“Concrete Action” urged at International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East

The press operating in the occupied Palestinian territories under difficult circumstances (Jafar Ishtayeh)

BEIJING — Concrete action on the situation in the Middle East was urged here today by participants at the two-day International Media Seminar on peace in the region, organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI) — the twelfth of its kind since 1991, in response to General Assembly resolution 58/57.

While everything was said to be “on the table” — Security Council resolutions, the Road Map, the Geneva Initiative — what was said by many speakers to be needed now was “action on the ground”.

“Let’s do it in the Middle East; let’s do it, and let’s do it now”, became the theme during a wide-ranging debate on the conflict. 

In two meetings today to consider civil society as a partner in promoting Middle East peace, a group of panellists from the media, civil society and both the governmental and non-governmental sectors, sought to define the role of civil society in bridging the divide between the peoples of the Middle East and influencing official response.  There was no lack of ideas, as speakers engaged in passionate debate about the viability of a two-State solution, the ramifications of the Israeli separation wall, the future of the Road Map, and the significance of the Gaza withdrawal plan. 

The panellists and participants, including some from Israeli and Palestinian societies, shared their recipes for reversing the deteriorating situation, politically and on the ground.  Those included calls to better define the end game of the Road Map by including, in the context of the creation of a PalestinianState, the phrase “pre-1967 borders”.  The significance of the Gaza withdrawal was seen as both a positive step and a “devastatingly destructive” one.  The suggestion was also made that the time had come to put an end to the occupation, and not to merely arrange it. 

Acknowledging the contribution of civil society in that troubled region, one speaker stressed that, until the leaders of both sides returned to the negotiating table and signed an agreement acceptable to both, civil society “must not loosen its grip even for a moment”.  Another suggested that the political movements had failed, and that civil society was the only hope, without which militarism would prevail.  The latter option had been tried and had failed.  People on both sides of the conflict wanted a normal life, and that did not include being occupied by another country or army, or being afraid to send one’s children on a bus.

Another participant, however, brought to light an underlying concern about her own Israeli society.  She said that as long as an ill child was crying there was hope, but once that child became motionless and expressionless, all was lost.  Israeli society was not entirely indifferent now, but very few would show up for the same causes today that drew hundreds and thousands to their feet yesterday.  When terror explosions shook, Israelis looked for relatives and friends among the victims.  If they did not find them, then after half a day the event seemed to have been forgotten.  Creating a vibrant protest and achieving real influence out of the ashes of that indifference would be a long journey.

In addition to the morning and afternoon panel sessions, there was a luncheon address by New York Times correspondent Thomas L. Friedman, which prompted discussion largely about the situation in Iraq.

Highlights of Morning Discussion

In the open discussion that followed, speakers debated the Gaza withdrawal plan, touching on the broader aspects of the situation.  Some, including Mr. Al-Kidwa, held the view that the Gaza plan should be firmly rejected, and many important groups, including the movement of non-aligned countries (NAM), had done precisely that.  On the other hand, if the withdrawal was done in the right way and under United Nations supervision and, more importantly, as part of the Road Map — and that was a big “if” — then that might turn out to be something positive. 

Mr. Ziswiler added that the Gaza withdrawal should be a first step, and not a last one.  For its part, the Geneva Initiative had been a message, and a kind of offer, to governments.

During the exchange with non-panellists in the morning discussion, one participant asserted that the Gaza plan was being used as a tactical way to stall other potential gains.  Mr. Sharon only wanted to establish a much smaller version of Palestine, if and when there was total peace.  In addition, the Gaza option might create complacency on the part of citizens who needed to be mobilized. 

Stressing that good intentions could not replace the real difficult facts on the ground, Mr. Rabbo expressed the hope that the Gaza withdrawal would become a model for the West Bank.  He had introduced the Geneva Initiative, not as a utopia, but as a serious, practical, concrete model for a final status solution.  He, meanwhile, warned against pinning all hopes and dreams on Gaza, which was only 360 square kilometres and the most populated place on earth, with some quarter of a million inhabitants, and without any resources.  Moreover, the population was composed of 60 per cent or more refugees, who considered their problem to be unresolved.  With all those complications, he said “no more” to further partial or interim solutions. 

