UN Seminar on Assistance to Palestinian People holds panel on priorities for humanitarian and economic assistance

A United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People this afternoon held a panel discussion on priorities for humanitarian and economic assistance for Palestinians with experts speaking of the need to support the Palestinian Authority’s budgetary needs, to restore essential services in the occupied territories, to rehabilitate the physical infrastructure and agricultural land, to reduce unemployment and poverty, to alleviate the plight of refugees through the support of UNRWA, and to boost the recovery of the private sector.

Opening the panel discussion, Abdelaziz Abu Ghoush, Assistant Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), said that since the inception of the OIC, it had extended all forms of assistance and support to the just struggle and institutions of the Palestinian people with the aim of helping them to preserve the historical, religious and individual character of the Palestinian cities, strengthening the Palestinian people’s resistance in the occupied territories, and safeguarding Muslim and Christian holy shrines and sanctuaries in Palestine.

Finn Martin Vallersnes, President of the Committee on Middle East Questions of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and member of the Norwegian Parliament, said the most important Palestinian resource was the Palestinian people. An agreed framework for political progress was indispensable for the resumption of economic and social development in both Israeli and Palestinian territories, and this added to the importance of the Road Map to succeed.

Danny Rubenstein, a columnist at the Ha’aretz daily newspaper in Jerusalem, spoke of the relations between Israel and Palestine, saying the policy of separation between Israel and Palestine had had disastrous consequences for the Palestinian economy. The first step for its recovery was to get Israel to allow Palestinians to go and work in Israel again and to lift all travel restrictions.

Marie-Anne Coninsx, Minister-Counsellor and Head of the United Nations Section of the Delegation of the European Commission to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said the speedy implementation of the Road Map would result in immediate benefits for the Palestinian people, and, therefore, political progress needed to be equally implemented, as did efforts to ensure economic viability. The Palestinian Authority would continue to be helped to identify areas where support was required, and further support would also continue towards building and reinforcing infrastructure.

David Shearer, Head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, said that in the past, Israelis used to buy Palestinian products while Palestinians received Israeli goods. At present, that commercial activity had been suspended. International assistance for Palestine was not enough to cope with the increasing needs of Palestinians. There was a need, he said, to highlight the humanitarian consequences of the occupation.

Richard Cook, Director of Operations at the West Bank Office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said the problems faced today by the refugee population were not just economic, but social and health-related, among others. UNRWA was more under demand than ever before, but did not have the funds to fulfil those needs, and did not in fact have even the minimum amount of funds to provide for the basic needs of the refugees. The consequences of this lack of funds would be devastating, since the refugees would be left without the barest minimum.

Donna Baranski-Walker, Campaign Manager of the Global Campaign to Rebuild Palestinian Homes, said that according to Israeli sources, only 5 per cent of houses demolished by Israel were due to punishment measures. The measure to destroy Palestinians houses for “lack of a permit” was purely a case of “administrative ethnic-cleansing”. The policy of demolishing houses had inflicted a great loss of resources and properties upon the Palestinian people, and the international community was called upon to react to it.

Representatives of governments, non-governmental organizations and UN organizations then took the floor to participate in the discussion, calling for, among other things, an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories, as well as an end to the policy of enclosure; and an improvement of the gender balance in politics and the inclusion of a gender perspective in the formulation of policies. Alternative means of resolving the economic situation were also proposed. The commitment of the Israeli Government to the peace process was a topic raised from the floor.

Speakers for Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, the Russian Federation, the United Nations Development Programme, the International Postal Union, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the League of Arab States, the Israeli Peace Block, the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute, the Jerusalem Centre for Women, the Gaza Centre for Human Rights, and the Palestinian Return Centre in London took the floor.

A representative of UN-Habitat also delivered a statement related to the panel discussion this morning on the dimensions of the Palestinian economic crisis.

The Seminar will resume at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 16 July, to hold a panel discussion on “looking ahead: coping strategies for the Palestinian economy”. The Seminar will hold a closing meeting at 12:30.

Statement Under General Debate

SYLVIE LACROUX (United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT)) said that the decision by Member States to upgrade UN-HABITAT to a fully-fledged Programme of the United Nations was a clear indication of the seriousness with which the international community regarded the problems caused by rapid urbanization and a clear signal that sustainable urban development and adequate shelter were irrevocable priorities for the world’s development. The occupied Palestinian territories were faced with the pressing need to respond to both emergency and development challenges in the human settlements area. It was estimated that around 59,000 houses were needed to reduce overcrowding while another 71,000 dwellings required renovation or extension. The housing deficit would take many years to redress unless the recent level of housing construction, averaging less than 10,000 dwellings a year, was substantially raised.

