UN meeting on Israeli-Palestinian peace emphasizes nature and value of dialogue

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome.

ROME — The nature and value of dialogue and the importance of mutual respect within, between and among cultures were the focus of this afternoon’s discussion among participants in the first of three scheduled plenary sessions at the United Nations International Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace, held at the Rome headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

During the session –- whose theme was “Peace in the Middle East: A key to the advancement of the dialogue between cultures and civilizations” —- participants responded to the presentations of five expert panellists, who discussed three sub-themes: bridging the gap between Muslim and Western societies -– the urgency of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; building peace in Jerusalem –- the Holy City of three religions; and fostering the alliance of civilizations –- the United Nations initiative.

The session started with a message of greetings by the Holy See delivered by Pietro Parolin, Under-Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See. The experts making presentations were Sheikh Taysir Al-Tamimi, Supreme Judge of Sharia Courts in Palestine and Head of the Supreme Council for Preserving Islamic Holy Sites; Giuseppe Marco Malagola of the delegation of Terra Santa in Rome; Chaim A. Cohen, Member of the Board of Directors for Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem; Bernard Sabella, Member of the Palestinian Legislative Assembly and representative of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem at the Meeting; and Staffan de Mistura, Director of the United Nations System Staff College.

Plenary II of the Meeting will convene at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 23 March, under the theme “The role of parliaments in promoting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians”.

Plenary Session I

PIETRO PAROLIN, Under-Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See, said the Meeting was taking place as the Palestinian National Unity Government took its first steps. It was surely positive that the Government, a product of a compromise between the principal Palestinian political groups, brought to an end several months of severe armed conflict that had resulted in many often-innocent victims among the Palestinian people who had already suffered so much. Hopefully, it would be an authoritative and trustworthy interlocutor, capable of leading its people with a sense of responsibility and realism, to the conclusion of a just peace with the Israelis — who had a right to live at peace in their own State -– and to the establishment of a free, independent and sovereign Palestinian State.

He said the Holy See had always followed with particular attention events taking place in the Holy Land, where thousands of Catholics lived. It preserved the living memory of events that had marked their history of salvation. Millions of Catholics and Christians hoped to be able to travel there on pilgrimage. Recently, Pope Benedict XVI himself had emphasized that attentiveness by addressing a letter to Catholics living in the Middle East, noting that “in the present circumstances, marked little by light and too much by darkness”, it was a cause of consolation and hope that Christians in the Middle East continued to be vital and active communities, resolute in bearing witness to their faith with their specific identity in the societies in which they were situated. They wished to contribute constructively to the urgent needs of their respective societies and to the whole region.

SHEIKH TAYSIR AL-TAMIMI, Supreme Judge of Sharia Courts in Palestine and Head of the Supreme Council for Preserving Islamic Holy Sites, said there was agreement among all stakeholders in Palestine to pursue the path of peace. Islam was in favour of multi-religious harmony and believed in ethnic and religious diversity. Muslims believed in Islam as well as previous religions and messengers of God. They must engage in dialogue regardless of ethnic, religious or cultural origin and did not adopt the idea of a clash of civilizations. Those in Palestine and the Islamic world at large were neither the enemies of Jews nor of Israel, for Islam called upon Muslims to live in cooperation with others.

However, Israel did not adhere to that path and did not comply with the principles of peace, he said. United Nations resolutions supported that. Israel did not wish to see peace. Although the Oslo peace accords had given three quarters of Palestinian land to Israel, the latter had failed to adhere to the agreements. It committed widespread violations of human rights as the whole world watched. It practiced unprecedented racial discrimination against Palestinians as well as unequalled humiliation and even killing. The separation wall made it impossible for the Palestinians to realize their dream of an independent State.

Today Jerusalem was segregated, as Israel had created settlements within and around the city, separating it from the rest of the Holy Land, he said. Muslims could not accept the destruction of the city’s Arab character. Israel had excavated under the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the international community had done nothing to protect that world heritage site. Jerusalem could not be turned into a Jewish quarter, isolated from the rest of the Holy Land. Members of the three monotheistic religions lived and thrived on cooperation.

GIUSEPPE MARCO MALAGOLA, delegation of Terra Santa in Rome, said he was speaking on behalf of the Franciscan custody of the Holy Land and that the Meeting provided the true possibility of dialogue between different cultures and civilizations. Promoted and sponsored by the United Nations, the meeting would represent an important step forward in making peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.

It was essential to get rid of all the obstacles and obstructions preventing a thoroughly free and sincere dialogue. Without their faith, there was no basis or bond between Palestinians and Israelis that would make them join forces and stay together in the face of all the differences and divisions. It was vital to purify all memories and be brave enough to forgive each other, admitting and recognizing each other’s mistakes, otherwise there was no hope for true peace in the future.

Stressing the importance of working responsibly and not wasting time, he said the time was ripe to insist on a strong dialogue in the Holy Land as a key priority for the construction of an inter-religious basis for peaceful cooperation. In order to reach agreement, it was necessary to achieve an honest and sincere will to talk because whenever a religion was capable of expressing its best, it must naturally tend towards dialogue. Lacking the courage to talk openly with the enemy in the long run could lead to an ultimate refusal of reconciliation.

In the absence of justice and equity, dialogue was nothing but a farce, he stated. All sides must insist firmly that violence, from whatever side it came, must cease, he said. The young were tired of empty words, and there was a need to teach people to build and defend peace. It was necessary and urgent to give rise to a new school that could teach the young generations of both sides how to be non-violent and how to develop a new mindset that built upon the intrinsic and inalienable value of every human being. Finally, it was essential to believe strongly that peace in the Holy Land was possible, and not feel bound to live in the never-ending conflict that had already been going on for a long century. It was time to ensure peace, united around the goal of building the State of Palestine in justice and peace while securing peace for the Israeli State.

CHAIM A. COHEN, Member of the Board of Directors, Rabbis for Human Rights, Jerusalem, said crucial to the advancement of dialogue between cultures and civilizations was to be open, honest, fair, truthful, trustworthy and graceful. Another key was commitment to a refusal to inflict injury on others, and a dedication to rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. In the Jewish tradition, one of the causes of violence was that people lacked other outlets to give voice to their pain and frustration. When one had no freedom of speech or action, one became mute, and in that silence, other outlets were found to express the pain.

Most painful, he said, was selective silence when those with the knowledge, credentials, status, power and capabilities to make the world better invested in and supported programmes and policies that, instead of serving to resolve the conflict, all too often resorted to its perpetuation. They kept looking at reality through the “rear-view mirror”, perpetuating hatred, division and misunderstanding instead of looking through the “windshield” of fostering alliances and promoting genuine peace.

Another key to the advancement of dialogue between cultures and civilizations was the undertaking of a “paradigm shift” in the pattern and form of defining the conflict, he said. It was important to undertake a new way to look at reality and envision the future. The world was very different from the way it had been at the start of the conflict. What had begun as simple acts of disobedience, or “turf wars”, had evolved into a potential, all-too-real, act of horrific obedience, of pushing a button that would not only end the conflict, but life itself.

BERNARD SABELLA, Member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and representative of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said that when the Holy City experienced conflict and was troubled by internecine quarrels, one could be certain that the heavenly Jerusalem was in disarray. Today’s central challenge, emphasized even more by Israel’s construction of the separation barrier, was whether exclusivist national and religious claims to Jerusalem were tenable in the long run. As relevant was the practicality and functionality of the often repeated proposition that Jews, Christians and Muslims were all children of Abraham and believed in the same one God.

One of today’s principal challenges, he said, was not to insist on ownership, but rather to acknowledge that property and ownership were no hindrance to a joint vision of a shared Jerusalem where all religious communities and the two national groups felt that the city was theirs without infringing on the rights of others to it. While the preservation of and respect for the status quo of the holy sites, free access to places of worship and the assurance of each community’s national, religious and communal presence and heritage remained a high priority to all, the history of a place like Jerusalem was, in the end, the identity of its inhabitants as it had evolved through centuries of war and peace; of polarization and accommodation; of destruction and reconstruction; of despair and hope; of past dark episodes and promising future possibilities.

He recalled that the establishment of Israel had resulted in a massive dislocation of Palestinian Arabs, including his own Christian Palestinian community in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the country. Without highlighting victim hood or blame, that dislocation, and today’s continuing dislocation due to the effects of the separation barrier, called for the quick expediting of the peace process, for healing and reconciliation. The argument that the barrier was there to provide security for the Israelis against suicide bombers and other acts of violence did not approach the root causes of violence, nor was it amenable to agreeing that real security came about through genuine and sincere efforts at working towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict that would include and ensure mutual recognition and acknowledgement of respective rights and highlight the mutual obligations to keep the peace of Jerusalem, Palestine and Israel.

A common framework for peace required a number of things that would promote peace, harmony and reconciliation, he said. First, each religious community was entitled to live in dignity and pride in its own tradition and history and to be given the proper authorization to attend to its own holy places without outside interference. Second, each national community should feel secure in its territory in terms of the sovereignty that guaranteed the fulfilment of basic needs of political community life and continuity with acknowledgement of mutual rights and obligations. However, rubbing elbows in Jerusalem did not mean the disappearance of problems between different religious and national groups. Attention must be paid to ensuring that economic, social and educational disparities between West and east Jerusalem did not continue to grow, which would invite disaster in the near and distant future.

STAFFAN DE MISTURA, Director of the United Nations System Staff College, said that, rather than speak on behalf of a religion, he wished to speak on behalf of the ideal represented by the United Nations. The Alliance of Civilizations was an example of the contributions that could be made on behalf of the Organization. The Alliance had produced a report in two parts. The first part involved analysis of the global context, whereby certain political steps were prerequisites to any substantive improvement in relations between Muslim and Western societies, and the second went beyond the political level to the general population. The High-level Group on the Alliance of Civilizations acknowledged that contemporary realities did reach the general population. There was a need for courage on both sides as progress rested on the recognition by both sides that it was necessary to establish two independent States living side by side.

In the ensuing discussion, the representative of Jordan protested strongly about the use of the term “Muslim” rather than “Islamic” in the phrase “Bridging the gap between Western and Muslim societies”. It was time the United Nations exercised greater precision in its use of such terms.

She stressed the need for mutual respect between different cultures and for exchanges within and among them. However, it was up to politicians to make peace, and some of them had vested interests in sustaining the conflict. A new culture of violence was breeding terrorism, more against the innocent than the guilty. A ghetto society was being built around Israelis, Jews and Arabs.

There could be no peace or rule of law in the presence of injustice, she said, adding that law was the only instrument that could force humankind to abide by certain beliefs. Dialogue was a luxury enjoyed in air-conditioned meetings like the present one while scores of people were being killed in the Middle East. Would politicians, many of whom were “godless”, pay attention to an inter-religious committee?

The representative of Egypt said it was clear that the question of Palestine was the main cause of tension in the Middle East. For dialogue to take place, there must be an end to violence and aggression against the suffering Palestinians and to actions affecting holy places, especially Jerusalem. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative was based on the rule of law and the principle of land for peace. Dialogue should be based on continuous work to shore up its strong foundations.

Another participant described Jerusalem as both a myth and a reality, saying that the myth was a hope and desire that the city could be a place whose beauty people could share, while the reality was that one part of the city did not enjoy the same freedoms as the other. Dialogue was necessary in order to resolve the problem by addressing the myth while looking at the reality.

According to another participant, the dialogue that had started before the Oslo process had been one of anger and bitterness, as it remained today, rather than one of both sides listening to each other.

As the experts responded to those comments, Mr. SABELLA said one of the problems affecting the Palestinians was their feeling that there was “no way out½, a feeling shared by Israelis, even within their own country. Both sides were in trouble. While both Palestinian factions had been in favour of a National Unity Government, the Israeli Government had a responsibility not to let it fail. Otherwise, both parties to the conflict would suffer the consequences.

Rabbi COHEN added that while it was possible for both sides to listen to each other, peace could occur spontaneously. Dialogue was a gradual process of slowly building up trust and making efforts to understanding other cultures.

Sheikh AL-TAMIMI said that, if the Israelis were fearful when boarding a bus, the Palestinians were equally fearful while approaching a checkpoint or even their own homes. That was a consequence of the vicious cycle of violence.

Related Links

  • Parallel progress needed in Middle East, Ban Ki-moon tells UN meeting, UN News (22 March 2007)
  • United Nations International Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace