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Tue Mar 12, 4:28 PM ET
By Irwin Arieff
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (news - web sites) appealed to Israel on Tuesday to end its "illegal occupation" of Palestinian lands and curb its attacks on civilians in his toughest criticism to date of the Jewish state.
In his harshest words to date to Israel, he said, "You must end the illegal occupation" of lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Aides said it was the first time Annan had branded the occupation as illegal.
And he appealed to Israeli defense forces to stop "the bombing of civilian areas, the assassinations, the unnecessary use of lethal force, the demolitions and the daily humiliation of ordinary Palestinians."
"Such actions gravely erode Israel's standing in the international community and further fuel the fires of hatred, despair and extremism among Palestinians," Annan said.
He also urged the Palestinians to stop all acts of terror, saying they had "played their full part in the escalating cycle of violence, counter-violence and revenge."
He was "particularly disturbed" by the rise in Palestinian suicide bombings deliberately targeting civilians, he said, calling such attacks "morally repugnant."
The Palestinian U.N. representative, Nasser al-Kidwa, quickly praised Annan's statement as "the strongest, the clearest position the secretary-general has come up with" in the 18 months since the start of a Palestinian uprising that the United Nations (news - web sites) says has claimed some 1,550 lives.
But in a closed meeting following Annan's statement, opinion was divided among the U.N. Security Council's 15 members.
Sources said some questioned Annan's decision to refer to the occupation as illegal, speculating he had hardened his stance after Israeli soldiers last week shot and killed a Palestinian U.N. guard riding inside a clearly marked U.N. Relief and Works Agency ambulance.
Syria's envoy expressed anger that Annan had appeared to equate Israeli and Palestinian actions, the council sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Al-Kidwa asked the Security Council to quickly adopt a resolution, endorsed by Arab nations, demanding that Israel stop all acts of violence and calling on both sides to resume negotiations and "implement all of their obligations" under previously reached agreements and peace plans.
But there was no immediate response from Norway, this month's council president. And envoys speculated the United States, Israel's closest ally, would likely use the threat of its veto to block council action on such a resolution.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte declined comment on the draft resolution but called Annan's statement "a fair characterization" of the situation in the Middle East although "we might not endorse every single word of it."
Washington, which argues peace efforts must come from the two sides, has announced plans to send its Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region this week to press for a cease-fire.
Israeli U.N. Ambassador Yehuda Lancry played down the significance of Annan's demand that Israel withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories, saying Israel had already agreed to do so in principle.
"In September 1993 we entered a process in order to negotiate the end of the situation as it is with the Palestinians. Even Prime Minister (Ariel) Sharon envisioned the establishment of a Palestinian state," he told reporters, saying this would be subject to negotiations.
He said Israeli defense forces were "compelled" to follow their current strategy by a relentless "Palestinian terrorist campaign" and said Palestinian suicide bombings were often more deadly and did more damage than the Israeli army.
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