UN Chief in Israel to Push Netanyahu, Abbas to Ease Restrictions on Gaza

On his first trip to the Middle East since assuming his post, Antonio Guterres also expected to discuss UN's intention to examine broadening mandate given to UN forces in Lebanon

Antonio Guterres, later to become UN secretary general, speaks in the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in Manhattan, July 12, 2016.
Mike Segar, Reuters

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who was due to arrive Sunday, is expected to ask both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to ease restrictions on the Gaza Strip.

On Monday Guterres is scheduled to meet Netanyahu. An Israeli official said one of Guterres’ main objectives on this tour is the visit to Gaza, where he will look into the worsening humanitarian situation. He is expected to demand that Israel allow a greater number of Palestinians requiring medical assistance in Israeli hospitals to enter from Gaza. Guterres is also likely to ask for an increase in the amount of goods Israel allows into the Strip.

On Tuesday, Guterres is set to meet Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. In that meeting, Guterres is expected to discuss Abbas’ decision to restrict the supply of electricity to Gaza, which has greatly exacerbated power outages there. The next day Guterres is due to visit Gaza and examine the operation of UN facilities.

Later he will visit Israeli communities along the Gaza border and meet with senior army officers.

Another major topic to be broached during his visit is the UN’s intention to examine broadening the mandate given to UN forces in Lebanon. Israel will point out the flawed operations of UNIFIL. Guterres has said he will look into ways of increasing UNIFIL’s efforts but stresses that the Lebanese army is responsible for keeping southern Lebanon free of illegal weapons.

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, severely criticized UNIFIL on Friday for turning a blind eye to the proliferation of such weapons. Israel has called for a broader mandate for this force so that it can address threats posed by Hezbollah.

Israel also intends to highlight the risks posed by a consolidation of Iranian forces in Syria and its vehement opposition to these developments.

Guterres will also meet the families of soldiers missing in action in Gaza, although he is not expected to play a role in resolving this issue since he has no contact with Hamas and is not expected to meet its officials. Nevertheless, Israeli sources say he could indirectly pressure Hamas by appealing to Qatar and Egypt.

After landing here he was scheduled to meet Jason Greenblatt, the U.S. envoy to the region, who is also in Israel.

During his visit, Guterres is also expected to meet with President Reuven Rivlin and visit Yad Vashem. In addition, he is due to visit an exhibit of technologies Israel uses to aid poor countries in agriculture, medicine and water desalination.

This is Guterres’ first trip to the Middle East since assuming his post on January 1. A native of Portugal, he began his career as an academic, then became involved in Socialist Party politics following the overthrow of the country’s dictatorship in the 1970s. He was Portugal’s prime minister from 1995-2002 on the Socialist Party ticket, and toward the end of that term also served as president of the Socialist International. From 2005 to 2015, he served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees.