19 December 2003


(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

BEIJING, 18 December -- Chinese academics and experts from the 16-17 December United Nations Meeting for Asia and the Pacific on the Question of Palestine met today in Beijing to participate in the Public Forum in Support of Middle East Peace.

Today’s meeting, under the co-sponsorship of the United Nations and Peking University, was convened to explore the importance of the role of civil society with regard to the question of Palestine.  In a roundtable discussion, speakers considered public perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:  the unchallenged media, the impact and educational responsibility of think tanks and academic institutions and the role of civil society in raising public awareness about the question of Palestine.

The meeting was opened by Yuan Ming, Professor, Chief of the Institute of International Relations Study, Peking University.

Ravan A.G. Farhadi, Vice-Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said joint initiatives of Israeli and Palestinian civil society, in particular the Geneva and the People’s Voice initiatives, showed how important the civil society had become in areas that traditionally were the exclusive domain of the politicians and diplomats.  Some had raised concerns that it might be inappropriate to engage in such activities but overwhelming interest and largely positive response had put those doubts to rest.  The impact of civil society was greatly reinforced when it went hand in hand with other international actors.  Although the Road Map had been launched at the governmental level, its implementation required the broadest possible support.

He said recent developments in the occupied Palestinian territory called for an urgent engagement by all sectors of the international community.  That increasingly included civil society.  Thousands of faith-based organizations, political and university groups, think tanks, trade unions and concerned individuals were actively working for a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis.  The Committee followed with great interest the manifold activities of civil society organizations in various parts of the world, including in the occupied territory and Israel. 

Sustained and robust campaigns aimed at informing public opinion were needed.  The Committee believed that civil society should remain engaged to support the Road Map and other peace initiatives.  Providing emergency relief and other assistance to the Palestinian people and rehabilitating the Palestinian economy was another important priority for civil society work.  Governments should be encouraged through parliaments, non-governmental organizations and public opinion to take immediate and effective steps to uphold the Fourth Geneva Convention and to live up to the Declaration regarding the occupied territory adopted by the High Contracting Parties in 2001.

Round-Table Participants

  • AN WEIHUA, Professor, the Institute of Afro-Asian Studies, Peking University
  • ZHAO GUOZHONG, Former President of China’s Association of Middle East Studies, Former Chief of Institute of West Asia and North Africa Studies, China Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing
  • WANG SUOLAO, Associate Professor, Institute of Afro-Asian Studies, Peking University
  • ZIAD ABU ZAYYAD, Member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Jerusalem
  • ALBERT AGHAZARIAN, Researcher on Jerusalem affairs, Jerusalem
  • HELENA COBBAN, Political Analyst, Charlottesville, Virginia
  • ZEHAVA GALON, Member of Knesset (Meretz), Tel Aviv
  • KAMAL HOSSAIN, Chairman of the General Assembly Forum of Democratic Leaders in Asia and the Pacific, Dhaka
  • EDWARD PECK, Ambassador, President of Foreign Services International Washington, D.C.
  • PENSAK CHAGSUCHINDA, Senator, Thai National Assembly and Member, Committee on Middle East Questions, Inter-Parliamentary Union, Bangkok
  • AHMAD TIBI, Member of Knesset (Hadash), Jerusalem
  • ANDREW VINCENT, Director, Middle East Studies Centre, Macquarie University, Sydney

Round-Table Discussion

AN WEIHUA:  The vicious cycle of violence in the Middle East has generated many misgivings about the question of Palestine.  It is impressive to see how many students are concerned about the situation in the Middle East and the attendant loss of life.  The Road Map embodies the concept of mutual respect and accommodation and provides a basis for the conflict to be resolved.  There are parties who will never agree to compromise.  They are in the minority but they are very influential and that influence must be mitigated.  Focusing on justice and fairness to both sides is important to the finding a solution to the conflict.

Israel must give up its nuclear capability.  Moreover, peacekeeping troops should be sent to the Middle East.  At the core of the Middle East question is the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  The Chinese people look forward to a final peace in the Middle East.  According to a Chinese proverb, it is better to make compromises and to make friends.  The Chinese value harmony and solidarity and those values are applicable to both State-to-State and person-to-person relations.  Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says that Israel is ready to make painful concessions.  If true, it will give momentum to the peace process.  It is hoped that the Road Map and Geneva Initiative will give momentum to the Middle East process and end the practice of violence and counter violence.  Israel has made major progress towards peace with Lebanon and Syria and there is hope that the peace process with Palestine can move forward.

