General Assembly debates question of Palestine (1/2)

A wide view of today’s meeting. (UN/Eskinder Debebe)


As tributes once more rang out in the General Assembly this afternoon in memory of the late Yasser Arafat, acknowledging his leadership in the struggle to give his people their right to self-determination, almost all speakers reaffirmed that the Quartet-backed Road Map was still the best, if not the only, way to bring about a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine.

The Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Paul Badji (Senegal), stressed that Israel continued to violate the provisions of the Road Map, with settlement activity and construction of the separation wall continuing at a considerable pace.  It continued to confiscate Palestinian land, destroy homes and farmland and isolate communities, despite an advisory opinion handed down by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  The current situation required that both parties, as well as the international community, recommit to restoration of the peace dialogue.

Israeli incursions, closures and curfews, he warned, had brought the Palestinian economy to the verge of collapse, and living conditions had declined dramatically.  Countless individual tragedies continued to occur, as Israel had maintained the illegal practice of extrajudicial assassinations where innocent bystanders were often killed.  Those acts were strongly condemned, as were suicide bombings against Israelis; all such acts only pushed the goal of peaceful coexistence ever farther away.

Responding to criticisms about its policies, Israel’s representative said Prime Minister Sharon’s proposed disengagement plan for Gaza and parts of the West Bank constituted a courageous initiative.  Moreover, it could help pull the region back to negotiations by giving the Palestinian people greater control over their lives, improving the security and humanitarian situation for both peoples and working to remove terrorism from the equation.  The plan constituted both a physical and a symbolic move — it signified Israel’s commitment to creating opportunities for a better future.

The coming Palestinian elections would serve as a critical opportunity and important test, he said.  He hoped the Palestinians would elect a leadership to serve their interests, and work towards peace and development and an end to terrorism.  Corruption had plagued Palestinian leadership, while terrorism had endangered both Israeli and Palestinian lives.  Israel had responsibilities, he acknowledged, and was ready to fulfil them.  But a new Palestinian leadership must emerge to meet the needs of its population, to serve the imperatives of peace and to fulfil the expectations of the international community.

The one voice today not giving blanket approval to the Road Map was the Observer of Palestine, who underscored that its essential flaw could undermine the realization of just peace.  While the first three phases contained time-bound objectives, the last phase of the Road Map offered no clear solution to the delineation of final borders, the status of Jerusalem, the dismantling of Jewish settlements or the return of Palestinian refugees.  And it appeared that full implementation would have the Palestinian people depend on the good intentions of the Israeli Government.  Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, through his words and policies, however, had not been expressing any such good intentions.

Unfortunately, despite any efforts its people would undertake on their own behalf, Palestine was still suffering under brutal occupation, similar to that, which had hung over South Africa, he stated.  The occupation of Palestine was clearly obvious as Palestinian towns and villages were bulldozed, olive trees and groves were uprooted, and suffocating checkpoints and curfews were imposed.  A dire economic crisis had been caused by the restriction of movement of Palestinian people and goods.  Students did not have access to schools and some 1.2 million in Gaza lived in abject poverty, while thousands and thousands –- large numbers of women and children –- suffered in Israeli prisons.

Syria’s representative said his country remained committed to the establishment of an independent PalestinianState, on Palestinian land, with Al-Quds as its capital, as well as to the return of the Syrian Golan and the liberation of the remaining occupied Lebanese territories.  It was time for the international community to oppose the actions of Israel, and enable the Palestinian people to exercise their inalienable rights.

There was now a window of opportunity open to revive the Middle East peace process, stated the representative of the Netherlands, speaking on behalf of the European Union.  The Palestinian Authority must halt terror against Israel, maintain unity, avoid provocation and undertake the necessary preparations for coordination with Israel over the disengagement plan.  At the same time, Israel should lift restrictions on the freedom of movement of people and goods, release Palestinian prisoners or administrative detainees, halt settlement activity and cease the construction of the separation barrier, as well as coordinate disengagement with the relevant Palestinian authorities.

