Kofi Annan speaks with civil society representatives in support of Middle East peace

Secretary-General Kofi Annan (left) with former World Bank President James Wolfensohn (right), now special envoy for the Quartet. In the centre is Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State of the United States. Annan met with the Middle East Quartet on June 23, 2005. (UN/Eskinder Debebe)


PARIS, FRANCE, 12 July –- “We count on you to remain committed until the Palestinian people realize their aspirations for an independent state, and until Israel and all States in the region can live side by side in a peaceful and prosperous Middle East”, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told civil society representatives today at the opening of the United Nations International Conference of Civil Society in Support of Middle East Peace.

Speaking on the Secretary-General’s behalf, Sergei Ordzhonikidze, Director-General, United Nations, Geneva, told the Meeting, convened by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Headquarters in Paris, that, in all efforts to achieve Middle East peace, the support of civil society was indispensable. Civil society participants were building bridges of understanding and reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

Despite some progress on the ground, however, the world community remained concerned about the continuing expansion of settlements, construction of the barrier in the West Bank, and acts of violence, the Secretary-General said. The United Nations would spare no effort in advancing the peace process, while continuing to help the Palestinians cope with socio-economic hardship. He strongly encouraged Israelis and Palestinians to continue on the path of dialogue, taking advantage of the “present moment of opportunity” to revitalize the Quartet Road Map.

Drawing from the positive results of previous United Nations International Conferences of Civil Society, the two-day Meeting brings together more than 80 representatives of governments, intergovernmental organizations and civil society worldwide. The focus is on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the support of civil society for the current peace efforts. The Meeting seeks to provide civil society organizations with an opportunity to discuss the situation on the ground, develop action-oriented proposals in support of Middle East peace and coordinate their activities.

Head of the Committee’s delegation, Ravan A.G. Farhâdi (Afghanistan) said that the Committee continued to count on civil society’s engagement, given the volatile situation on the ground. Since the start in 2002 of the construction of the separation wall – which might undermine efforts at realizing a two-State solution — civil society had put the issue at the centre of its discussion and vowed to mobilize governments and public opinion to take a firm stand against it. Unquestionably, its activism had contributed to steps taken on the issue at the intergovernmental level, including by the United Nations.
Minister of State of the Palestinian Authority, Hind Khoury, said that the Palestinian people had firmly adopted the path of peaceful negotiations, reform and democracy, while the Israeli Government had continued to pursue geopolitical policies aimed at, among other things, expansion, restricting Palestinian development and free movement, and implementing a policy of expulsion. It was time to bring justice to the Palestinians and end more than a quarter century of occupation. She asked the international community to stand with her in that quest, and for civil society to urge governments to take serious measures to guarantee Israel’s compliance with its international obligations.

Saying she had seen the centrality of the question of Palestine in the middle of the massive civil society mobilizations for peace and against occupation in the region, Phyllis Bennis, Co-Chair of the International Coordinating Network for Palestine, said that the anti-war movement focused on the United States’ occupation of Iraq had made the call for ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine a key component of the effort worldwide. That had strengthened civil society’s movement and brought the Palestinian rights issue to the centre of perhaps the most important and powerful global movement of the day.

The Meeting convened the first of its two plenaries this morning. For its examination of “the current situation on the ground and action by civil society”, it heard from the following civil society experts: Adi Dagan, Spokesperson, Coalition of Women for Just Peace/Machsom Watch, Tel Aviv; Ms. Khoury, Minister of State of the Palestinian Authority; Gabi Baramki, President, Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace, Ramallah; Achin Vanaik, Professor of International Relations and Global Politics, Delhi University, New Delhi, India.

In the ensuing discussion, which considered the realities facing the Palestinian people, initiatives of Palestinian and international NGOs and the Israeli peace camp, Mr. Baramki of the Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace, Ramallah, said that for 10 years, the Palestinians had been chasing a mirage called peace. Since Oslo, all eyes had been fixed on the area, and people and governments alike had been talking about the peace process as if peace was about to happen. But, that was far from the truth. While Israel was talking about peace, it was undermining the very foundations of peace, namely justice and respect for international law.

Once again, the international community had been lured into believing another myth –- Prime Minister Sharon’s unilateral plan to withdraw from Gaza and evacuate the settlements there, he said. Palestinian civil society and many international NGOs were realizing that that was nothing but a ploy. Yet, despite their efforts and those of the international community and Israeli solidarity groups, the building of new settlements and the expansion of existing ones in the West Bank were occurring at a “frighteningly fast rate”, and the construction of the “apartheid wall” was going on with hardly a comment from the Quartet. Peace would remain elusive, as long as Israel considered itself to be above the law.

