By Betul Yuruk
UNITED NATIONS (AA) - A UN envoy urged Israel and Palestine on Wednesday to refrain from unilateral steps that escalate tensions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover and Easter in Christianity.
Tensions remain high in Jerusalem and the West Bank with Israel stepping up security as Ramadan begins this week.
''This should be a period for safe and peaceful religious reflection and celebration for all,'' UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland told the Security Council. ''I call on all leaders to engage to this end and refrain from provocative actions and messages at this sensitive time.''
Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to lower tensions ahead of Ramadan during a meeting in Egypt last Sunday.
Wennesland said he was ''deeply troubled'' by continued Israeli settlement expansion, including the recent authorization of nine illegal outposts and the advancement of more than 7,000 settlement housing units.
''Israeli settlements have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of international law and United Nations resolutions,'' he said, urging Israel to immediately cease all settlement activity.
He said he was ''deeply disturbed'' by the intensifying cycle of violence that ''threatens to plunge Palestinians and Israelis deeper into deadly crisis.''
''I condemn all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, which have led to an increase in the tragic loss of life,'' he added.
Palestine's UN Ambassador Riyad Mansour struck back at Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich's denial of the existence of a Palestinian people.
''We, the Palestinian people do exist. We, the Palestinian people have existed on this land for a long period of time. We the Palestinian people will continue existing on this land,'' he said.
Smotrich's remarks prompted international outcry including from the US.
Israel's UN Envoy Gilad Erdan said Smotrich apologized for his remarks.
Regarding Israel's decision to repeal part of a 2005 law that ordered Jewish residents to evacuate from four illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, Erdan said: ''We don't see it as an act of provocation.''