Statements were also made by the representatives of Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, Zambia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  The report of the Palestinian Rights Committee was presented by its rapporteur, Victor Camilleri (Malta).

The Assembly will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 30 November, to continue its debate on the question of Palestine and the situation in the Middle East.

Background

The General Assembly this afternoon began its consideration of the question of Palestine and the situation in the Middle East. Before the Assembly is the report of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (document A/59/35), which states that the Committee’s utmost concern during the review period (10 October 2003 to 10 October 2004) has been the failure of efforts to reawaken the peace process.  Attempts to establish a ceasefire and stabilize the security situation did not achieve lasting results.  Disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force, the practice of collective punishment, extrajudicial killings, and the detention and imprisonment of thousands of Palestinians by the Israeli military have resulted in the further destruction of Palestinian society.

Maintaining that the continuing Israeli occupation is at the core of the conflict, the Committee believes that a negotiated solution that would end the occupation and enable the Palestinian people to exercise its inalienable rights is urgently needed.  The Committee continues to believe that the Road Map remains the best way to achieve the goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine through the establishment of two States — Israel and Palestine — based on the 1967 borders.  A settlement should be based on Security Council resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973), 1397 (2002) and 1515 (2003), in particular, and other relevant resolutions.

While welcoming the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the position of the General Assembly, the Committee remains concerned that the illegal construction of the wall on Palestinian land has not stopped.  Its harmful effects continue to plague the daily lives of the thousands of Palestinians.  The existence of the wall will hamper efforts to resolve the conflict and renders the vision of a two-State solution almost impossible.  The Committee’s position is that the international community must ensure that the occupying Power abide by the provisions of the Court’s ruling and immediately stop and reverse the construction.

The Committee considers that its programme of international meetings and conferences highlight the most pressing issues, such as the need to end violence, stop settlement activities and improve the living conditions of the Palestinian population.  Such events mobilize international support for efforts to resolve the conflict and implement the Road Map.  In 2005, the Committee intends to address such issues as the application of international law to all aspects of the question of Palestine; the significance of the ICJ’s advisory opinion; the implementation of the Road Map; the adverse consequences of the settlement policy and of the construction of the wall for the achievement of a two-State solution; the need to protect the Palestinian people; and the humanitarian and socio-economic situation, including the plight of Palestinian women and children.

Also before the Assembly is the report of the Secretary-General on the Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine (document A/59/574-S/2004/909).  Despite the efforts of the international community through the Quartet (United Nations, European Union, Russian Federation and United States), and the stated commitment of the parties to the Road Map, the Middle East situation is characterized by a stalled peace process and continuing high levels of violence, states the Secretary-General.  As of 16 September 2004, 825 Palestinians and 136 Israelis had lost their lives in the conflict in the preceding year.  In the four years since the eruption of the violence in September 2000, no fewer than 3,633 Palestinians and 966 Israelis have been killed.

The report notes that neither side has taken adequate steps to protect civilians, and both are in breach of their international legal obligations.  Palestinian civilians continue to be killed and injured in Israeli military operations, and Israeli civilians continue to suffer terrorist attacks from Palestinian militant groups.  Neither the Israeli Government nor the Palestinian Authority have made any first steps to end violence and combat terror.  Israel has failed to implement its core commitments under the Road Map.  Despite repeated promises, settlement activities continue at a rate that observers describe as unmatched since 1992.  Security measures taken by the Palestinian Authority are still limited and unclear.

Israel continued construction of the barrier in parts of the West Bank during the year, states the report.  Assembly resolution ES-10/13 of 21 October 2003 demanded immediate stoppage and reversal of the construction of the wall.  On 8 December 2003, the Assembly adopted resolution ES-10/14, requesting the ICJ to urgently render an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the wall.  On 9 July, the Court rendered an advisory opinion declaring the construction of the wall to be contrary to international law; that Israel is obligated to terminate such breaches and make reparation for all damage caused by the construction of the wall; and that the Assembly and the Security Council might wish to consider further action to end the illegal situation.  The Assembly, on 20 July, adopted resolution ES-10/15, demanding that Israel comply with its legal obligations and asked the Secretary-General to establish a register of damage caused by the construction of the wall.

The Secretary-General also notes that during the reporting period, there has been a disturbing increase in acts of violence against and harassment of United Nations staff and property.  Israel has a clear obligation to ensure the safety and security of United Nations staff and property, in accordance with the privileges and immunities accorded to the Organization’s staff members.

In February, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced an initiative to withdraw Israeli armed forces from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and to evacuate all settlements in the Gaza Strip, as well as four settlements in the northern West Bank.  The Secretary-General hopes that both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides will focus on the tasks at hand in order to make withdrawal and its aftermath a new beginning of the peace process.  The United Nations, and the international community at large, is ready to assist the parties in this endeavour, if they make the right choices.

On the economic front, the picture remains grim.  The Palestinian economy stands little chance of recovery unless immediate action is taken.  Forty-seven percent of the Palestinian population currently lives in poverty.  At present, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the World Food Programme (WFP) are providing regular food aid to as many as 1,480,000 beneficiaries — 39 per cent of the total Palestinian population in the occupied territory — 10 times as much food since September 2000.

A recent World Bank study found that the deep economic crisis in the West Bank and Gaza is one of the worst recessions in modern history.  The primary cause of this crisis is the closure regime imposed by Israel.  Without a significant change in this regime, the Palestinian economy will not be revived.  The World Bank has emphasized that Israel’s disengagement plan will have limited impact on the Palestinian economy and Palestinian livelihoods if it is not accompanied by a radical easing of the closure.

The Secretary-General calls on the international community to provide the resources necessary to support United Nations programmes in addressing the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation of the Palestinian people.  So far this year, UNRWA has received pledges covering less than one-half of its financial requirements for its emergency appeal for refugees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  Only $89 million of the almost $210 million needed has been pledged.  With insufficient financial resources, the quality and level of the Agency’s emergency humanitarian assistance will suffer.  Later this year, the Agency will launch a five-year medium-term plan covering the approximately 2 million registered refugees throughout its area of operation.

The report of the Secretary-General on the situation in the Middle East (document A/59/431) notes that in resolution 58/22 the Assemblydeplored the transfer by some States of their diplomatic missions to Jerusalem inviolation of Council resolution 478 (1980), and called once more onthose States to abide by the provisions of the relevant United Nations resolutions.  In resolution 58/23, theAssembly demanded once more that Israel withdraw from all the occupied SyrianGolan to the line of 4 June 1967, in implementation of the relevant Councilresolutions.  Also, on 12 April, the Secretary-General addressed notes verbales to the Permanent Representative of Israel and other MemberStates, requesting them to inform him of any steps that their governments had taken or envisaged taking in regard to the implementation of the relevant provisions of the two resolutions.  As of 30 September, replies had been received from Estonia, Israel, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Syria.

According to Israel, which voted against these resolutions and similar ones adopted by the Assembly previously, resolutions 58/22 and 58/23 are unbalanced and threaten to prejudge the outcome of the Middle East peace process.  The one-sided approach undermines a fundamental principle of the peace process, according to which the achievement of a just and lasting peace in the region is possible only through direct bilateral negotiations.  Israel goes on to say that the time to put an end to such biased United Nations resolutions is long overdue, requiring immediate and serious consideration by the Secretary-General.  Rather than promoting a vision, which recognizes the rights and obligations of both sides, as articulated in the Road Map, such resolutions obscure the efforts of the parties to achieve a negotiated outcome.

In its response, Syria states that a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East can be brought about only through a just and comprehensive peaceful settlement.  The decision taken by Israel on 31 December 2003 to increase the number of its settlements and expand settlement activity in the occupied Golan are an indication of its intentions to hold the resolutions of the Council and the Assembly in contempt, including Assembly resolution 58/98 of 9 December 2003, which reiterated the demand for the complete cessation of all Israeli settlement activities.  Syria calls on the international community to exert pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the Arab territories occupied by it in 1967, including Jerusalem, and calls on all States to comply fully with Assembly resolution 58/22.