ZHAO GUOZHONG:  The Palestinian issue has lasted for a long time and was one of the root causes for the conflict in the Middle East.  Numerous Chinese academic institutions have set up programmes to study the Middle East and have published a large number of articles in various journals.  The several institutions hold various meetings to study the question of the Middle East and the Palestinian Israeli conflict.  A number of books have been published on such subjects as the four Middle East wars, relevant Security Council resolutions and approaches to solving the problem.  Chinese scholars, concerned about how to end the conflict, have undertaken the study of the questions of refugees, the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements, as well as the various accords signed by Israel and the Palestinians since 1990.  They are pessimistic because they cannot envision a peaceful solution.  The Academy of Social Sciences is preparing to publish a book on the various aspects of the question of Palestine.  It also plans to publish a book on the State of Israel and all the Middle Eastern countries.

Responding to violence with violence does not solve anything.  The two parties must make efforts to end to the conflict.  Each side must seize the opportunity to sit down together and put an end to the bloodshed.  The Israelis should end settlement construction, as well as the siege of Chairman Arafat.  To expel him will only aggravate the situation and not produce a solution.  China recognizes the State of Palestine, which should have Jerusalem as its capital.  The Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem is not recognized by the international community.

WANG SUOLAO:  The number of students interested in the situation in the Middle East has increased.  Students continue to ask why there is no end to the Middle East conflict.  The history of the conflict is long but the last three years have been particularly bloody.  Citing the suicide bombers as a reason, Israel justifies its policies by claiming that it has the right to establish security.  According to the Peace Research Institute, 70 per cent of the Israeli people do not support their Government's policy.  Ironically, the Israeli policy towards Palestinians is the reason for the suicide attacks.  Hamas has stated that it will continue its resistance because the suicide bomber is the only weapon it has to counter Israeli attacks on the occupied territory.  Violence has replaced negotiations and become the form of communication between the two parties.  It has killed the prospects for the Road Map and possibly will kill the Geneva Initiative.

Is there any hope for the peace in the Middle East? That question should be faced by both parties.  More courageous Israelis must stand up against Israel’s policies and more Palestinians should clarify their attitude.  Only when the violence stops and there is a return to the Oslo Accords will the conflict end. 

EDWARD PECK:  A diplomat is an individual who could tell you to go to hell in a manner that would make you enjoy the trip but he is not speaking as a diplomat.  Diplomats work with words but words do not accurately describe the subject under discussion.  Discussion groups such as the Forum should be more conscious of words that tended to mislead.  It is not the Palestinian/Israeli conflict but rather the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.  Israel is the occupier, the oppressor.  It held all the cards and has the power, the force and the control to impose its will for a while -- but not forever.  People are reluctant to speak out and say what the situation is -- a savage repression of one people over another.  It has to end.

It is distressin0g to see Israel creating serious dangers for itself by continuing the illegal, savage occupation of the Palestinian people.  Many Israelis understand that the current policies will not lead to peace with Israel's neighbours.  People recognize Israel' s right to defend itself but the Palestinians have the same right.  No one wants bad things to happen to the Israelis or the Palestinians but bad things are happening to both and the worse is yet to come.  Until someone can convince Israel to change its policies, its future is bleak.

ZIAD ABU ZAYYAD:  Palestinians say that hungry people dream about bread.  Accordingly, Palestinians dream about peace.  One should be cautious about such dreams.  The Israeli Chief of Staff has called for changing the harsh treatment of the Palestinians but in fact, that has not happened.  The Road Map speaks about a provisional State but there is no such thing as a provisional State.  The Palestinian Authority was like a virtual State -- it has all the trappings of government but no authority.  It serves as a cover to hide Israeli actions.

Israel's policy of creating facts on the ground must be confronted. Elements uninterested in making peace or solving the problem want to realize the dream of a Greater Israel.  They think that time is on their side.  They plan to make the lives of Palestinians such a Hell that they will voluntarily leave.  Palestinians urgently need to reverse the process and to stop the policy of expansionism and annexation.  Both sides should be interested in calming the situation and seeking a ceasefire.  Palestinians are ready for a ceasefire but Israel continues its targeted assassinations -- accusing and applying the death penalty without a trial.  At the same time, they kill any civilians who happen to be in the area, expressing no regret.

Both sides have proven that they are incapable of making peace by themselves.  A third party must intervene and monitor who is fulfilling or violating the agreements.  When Hamas is told that their actions are not only against moral and religious principles but damaging to the Palestinian image, they agree but state that Israel had Apaches, F16s and many sophisticated weapons, as well as forbidden weapons with uranium.  The only thing Palestinians have are their bodies.

The only way to stop the violence was a mutual ceasefire and the intervention of a third party.  The role of civil society is important, both inside and outside of the occupied territory. The Palestinians welcome volunteers who act as a buffer against the destruction of the Israeli troops. The role of the biased media must be challenged. They report when Sharon says he wants to make painful concessions, but they do not report on what actually happens.  The difficulties of convening a meeting like this are illustrated by the pressure applied to the Chinese Government not to host the meeting.  The same kind of pressure should be applied to the Israelis.  Civil society organizations should continue to hold meetings to spotlight the situation and not leave the dissemination of information to the propaganda meted out by media.