He added that he could not oppose withdrawal from even one inch of land, but that must be a step towards resolving the conflict and not further complicating it.  Turning to the building of the separation wall, he said that today Mr. Sharon had taken a decision to continue building the wall in the heart of the West Bank.  The eastern part of the wall was a “death sentence” to the idea of building a viable PalestinianState. 

Another speaker said he did not even know whether the two-State solution was still viable, given the reality of the wall.  After spending much time in the region, he had not seen where there was room for the PalestinianState to exist.  So, while a two-State solution might be preferable, he wondered whether that was still viable. 

Mr. Tharoor, responding to a question about the words used to describe the separation wall, recalled that that very topic of words had been one of the panel discussions in Seville last year.  The United Nations had been careful not to let its use of words obscure the possibility of dialogue.  In some places, the wall is a wall, in others, it was a barrier, and in still others, it was under construction.  A word should not stand in the way of making a very clear policy statement about what was going on and the United Nations’ problem with that.  Much more progress could be made in advancing a cause if the people attempting to be reached were not alienated by a choice of vocabulary.

Asked by another participant how the United Nations was implementing its own duty to protect the civilian population in the Territories and in Israel, Mr. Tharoor said it was not his understanding that protection of the civilian population was, in fact, a United Nations mandate.  The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA) was doing much to educate the people in the Territories, provide health and medical relief, and even food aid.  But, protection was the job of the occupying Power under the Geneva Conventions, and the United Nations was not the occupying Power; the Government of Israel was. 

Replying to a series of questions, Mr. Friedman said he had not come to debate the legitimacy of the Jewish people to have a State in the Middle East.  He took that as a given and would not debate that.  He admired the initiators of the Geneva Accords because they had taken the world as it was and applied their imagination and energy to see how the situation could be settled. 

Highlights of Afternoon Discussion

One speaker cautioned against deluding oneself into thinking that civil society was inherently good or on the side of the angels.  To imply that would be to radically misread the nature of civil society.  It was wrong to imply, for example, that Amnesty International was part of civil society but that the National Rifle Association was not.  It was true that civil society and the non-governmental sector was playing a new role in decision-making, but to leap from there to the notion that civil society was virtuous seemed to fly in the face of reality. 

Ms. Molad-Hayo suggested that political movements had failed and now both sides lived in fear.  Something had to be done.  The people on both sides of the conflict just wanted to have a normal life, which did not include being occupied by another country or army.  Nor did that include being afraid to send one’s children on a bus or to have to watch them burying their friends.  Civil society was the only hope, without which militarism would prevail.  The latter option had already been tried and had failed.

Mr. Choukri-Fisher, senior advisor to United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and a panellist from the morning’s discussion, said he had been working with the Quartet and wished to clarify some points made casually today about the Road Map.  That had not started as a United States’ draft, but as a European draft, followed by the United Nations Secretary-General, then the United States.  Then, the four sat together and worked on the draft for a few months.  That was not only a map of roads, as had been suggested earlier, but it had included a destination, which had boundaries but was open to “plugging in” many things.  So it was not a rigid end, but one that the parties had to translate into detailed agreement. 

He said it had not been by chance that the Road Map had not been implemented.  The reasons were to be found on both sides.  And, until a decision was taken on both sides to implement it, a political decision had to be taken, in the absence of which everyone had to ask themselves what should be done.  The Quartet was saying “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”.

Another speaker, while insisting that civil society’s role was important in the conflict, said the reality was that one civil society was bleeding and tired, and trying to survive daily from one checkpoint to the next, without one day of normal life.  Those people were trying to get to work, if there was work, or to school, if there was school.  Thus, not much could be expected from Palestinian civil society. 

The other civil society on the other side of the issue was in serious condition, now apathetic and indifferent.  As long as an ill child was crying, there was hope, but when that child became motionless and expressionless all was lost.  Israeli society was not entirely indifferent, but only few would show up for the same causes today that drew hundreds and thousands yesterday to their feet.  Most Israelis had become indifferent, even to their own lives.  When terror explosions shook, Israelis just looked for relatives or friends, and if they did not know any of the victims, then after half a day, the event was forgotten.  It should be realized that, from that indifference, creating a vibrant protest and achieving real influence was a very long journey.

