Switzerland is to relocate its liaison office in the Palestinian territories, with some officials moving from East Jerusalem to Ramallah. The foreign ministry denied the move was in response to pressure from Israel.
Announcing the relocation plan on Tuesday, the foreign ministry said all its diplomatic representatives would be moved to new offices in Ramallah. It added that its East Jerusalem office would remain open, but would not have any function other than humanitarian and aid work.
The decision, taken by the Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, comes after the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, told Deiss in March that the office in East Jerusalem ran contrary to the Oslo peace accords, and had to be removed.
Hanan Ashrawi, the former education minister for the Palestinian Authority, deplored Switzerland's decision to move the office to Ramallah, while the militant organisation, Hamas, said the Swiss authorities had only reacted after pressure from Israel.
However, a Swiss foreign ministry spokeswoman, Daniela Stoffel, denied the move was in response to Israeli pressure. She said it would allow Switzerland's representatives to have closer contacts with the Palestinians and other foreign offices, many of which are situated in Ramallah.
Under the plans announced on Tuesday, the Swiss liaison office is to move from Jericho to Ramallah, with the East Jerusalem office being given over totally to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SADC).
The Swiss liaison office was set up in Jericho in 1994, but under its former head, Annick Tonti, more and more of its functions were gradually moved to East Jerusalem, making Switzerland the only country to have such an office in that city.
Tonti, who is to be replaced, triggered a controversy in February after Sharon's election, when she told a German news agency that Sharon's accession to power had dealt a significant blow to the Middle East peace process.
Israel responded to her remarks by saying that Switzerland's representation in East Jerusalem was no longer wanted.
The foreign ministry denied that Tonti's leaving office was connected to that incident, saying that she had reached the end of her contract. She is to be replaced by Rosmarie Schelling, the former head of SADC's operations in Madagascar.
swissinfo with agencies