AHMAD TIBI:  According to the Bush Administration, there are two sides to the conflict but only one side had the right to self-defence.  Whenever an Israeli is killed, the condemnation is immediate, obvious and clear-cut but the American President never condemned the killing of innocent Palestinians.  One questions whether he considers the Palestinians as equal human beings or whether they feel the same pain as others.

When he attended a funeral for a three month old infant, he was attacked as being anti-Israel but he could not accept the killing of civilians by either side.  It seems as if Palestinians killed by air raid or assassination -- an official Government policy -- was acceptable.  How could air or tank attacks on refugee camps be defended?  State terror should be condemned.  All participants conclude that the occupation should be ended, not rearranged.  Sharon speaks about a State that represents only 7 per cent of mandated Palestine.  Meanwhile, the leadership of a supposedly democratic nation says they do not accept the democratically elected Palestinian leader.  Palestinians are ready to hold elections now but they are opposed by Israel and the Bush Administration.  He said he represented the 1 million Arabs of Israel or 20 per cent of the Israeli population.  Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday said "we are facing a demographic threat not by the Palestinians but by of the Arabs of Israel”.

ZEHAVA GALON:  Although the only Jew at the conference, she represents 50 per cent of the Israeli society which for many years had struggled against the occupation.  Her main role is to convince the Israeli public that the occupation must end.  Israelis must see that occupation as the motivation for terror and suicide attacks.  When it violates human rights and the peace process, the Israeli Government is acting in her name and she cannot accept that.  Israelis need to understand what motivates the terror.  For many years, she was considered a traitor because she spoke against the Israeli actions but she is still optimistic that peace is possible.  The international community must intervene because both nations need peace. 

ANDREW VINCENT:  A great wrong continues to be perpetrated on the Palestinian people.  Australian students studying the situation in the Middle East ask what they can do to help change the course of events.  The answer is that they should first inform themselves thoroughly about what is happening, reading between the lines of what is published by the mainstream press.  A great deal of misinformation was being disseminated, largely by the American media but there were other more reliable sources of information.  Civil society should examine it and could bring about a change in the way the issue is presented in the media.

HELENA COBBAN:  A central weakness of the Road Map and the Oslo Accords was that they had no destination, thus allowing the stronger party to pursue its intentions on the grounds.  Sharon continues his actions because there is no benchmark to which to adhere.  This is a peace-free process.  The international community should concentrate on the final status.  Under Oslo, Israel reaped enormous economic benefit while the Palestinian economy was stifled.  The international community should call for an immediate internationally sponsored gathering to determine the final status. 

Ariel Sharon’s claim that he cannot negotiate while there is violence is stupid.  Everyone negotiates under condition of violence.  The negotiation process has to start now.  Until the final status was determined, there will be no peace in the peace process.  One of the inherent dangers is the concept of a “provisional State” giving only 7 per cent of mandated Palestine and modelled after the Bantustans in apartheid South Africa which were totally non-viable.  Moreover, the word State was meaningless unless it was an independent and viable State.  One could not have a viable State of 7 million Palestinians on 7 per cent of the land.  The United Nations was not yet operating as a true sponsor of the peace process.

ALBERT AGHAZARIAN:  A popular story in Jerusalem tells of a gentleman who was searching for an eye and ear doctor.  Told there was no such discipline, he said there must be because I have this condition whereby I do not see what I hear and I do hear what I see.  Accordingly, there must be an organic principle between theory and practice.  The issue is far more profound than the way it is presented.  The problem in Israel was not the Likud or Sharon but rather the Labour Party.  People kept saying that what is happening is not good for the Israelis but it must be said that it is not good for the Palestinians as well.  The demonstrations taking place around the globe are not the result of Palestinian public relations.  They were a human response to the problem.  Respect, an important issue, was lacking.  It is a mistake to deal with everything as though it was a security problem.  The problem in the Middle East existed long before 9/11.  It will be won together or lost together.

KAMAL HOSSEIN:  The Forum has brought together a number of views on the issues that threaten to obstruct the peace process being pursued by the international community, which, in the middle of the twentieth century, committed itself to a world of peace with justice for all people.  The long struggle of the Palestinians paralleled the development of the United Nations and served as a test case for peace and justice.  The challenge to the international community is to recognize the basic principles on which a just peace is to be built.  It must reaffirm those principles which were destroyed by the illegitimate use of force.  Words should not be used as a smoke screen for actions serving an illegitimate purpose.  The history of China serves as an inspiration because it illustrates how the people can triumph over injustice.  The logic of peace requires the transfer from war to reconciliation.  It requires compromises recognizing the rights of both parties to statehood, peace and security without prejudice to either.  The participants must add their voices to the effort and call on respective governments to support peace.  China has shown that ordinary people can change history.  Justice will only be realized when ordinary people make their governments respond.

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