28 June 2006

"Slicing and Separating" Occupied Palestinian Territory Turning It into Isolated Reservations, Impeding Quest for Statehood

Experts Examine Obstacles to Palestinian Statehood, as United Nations Meeting in Support of Middle East Peace Continues

(Received from a UN Information Officer)

VIENNA, 27 June -- The United Nations International Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace today heard that Israeli settlements and the related network of "slicing and separating" the Occupied Palestinian Territory, political ambiguity, and the collapse of the Palestinian private sector under the "hammer of sanctions", were blocking attainment of Palestinian statehood.

During an examination this afternoon, wich also included the Palestinian economic and humanitarian crisis and the impact of the current situation on the Palestinian Authority, Ghassan Andoni, Director of Public Relations at Birzeit University in the West Bank and Board Member of Rapprochement, Alternative Tourism Group and Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, said that the majority of Palestinians who had previously supported the two-State solution now believed that any proposed separation under present conditions would only turn the Palestinian Territories into "isolated reservations".

Also addressing the 22-member Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, which sponsored the two-day meeting, the resident representative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 2005, Knut Dethlefsen, stressed the importance of not getting caught up in the daily occurrences, but to look at the long term, in an effort to find a way out.  Political transformation and institution-building were very important to achieve the goal of a viable and democratic Palestinian State.  It was not enough to liberate a State; a State needed institutions capable of carrying it.

Asserting that civilians should not pay the price for the neglect of human rights and humanitarian obligations, the Head of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Palestine (with offices in Gaza and Ramallah), June Ray, said that, between March and May, some 90 Palestinians had been killed in conflict-related incidents in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, or three times that number last year in that period.  Freedom of movement had been further curtailed at some 515 checkpoints and roadblocks, compared to some 400 at the end of 2005.  Moreover, the current fiscal crisis had caused Palestinian Authority revenues to plummet in April to just one-sixth of its monthly requirement.

In the ensuing discussion, a representative of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) expressed grave concern at the "steadily deteriorating" socio-economic conditions.  There had been a collapse of incomes, of security and there was a pervasive sense of despair.  UNRWA had revised its emergency requirements, and the United Nations had revised its consolidated appeal from $215 million to $285 million.  The dramatic decline in Palestinian Authority revenues had undermined delivery of public services.  The banking system was constricted, and, thus, Palestinians had been unable to access their remittances from abroad.

Other experts this afternoon were Shabtai Gold, Outreach Director, Physicians for Human Rights, Jerusalem; and Bahia Amra, representative of the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute, East Jerusalem, on behalf of Marwa Abu Dagga, Board Member of the Palestinian Working Women's Society for Development, Gaza.

The Conference will continue at 10 a.m. tomorrow to consider, in two plenary meetings, the peace process and future challenges, and international efforts in support of Israeli-Palestinian peace.


Before turning to the first plenary discussion this afternoon, NORMA GOICOCHEA ESTENOZ (Cuba) said that Israel, instead of implementing the resolutions of the General Assembly and Security Council, was designing new policies that were far from contributing to a just and lasting peace in the region.  Those policies perpetuated the status quo and nullified the efforts undertaken by the Palestinian people for decades.  As long as the Government of Israel had the support of the United States Government, Israel would maintain its attitude of open defiance to the United Nations resolutions, as well as the norms of international law.

She said that, immediately after the 25 January Palestinian elections, Israel, the United States and Europe had exercised their "typical two-faced morality", denying the validity of the elections and implementing a cruel financial blackmail against the Palestinian people.  Today, they were deprived of nearly $1 billion per year, which was seriously eroding their development, the payment of the salaries to public officers and the provision of direct food aid for the population.  Freezing the funds was creating a humanitarian crisis of unpredictable proportions in the illegally Occupied Territory.  Essential services, such as health, education and the provision of food, were seriously affected.

The Israeli people had also been victim of their Government's policies, she said.  It should not be forgotten that important sectors of the Israeli population did not support the actions against the Palestinian people.  Instead, they were developing efforts in favour of peace and the recognition of Palestinian rights.  But, Israel's State terrorism, supported and financed by the United States, and Israel's illegal occupation, were the real causes of the conflict.  It would not be possible to attain a lasting peace in the Middle East, until the illegal Israeli occupation came to an end and the Palestinian people could exercise their right to independence.

