Speakers call Israeli settlements an obstacle to peace, but say political transformation in the Middle East brings new hope
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, 29 March – As the United Nations Latin American and Caribbean Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace continued this afternoon, speakers discussed Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as well as the international community’s willingness to accept the status quo, among other obstacles to advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
At the same time, they believed the recent democratic changes sweeping the Arab world gave rise to new hope for making the two-State solution a reality.
Yariv Oppenheimer, Director General of the Tel Aviv-based non-governmental organization Peace Now, said Israel had set up settlements in an attempt to prevent the creation of a Palestinian State, to ease overcrowding in Jerusalem and Israeli cities along the green line, and to fulfil the religious ideology of the right of Jews to occupy the entire Holy Land. Some 300,000 Jewish settlers lived in 140 settlements dotting the West Bank, more than double the number from 1993 when the Oslo Agreement was signed.
Peace Now did not support those arguments, he said. “We are against all settlement activity. It is immoral, unjust and against international law and the results would prevent the two sides from reaching final agreement and a two-State solution,” he said.
But Israel’s attitude toward settlements was ambivalent, with settlers presented as both pioneers at the forefront of protecting the State’s borders, as well as extremists endangering peace, he said. Recent disappointments, such as Hamas’ rise after Israel withdrew from Gaza and the Palestinians’ unwillingness to begin negotiations during the 2010 moratorium on settlement building, had strengthened the reputation of settlers among the Israeli public. “The Gaza experience for the Israelis is a very negative one,” he said.
It would be hard to reverse that sentiment unless public opinion toward Hamas changed and Israelis were confident that withdrawing from the West Bank would not result in a Hamas takeover there, he said. Moreover, the Israeli Government was under pressure from local politicians to build settlements despite international and domestic opposition to it. Many political centrists in Israel supported building only in places likely to remain permanently under Israeli control even after an agreement was reached. He estimated that 100,000 settlers would need to leave after an accord was signed.
Today, the Government allowed settlers to build if they had previous approval to do so, mainly in small, isolated settlements, he said. Faced with growing pressure, the Government had stopped issuing new tenders. Still, after the 10-month moratorium on settlements expired in September 2010, construction of at least 1,756 new constructions had resumed in 63 settlements, including Karmei Zur, Kedumim, Adam, Tekoa and Naale. While the situation had become more complicated and difficult to resolve over the years, it was not irreversible. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza had proven that with public support, settlers could be evacuated without the country entering into civil war.
Echoing those concerns, Hind Khoury, former Minister for Jerusalem Affairs of the Palestinian Authority, said the peace process had gone on for too long, and Palestinians had paid too high a price from chronic occupation, daily humiliation and expulsions, oppressive laws and regulations, entrenched poverty and the lack of a real future. Under the Arab Peace Initiative, 57 Arab States offered Israel total peace and normal relations in exchange for returning all territories it occupied since 1967. Still, peace was increasingly elusive.
The greatest obstacle was the Israeli Homestead Act, by which Israel froze all Palestinian land registration in 1968, declared two-thirds of land in East Jerusalem as green areas and began building Jewish settlements in them. It also stripped Palestinians who were absent from the territory in 1967 of all property rights, and since 1967, it had issued 50,000 settlement permits for Israelis compared with less than 15,000 housing permits for Palestinians. Israel continued to destroy Palestinian homes to make way for new Israeli constructions, and to impose its separation wall. Israel spoke of “demographic security”, with little regard for Palestinians’ own security.
According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 28 per cent of all Palestinian homes were at risk for being demolished, she said. Palestinian Jerusalemites who lived outside the city for seven years or more lost their right to return, a situation which had befallen her own children. Palestinian East Jerusalem’s economy was completely ruined; businesses and schools had closed and unemployment was high. Israel had vastly changed the reality on the ground, seriously jeopardizing the Palestinians’ ability to create a State, which would not be viable without East Jerusalem.
Israel must recognize the State of Palestine based on the 1967 borders, renounce and stop all acts of violence and respect international law, Ms. Khoury said. Otherwise, it could not continue to claim it was a democracy. In addition, the Security Council must recognize the Palestinian State under those terms and the General Assembly must hold a session in which it adopted practical measures to end the occupation and recognized Palestine as a United Nations Member State. She believed that non-violent resistance would triumph and she thanked Latin American and Caribbean Nations that had recognized the State of Palestine.
Meir Margalit, a member of the Municipal Council of the City of Jerusalem, questioned why no Israeli representatives were present at today’s meeting, and dismissed their claims that it was unbalanced. The real reason was that while Israel wanted peace, it did not want to pay a price for it. As long as Israel was undecided over whether land or human life was more important, there could be no peace.