Several workshops are taking place in the margins of Plenary I and II, on the following topics: today, strategies to consolidate and broaden constituencies; strategies to mobilize public opinion; and strategies to engage governments; and tomorrow, European civil society in support of Middle East peace; cooperation with the United Nations; and campaigns in support of peace in the Middle East.

Plenary II, on strengthening civil society initiatives, will convene tomorrow at 3 p.m., followed by the closing of the Conference at 6 p.m.

Statement by Secretary-General

Delivering a message on behalf of United Nations Secretary-General KOFI ANNAN, SERGEI ORDZHONIKIDZE, Director-General, United Nations Office at Geneva, said that civil society’s participation in the Conference reflected its resolve and commitment to contribute to the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He had been encouraged by the progress achieved at the Sharm El Sheikh summit between President Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon last February. Now, the commitments of both sides needed to be fully implemented. While the level of violence was still a source of great concern, the parties, on different levels, continued to meet and discuss critical issues. He strongly encouraged both Israelis and Palestinians to continue on the path of dialogue, taking advantage of the present moment of opportunity to revitalize the Quartet Road Map.

He said that the international community was strongly committed to the goal of two States – Israel and a sovereign, viable, democratic and contiguous Palestinian state – living side-by-side in peace and security, as stipulated in the Road Map and endorsed by Security Council resolution 1515 (2003). At its meeting in London last month, the Quartet reaffirmed its support for the Israeli initiative to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank, and for an orderly Palestinian takeover of that area. It emphasized the urgent need for the parties to work directly and cooperatively with each other, assisted by the Quartet’s Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement, James Wolfensohn, with the support of international donors.

Despite some progress on the ground, the world community remained concerned about the continuing expansion of settlements, construction of the barrier in the West Bank, and acts of violence, the Secretary-General said. The parties had been reminded repeatedly of their obligations under the Road Map, and of the need to refrain from actions that could prejudge the outcome of the final status negotiations. The United Nations, for its part, would spare no effort in advancing the peace process and, meanwhile, continuing to help the Palestinians cope with socio-economic hardship.

In all efforts to achieve Middle East peace, the support of civil society was indispensable, he said. “We count on you to remain committed until the Palestinian people realize their aspirations for an independent State, and until Israel and all States in the region can live side-by-side in a peaceful and prosperous Middle East,” he said. He commended the Committee for continuing to work closely with civil society on that crucial issue. Above all, he thanked all civil society participants for their dedication to building bridges of understanding and reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

Summary of Opening Statements

RAVAN A.G. FARHÂDI (Afghanistan), Head of the Delegation, Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said that said the decision had been made to hold the Conference in a European capital, so as to give more organizations from Europe and the Middle East a chance to participate. The Committee continued to count on civil society’s engagement, given the volatile situation on the ground. Meanwhile, implementation of the understandings reached, such as the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities in the West Bank, and the gradual return to the situation of September 2000, had been marked by procrastination and delays, and most of them remained to be realized. At the same time, violent clashes in the Occupied Palestinian Territory continued between Israelis and Palestinians, with the agreed ceasefire as fragile as ever.

He said that the Israeli Government continued preparing its unilaterally declared disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip and small parts of the northern West Bank, set to begin next month. The Committee joined the international community in calling for the successful withdrawal, which had to be fully coordinated with the Palestinian Authority. The Committee was hopeful that the ongoing regular contacts between the parties would ensure their cooperation, thereby providing a basis for the next steps, which were indispensable to revitalizing the Road Map. The most practicable means for the parties to embark upon a negotiated solution remained the Road Map, which should lead to implementation of Security Council resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973) and 1397 (2002).

While media attention was focused on disengagement, the Israeli Government had been pursuing plans to expand major settlements in the West Bank, extend the boundaries of Jerusalem and consolidate the Israeli population’s presence in the city, he said. The “Greater Jerusalem” settlements were being expanded with the Government’s approval, in total contradiction of Israel’s obligations under the Road Map. The Ministry of Construction and Housing continued to issue tenders for the construction of hundreds of new houses in those settlements. The most worrisome was the so-called “E-1 plan”, which would connect East Jerusalem with the largest West Bank settlement of “Ma’ale Adumim” by building some 3,500 homes in the intermediary area. Completion of the project would effectively cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, thereby thwarting Palestinians’ ultimate goal to establish the capital of their future state in Jerusalem. Changing the city’s demographic composition was another concern.

Noting that 9 July had marked the one-year anniversary of the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of the construction of a wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, he said that, despite concerted global efforts to act against the wall, the Israeli Government had not ceased construction. On the contrary, it had approved new segments of the wall’s route, which would eventually incorporate the large settlements around East Jerusalem on the Israeli side. The wall’s construction continued to worsen the socio-economic situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, impede the exercise of the Palestinian people of its inalienable rights, and it might undermine efforts at realizing the vision of a two-State solution.