Adding a few points to the morning and afternoon discussions, Mr. Al-Kidwa said that the wall constituted a central threat to the achievement of the two-State solution.  If that did not stop and if that was not torn down, that would effectively make the two-State solution impossible and take the parties to a different level of confrontation. 

On another point, he said that, in theory and in practice, the United Nations had a responsibility when it came to providing civilians in armed conflict with protection, and that included under situations of foreign occupation.  It was true that the occupying Power shouldered the main responsibility in that regard, but in the case of failure, that was the responsibility of the international community, through the United Nations and its Security Council, to remedy the situation.  In practice, when it came to the situation in the occupied Territories, the Security Council had adopted several resolutions calling for the protection of the civilian population in the Territories, of which the most important had been Resolution 681.  It had been a failure of the international community not to take further appropriate steps in that regard. 

Addressing his next comments to Mr. Choukri-Fisher, he said that the Road Map was not American in the chronology of events, but in political reality, it was an American plan, which had been kept in President Bush’s pocket until he and Mr. Sharon deemed it in their interests to release it.  In terms of whether the Road Map had a destination, it had an “illusion of a destination” and, in that context, was much better than the Oslo process.  Although it was better, however, the Road Map was still not clear.  For it to speak of a two-State solution without spelling out the words “based on pre-1967 borders”, that was not a specific destination but only an allusion to one. 

While he said he did not deny that both sides had “messed up” in fulfilling their obligations, the issue was one of a political decision on both sides.  For its part, the Palestinian side had “completely and fully accepted” the Road Map.  The Israeli side had not.  The mainstream Israeli side did not “swallow” the idea of a two-State solution based on pre-1967 borders.  The United Nations had to make that point clear; it had to go beyond the politics of the day into some principles and international law and give the parties the real answers, and not just the comfortable ones.

Another speaker agreed that the wall was “bad news”, but according to international law, everyone had a right to build a wall on their territory, whether that was politically wise or not.  The problem with the Israeli wall was that it was not fully on Israeli ground.  The good news was that even the Berlin wall, which no one thought would ever come down, had one day been destroyed.  

Another speaker suggested that if the Israeli wall was in the green line, the Palestinians would probably not have a problem with that.  But, the wall was dividing villages and farms and towns, and changing the reality there.  That, along with the pace of the construction, was the problem for the Palestinians. 

On another point, he said that what distinguished the crisis between the Palestinians and the Israelis from other crises was that it was the only confrontation or war between societies, and not between two regimes or armies.  That made finding a solution more complicated.  Civil society, for its part, was “privatizing the peace process”, but those must unite on both sides to serve one goal. 

Mr. Arieli explained that he had used the term “fence” and not wall because 97 per cent of it was fence and not wall.  Israel needed a fence in any scenario — whether of crisis or peace, or because of terrorism.  The problem was not the fence, but the delineation of the fence.  Israel’s unilateral step in building the fence had meant that Mr. Sharon had wanted to manage the conflict, and not to solve it.  But he must manage it in a way that could return the parties to the negotiating table.  The building of the barrier, however, had resulted in the opposite.  Israel had tried to put a security barrier around the Israelis without damaging the livelihood of the Palestinians. 

Mr. Tibi stressed that the two-State solution was almost consensual.  But in terms of the facts on the ground, when watching the incremental settlement activity or the way the wall was being built, it was very difficult to call the wall a fence.  That had made it almost impossible to create a two-State solution.  All efforts should be focused on putting an end to the occupation, and not merely rearranging it. 

Mr. Chen said that if anyone tried to find a place in the world where people were suffering from both traditional and non-traditional security threats, the Middle East was that place.  Everything was on the table — Security Council resolutions, the Road Map, the Geneva Initiative — what was needed now was concrete action on the ground.  “Let’s do it in the Middle East; let’s do it, and let’s do it now”, he urged.

Related Links

  • International media seminar reviews proposals for progress in efforts towards middle east peace, UN Department of Public Information (17 June 2004)
  • Cultivating culture of peacce, reconciliation through grassroots initiatives, subject of Middle East seminar, UN Department of Public Information (17 June 2004)
  • Concluding Session of International Media Seminar Takes Up Media’s Role in Quest for Middle East Peace, UN Department of Public Information (17 June 2004)