gaza specifically. And this water project will be a very significant development project for the Palestinians who live there. It had been frozen because of security concerns arising from the murder of three of our security personnel about a year and a half ago.

What next? This moment is not over, in the sense that the withdrawal of civilian settlers is more or less accomplished but there is still an Israeli military presence in Gaza and this demolition of the housing is going to take some time to do. In due course, though, that will be accomplished and those troops will move out. That will be an important moment because then the responsibility for running Gaza belongs to the Palestinian Authority. It's very important that they take up that responsibility and exercise it with transparency and accountability, both to the their people and to the international community who are their supporters, ourselves included.

We would like to see this also provide a way ahead to reenergize the roadmap. And as you know the roadmap has reciprocal commitments on the part -- obligations on the part of both parties, which we believe they should act upon, again, to try and build confidence so that we can open up the possibility that there will be serious negotiations between the two, leading to a better future.

I'll pause there and then we can talk about this or any other thing that may be on your minds. I think Duncan is going to call on people.


QUESTION: Yes, sir. This is Khaled Dawoud from Al-Ahram, Egypt. I'd like to ask first about the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement.

There was a statement by President Abbas today saying that immediately after Gaza we're supposed to amend the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, which includes the withdrawal from the main cities, the release of prisoners and other issues of which the United States took part, too. So I was wondering when are we going to see this stage implemented? Thank you, sir.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, I presume most of the audience is aware of the understanding that Khaled is referring to. The Sharm el-Sheikh understanding is between Israel and the Palestinians about a process for the turnover of certain areas in the West Bank to Palestinian control, release of some prisoners and other confidence-building steps between the two.

I'm confident both sides want to turn to that agenda. But as I said earlier, though the civilian part of disengagement has been accomplished, there are still other parts. That should not, in our view, hold back any further effort; but on the other hand, I think it's -- people are going to concentrate on first things first, and that is completing the exercise of disengagement.

We would like to see the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings fully implemented. They balance greater freedoms for the Palestinians in the occupied territories with Israeli requirements for security. And that's a tough balance to strike sometimes, but an important one. And since the parties have agreed to this basic framework, it seems to us a logical thing to proceed on, when they're ready to do so.

QUESTION: Thank you. I'm Nathan Guttman from the Jerusalem Post. Ambassador Welch, Prime Minister Sharon declared that after the disengagement that he will go on building in the territories, especially in the Ma'ale Adumim E-1 corridor, and continue construction in the existing settlements. Is that acceptable on the United States?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, the Israeli Government is aware of our concerns about settlement activity. I would make two points in that respect.

First, we have a concern, generally, and it predates where we are right now, that settlement activity can prejudice final status issues, as well as complicate getting to negotiations.

Second, there is a part of the roadmap that deals with settlement activity and that's an obligation that Israel has assumed and the Prime Minister himself has addressed when he was here visiting the President in Crawford, Texas. We have an ongoing conversation, all the time, with our Israeli friends about the content and meaning of those obligations and our concerns with respect to them and what we see in the way of statements or activity on their part.

So I'm confident that the Prime Minister understands with clarity what President Bush's and Secretary Rice's views are on this issue.


QUESTION: George Hishmeh, Gulf News. I am wondering what is the U.S. position vis-à-vis the Palestinian territories are in the Gaza Strip once a total Israeli withdrawal is done. Does that go to the sovereign Palestinian territory? And let me tell you why I'm asking that question. Should there be another border skirmish problem and Israeli troops enter that area, would that be considered an aggression by you?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, I don't expect that that's going to occur and we're certainly working that that would not occur. First, I think the primary concern here is that there be security during the process of disengagement and after the process of disengagement.

Let me point out that I don't believe either of the parties disagrees about that. President Abbas is very clear that he sees the path forward to realizing the aspirations of his people to be one of peaceful engagement, not the use of violence and terror. He was elected on a platform of peace and he advocates that.

Of course, I believe that the essential requirement of the Israelis is exactly the same. They want security for their people and they merit it. That's our going-in position, as well. At the beginning, middle and end, there should be an atmosphere of calm and non-violence. People can pursue their goals through those peaceful negotiations.

With respect to what would be the status of that territory after Israel has withdrawn, that's a matter for the two parties to decide. They have addressed these issues over the years in agreements between the two and they may choose to elaborate them in the future. We would consult with them about what their views are. They haven't exactly initiated that process yet, but I think it will come up as this is accomplished and we'll see what they have to say.

MR. MACINNES: We're going to go New York for a question and then we'll take further follow-up.

QUESTION: Mr. Welch, good morning. My name is Abderrahim Foukara from Al-Jazeera. I have two questions, if I may.