Plenary I

The theme of the first plenary was consideration of the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, for which participants would examine the physical obstacles to achieving Palestinian statehood, the characteristics of the Palestinian economic and humanitarian crisis, and the impact on the Palestinian Authority of the current situation.

GHASSAN ANDONI, Director of Public Relations for Birzeit University in the West Bank and Board Member of Rapprochement, Alternative Tourism Group and Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, said that avoiding meaningless statements about good and evil made the Palestinian-Israeli crisis clearer and simpler.  Israel had only been willing to accept a level of separation that allowed for the creation of a Palestinian entity within the State of Israel.  Such a separation, which excluded sovereignty over East Jerusalem and other areas considered vital by Israel to its national interests, fell short of addressing the legitimate Palestinian right for independence and sovereignty over areas occupied in the 1967 war.  That was impossible to accept, however, by any Palestinian leadership, be that Hamas or the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Consequently, he said, Israel was proceeding with its unilateral steps to consolidate the occupation gains, and, de facto, acquire by force what was not possible to gain through negotiations.  On the other side, Palestinians were left with one and only option -- to continue with the struggle.

He said that, in the absence of any diplomatic process, Israeli steps and Palestinian resistance were dictating an environment governed by violence and radicalism.  Israel was as radical as some Palestinian resistance groups, if not more.  It was a State that was still holding onto a military occupation, imposing ethnic discrimination on the basic definition of its entity, legalizing the takeover of other's properties by force, and supervising the creation of an apartheid system in the twenty-first century.

While human values were universal, their applicability was closely tied to the interests of dominant powers, he said.  The first victim of such attachment was the principle of a nation's collective right to self-determination.  In particular, allowing the Palestinians such basic rights contradicted the "national interests of super-Powers and their regional allies.  The right to self-determination had been further confused with the offensive stand of the Western world, following the attack of 11 September, when military occupations of other nations had gained a certain level of moral legitimacy within the context of fighting global terror.

He said that, while the emergence and structure of global terror developed in areas with no link to the Palestinian issue, that issue had been placed by both sides at the heart of the ideological dispute between them.  Consequently, world leading States moved from being sympathetic to Israel and a guarantor of its existence, to being allied with the "Hebrew State" and expressing a progressive enmity towards Palestinians.  The recently applied sanctions against Palestinians were a clear manifestation of such an unwise move.

Examining physical obstacles to achieving Palestinian statehood, he said that the first and most effective obstacle towards that goal lay in the concept of political ambiguity.  That characterized most, if not all, of the resolutions or international initiatives on the Palestinian issue.  Ambiguity always favoured the strong party, here Israel, and had led the majority of Palestinians to wonder whether separation was meant for two States or meant to help only Israel in avoiding an odd demography in the region.  Such ongoing ambiguity had helped Israel deal with the Palestinian issue as a domestic, and not a national, one.  It had been possible, therefore, to avoid any reference to international law, in general, and the Fourth Geneva Convention, in particular.

He said that settlements and the related network of "slicing and separating" the different parts of the Palestinian Territory, and those parts away from East Jerusalem, was another obstacle.  While all -- settlements, the wall and the bypass roads -- had been established under the pretext of security, all added up to one strategic political aim, namely the prevention of the creation of a Palestinian State.  The severity of such a measure had destroyed the only possible peaceful solution, namely the two-State solution.  The majority of Palestinians, who had previously supported such a compromise, were right now "certain that any proposed separation under such conditions can only lead to turning the Palestinian Territory into isolated reservations".  That fact stood behind the recent drastic political changes in the Palestinian Authority, as a result of the latest legislative elections.

Turning to the Palestinian economic and humanitarian crisis, he said that the sanctions applied against the Palestinians was leading to the collapse of Palestinian civil society institutions, the ones that were more supportive of a political compromise.  In particular, the private sector, and education and health institutions were collapsing under the "hammer of sanctions".  How was it possible to sustain higher education and provide tuition fees in a community that could barely eat? he asked.  Who was willing to continue investing in a community that could barely buy its living essentials?  Poverty and lack of hope were fertile ground for extremism.  The masters of the sanctions policy, therefore, should clearly define their objectives.

He said that there was a big difference between freezing cooperation and not providing assistance to a Palestinian Government over political disagreements, on the one hand, and between applying sanctions that prohibited the transfer of vital assistance, on the other.  The latter was a clear act of enmity, which represented a very short-sighted policy.  The international community, particularly the Middle East Quartet and the donor community, were directly responsible for creating an "out-of-proportion" Palestinian public sector.  Due to international agreements that followed Oslo, that sector had expanded from 20,000 to more than 150,000.  And, using the current misery of public sector employees for political blackmail was neither ethical nor acceptable. 

As for the bottom line, he said that Hamas, similar to other resistance groups, was equipped and experienced enough to survive sanctions.  There was still an international interest in preserving a Palestinian Authority, although some wanted it weak, while others wanted it to be stronger.  Either way, the real victim of the latest move was evidently the Palestinian civil society.

Needed reforms to allow the Palestinian Authority to function and regain public trust could only occur if the above-mentioned paradox was resolved, he said.  What the Palestinian public wanted was, by no means, avoidable after running Palestinian political elections.  To function under the pretext of "what Israel can accept" was the only agenda on the table, and was no longer relevant as the basis on which to solve the problem.  A new approach that had the potential to move the diplomatic process forward should be based on a compromise where both sides departed from initial stands and met somewhere in the middle.  That approach meant that no assumptions tied to the current imbalance of power were valid any longer.

He said that the only driving force for achieving such a compromise was the essential need for both communities to live in peace and freedom, and in the context of a pragmatic solution in line with international law and international humanitarian and national rights, which both sides could accept.  Unilateralism was only a way to avoid a solution, and such moves should be encouraged by the international community only if those were considered steps to enhance the environment, reduce tensions and did not replace a negotiated settlement.  Establishing settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory was a unilateral step not tied to any agreement and against the will of the international community.  Removing a few of them was also a unilateral step to correct past wrongdoings.

SHABTAI GOLD, Outreach Director for Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, said that his organization was founded several years ago by both Palestinians and Israelis, who had seen the conditions first-hand in the Gaza Strip.  Its main objective was to create long-term positive change, in some cases at the political level.  The organization had a mobile clinic in the West Bank, and it also worked with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.  It had begun with 450 members and now had some 1,400.  All of the medical staff was volunteers.

Before taking up the health situation in Gaza and East Jerusalem, he said that thousands of Palestinian prisoners were being held in Israel, many without a trial.  Many did not even know why they had been jailed, as that information was considered confidential.  One concern was that detainees, some of whom had been held for up to 96 hours, could be mistreated.  Anything that denied a person's basic rights -- be that a right to a lawyer or to meet with a non-governmental organization -- was troubling.  Torture had officially been banned in Israel in 1999, but that had not been implemented entirely.  There had been cases of torture and severe mistreatment of prisoners, both Israeli and Palestinian, especially during arrests.

Regarding the "health crisis" in Gaza and East Jerusalem, he stressed that his organization was not trying to replace the Palestinian Authority or the current health system.  It was sending all kinds of medical supplies, including at the level of latex gloves, where those were most needed.  A direct implication of dividing and splitting the Territory, and imposing closures and curfews, had been the negative effects on health care.  He knew of at least 20 doctors who had been unable to reach Nablus, for example, and mobile clinics had been unable to move around.  In many cases, those mobile clinics did not have enough fuel to travel to the villages.  There was simply no money for treatment; if the Palestinian Authority did not have money, it could not pay.  In addition, people themselves had more financial problems, so they could not afford medicines or transportation to reach the hospitals.

