By Saud Abu Ramadan and Jonathan Ferziger
Wading into the heart of the Mideast conflict, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres crossed the barricaded threshold between Israel and the Gaza Strip, where Hamas leaders in control of the territory said he was an unwelcome guest.
The UN chief also met with Israelis who live just outside Gaza and have been targets of hundreds of missile barrages launched by Palestinian militants over the past 10 years.
“I dream of seeing a Palestinian state that lives in peace and security side-by-side with Israel, and I dream to see Gaza as part of one sovereign Palestinian state,” Guterres told reporters at a UN-supported school in northern Gaza.
Guterres was not scheduled to meet with representatives of Hamas, which violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in June 2007 and is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union. Gaza Hamas leader Ahmed Bahar said Tuesday that Guterres is “unwelcome” because he expressed solidarity with Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, while neglecting thousands of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails.
Later, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Guterres was in fact welcome if he helps lift Israeli restrictions on Gaza and improve humanitarian conditions.
Guterres visited UN facilities in Gaza after paying a stop at Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, where he urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop expanding Jewish settlements in the combustible West Bank.
That call came after Netanyahu appeared at the nearby Barkan settlement Monday night and vowed to continue building. He also said he would never again uproot any of the Jewish enclaves that dot the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and which the Palestinians demand for themselves. President Donald Trump, breaking with recent predecessors, has declined to endorse a Palestinian state alongside Israel, saying the two sides must thrash out a solution for themselves.
“There is no Plan B for the two-state solution,” Guterres said Tuesday after meeting Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. “We believe that settlement activity is illegal under international law. It’s an obstacle to the two-state solution.”
Palestinians have expressed frustration with Trump’s approach and are trying to ratchet up international pressure for a settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where about 600,000 settlers live.
Last week’s visit to the region by the U.S. negotiating team led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, left Palestinians impatient for an American plan to renew peace talks, which have been suspended since 2014.
“They promised to come back in a few weeks with clearer answers,” Hamdallah said.
— With assistance by Justin Sink, and Fadwa Hodali