In that context, the Committee had kept the international community’s focus on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and had highlighted the significance of the Advisory Opinion, he said. Civil society had responded with concerted initiatives. Since the start of the construction of the wall in 2002, it had put the issue at the centre of its discussion and vowed to mobilize governments and public opinion to take a firm stand. Unquestionably, civil society’s activism had contributed to steps taken on the issue at the intergovernmental level, including by the United Nations. In addition, the principal conclusion of two recent Committee meetings on the issue had stressed the imperative to uphold international law. In that regard, NGOs had put forth a number of concrete initiatives.

Indeed, he said, the Advisory Opinion provided all international actors, including civil society, with a powerful tool to pursue the various peace efforts at all levels and to strengthen the movement in support of a comprehensive, just and lasting solution of the question of Palestine. First and foremost, was the need to raise the level of public understanding. The Court had brought international law back to the forefront of the dialogue concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ruling provided civil society with arguments, emphasizing not only the responsibilities of Israel, but also the legal obligations of all States to restore international justice.

He reiterated the Committee’s long-standing position that the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the continued occupation of Palestinian land by Israel, and resulting from that, the denial of the inalienable rights of an entire people. A final and sustainable solution to the conflict required a complete end of the occupation, the creation of an independent, sovereign and viable Palestinian state, and the achievement by the Palestinian people of its inalienable rights, including the right of the return of refugees. A lasting solution must be measured against the norms of international law.

The degree of participation of civil society groups and their determination to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians had been impressive, he said. Middle East peace was possible with the help of civil society actors, if individual and collective efforts around the world were brought together and became one great force. He was convinced that two days of deliberations would lead to yet another level of cooperation in support of Middle East peace. He was looking forward to insightful and fruitful discussions, as well as an action plan and workshop reports, which could be immediately disseminated to civil society actors all over the world determined to work with the Committee until a comprehensive, just and lasting solution of the question of Palestine was achieved.

HIND KHOURY, Minister of State of the Palestinian Authority, said that the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remained very critical in all aspects, as it had for 38 years, due to Israeli occupation policies and measures. The Palestinian people had firmly adopted the path of peaceful negotiations, reform and democracy, while the Israeli Government continued to pursue geopolitical policies aimed at, among other things, expanding its State, restricting Palestinian development and free movement, and implementing a policy of expulsion. Peace, security and stability in the Middle East were at the centre of international and regional attention. At the same time, it must be recognized that achieving justice in Palestine was at the core of Middle East peace.

She said that Palestine, therefore, had agreed to abide by the obligations of the Road Map and a two-State solution. It was determined to coordinate with the Israelis to guarantee the complete evacuation of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, as a first step towards implementing the Road Map. Still, the extent to which those actions translated into peace was uncertain. Israel should provide a more serious commitment and actively implement concrete changes on the ground, in order to move towards a just, viable and comprehensive peace. Preserving values such as transparency, accountability and responsibility, and defusing existing double standards, was of great importance. The realities that had afflicted the Palestinian people could not be ignored.

Israel was an example of a renegade State, which flaunted international law precisely because the international community had not taken sufficient action against it, she said. Last year, the International Court of Justice had declared the separation wall inside the Occupied Palestinian Territory to be illegal. It had also called on the international community to take action to see to it that Israel complied with the Fourth Geneva Convention. To date, the international community had done nothing to uphold that ruling, and Israel continued to build the wall, appropriating Palestinian land in the process, isolating Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied West Bank.

At the same time, she said, the United States had vetoed nearly 40 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, and more than 100 General Assembly resolutions had gone unimplemented by Israel. The international community, however, had done nothing to hold Israel accountable, once again, condoning Israeli action as though it superseded international law. Palestinians were imprisoned without charge, and incidences of torture had been well documented. Home demolitions continued unabated, and in occupied Jerusalem, an entire Palestinian neighbourhood was under threat of destruction; after 38 years of occupation, city planners had decided that that neighbourhood was an important historic site. Yet, the international community had done nothing.

She said that effective global governance must undermine another global threat – terrorism. One of the most effective ways to undermine the fight against terrorism was to continue to apply a double standard to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Terrorism relied on despair to build support. How could the international community expect law when it never applied it? How could the United States and the international community really claim to believe in freedom and democracy when they had taken no action to ensure freedom for the Palestinians and, thus far, had only promoted democracy under occupation? The question remained – why hadn’t all of our efforts been productive in enforcing international and humanitarian law? Why had countries like Israel been allowed to continue violations without reprimand? she asked.