The draft resolution entitled Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (document A/59/L.34) would have the Assembly ask the Committee to continue to exert all efforts to promote the realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, to support the Middle East peace process and to mobilize international support for and assistance to the Palestinian people.  In addition, the Secretary-General would be asked to continue to provide the Committee with the necessary facilities for the performance of its tasks.

By the draft resolution on the division for Palestinian Rights of the Secretariat (document A/59/L.35), the Assembly would ask the Secretary-General to provide it with the necessary resources and to ensure that it continues to carry out its work programme as detailed in earlier resolutions, in consultation with the Palestinian Rights Committee.  Also, the Assembly would ask the Committee and the Division, as part of the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on 29 November, to continue to organize an annual exhibit on Palestinian rights or a cultural event in cooperation with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations.

According to a text on the special information programme on the question of Palestine of the Department of Public Information of the Secretariat (document A/59/L.36), the Assembly would ask the Department, in full coordination with the Committee, to continue its special information programme for the biennium 2004-2005, in particular to:  disseminate information on all the United Nations activities relating to the question of Palestine; to continue to issue and update relevant publications; to expand its collection of audiovisual material on that question; and to organize and promote fact-finding news missions for journalists to the area, including the occupied Palestinian territory and East Jerusalem.

The Department would also be asked to:  organize international, regional and national seminars or encounters for journalists, aiming in particular at sensitizing public opinion to the question of Palestine; and continue to provide assistance to the Palestinian people in the field of media development, in particular to strengthen the training programme for Palestinian broadcasters and journalists initiated in 1995.

A further text, entitled Peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine (document A/59/L.37), would have the Assembly stress the need for Israel’s withdrawal from the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967 and the realization of the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights, primarily the right to self-determination and to their independent State.  The Assembly would further stress the need for a speedy end to the reoccupation of Palestinian population centres and for the complete cessation of all acts of violence, including military attacks, destruction and acts of terror.

In addition, the Assembly would call on both sides, the Quartet and other interested parties to exert all efforts necessary to halting the deterioration of the situation, to reverse all measures taken on the ground since 28 September 2000, and to facilitate a speedy resumption of the peace process and conclusion of a final peaceful settlement.  The Assembly would also stress the need to respect the advisory opinion of the ICJ, and to comply with the legal obligations identified therein, which would contribute greatly towards the peaceful and just settlement of the question of Palestine.

The draft resolution on Jerusalem (document A/59/L.39) would have the Assembly reiterate its determination that any actions taken by Israel to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration on Jerusalem are illegal and, therefore, null and void and have no validity whatsoever.  It would also deplore the transfer by some States of their diplomatic missions to Jerusalem in violation of Security Council resolution 478 (1980), and call once more upon those States to abide by the relevant provisions of United Nations resolutions.  Also, the Assembly would stress that a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of Jerusalem should take into account the legitimate concerns of both the Palestinian and Israeli sides and should include internationally guaranteed provisions to ensure the freedom of religion and of conscience of its inhabitants, as well as permanent, free and unhindered access to the holy places by the people of all religions and nationalities.

The text on the Syrian Golan (document A/59/L.40) would have the Assembly stress the illegality of the construction of Israeli settlements and other activities in the occupied Syrian Golan since 1967.  It would also express its grave concern over the halt in the pace process on the Syrian track, and express the hope that peace talks would resume from the point they had reached.  It would call upon Israel to resume the talks on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks and respect the commitments and undertakings reached during the previous talks.  The Assembly would declare that Israel has so far failed to comply with Council resolution 497 (1981) and, therefore, declare that Israel’s decision of 14 December 1981 to impose laws, jurisdiction and administration on the occupied Syrian Golan is null and void and has no validity whatsoever, as confirmed by Council resolution 497.  The Assembly would call on Israel to rescind that decision, and once more demand that Israel withdraw from all the occupied Syrian Golan to the 4 June 1967 line.

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