The first one is, since I'm calling from New York, about the United Nations. We hear mutterings that when the chips are down, the Bush Administration would really like to see Kofi Annan go, but it doesn't have the energy at the present time to actually fight that battle at the United Nations. If you could set the record straight.

And also, if you could set the record straight on from the perspective of the Bush Administration, what is the extent of Iran's influence in Iraq at the present time and is President Bush likely to meet the new Iranian President at the United Nations next month?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: First, with respect to your question regarding the Secretary General, he's the Secretary General of the United Nations and we deal with him all the time. We are not calling for any disengagement from that or any change in our relationship with him. I'm a bit surprised by the question.

Second, regarding our contacts with the Iranians, we don't have diplomatic relations with Iran. The Iranian President, I believe, intends to visit for the General Assembly and we're looking at the question of his travel there right now. In due course, we'll make a decision about that in keeping with our obligations under the headquarters agreement. That's a very different thing than actually agreeing to sit down with him. I don't think the Iranians have made that request. It would surprise me if they did. I don't expect such a meeting.

MR. MACINNES: You had a follow-up?

QUESTION: Hoda Tawfik, Al-Ahram newspaper.

Mr. Secretary, in spite of all the commitments we keep speaking about for both sides in the roadmap and also Sharm el-Sheikh, we see that the separation wall now will be built, or in the near decision of getting built around Ma'ale Adumim and which separates -- will separate and extends 25 kilometers on the Palestinians' land. And also we see that some of the settlers are moving to settlement in the West Bank.

So exactly what the United States role now in helping both sides to fulfill the commitments? What are you going to do? What are you doing now?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, we would like to facilitate people meeting their obligations, but let me go one step beyond that. For people to meet obligations, they have to want to do so. There has to be real not just intention but seriousness of purpose in doing things on the ground. And let's be clear, these obligations are reciprocal. One party should not be discounted because of the visibility of the other party's actions. To rebuild confidence, it's going to take steps from both sides.

With respect to the fence, or the wall, as you've called it, we don't have any issue with Israel's right to defend itself and therefore the existence of a fence or a wall, per se. It's the course of the wall that would cause us concern, in some cases, in the areas you mentioned. These matters are being discussed and debated as we speak in Israel and I don't know what their final decisions would be. We would have to see.

Again, as I said in response to an earlier question, the same thing pertains as with respect to settlement activity. We have a concern with respect to unilateral steps that might prejudice the outcome of final status negotiations or complicate efforts to get there. And you can be sure that the Israeli Government is aware of those views. And I believe that because they're friends of the United States, they would take them into account. But we'll see what they do.

QUESTION: Yes. Salameh Nematt, Al Hayat newspaper and LBC TV.

You're talking about this incremental approach to a final settlement, based on the roadmap. And we all know that one of the reasons of the Oslo agreements failed because of the incremental, step-by-step approach, hoping to build confidence.

What makes you confident now that this incremental process, which could be undermined by a suicide bombing here or a decision by the Israeli Government on the other side, that this time it will work? And does the U.S. commit -- is the U.S. committed or does it have a commitment from the Israeli Government that the final status should be along the lines of the roadmap, which is based on 242, meaning full withdrawal from the territories occupied in '67 with minor border rectification?

My second question is regarding the settlements. Do I understand that all the settlements evacuated will be destroyed? And was there any consideration that these settlements evacuated would be occupied by the Palestinians, meaning, you know, why waste all that infrastructure?

Thank you.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Let me answer the second first because it is here and now and practical in orientation, and then I'll try to come back to the first.

There's been a dialogue between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government with respect to the disposition of the settlements, and for that matter, of other assets that were there. These settlements occupied an important piece of Gaza's available land and the population density in the settlement areas was significantly less than the population density in the Palestinian areas of Gaza. So just as a matter of planning and good use of the land, I think the Palestinians have different objectives other than building housing of the type that's there right now.

That doesn't mean, sir, that there wouldn't be other decisions that the two would take with respect to some of the infrastructure or assets. I don't know what they would do with respect to some of the public buildings, for example. This is up to them to decide between the two of them.

They are coordinating, by the way, on this quite effectively both for, you know, what happens with the assets, housing or buildings, and their protection until such a time as the Palestinian Authority can take full control over it. And you would have noticed, I think, that the PA is also putting in place the legal structure in order for them to take and control these areas. President Abbas signed a decree in recent days on assuming authority over these lands.

There are other things that are there, too -- water, electricity, infrastructure and such -- that I'm confident that the parties will work out a way to preserve if it works for the mutual benefit.

If I can remember all that you asked in the first question, look, there's no harm in incrementalism as long as it moves to results. And in an atmosphere in which there's been a dismaying lack of confidence for a significant period of time, maybe the incremental approach is a good way to rebuild that confidence. It's not because we pick it out of any preference, you know, out of some grand theory or design as to how this might work. It is because it seems to us logically that this offers the best course forward.