Opening Statements on Priorities For Humanitarian and Economic Assistance for Palestinians

ABDELAZIZ ABU GHOUSH, Assistant Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), said that since its inception, the OIC had extended all forms of assistance and support to the just struggle and institutions of the Palestinian people, channelled through several OIC subsidiaries, with the aim of helping them to preserve the historical, religious and individual character of the Palestinian cities, strengthen the Palestinian people’s resistance in the occupied territories, and safeguard Muslim and Christian holy shrines and sanctuaries in Palestine. This was mainly done through the aegis of the Al-Quds Fund, which, since its inception, had had significant success in its projects. Another fund with the objective of the promotion of the standing of Muslims all over the world, including support to poor Islamic communities, was the Islamic Solidarity Fund. The Islamic Development Bank was another organization which provided grants to non-governmental organizations working in specific areas including health, education and social welfare. There were other forms of assistance, for example twinning of cities. Certain activities had been created, such as the creation of stamps featuring Jerusalem. After the sale of these stamps in other Muslim countries, the funds received were donated to one of the above organisations.

FINN MARTIN VALLERSNES, President of the Committee on Middle-East Questions of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Member of the Norwegian Parliament, said patience and endurance were needed to keep up belief and motivation for those who participated in the Palestinian economic recovery process, and who wanted to see it through to a success. Anyone could despair facing such challenges, unless there was an ongoing simultaneous, credible effort to enhance the general development of security and a political solution. As all components of the process were interdependent, all needed to be undertaken at the same time to ensure a comprehensive process. There was a need for a strong vision of what was to be achieved, in order to be able to contribute to this difficult task. The most important Palestinian resource was the Palestinian people. The World Bank had observed that the Palestinian economy was battered, but still functioned. However, the situation remained one of protracted conflict and political crisis. An agreed framework for political progress was indispensable for the resumption of economic and social development in both Israel and Palestinian territories, and this added to the importance of the Road Map to succeed. If assistance to the Palestinian people could lead to visible improvements in living standards and the lives of ordinary people, a motivation and trust in the political solution would be the by-product, and this was the only acceptable way to go.

DANNY RUBINSTEIN, columnist at the Ha’aretz Daily Newspaper in Jerusalem, said that, as a journalist, he had been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967. In the past, Palestinians had had free movement and the economy had been more or less independent. Palestinians had been freely moving into Israel to work. The policy of separation — Israel and Palestine — had had disastrous consequences for the Palestinian economy. At present, there were around 300,000 persons working in the Israeli labour force from over the world, while the Palestinians were deprived of the right to enter Israel to work. Why should Israel allow foreign workers from faraway places to work while neighbouring Palestinians were denied that right? Today, the Palestinian economy needed recovery and the first step should be Israel’s admission of Palestinians to go and work in Israel. Israel should lift all the checkpoints it had imposed to curtail the right to movement of Palestinians, including their right to go to Israel. Such a measure could be a first step towards economic recovery. A dramatic step should be taken in order to revert the situation in the region.

MARIE-ANNE CONINSX, Minister Counsellor and Head of the United Nations Section of the Delegation of the European Commission to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said the importance of the Road Map had already been highlighted during the morning meeting, and had also been discussed at the European Union summit in Thessalonika. It was hoped that the speedy resolution of the Road Map would soon be implemented on both sides. This would result in immediate benefits for the Palestinian people. Political progress needed to be equally implemented, as did efforts to ensure economic viability. The objective was to strike a balance between emergency assistance and support for longer-term efforts for peace and prosperity by the Palestinian Authority. The European Community was one of the biggest donors to the Authority, and this was probably one of the largest assistance programmes in the world. This was for several reasons, mainly that peace could only be ensured if there was economic viability for the people of the region. The Palestinian Authority would continue to be helped to identify areas where support was required, and further support would also continue towards building and reinforcing infrastructure. The European Union would continue to support progress towards peace and economic harmony.

DAVID SHEARER, Head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Jerusalem, said that his office advocated the improvement of humanitarian aspects in Jerusalem and in other areas. Israel’s response to its security threat was to tighten its grip of the occupation. The number of checkpoints had been increased. Israel had also extended ditches around all places as means of preventing Palestinians from free movement. The walls built by Israel had also affected many people by isolating them from the rest of the population. The measures of isolation of some towns had prevented them from receiving merchandise from other areas. In the past, Israelis used to buy Palestinian products while Palestinians received Israeli goods. At present, that commercial activity had been suspended. In addition, the Israel measure to destroy houses had created an enormous problem. The international assistance for Palestinians was not able to cope with the increasing needs of Palestinians. There was a need to highlight the humanitarian consequences of the occupation.