Israel, rather than being a democracy as it claimed to be, was an “ethnocracy”, he said. “It’s a democracy only for those who belong to the Hebrew club. But you can’t be a half-democracy just like you can’t be half–pregnant,” he said, noting that 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel were oppressed daily. Palestinians comprised more than 35 per cent of the population of Jerusalem, but received only 11 per cent of that city’s municipal budget.
To truly be a democracy, Israel must first return the territories it annexed, and then discuss peace from the perspective of not wanting to be an occupier, he said. While the status quo had frustrated Israel’s pacifist movement like never before, the crisis could serve as an opportunity to move forward. The movement’s goal was to educate those Israelis who had turned a blind eye to the occupation, feigning ignorance to evade responsibility, and to eliminate the “the ghost dominating the Israeli mind” by putting a human face on the Palestinians, who were seeking to live in peace in their own State like everyone else.
Marcelo Diaz, a representative of Valparaiso in Chile’s Parliament, said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was an “open wound” that endangered the credibility of institutions essential for the peaceful coexistence of nations, he said. His recent visit, along with nine other Chilean parliamentarians, to the Occupied Palestinian Territory taught him that the occupation had scarred and affected every area of Palestinian life. Palestinians had to endure long border crossings at checkpoints just to get medical treatment in Israel. They faced restrictions on movement that were unimaginable in other countries. The Occupied Palestinian Territories’ scarce water resources were not shared equitably, endangering the Palestinian people’s very survival.
He said, under a United Nations mandate, several Nations were intervening militarily in Libya to safeguard the rights of civilians and prevent a dictator from destroying its own people. He asked why the same means were not used to enforce international law to protect the Palestinians. “It is fundamental to realize that it is incumbent upon us to get out of our lethargy,” he said, calling on the international community to stop accepting the status quo and to follow the lead of Latin American countries that had already recognized the Palestinian State.
Many global actors had used the democratic awakening in the Middle East as a pretext for encouraging the two-State solution, he said. The time had come for Israel to prove its commitment to peace. But the Israeli Government would not change its stance without strong international pressure. “There is a window of opportunity – after 60 years, there is now a possibility to launch a process in order to find a solution to the conflict,” he said. For that to happen, the Palestinian cause must truly be on the global agenda and everyone must be involved.
The Israeli pacifist movement had not lost hope, he said. On the contrary, it was part of an immense network struggling for peace and justice. The Latin American community was an important link in that chain, and its recent support for the Palestinian State was one of the “most important events in recent years and a substantial contribution to peace and justice.”
Eduardo Matarazzo Suplicy, Senator of the Brazilian State of Brasilia, also supported non-violent resistance to advance the Palestinian cause. Everyone, including all Palestinians, must be able to participate in the wealth of his nation. He believed that despite their vastly different gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, it was possible for the Israelis and Palestinians to create an economic policy to build a just, civilized society. He suggested earmarking revenue generated by international tourism to the Holy Land for a fund to build a balanced, prosperous society for both Israelis and Palestinians.
During the ensuing discussion, one participant asked Mr. Matarazzo to elaborate on his proposal for a single Israeli-Palestinian State without borders. Responding, he said the two sides could have a common economic understanding similar to the ties shared among countries in the Americas.
Responding to skepticism from another participant that Israelis were not interested in peace or a two-State solution, Ms. Khoury said indeed things were getting harder and it was difficult to be optimistic. But it was imperative to dismantle the power of Zionist groups, which had taken hold in politics and the media. The change sweeping the Arab region could alter its geopolitical balance. With the advent of the communication revolution, people could network to weaken Israel’s power structure. For too long, Israel had played the role of strategic partner of the West. But people were tired of the status quo and endless wars in the Arab world.
It was important to work with Jewish civil society to achieve the two-State solution, she continued. Moreover, Israel must look at the issue of security equitably, and respect the Palestinian’s need for security as well. Palestinians had accepted Israel in a large part of what was greater Palestine. Israel must now act like a democracy, with equal rights also for its Palestinian citizens.
Mr. Oppenheimer, however, said Israel already was a democracy. The situation was not black and white, whereby Palestinians were victims, and Israelis their suppressors. Israelis suffered as well. It was important to understand the Israeli psychology of being surrounded by enemies and afraid that the Israeli State would be obliterated in the near future.
One participant, noting that peace could only be reached through non-violence, asked where the pacifist movement was influential in Israel. In response, Mr. Margalit said it was strongest in academia. Apart from their differences, he and Mr. Oppenheimer participated in the same demonstrations every week. Much could be done to “de-Zionize” Israeli society and to educate people about the occupation, he said, stressing that people who understood it could not support the occupation.