Other efforts have been made in the past and didn't produce results that were satisfactory. The politics have changed also. There's been a change in leadership of the Palestinian Authority. That is not insignificant. We have a situation now where the new president was elected, robustly elected, 60 percent of the vote, on a platform of peace. That has changed the character of engagement between the two sides. And what was once unilateral has now become coordinated. We think it offers an opportunity to build that kind of confidence that's necessary to do what are going to be more difficult things in the future.

These are very, very tough and sensitive issues for both sides. I don't want to minimize that at all in what I say. But there is, in our judgment, no alternative but this course of action. Look at what's in front of you and try to surmount that before you reach for the horizon. This is also critical. The disengagement from Gaza is a bold step. It has changed the political landscape. It offers a new chance to do something different between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and we would like to see if it can bear further fruit.

QUESTION: This is Hany El-Konayyesi from Abu Dhabi Television.

Ambassador Welch, I would like to ask you about something different today. We know that Israeli Finance Minister Ehud Olmert is meeting Secretary Condoleezza Rice today and apparently they will be talking about U.S. aid to Israel, some particularly talk about 2.2 billion dollars as requested by the Israelis. If you can let us know more about this kind of aid, whether you have discussed this during your trip. And what are the conditions that the U.S. decision is putting if they are willing to give this amount of money to the Israelis?

And part two of the question, there are news today, coming today about Israel has issued orders to seize more Palestinian-owned land to link a main Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank to Jerusalem. Wouldn't such an issue be part of the negotiations about U.S. aid to Israel?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: With respect to the second question, I wake up every day and I read things in the press. Sometimes I react to them, sometimes I don't. I addressed settlement activity in earlier answers. That's our position and I've repeated it twice already. I don't think I need to do it a third time.

With respect to the first question, that is, what would be discussed between the Vice Premier and the Secretary of State, I honestly don't know. They haven't had their meeting yet. It's not too long from now. So I don't know exactly what's on his agenda. Again, I read in the press what was said about what his agenda is, but he may have a different thing he's bringing to the table.

You ask about -- I mean, in a general sense in the background to this question is Israel's plans for development in the Negev and Galilee, which have been a feature of their discussion with us for some time. Prime Minister Sharon raised this with President Bush in the spring when he visited him in Texas and we indicated our interest in their plans at that time. We've been exploring this with Government of Israel and we've had a number of conversations and we expect to continue those conversations. There may be ways in which we could support that. We'll have to see. We haven't concluded the discussion with them yet. There's nothing to announce in that respect.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the figure?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: No, I don't even know if that's a figure that represents what they want to do or represents their suggestions to us. It's completely hypothetical at this point.

MR. MACINNES: Joyce, in the back.

QUESTION: Joyce Karam from Al Hayat newspaper.

My question is mainly about the security aid that would be given to the Palestinians. Have you agreed on any type of that aid now and would you expect from the Palestinian Authority to go ahead and disarm Hamas and other militias in Gaza before the elections in January, or is holding to the ceasefire by the militias there enough for now?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: We believe that a responsible, accountable government is a government that has sole authority and monopoly over the use of force. That's what people expect of governments the world over. That's how they trust their police and security services. And we would expect that of the Palestinian Authority as well.

In the roadmap, in addition to that -- in addition to that expectation that we would have of any good government, in the roadmap, there is a requirement to take steps toward the dismantlement of the terror organizations. Hamas is, for us, a terror organization.

I would expect that the Palestinian Authority would do those things. We have made those requirements clear to them. As I said earlier, security is the beginning, the middle and the end, and security cannot be had either for the people in those areas or for those who live around them if there is a variety of armed organizations that are allowed to operate.

The international community, including the United States, believes that the way to do this is to have empowered, responsible Palestinian security authorities that are capable of acting and not -- and it doesn't take many of them. It just takes a few organized under the leadership of the political -- under the political leadership of the PA. That's what we have devoted our support toward. That means reforming these organizations, trimming their number and their size, keeping them more focused on their direct mission, which is to provide security for the Palestinian people and their neighbors.

There's a lot of international assistance going into that effort. I don't want to mention any particular countries here, but these are not secret things. There are a number of countries, especially from the European Union, that are providing direct material support to the Palestinian security organizations -- non-lethal support -- everything from radio equipment to vehicles, to office machines, computers, that kind of thing. There are other countries involved in providing uniforms, physical structures, building infrastructure.

This is a process that has been underway for some time. It's gaining ground now and obviously, especially because of the urgency of the security requirements in Gaza. And I expect we'll be doing more in the future on this.

QUESTION: Samir Nader with Radio Sawa.