It was time to bring justice to the Palestinians and end more than a quarter of a century of occupation, she said. It was certainly time for an independent state of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all land occupied since 1967. She asked the international community to stand with her in ending that brutal occupation of the Palestinian civilian population. She called on civil society institutions to urge governments to encourage non-violent resistance, in order to hold Israel accountable for its unlawful and illegal practices, and to take serious measures to guarantee Israel’s compliance with its international obligations. She urged everyone to work together to end the suffering of the Palestinian people and achieve genuine Middle East peace.

PHYLLIS BENNIS, Co-Chair of the International Coordinating Network for Palestine and Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, D.C., said there had been important accomplishments over the past year, with the most important, the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice. This week was the first anniversary of that opinion, and around the world, there had been movements for boycotts and sanctions aimed at forcing Israeli compliance with international law and ending the occupation. Those movements were on the rise. In the United States, for instance, the churches had taken the lead. A movement was building against occupation, which had gained strength by keeping its focus sharply on human rights, international law, the United Nations Charter and resolutions, and the United Nations’ role in the diplomacy to end the occupation.

She said she had seen the centrality of the question of Palestine in the middle of the massive, powerful civil society mobilizations for peace and against occupation in the region. The anti-war movement focused on the United States’ occupation of Iraq had made the call for ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine a key component of the effort worldwide. That had strengthened civil society’s movement and brought the Palestinian rights issue to the centre of perhaps the most important and powerful global movement of the day. Her work had remained anchored in the question of human rights, international law and the role of the United Nations. She had built a network based on real internationalism. It was that set of tools that provided the best road map for ending occupation and reaching a just and lasting Middle East peace.

Despite those efforts and some good news, the overall picture was still “very, very bleak” and there was still a long way to go, she said. All of the goals set last year had remained unfulfilled, and the crisis in Palestine was greater than ever. The wall was being built at a faster pace, and settlement construction and expansion continued unabated, without a hint of protest from the international community. There had been no hint of opposition to the notion that only a few Israeli settlements were illegal, as if the other settlements –- the long-standing ones that now resembled Los Angeles suburbs, were somehow legal because they were big. There had been no effort by the international community or the United States, the “hyper-Power”, and Palestinians remained unprotected in the face of massive, continuing and escalating violations of the Geneva Conventions.

Continuing, she said that the Geneva Conventions had obligated the occupying Power to protect the civilians living under occupation and prohibit the transfer of settlers into the Occupied Territories. It was not supposed to arrest persons without trial and hold them without charges; it was supposed to prohibit the building of new settlements and apartheid roads, olive groves and greenhouses –- yet Israel had not been held accountable. If left unchecked, the future would see an expansion of settlements, consolidation of the wall, and the impossibility of a two-State solution.

She said that disengagement was a term of art for a slightly changed, but continuing, occupation. It was really a siege of Gaza, where people and goods would remain under Israeli authorities, where Gaza, itself, would have no control over its borders, waters and air space. Gaza would be isolated into a huge prison, except that the prison guards would let the inmates run around by themselves. The intention of the Israeli military authorities was to eventually stop the provision of humanitarian assistance. Disengagement was a “disaster in the making”.

One could anticipate great scenes of suffering by the settlers, she said. Then, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon would visit United States President Bush and say – ‘you see the price we paid for this, you see the danger of civil war within Israeli society. You cannot ask us to go further’. So, Mr. Sharon’s long-term plan for an interim solution would be imposed in the name of Gaza. That would be the future if participants here were not prepared to make international law a reality and not simply an abstraction. Only international law could defend the Palestinian population. The United States and Israeli Governments might disdain international law, but civil society worldwide had an obligation to uphold it in the face of efforts by such powerful governments to say it did not apply. “We have a lot of work to do, so let’s go and do it,” she urged.

Plenary I

This morning, in a first plenary session entitled, “The current situation on the ground and action by civil society”, the following experts made presentations: ADI DAGAN, Spokesperson, Coalition of Women for Just Peace/Machsom Watch, Tel Aviv; MS. KHOURY, Minister of State of the Palestinian Authority; GABI BARAMKI, President, Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace, Ramallah; ACHIN VANAIK, Professor of International Relations and Global Politics, Delhi University, New Delhi, India.

Saying she did not like to use the word “peace”, preferring instead to talk about the struggle for justice and human rights, MS. DAGAN explained that the word peace implied symmetry between two equal entities at war. That was not the case, as the violence in the region was a symptom, and not the core problem, of Israel’s ongoing colonialist project, the control and possession of all resources in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It was Israel’s brutal military occupation, its apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories, which she and her fellow activists were working to end.