He said that many parts of the Territory had been disconnected from the other parts.  At the start of the humanitarian crisis, he had sent a letter on 9 April, alerting the Minister of Defence and the Government Coordinator of Activities in the Territories of the looming humanitarian crisis, based on his organization's own information, as well as information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and that of his Palestinian colleagues.  He had asked the Israeli authorities what they planned to do.  That was a human-planned crisis, and not a tsunami.  The Israeli High Court had said it was the obligation of a military High Commander to prepare for such an event in advance.  Health was Israel's responsibility, as the occupying Power.  The embargo on the Palestinian Authority was now hurting the weakest, for which Israel must take responsibility.

BAHIA AMRA, representative of the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute, based in Jerusalem, delivering a statement on behalf of Marwa Abu Dagga, Board Member of the Palestinian Working Women's Society for Development, Gaza, who had been unable to leave the Gaza Strip, said that the situation in the Gaza Strip had seen several recent changes, including the Israeli withdrawal and the emergence of new political trends in Palestine.

She said that every mother was happy to hear her child's first words, its first sentence.  But no one could imagine when that first sentence was one of fear, owing to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  A child there realized early the nature of the conflict with Israel, either by reading about its roots or living a life affected daily by the details of that conflict on all levels.  The speaker could not wait until her daughter could speak clearly, but then, those first words had been drowned out by the buzz of F-16 warplanes overhead, spreading fear among civilians.  The Israeli Air Force spread fear as a means of paralyzing the Palestinians.  Late hours until dawn, the planes sounded above and lasted until the smallest children walked to school in the mornings.  Israel might have withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, but its Air Force was still there.

The killings and assassinations were even worse than the sound of the airplanes, yet their impacts were about equal, she said.  The policy of harming Palestinians in those ways was an effort to frighten them into rejecting the resistance and isolating the fighters.  But, that always failed, because a policy of collective punishment only sparked resistance; nothing could harm humanity more than the scene of a child crying close to its fallen mother.  Every day, hundreds of Palestinians were injured.  "The Israelis were subjecting us daily to all forms of violence, and killing us for the sake of killing," she said.  Moreover, imposing restrictions and confiscating sources of livelihoods was akin to turning Palestine into a "big prison".  Israel was also confiscating land for the purpose of building the apartheid wall.  How could such an environment be healthy for the Palestinian people? she asked.

COLETTE AVITAL, Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Parliament, took the floor to announce that an understanding had been reached between the Palestinian groups on what was called the "prisoners' document".  She added that such agreement might pave the way for the renewal of negotiations, and, thus, it had her wholehearted support.

KNUT DETHLEFSEN, Resident Representative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 2005, said it was a very tense and difficult time, so it was important to reassess the processes behind the "non-existent peace process".  Having heard much about the obstacles to Palestinian statehood, he would focus on the question of democracy and State-building in Palestine, as well as on the period of transformation and institution-building.  His organization was a German political foundation, affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany, but financially and organizationally independent.

With the situation in Gaza very tense right now, he said that political transformation and institution-building was very important.  He urged participants not to get caught up in the daily occurrences only, but to look at the long term, in an effort to find a way out.

Doing so could change the dynamics on the ground.  Political transformation in the Palestinian Territory was very difficult, because Palestine was not a sovereign State.  Nevertheless, the Palestinian Authority sometimes seemed like a State, particularly from the perspective of the international community and the media.  There was a President and a Government, which were State organs, but their authority was rather limited, due to both external and internal constraints.  The Palestinians were basically divided into five cantons, and authority was restricted, owing to the deterioration of the rule of law and the limited authority of the security services.

Political transformation and institution-building was very important to achieving the goal of a viable and democratic Palestinian State, which was the basis of the two-State solution.  A State could only exist if it had institutions capable of carrying it.  It was not enough to liberate a State.  A democratic State of Palestine would also need the support of the European Union, as well as non-State actors.  Clearly, Palestinian society was at a crossroads, deciding which direction to go towards building that State.  The Palestinian elite and civil society should ask themselves what they were doing internally to realize the vision of statehood.  Many Palestinian organizers could do very little to change the greater political environment, but they could influence internal events.  The question was one of priority -- was that liberation and resistance, or internal state-building?

