After opening the session, Mr. Ka made a statement on behalf of the Committee. Then he invited the Permanent Observer for Palestine to the United Nations, Nasser Al-Kidwa, and the Chairman of the European Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine, John Gee, to speak. Following those statements the symposium continued following a round-table format.
The Chairman of the round table was Mr. Gee. Preliminary statements were made by Amnon Kapeliouk, of the Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue; Isabelle Avran, Secretary-General of the Association France-Palestine; and Fiona McKay, of the London-based NGO Redress. Among those participating in the discussions were Bouke Beumer (of Luffia Rubbani Foundation), Silas Cerqueira (of North-South XXI), Raif Hussain (Najdeh) and Mr. Al-Kidwa.
IBRA DEGUENE KA, Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said that the Conference in Support of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People had been convened to promote intensified international action in view of the stalemate in the peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and of the deteriorating living conditions of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Participants had expressed great concern over the stalemate in the peace process and the exacerbation of tension and violence in the region. The Committee would do its utmost to promote the achievement of Palestinian rights and the full implementation of the agreements reached, and to raise public awareness on the issues at stake. The Committee considered it important to involve the European NGOs to the greatest extent possible and thought it right to convene the present symposium at this time and place.
NASSER AL-KIDWA, Permanent Observer for Palestine, said that 1998 marked several important anniversaries, namely 50 years of the dispossession of the Palestinian people, 10 years of the intifadah and five since the signing of the Declaration of Principles. However, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people were still being ignored, a process of "bantustanization" was going on, minimum human rights requirements disregarded and colonization continued. Israel was not respecting the agreements, and he hoped that the United States would take the necessary measures to make the parties comply with the agreements. Regarding the European Union, he expected it would take a more assertive position in the same direction.
The political situation, he said, was very difficult. In order for the international community to support the Middle East peace process, it must foster compliance and uphold international legitimacy originating from Security Council and General Assembly resolutions. He called for NGO support in that endeavour. One of the most important tasks ahead was the follow-up of the tenth emergency special session of the General Assembly and the convening of experts of the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions to ensure respect of agreements. He called for full participation of Palestine in the United Nations and on the international community for support to rebuild the economy after decades of Israeli occupation. He thanked the Secretary-General for averting another possible catastrophe in the Middle East by assuring full respect for Security Council resolutions.
JOHN GEE, Chairman of the European Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine, said that in the last six months no progress had been made towards peace. Israel continued to expand its settlements in the West Bank, and the Israeli-imposed closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was stifling the economic development of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people needed to see real progress towards the restoration of their national rights and to feel that the conditions under which they lived were improving.
He urged the European Union to seek to play a larger role in peacemaking, according to the influence it had in global politics, its important financial contribution to the Palestinian Authority and its trade partnership with Israel. He called on the European Union to suspend the bilateral protocols with Israel, which gave the latter significant trading benefits. Only when the Israeli Government moderates its stand towards the Palestinians should the suspension be lifted. He called on the European NGOs to campaign for a firmer stand by their governments in favour of Palestinian rights.
Following are summaries of panel discussions.
Middle East Peace Process: Current Situation and Prospects
AMNON KAPELIOUK, Member of the Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue, said that the peace process had bogged down because of the right-wing segment in the Israeli Government, which often paid lip service to the cause of peace, but in reality had no will to seek it. The Palestinian territory is turning into a series of bantustans. The enemies of peace were in the Government of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pretended to talk about the final status negotiations as a way to freeze the implementation of the Interim Agreements, because he simply did not want to apply them.
He called for the opening of the airport of Gaza, although he saw no commitment on the Israeli side to solve that issue. He argued that recent tension in the Persian Gulf had permitted the Israeli Government to freeze the talks once again and that propaganda was shattering mutual confidence. Prime Minister Netanyahu was trying to create an irreversible situation by building settlements and presenting the Palestinians with the fait accompli. Although international sympathy for Palestinians was at its highest point, major players like the United States and the European Union had not done enough. He warned against what he considered a dangerous situation heading for the abyss.
European Position and Policy of European Union
ISABELLE AVRAN, Secretary-General of the Association France-Palestine, Member of the French Platform on Palestine, made an informative statement on the European Union policies on the Middle East. She gauged the support of the European Union as well as the obstacles to the peace process according to its observations. She concluded by suggesting possible ways for Union action in order to renew the hopes for peace, namely the temporary interruption of trading concessions to Israel and the suspension of imports of Israeli agricultural produce.