RICHARD COOK, Director of Operations at the West Bank Office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said the situation today was worse than any preceding one. There was more despair, more misery, and more frustration and anger than ever before. Within Palestinian society, refugees were the most vulnerable, reliant on such jobs as unskilled labour in Israel, since they did not own land and could not save. The poverty rate amongst refugees varied between 50 and 75 per cent of the population, depending on which areas were included. There was a breakdown of the coping mechanisms. The refugee camps had seen a certain increase of attention by the Israeli security forces over the last few months, and the critical situation had deteriorated even further. The problems faced today by the refugee population were not just economic, but social and health-related, among others. People who had previously been self-sufficient could no longer procure even the most basic commodities, and there was a significant rise in malnutrition.

Mr. Cook said that UNRWA was more under demand than ever before, but did not have the funds to fulfil the needs of the Palestinian refugees, and did not in fact have even the minimum amount of funds to provide for their basic needs. The consequences of this lack of funds would be devastating, since they would be left without the barest minimum. Employment creation was one of the priorities, alongside food aid.

DONNA BARANSKI-WALKER, Campaign Manager of the Global Campaign to Rebuild Palestinian Homes, said she represented those who opposed the bulldozing of the Palestinian houses by Israel forces. Her campaign had built houses for those who lost their houses through funds raised in the United States and elsewhere. The rebuilding campaign had been extended in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe, so that people would contribute to the project. According to Israeli sources, only 5 per cent of houses demolished by Israel concerned punishment measures. The measure to destroy Palestinians houses for “lack of a permit” was purely an “administrative ethnic-cleansing”. Military demolition of homes and damage to schools in refugee camps, and towns under Palestinian administration had also been taking place.

The Global Campaign to Rebuild Palestinians Homes had been faced with the problem of repeated demolishing of houses. In one area where 17 houses were destroyed in one day, the Global Campaign had been faced with the decision of which family it had to build a house for. A house built for one family had even been destroyed on several occasions. The organization had, however, continued to build houses for Palestinian families despite the measures to demolish them again and again by Israeli forces. The policy of demolishing houses had inflicted a great loss of resources and properties. Because no one could prosecute the loss of a home in a court of international law, the Global Campaign appealed to the court of public opinion.

Questions on Priorities for Economic and Humanitarian Assistance

A representative of Israeli Peace Block spoke of the wall of separation and its impact on many areas of Palestine. There was a factor that was very important, and that was the linkage between the two economies in Israel and the territories, although the Israeli economy downplayed this. Israeli society did not feel itself victorious in the struggle against the Palestinians, and this was mainly due to economic problems.

A representative of Egypt asked, whether, with regard to dramatic steps, the current Israeli Government was ready to take these steps, what exactly was the current political situation in Israel, and what was the political weight owned by the peace movement.

A representative of the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute said that with regard to the situation in the occupied territories, why had the same approach been continued when the only solution was to end the occupation, and the only conclusion that should be reached was to aid the Palestinian people to assert their Statehood and to flee their colonial relationship with the State of Israel, since this was the only fruitful path.

A representative of the Jerusalem Centre for Women said that there had not been enough stress on the impact of the occupation on the lives of women, as well as on the daily lives of the community. When formulating policies, there was a need to think of gender sensitive points and balances. There was also a need for reform in the Palestinian National Authority, and women needed to be integrated in the decision-making process.

A representative of the Gaza Centre for Human Rights said that the enclosure was the rule in the occupied territories, and it had had far-reaching consequences. Aid to the occupied territories would not remedy the situation, due to the enclosure, since it had a vast impact on the economy. To lift the enclosure would improve the situation considerably.

A representative of the Palestinian Return Centre in London said with regard to the difficulties in accumulating aid, this was not surprising given the past record. The concept of indemnity and reparations could perhaps be used, whereby UNRWA could receive money without having to ask the international community for more money.

A representative of Palestine said the issue of the safety and security of the international civil servants and other volunteers was a prime issue for the international community, and protection should be provided to a greater extent. There was an increased need for raising this issue in a serious manner, with the aim of providing the necessary protection and ensuring the safety of all those working in the occupied territories. Something dramatic was needed, as Mr. Rubenstein had suggested, but it was hoped that this would not take the form of providing cheap labour for Israel, but rather as an end to occupation and a serious attempt at building a Palestinian economy along with an economic relationship with all the neighbours of Palestine.

Responses by Experts on Economic and Humanitarian Assistance

Responding to the remarks and questions raised by participants, Mr. Cook said that the international community should continue with its job in the occupied territory through the various agencies present there. The job done there was not to fund the occupation but to relieve the Palestinians from the occupation.

Ms. Baranski-Walker said that women were among the victims of the house demolitions in the occupied territory. Many people were encouraged by the work done in the territory to replace houses by the Israeli forces. Although people were engaged in rebuilding houses, the occupation was the main problem.

Mr. Rubinstein said that although he was not an expert of the Israeli political structure, he felt that the current Israeli Government could take a dramatic step to change the situation. The majority of Israelis were for the end of occupation. The principle of two-States for two-peoples should be accepted with Palestinian refugees enjoying the right to return.

Ms. Coninsx was of the view that the Seminar had provided the opportunity to continue with the peace effort. A step forwards was always dramatic, but the most important thing was that there was consensus between partners, and this was why the Road Map was so important.

Mr. Abu Ghoush said the atrocities committed against the Palestinian people were part of the world’s war crimes. There was a need to dismantle the illegal settlements that had been placed in the Palestinian territory, and this should be done according to the wishes of the international community, and not according to those of Israel. The war crimes needed to be punished according to international law.

Mr. Shearer noted that pressure points needed to be applied in a more sophisticated way than they had been today, and the occupation should indeed come to an end. More work needed to be done on the strains put on family lives in the territories. Young Palestinian men, who often bore the brunt of the situation, required a political solution, which was required in turn before a humanitarian solution. Current policies did not appear to be an appropriate solution to security issues. Lifting the internal closures would be a significant step forward.

Questions on Priorities for Economic and Humanitarian Assistance

A representative of Jordan said the role of OCHA and UNRWA was appreciated and supported by Jordan. However, the comment of Mr. Rubenstein on the right of return to Palestine as upheld by international law was doubtful, as were his insinuations with regard to something that was unacceptable to the delegation. This was utterly out of place in the discussion and was not in its spirit, thus, questioning the whole aim of the meeting.

A representative of the Russian Federation said that much of the discussion had been new to him. There was agreement that the essential if not the fundamental question of re-establishing the economy in Palestine was to re-establish peace. Direct dialogue between all parties should take place, and major efforts were being made to this end. Any solution to the conflict should be based on resolutions 242 and 338 of the Security Council, as well as on other international instruments. The United Nations should play an important role in the renewal of humanitarian and economic problems in the territories.

A representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)/Programme Assistance to the Palestinian People, said that there was a great need for humanitarian aid, especially in light of the closure policies and high unemployment rates and in the aftermath of the Israeli incursions into various parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the damage and devastation it had left behind. Those occurrences had become a part of the daily lives of every Palestinian. The biggest humanitarian support campaign which UNDP had carried out in the occupied Palestinian territories came during the March and April 2002 incursions when the Israeli Defence Forces had reoccupied the entire West Bank, leaving trails of destruction from Qalqilia up north to Hebron down south. In collaboration with other agencies and States, UNDP had accomplished a number of development programmes which were beneficial to the Palestinian people.

A representative of the Organization of the Islamic Conference said the seminar had been convened amidst a spark of hope for the peace process, and this had been strengthened by the new Palestinian Government and its attempts to carry out appropriate reforms and to implement the Road Map towards establishing the independent Palestinian State. The Palestinian economy was on the brink of collapse because of harsh Israeli measures which had led to an exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis, bringing the Palestinian economy to a precarious state. The Palestinian State was still dependent on international aid, and had sustained vast losses due to the situation. The upcoming challenge to the international community did not lie in addressing the urgent needs of Palestinians alone, but in moving forwards towards implementing a just peace as stipulated in the Road Map, especially now that it had been agreed to by all parties.

A representative of the League of Arab States said that Israel had been violating all kinds of international instruments and charters. According to the Geneva Convention, occupation used to be considered a temporary phenomenon. But Israel had occupied Palestinian territory on a permanent basis. It had been looting Palestinian resources, and by doing so had been inflicting a great loss to the economy, with the GDP going down. The Arab League was for peace as was the international community. However, the Israeli Prime Minister was playing a hide-and-seek game. As regards the Road Map, the Government of Israel had to accept it sincerely, and should not produce each day conditions on accepting it. The Prime Minister of Israel did not have good intentions with regard to the Road Map.

A representative of the International Postal Union (IPU) said with regard to the needs of Palestine in the field of postage, IPU associated itself with the international community and would do its part in reviving the Palestinian economy. It would provide technical assistance to this effect.