He said that institutions should be built that were capable of delivering the most important needs of the Palestinian people, such as security, rule of law, economic development and bridging the huge inequality gap in Palestinian society.  Of course, the occupation and all other obstacles were great impediments to the establishment of a State, but State-building involved questions that should be part of the national dialogue of any emerging Government.  Democracy was not only about elections, but about building a civil society, a democratic culture, media and institutions, which could carry that democracy forward.  Elections, in fact, could be polarizing, as was presently the case in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  Plus, the national movement there was facing probably the most hostile external environment, as it grappled with the questions he had posed.

Building a democracy while under occupation had not really been done before in history, he said.  But, in that effort, the Palestinians had the support of organizations such as his.  Despite everything said here today about European "non-action", its programmes had continued and, in fact, had expanded in the past few months.  Building a Palestinian State was an important question for Europe.  European efforts should not only focus on the Palestinian Authority structures, but also on civil society organizations.  Also very important was to work with Fatah, and to engage Hamas and not isolate it; to find a way to have a dialogue.  Hamas was a reality and needed to be integrated.  It was important to integrate it into a democratic system of democratic institutions.  That was a key question to be answered, he said.

JUNE RAY, Head of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Palestine (with offices in Gaza and Ramallah), said that the meeting reinforced the vital relationship and interaction between peace, human rights and development.  Her Office, first established in Gaza in 1996, had worked closely with Palestinian civil society and human rights non-governmental and grass-roots organizations to facilitate interaction with human rights mechanisms and to strengthen the Palestinian voice in international human rights forums.  Increasingly over recent months, civilians had paid the price of the continuing violent cycle.  Additional restrictions on freedom of movement had increasingly curtailed their basic human rights.  The Palestinian Authority's fiscal crisis, becoming more and more acute, had affected most of the already vulnerable sectors of Palestinian society, namely children, the elderly and the chronically ill.

Detailing the escalation of killings in conflict-related incident in recent weeks and months, she said that between March and May, some 90 Palestinians had been killed in conflict-related incidents in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, or three times that number last year in that period.  This month, there had been a further escalation in the human toll, with a steep rise in the number of civilians killed, with the intensification of Israel's policy.  In a two-week period, earlier this month, in the Gaza Strip, 32 Palestinians had been killed, including 10 children, of whom six were under the age of 5.  In the last three months, there had been a sharp increase in artillery shelling, and 71 Israeli Air Force strikes.  There had been a ten-fold increase in artillery shells fired, compared to the first quarter of the year.

She said that civilians, particularly the most vulnerable, should not pay the price for the neglect of human rights and humanitarian obligations.  Those obligations remained incumbent on all sides.  Freedom of movement had been further curtailed at some 515 checkpoints, roadblocks and earth mounds, compared to some 400 at the end of last year.  That, along with closures and curfews, had increasingly confined Palestinian movement to the immediate vicinity, with all that that entailed in terms of access to medical facilities, work, family life, and the right to human dignity.  Those intensified restrictions had also affected the ability of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations to deliver essential humanitarian assistance, as well as carry out their normal human rights work.

Implementation of the agreement on movement and access remained problematic, she said.  Since the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians had enjoyed movement within the Strip, but they had been unable to export produce.  And, despite the landmark advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, which had found that construction of the separation wall was contrary to humanitarian law, that had continued, accompanied by settlement expansion.  As several experts had found, the wall violated freedom of movement, divided families, affected livelihoods and separated farmers from their crops or destroyed their olive trees.

She said that the impact of the current fiscal crisis, according to the International Monetary Fund, had caused Palestinian Authority revenues to plummet in April to just one-sixth of its monthly requirement.  The World Bank had said in March that, by the end of 2006, average personal income would have decreased by 30 per cent and poverty levels would have risen from 44 per cent to 67 per cent.  In light of recent developments, the Bank was currently reassessing those figures on the grounds that they were too optimistic.  The temporary international mechanism was a most welcome step, but that did not nearly address the rights of the Palestinian people in a sustainable way.  The impact on the right to health of the current fiscal crisis was tangible on a daily basis.  Last week, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health had issued a new release renewing appeals to the international community to build on its temporary mechanism for assistance to the Palestinian people.

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