She said that one goal of her work was to bring about a political and social change in Israel by challenging the equation which said that what was bad for Palestinians was good for Israelis, and vice versa. Perhaps the establishment of the State of Israel through wars and ongoing hostility with its neighbours created the notion that “it’s them or us, us or them”. She was trying to persuade Israelis that that approach was neither correct nor just. Maybe what was bad for Palestinians was also bad for Israelis.

Machsom Watch was a group of 500 Israeli women volunteers who daily went to some 40 military checkpoints in the West Bank and documented human rights violations of Palestinians there, she explained. The goal was to bring to light what was happening under Israeli occupation. The women of her group also intervened when people were detained, harassed, punished or banned from passing, and they regularly sent complaints to army officials about violations in the checkpoints.

She explained that the checkpoints were the focus of her activity, as those were major forms of collective punishment of the Palestinians. They were scattered between Palestinian towns and villages and they prevented the free passage of Palestinians, mainly civilians on their way to school and work and to visit relatives, in the West Bank. All were under the control of a bureaucratic system of passing permits and restrictions. That limitation on movement was forbidden under international law, and it paralyzed Palestinians’ civil and economic life.

There were dozens of permanent (57) and flying checkpoints, hundreds of roadblocks, and now with the construction of the apartheid wall, Palestinians were living in small prisons, she went on. The checkpoints were also places where harassment, humiliation and violence towards civilians took place. Most Israelis considered the checkpoints to be a necessary measure to ensure their security and prevent attackers from entering Israel.

She said her message was that those were not only unjust and illegal, but also negative for Israelis. The humiliation, poverty and suffering those caused only deepened Palestinian despair and hatred, and increased the motivation to resist their presence. “We have heard so many times from Palestinians crossing the checkpoints that, in these places, the future bombers are born,” she said.

Another project, “From a different viewpoint”, brought mainstream Israelis to the separation wall being built in the West Bank, she said. In such visits, the wall’s route and its implications are explained. She took the Israelis to see the wall in several neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, around Qalqilya and other affected places. She also arranged to have them meet Palestinians who lived by the wall, who explained the problems they faced. At the end, the group sat and discussed their perceptions and beliefs about the conflict, in a re-examination of their point of view.

She said that, as many as 90 per cent of Israelis felt the wall enhanced their security. She tried to challenge that view by presenting a coherent political explanation about the wall’s purpose and implications – how the aim was to create more facts on the ground in the West Bank, which would sabotage a solution, including a viable independent Palestinian state. That, in turn, would mean ongoing conflict between Israel and the people living in enclaves, controlled from all sides by Israel. The group was part of a long-term struggle to convince Israelis that security, peace and tranquility could not be achieved through dispossession of Palestinians. On the contrary, only justice, human rights for all and a political solution could satisfy all the parties.

MS. KHOURY, Minister of State of the Palestinian Authority, said the world had been talking about a window of opportunity for Middle East peace, but the reality of Palestinian life continued to be “painfully difficult”. Israeli occupation measures, such as settlements expansion and housing demolitions, had become tradition. Palestinian property was routinely destroyed, the transport of goods and people was obstructed at some 650 checkpoints, political detentions continued, prisoners languished in jails, and military incursions continued, as did political assassinations and the killing of innocent civilians. If those measures continued at the present rate, then the two-State solution would be in jeopardy. Those actions also disrupted the normal lives of Palestinians. Poverty was excessive and unemployment, at 60 per cent, was high. Among the population, there was a serious sense of instability and a disbelief in the political perspective for peace.

Nevertheless, the Palestinians were still moving ahead with reform and democratic processes, she said, adding, however, that the Gaza disengagement was jeopardizing that. Despite the excessive difficulties, the Palestinian Authority was pursuing a major reform programme based mainly on Palestinian demand. That reform sought to establish, among other things, a more productive and efficient public sector and a more organized and responsible judicial system. Last year, the reform process had successfully established an accountable and transparent public financial system, which had gained the recognition of the international community and resulted in further aid to the Palestinians. This was the year of “Palestinian democracy”, as Palestinians had successfully conducted presidential elections early in the year, as well as a series of municipal elections. July elections had been postponed, but those would hopefully occur by the end of 2005.

Politically, she said that the Palestinian Authority was committed to the peace strategy, and despite Israel’s almost total lack of cooperation and reciprocity to seriously improve the lives of the Palestinians, the Authority strove to maintain political consensus internally, as a necessary step to achieving real peace, while supporting democratic practices. Unfortunately, that was not the world’s impression of the status of peace in the region. The Gaza disengagement, for example, was viewed as a major concession by Israel towards the peace process, but the facts on the ground, especially those related to settlements expansion, were clearly undermining the opportunity for peace. Israel was promising to evacuate thousands of settlers from Gaza and in the north of the West Bank, but it was making room for 30,000 more in the rest of the West Bank, particularly in and around Jerusalem.

She said that even if Israel enacted the disengagement plan as promised, Gaza would continue to be occupied, Israel would still control the borders, including with Egypt, and it would unilaterally decide if and when Gaza could open its airports and seaports. That would prevent Gaza and the West Bank from the territorial link needed to boost the Palestinian economy and ease Palestinian suffering. So, the plan was basically that Israel would control all persons, goods and resources entering Gaza and the West Bank. Without access, Gaza could not be a success. Preventing Gaza and the West Bank from developing economies as one independent unit went against the interests of peace.

Without a viable Palestinian state, there could be no viable peace, but Israeli actions were destroying the possibility of a viable state, and with it, any possibility of implementing the two-State solution, she said. The wall, alone, took up 9.5 per cent of the West Bank’s most valuable land and resources, including East Jerusalem, Palestine’s capital. It took up valuable land in the north, which was accountable for 14 per cent of the West Bank’s agricultural produce. The wall also went deep into Palestinian territory in the West Bank, dissecting the Palestinian areas into cantons. Transportation costs for all kinds of goods had been excessive, and the movement of people had been severely restricted. While Israeli producers were “dumped on our market”, transportation costs had made it impossible to sell Palestinian products.

Under the current Israeli scheme, Palestine would lose nearly half the West Bank’s valuable land and resources, including East Jerusalem, she said. That city was the cultural heart of Palestine, without which, there would be no viable Palestinian state and no peace. As affirmed by the International Court of Justice, and recognized by the international community, East Jerusalem was Occupied Territory, meaning that it had the same legal status under international law, and Israel had no claim on it, whatsoever. Metropolitan Jerusalem accounted for 30 to 40 per cent of the West Bank’s economy, yet Israel was building illegal cordons around the city with its settlements, in an attempt to ensure that any Palestinian capital in Jerusalem would be surrounded by a foreign, sovereign Israel.

She said that, just as the majority of Palestinians had been unable to access Jerusalem since 1988, Jerusalemites had been finding it increasingly difficult to stay. Young students had never been able to visit the city, every family had a court case to chase because of land appropriations or imprisonment and improper taxation. Jerusalem was facing a very severe policy of expulsion of its people. The routing of the wall in Jerusalem was excluding 55,000 Jerusalemites, who found themselves outside the wall’s original plan. People living inside the wall, as well as on the periphery, were also experiencing hardships. Israel planned to build ‘humanitarian tunnels’ so those people could get out “like rats”.

The International Court of Justice had said that Israel could not build the wall on its own, and it said that the settlements were illegal. By ignoring the Court, the international community was unwittingly sending a strong message to the enemies of peace – it was saying that violence was the only option. The wall and settlements were barriers to peace. Those were destroying any possibility for a two-State solution. If Israel wanted to build the wall and advance the cause of peace, it should move the wall to the 1967 borders. Peace with justice was possible and could be achieved today. The elected Palestinian leadership was committed to negotiating a fair and sustainable peace with Israel, but the evolving facts on the ground were undermining Palestinian democracy and hopes of peace and security for both peoples –- Palestinians and Israelis.

MR. BARAMKI, Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace, Ramallah, said that, for 10 years, the Palestinians had been following a mirage called peace. Since Oslo, all eyes had been fixed on the area, and people and governments alike had been talking about the peace process as if peace was about to happen. But, that was far from the truth. While Israel was talking about peace, it was undermining the very foundations of peace, namely justice and respect for international law.

Currently, he said, the international community was being lured, once again, into believing another myth: Sharon’s unilateral plan to withdraw from Gaza and evacuate the settlements there. But, Palestinian civil society and many international NGOs were realizing that that was nothing but a ploy. While some action was taking place in Gaza, the building of new settlements and the expansion of existing ones in the West Bank were occurring at a “frighteningly fast rate”. The building of the apartheid wall was going on with hardly a comment from the Quartet. All of that was occurring, despite the efforts of the Palestinian civil society and the international and Israeli solidarity groups.

As long as Israel considered itself to be above the law, there would never be peace, he said. Peace could only occur when justice was administered to the Palestinians. Once that occurred, security would follow, and not the other way around. The civil society in Palestine, under the current conditions of injustice, occupation and the lack of real intentions to end that, had been trying to point out that the so-called peace plans were only fiction and that the “emperor has no clothes”, he said.
In the past three years, he said, civil society in Palestine had sought to bring people there to see, first-hand, the situation on the ground. The idea had been that those people would then report back to their communities the Israeli atrocities, thereby making up for the lack of coverage of the international media of Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories. Indeed, the muted action of the international media had allowed Israel to continue its violations unchecked.

He noted that various groups had brought thousands of people from all walks of life, not only to observe, but also to participate in acts of solidarity with the Palestinians against Israeli violations, such as the demolition of homes, restriction of movement and humiliation at checkpoints, and the building of the apartheid wall on their lands. Tragically, some of those international persons were murdered in cold blood while carrying out their humanitarian duties to protect the Palestinians. Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall were but two examples.

The work of the Palestinian NGOs had been mainly aimed at helping the community and civil society to survive and maintain a healthy attitude without losing sight of their rights, he said. In the fields of health, education, culture, economy, agriculture and social work, those NGOs had supported and complemented the work of government and, in many cases, had gone even further. Most of the universities in Palestine were non-governmental institutions supporting the government in its strategic plan to maintain high-quality education for all qualified high school graduates.

In the area of health and mental health, he said that the NGOs had been quite active in providing support in primary health are running clinics in rural areas, and improving the accessibility of medication attention to the population as a whole. In the area of mental health, many civil society organizations had been active in improving the skills of counselors, social workers and other mental health providers, in order to reduce the negative effects of trauma resulting from the Israeli occupation and its acts of violence against the Palestinians, particularly the children.

Underpinning the NGOs’ work was to enable the community to maintain a ‘normal’ frame of mind and refrain from slipping into acceptance of occupation as the normal state of affairs, he explained. The NGOs sought to help the population survive and remain steadfast and to keep the hope alive for justice and peace. Besides their assistance in agriculture and small business, NGOs also worked in the realm of art and culture, organizing exhibits, concerts, dance and film festivals to elevate the spirit and create a diversion in the present violent environment.

The NGOs’ acts of non-violent resistance continued -– demonstrating against the apartheid wall, organizing sit-ins in front of bulldozers set to demolish homes, and chaining themselves to olive trees marked for uprooting, despite the Israeli bullets, tear gas and bulldozers, which eventually “win the day”, he said. The Palestinian civil society had mounted a campaign against Israel in the hope of calling it to its senses and bringing it into respect for international law and United Nations resolutions and conventions. That campaign, which had started with a call from the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel to boycott Israeli institutions, was now spreading to other areas, as had happened during the apartheid regime in South Africa. International NGOs should support it, and persuade their governments to force Israel to end occupation and abide by United Nations resolutions.

Israel had been abusing the sympathy of the international community for too long and had exceeded all limits of abuse of the Palestinians under the longest occupation of the past century, he said. Hopefully, the civil society’s non-violent mode of resistance to occupation would finally bear fruit, and justice would prevail in the region, and with it -– peace and peaceful co-existence.

MR. VANAIK of Delhi University stressed that the key aim for solidarity networks was to bring about a shift in the “political relationship of forces” worldwide to enable a just peace to emerge. Existing peace efforts from Oslo onward had reflected the post-cold war and post-Gulf Wars shifts, which had taken place in that relationship of forces in favour of the United States and Israel. Those efforts had been based on the deeply flawed assumption that the United States could be an “honest broker” for achieving a just peace settlement. That was never the case and should now be obvious except to the most willfully blind. The United States, in fact, had been Israel’s most important backer of the latter’s pursuit of its agenda.

To successfully change that adverse relationship of forces, in the long-term, required that the international NGOs united with the Palestinian struggle become part of a global process, he said. That meant: promoting the United States’ political defeat in Iraq; reinforcing the morale of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and in the diaspora and strengthening their determination to accept nothing less than a just peace settlement; and generating greater United States and Israeli diplomatic isolation through the greater commitment of more governments everywhere to the “Palestinian Cause”, expressed both inside and outside multilateral bodies like the United Nations.

He said that the tactical tasks for NGOs were: giving material and moral support to Palestinians; raising much greater awareness of their plight; being part of the international movement against the United States’ illegal occupation of Iraq and against its efforts to establish a long-term indirect dominance over the country; and working towards the creation of wider transnational and regional networks by developing ties with Israeli peace groups and through the creation of stronger European, Middle Eastern and Southern solidarity networks.

For NGOs, he said that the strategic task involved: creation of a genuine international network with much greater collaboration between United States-based solidarity groups and those in the rest of the world; and being part of a process to persuade the United States anti-war movement currently focused on Washington’s occupation of Iraq, to link that opposition to the United States-backed Israeli occupation of Palestine. The impulse not to ‘weaken’ the anti-war movement by bringing in such a supposedly divisive issue was misplaced and politically-strategically mistaken.

He provided a survey of the current scene in Asia, as well as some suggested initiatives. That included a prohibition of any further “land grab” by Israel and Israeli acknowledgement of the right of return. To achieve the latter, NGOs everywhere could: highlight the importance of the right of return; highlight the unequivocal opposition to the illegal “apartheid wall”, which deliberately extended beyond the Green Line and must be fully dismantled. To carry out those and other initiatives meant organizing international days of action, select boycotts against companies like Caterpillar bulldozers, and national tribunals against the unacceptable behaviour of governments in relation to Palestinians and in collusion with the United States.

In the United Kingdom and the United States, he said there could be a more focused civil society public inquiry into the deaths of Tom Hurndall and Rachel Corrie, and on the related failure of those two Governments to hold Israel accountable for its “shamefully lenient” handling of those responsible for those two deaths. On balance, the media in the west must be held responsible for helping to promote and sustain the myth of Israel’s “perpetual victimhood”. Behind the pretence of showing ‘both sides of the story’, the media had refused to recognize that, in a fundamental political sense, the roles of victim and victimizer were as clear as in the case of South Africa’s apartheid.

He advocated promoting the call, both within and outside the United Nations, against all military dealings between governments and Israel. Israel was far and away the militarily most powerful country in the Middle East and the only one with nuclear weapons, albeit, undeclared. That also made the call to establish a Middle East zone free from mass destruction weapons attractive. Israel should not be allowed to get away with claiming that the establishment of such a zone was contingent on achievement of some ‘final’ peace settlement. Israel was responsible for sustaining the longest running illegal military occupation in modern history, sustained by the most incredible levels of routine brutality.

Regardless of the authoritarian regimes that surrounded it, Israel, itself, was an undemocratic and communal State denying equal rights to a fifth of its own (Arab) citizens, he said. The call for a ban on all military dealings with Israel would put on the spot, not just the governments of the North, but also many of the important countries of the South, such as India and China. Palestine solidarity movements in the South also grew nationally by attacking the culpabilities of their own governments. That was especially necessary now that many Southern governments were moving away from a past where the commitment to seek justice for Palestinians had been considerably greater.

Discussion

Several civil society and NGO representatives participated in the discussion that followed, with the focus largely on the construction of the wall and the expansion of the settlements. A Geneva-based representative of the Organization of Islamic Conference urged participants to exert pressure on Israel to follow existing resolutions and recommendations. As several speakers had pointed out, it seemed that everyone was “up against diplomatic lethargy”. In the face of that lethargy, he pressed participants to be vigorous, stressing that NGOs had a crucial role to play in the provision of good and accurate information.

A representative of the Robert Shuman Centre for Europe said that a solution must be found in which people from ‘both sides’ could live as proper citizens. A principle of ‘community’ needed to be evolved, such as a community for water, economy, labour, citizens’ rights, and so forth, without which, peace would remain elusive.

Chief of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) liaison office in Geneva said that the Agency was “extremely worried” about the wall being built in Jerusalem. It would have only 12 gates to handle approximately 140,000 commuters in and out of the city from the West Bank and surrounding villages. Those gates would only be able to handle 12,000 to 14,000 people per day, so what would happen to the rest of the commuters? The wall would also cause the death or decline of Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem, which had been built and maintained by European international donors. Hospitals, for example, were about to close down or move. The UNRWA in Jerusalem would also be affected, as it had many staff members in the West Bank. The Agency might have to move from Jerusalem if the wall was built as envisaged.

Concerning the “mirage of the Gaza withdrawal”, he said that UNRWA was presently caring for 900,000 refugees in Gaza, of a total of 1.3 million inhabitants there, and it was providing food aid for 600,000. Israeli authorities had said that the prolonged closure due to the disengagement would only last until October, but he feared that other causes might further prolong it, and then how would those 1.3 million people be cared for? The UNRWA had stocked up on food storages, but there was a big difference between a closure of a few months and one that lasted half a year or longer. The closure might last until early next year, with the prospect of new Israeli elections, which would surely worsen the whole humanitarian situation, he said.

Several participants, warning that the situation developing in Jerusalem was “very dangerous”, urged UNRWA and others to ‘stay the course’ in Jerusalem, and not attempt to move from that heart of all religions, all faiths.

A representative of the Israeli-based Physicians for Human Rights NGO said that Israel had done nothing to improve the medical system in the Gaza Strip. It had prevented students from studying there and it had prevented doctors from going abroad, either to study or to attend conferences. Thus, the Gaza medical system was dependent on Israel and Egypt, and so forth. He warned of a medical catastrophe the day after disengagement if Israel closed the Israeli/Egyptian border and did not permit doctors to enter the West Bank.

Several other points raised by NGO representatives had included the media’s role, and the need to stage popular resistance to the wall, such as through boycotts and sanctions. The panelists took the floor a second time to respond briefly.

Related Links

  • United Nations: Question of Palestine