Ban Ki-Moon, Binyamin Netanyahu
Ban Ki-Moon, Binyamin NetanyahuMiriam Alster/Flash 90

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon has apologized for using the label "occupation" - no, not in the context of Israel's presence in its Biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria which he regularly condemns, but rather in Western Sahara.

Ban's change of heart came after the government of Morocco turned hostile on his "occupation" comments, made earlier this month in a visit to Algerian refugee camps for the Sahrawi people who claim ownership of the Western Sahara.

In response, there were mass protests in Morocco and the state expelled dozens of UN peacekeepers stationed in Western Sahara within three days, a move that the local Sahrawi groups warned could bring about war in the region.

Morocco has occupied the mineral rich region since it was handed to its troops by Spain in 1975, when Madrid ended its colony there. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) holds a government-in-exile in Algeria, arguing for its rights to rule over the region, and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front has been fighting for independence in the disputed territory.

But apparently Morocco's hostilities were enough to have Ban reverse his terming of the region as "occupied," as on Monday UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric backtracked for him, reports Reuters on Tuesday.

"His use of the word was not planned, nor was it deliberate. It was a spontaneous, personal reaction. We regret the misunderstandings and consequences that this personal expression of solicitude provoked," said Dujarric.

"Nothing (Ban) said or did in the course of that trip was meant to offend or express hostility toward the Kingdom of Morocco, which is a valued member of the United Nations. The position of the United Nations has not changed. He has not and will not take sides on the issue of Western Sahara."

The UN Security Council had been divided on the standoff with Morocco, as UN officials called on the Council to give a statement backing Ban. Eventually last Thursday the Security Council did so, but it did not order Morocco to cancel its expulsion orders or address Ban's "occupation" label.

In 1991 the UN brokered a ceasefire in Western Sahara and established its peacekeeping mission there, known as MINURSO. Following Ban's comments, Morocco ordered the UN to evacuate dozens of civilian staff and close a MINURSO military liaison office within three days, and likewise announced it was cancelling $3 million in funding for the UN operation.

Regarding Israel's presence in Judea and Samaria, which Ban and the UN have repeatedly condemned as being an "occupation," the 2012 Levy Report proved that the presence is legal under international law. However, two consecutive governments have yet to adopt the report.