The Israeli Prime Minister's new guidelines would make it impossible for peace to survive in the Middle East, Mr. Al-Kidwa said. Israel must continue returning land for peace, abiding by its commitments to the Palestinian side, and implementing agreements already signed in good faith. The Palestinian Authority would not accept any retreat. Attempts to build settlements or to retreat from agreed commitments could have devastating effects.
Opening the session, the Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Ibra Deguene Ka (Senegal) expressed confidence that the new Israeli Government would continue to pursue peace and abide by agreements already reached. The Symposium's programme would promote networking and action on important issues. Its workshops would provide a venue to develop programmes, guide future work and help Palestinian non-governmental organizations.
The Chairman of the North American Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine, Larry Ekin, said those organizations would be examining their relationship with the United Nations and discussing whether relevant Security Council resolutions and United Nations mechanisms provided the most appropriate framework for their work.
The Symposium is meeting this year on the theme, "Towards a just and comprehensive settlement of the question of Palestine".
Following the opening statement, presentations were made on the theme, "Self-determination, State building - opportunities and obstacles".
Addressing that question were the Director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, Ramallah; a member of the Palestinian Council, Jerusalem District; and the Chairman of the North American Coordinating Committee.
In a discussion following the presentations, several participants raised the issue of the human rights situation under the Palestinian Authority, citing the arrest of Elias Surraj, head of a human rights organization in Palestine. One delegate announced that a petition to the Palestinian Authority calling for his immediate release would be ready for signature tomorrow morning. Mr. Al- Kidwa expressed respect for the NGO's right to take any position they deemed appropriate, but said such questions fell outside the scope of the Symposium.
The NGO Symposium will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 25 June, to consider the question of Palestine refugees and displaced persons.
Symposium Work Programme
The annual North American NGO Symposium on the Question of Palestine met this morning to begin its three-day session. Following opening statements, participants were expected to begin a panel discussion on the subject, "Self- determination, state building - opportunities and obstacles". The theme of this year's session is "Towards a just and comprehensive settlement of the question of Palestine". (For additional background information, see Press Release GA/PAL/722 of 19 June.)
Opening Statements IBRA DEGUENE KA (Senegal), Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said the Committee joined other Members of the United Nations in expressing confidence that the new Israeli leadership would continue the peace negotiations and implement the agreements already reached. Speedy progress towards a just and comprehensive settlement was the only way to end the cycle of violence in the region. In that context, the support and assistance of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were of primary importance.
He expressed appreciation for the coordination and cooperation of the NGOs with the Committee and suggested that they might explore how the Committee's electronic and documentation facilities could be used to promote their work. Consultations had been held with many NGOs in Palestine about holding the International NGO Meeting and European NGO Symposium in the area under the Palestinian Authority. A decision on date and venue would be announced shortly.
The role of the international community, including NGOs, in support of the Palestinian people remained of great importance during the transitional period, he said. The peace process was still fragile, as shown by delays in the implementation of agreements, slow progress towards the crucial final stages of the peace process, acts of violence by those seeking to undermine that process, the continued expansion of settlements, and the closure of the occupied territory.
The Symposium was intended to enable an exchange of information on several of those issues and to promote NGO networking and action, he said. It was hoped that the workshops, in particular, would provide a venue for NGOs to develop concrete and sustained action programmes to guide their future work.
M. NASSER AL-KIDWA, Observer for Palestine, said the Israeli electorate had chosen new, more hard line leaders whose policies, if implemented, could have a detrimental effect on the peace process. The Israeli Prime Minister's new guidelines would make it impossible for peace to survive. Israel must continue to accept the policy of returning land for peace and to abide by Security Council resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973) and 425 (1978).
He said Israel must continue to accept its commitments to the Palestinians and to implement agreements already signed in good faith. The Palestinian Authority would not accept any retreat from those agreements. Attempts to build settlements or to retreat from agreed commitments could have devastating effects. He called upon the important international players to support those agreements.
The Arab summit in Cairo, which concluded over the weekend was an important step towards the closing of Arab ranks, he said. The Palestinian people must work hard to build on their achievements, which included the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and its presidential and legislative elections. They faced huge pressures from many quarters, as well as such obstacles created by Israel as the siege on Palestinian territory and other forms of collective punishment. The Palestinians would exercise their right to return and to the sovereignty of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
The United Nations had a permanent responsibility towards the Palestinian people until the question of Palestine was settled and a just and lasting peace achieved in the region, he said. It also had a responsibility to support the peace process and to help build the Palestinian Authority and economy. The Palestinian Authority relied on the support of the international community and non-governmental organizations, who had done a lot of valuable work for the Palestinian cause. Their support was of primary importance. He respected the prerogative of non-governmental organizations to take certain positions. However, the structure of the Symposium should not go beyond the agenda set for it, as that would only harm the Palestinian cause.
LARRY EKIN, Chairman of the North American Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine, said there was a wide diversity of people and ideas represented at the Symposium. There were some whose actions were guided by reasons of faith, and others who did not associate themselves with any religious affiliation but considered themselves people of conscience. There was also wide variety of political concepts represented. Some participants came from large organizations, while others represented small grass-roots groups.