There was a report that the Palestinian Authority is going to bring like 2,000 members of Fatah from Lebanon to use in its security apparatus in Gaza. Can you tell us anything about this?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: I don't believe that those reports are correct. In my judgment, it is inadvisable for any such people to try and enter either the West Bank or Gaza. The problem is to establish security control in those places, not to add to the security difficulties in those places.

QUESTION: I'm Tarek Rashed from Middle East News Agency and I have a general question concerning the U.S. status from the very beginning of the conflict.

We know, of course, that the U.S. has been a helping element, whether a broker or oppressing power or anything else. But until now, we don't know exactly what is the stance of the U.S. concerning which is unoccupied land and which is an Israeli land. And what exactly is the U.S. stance concerning Jerusalem, which part it considers a Palestinian land and which part it considers an Israeli land?

Thank you.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, thank you for recognizing that we have long had a role in this process. I would like to make an observation about that role, since I'm speaking to a group of foreign journalists and who I know are keenly attentive to our work on this issue.

The United States takes this very seriously. It's in our national interest to try to broaden the circle of peace in this region. And we have -- we thought there was a unique moment of opportunity that we might be able to contribute to. For that reason, the President has engaged directly with other leaders, his counterparts in the region, including Prime Minister Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas. He invited both here.

As you know, sir, he had very good meetings in Texas with the Israeli Prime Minister and a very nice meeting in the White House here with President Abbas. We made very clear statements afterwards, what American positions were with respect to the issues.

Traditionally, our view is that final status issues, such as where the borders are, what is the disposition of Jerusalem, ought to be decided in negotiations. We don't forecast what the outcome of those negotiations ought to be. Negotiations are about matters that are resolved by agreement.

We think that that process of getting to agreement is healthy for both sides. This is a conflict that has, unfortunately, very deep roots and a long and sad history. And to overcome those difficulties, it strikes us that people have to sit down together and resolve their differences. There has to be -- I think the word is a sulha as well as a peace. And that process is hugely important.

Again, how it comes out is not for us to decide. We may have our views about any particular issue, but at the end of the day, it's a matter for Israelis and Palestinians to decide, just as Egyptians and Israelis decided before them, just as Jordanians and Israelis decided before them.

So I think that's the way we approach it. That's the philosophy we bring to this. We think that this American role is desired by both parties. I've seen nothing to indicate that either side has a problem with it; quite the contrary, I think they both seek our good offices.

MR. MACINNES: We only have time for one more question. Mounzer.

QUESTION: Mounzer Sleiman, Almustaqbal Al Arabi Magazine.

To most Palestinians, what happened in Gaza is like rearranging the walls of the Gaza prison. The entity will not control its land, sea and air and it has been asked to exercise sovereignty on its people, to act as a guard for this prison, while there is no way an entity without full sovereignty can be asked to do anything. How can we continue to ask from the Palestinian Authority to exercise things are the core of sovereignty while it does not enjoy that?

The other part is the issue of settlement. I heard you today suggesting they will prejudice final settlement. They complicate this process. Well, originally, we heard that settlement -- there were a legal obstacle -- illegal first and an obstacle to peace, et cetera.

It seems to me that the United States is softening its position about the settlement to the degree that there will no longer be occupied territories illegal and accept the annexation by the Israelis and continue to fund illegally and not by any aids to Israel with these kinds of activities.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Since you write for Almustaqbal, we always look to the future. I think our vision of what Gaza should be after Israeli withdrawal is dramatically different than the one that you described, sir. Personally, I believe that the Palestinians who live in Gaza are happy that the Israeli settlers and the IDF are leaving. Of course, they would like to have as great a freedom of access as they can have. It's our objective that Gaza should not be isolated either from the West Bank or from Israel or from any other border -- Egypt, in particular. These are issues that have to be worked out between Israel and the Palestinians. We will be there to encourage them to do so. That's part of the purpose of the Wolfensohn mission.

You know, there are different sorts of rights here. There is the right to travel and move freely and there is the right to enjoy your life and security, too. It's the balance of those obligations that we're concerned with. I think that the work underway now between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government to address the issues you're talking about offers a lot of promise. I wouldn't describe the result right now as you have described it. We don't know what the result will be. You could be right, but you could also be wrong. We hope for a better future in this area. And I'm confident that it will be better.

What was your second question again?

QUESTION: What, officially, the position of United States and how --

AMBASSADOR WELCH: I described our position three times.

QUESTION: Are they legal? Are they illegal or legal? And what's the position regarding annexation of land?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: You heard our position. We have a concern about unilateral actions that could prejudice getting to final status negotiations, that could complicate getting there. That's our position.

QUESTION: How about legal?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: I just answered your question.

MR. MACINNES: Thank you, Ambassador Welch.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Thank you all.

Released on August 24, 2005


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