International Law, World Public Opinion, Role of NGOs: assessment
FIONA McKAY, Redress (London-based NGO), examined the extent to which international human rights and humanitarian law continued to apply to the occupied territories and autonomous areas and how Israel kept on violating international law. She searched for responsibilities of European States and addressed the role of the European NGOs in that regard. Putting injustices into an international law framework could help NGOs fight those injustices in two ways: firstly, by providing a standard by which to criticize; and secondly, by taking advantage of the enforcement mechanisms that it provided for.
ABDUL RAHMAN, Secretary-General of the Palestinian Council for Peace and Justice, explored the contradictions that had arisen in contemporary Judaism which had brought together extremists, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalists, with the common goal of derailing the peace process. Palestinians were losing their patience and efforts were needed from the international community to revive hope. Europe had a moral responsibility and financial support could not serve as an alibi to do nothing at the political level. It was precisely political support that the Palestinians most needed. Money was sometimes wasted because of Israeli closures.
Exchange of Views
BOUKE BEUMER, Luffia Rabbani Foundation, asked Isabelle Avran about the means available to NGOS to revive the process started with the Euro-Mediterranean Conference of Barcelona and about the role of NGOs in preparing a follow-up conference of the Barcelona process.
Ms. AVRAN answered that it was necessary to coordinate NGO action at the level of each Union member State to delay ratification of bilateral European Union-Israeli financial aid protocols to compel Israel to abide by international law in matters relating to human rights and previously signed peace accords.
SILAS CERQUEIRA, North-South XXI, remarked that the priority was the establishment of a Palestinian State and that there was no way out unless this priority was regarded as the concrete perspective of any agreement. He argued that it was in this direction that public opinion had to be mobilized.
Mr. AVRAN answered that it was not enough to condemn and to mobilize public opinion and that the question was how to do it. She called for putting pressure on policy makers in every Member State and at European Union level, namely the European Commission and the European Parliament.
RAIF HUSSAIN, Najdeh, asked why everybody seems to forget about Palestinian refugees prior to 1948 and about those currently living in Israel. There was only mention of 2 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but those Palestinians living in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere also needed to be dealt with. He also asked about the human rights abuses committed in the territory under the Palestinian Authority.
Mr. RAHMAN, Secretary-General of the Palestinian Council for Peace and Justice, did not share that view of the problem and argued that Oslo provided room for the refugee issue to be dealt with. He condemned human rights violations by whomever they were committed.
Mr. AL-KIDWA, Permanent Observer for Palestine to the United Nations, stressed the fact that there was an international consensus, reaffirmed in numerous Security Council resolutions, on the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention in the occupied territories, including Jerusalem.
Closing of NGO Symposium
The European NGO symposium closed its session in the afternoon, following two workshops on "Political campaigns" and "The role of NGOs in the mobilization of public awareness", respectively. Mr. Ka chaired the closing session.
Addressing the closing session, Mr. GEE, Chairman of the European Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine, read out a statement on behalf of the NGOs participating in the symposium which, would be subject to ulterior amendments. He voiced a widespread concern of the NGOs at the stalemate of Israeli-PLO negotiations. He hoped for a society based on cooperation, not on military force. There had always been delays and difficulties and now the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu even rejected the principle of "land for peace". The current situation was having a devastating effect on the economy and for that matter, international funds served only to palliate an emergency rather than to promote self-sustainable development. He denounced the legalized use of torture in the occupied territories, calling on the NGOs to pursue lobbying governments and parliaments to suspend the European Union-Israeli Interim Agreement on trade.
CHAWKI ARMALI, General Delegate of Palestine to Belgium, praised the role of NGOs in voicing the plight of the Palestinian people contributing to make truth accessible to the public. The current Israeli Government was intransigent, religious-biased and nationalist and intended to bury the hopes arisen in Oslo. He praised the Belgian Government for publicly disapproving the policies of the current Israeli Government, something which was unthinkable some years ago. He called on the NGOs to continue seeking new avenues to reach more and more people and let them know about the sufferings of the Palestinian people and continue pressing for the exercise of their inalienable rights.
Mr. KA, Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, read out a statement on behalf of the Committee, praising the results of the high-level Conference and the Symposium, which had placed the question of Palestine at the centre of international concern as well as raised public awareness of the suffering of the Palestinian people. It was important to denounce the fait accompli policy of the current Israeli Government and praise the NGOs for their most valuable work in lobbying European governments, as well as providing economic assistance, expertise and other help to the Palestinian people.