Many believed that the resources available to accomplish the task at hand were inadequate. Nevertheless, the work would continue. The participants could and did disagree with one another, but they should not lose sight of their common goal. Over the years, they had learned to work together to make positive use of their diversity.
All relationships underwent transformation over time, he said. The NGOS would be examining their relationship with the United Nations and discussing whether the relevant Security Council resolutions and United Nations mechanisms provided the most appropriate framework for their work. It was gratifying to see that the numbers of participants at those Symposiums continues to grow and that there was a significant constituency in North America committed to the Palestinian people.
Self-determination, and State-building
IZZAT ABDUL-HADI, Director, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Ramallah, said current efforts to build a society in Palestine must be bolstered by continued struggle against Israeli occupation. They must aim at enhancing development. The domestic policy of the Palestinian Authority must be enhanced, with the active involvement of Palestinian NGOs. Palestinian society must reaffirm democracy. Some recently adopted laws concerning publications and political societies could impede development. The laws must be consonant with the interests of the Palestinian people.
He stressed the need for a full partnership between the Palestinian Authority and civil organizations. Palestinian Organizations had agreed to provide their services and influence. The relationships between different organizations should be strengthened, in the interest of development, with a focus on its civil and social aspects.
Since the Oslo agreement, the financing of NGOs had changed, he said. The role of non-religious groups had decreased, left-wing organizations had rejected the Oslo accords, and many political parties had lost their influence. A decision had been taken to strengthen trade unions where Islamic organizations were strong. Those organizations had a clear direction and were able to benefit from funding, while other groups were not as well organized. There must be a dialogue and partnership with the Islamic organizations. There must be an exchange of information to enhance development.
SAMIA KHOURY, President of the Rawsat Al-Zhur Women's Organization and representative of the Palestinian Network of NGOs Jerusalem, said political self-determination had been universally accepted as a prerequisite for peace. Yet peace in the Middle East, sponsored by the United States, remained a mirage. The two-States principle proposed by the Palestinians in 1988 was rejected by Israel, which had refused to accept the courage and sacrifice of the Palestinians, who gave up 70 per cent of their land for the sake of peace. In the wake of Gulf War and the subsequent split in the Arab world, once again the Palestinians felt abandoned.
She said Israel still imposed obstacles to peace, including a continued occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. It also denied free access to the Palestinian enclaves. Israel closed land within the Palestinian Authority on any pretext and had still not accepted that there could be no peace without the restoration of Palestinian independence. There could be no peace without justice. It was ironic that tourists from all over the world had the privilege of visiting Jerusalem while indigenous people, whether Christian or Muslim, could not do so unless they lived there.
Despite all the difficulties, Palestinians had chosen peace and had to make the best out of a bad situation, she said. They had reached the end of the road in the compromises they could make, with the recent amendment to Palestinian Charter recognizing Israel's right to exist. The Palestinians had not gained by their compromises for peace. Where was the security or better living standards they had been promised? The confiscation of land for by- pass roads was continuing. The Israeli re-deployment from Hebron had not taken place as scheduled and Jerusalem's status had still not been determined.
The Israeli bombing of Lebanon did not reflect a spirit of peace, she said. Although the new Prime Minister alluded to peace, it was not clear what he meant by that. The interests of the Arab world should be linked to the rights of the Palestinians even as those rights were once again being determined by others. Prior to establishment of the Palestinian Authority, NGOs had been instrumental in laying the groundwork for many infrastructural changes. Their experience should continue to complement its work. Civics and democracy must be integrated into the educational curriculum.
ZIAD ABU ZAYYAD, member of the Palestinian Council Jerusalem District, said that although the option of a Palestinian state alongside Israel was not a first choice for the Palestinians, they had tried to convince the Israelis that, in the new relationship, they were partners and not enemies. Israel however, seemed to aim at creating another South Africa. The Palestinian Authority was a reality, and its challenge was to lay the basis for a democratic society and a legislative state. The transition from occupation was not easy. The NGOs must now work to complement the activities of the Authority.
The Palestinian Authority had never hidden its insistence on it right to self-determination and to establish a Palestinian state on Palestinian soil. It had expected that parties on both sides would try to place obstacles before the peace process. The circle of violence in the region was part of that effort, and Israel's policy of slowing down the peace process had encouraged the extremists. Enhancing the peace process would have reduced extremism on both sides.
He said Israel had failed to implement a number of agreements, including those involving the freedom of movement and the release of political prisoners. The policy of the new Government did not offer much hope for the peace process. Israel had virtual control over 90 percent of the territory, and no one could predict what would happen. The sale of arms inside the area of the Palestinian Authority had been encouraged in the hopes the Palestinians would fight among themselves. The international community must support the Palestinian people. It could not allow Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to continue his current programme.
LARRY EKIN, Chairman of the North American Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine, said a "quick fix" would not achieve the type of changes needed. Certain organizations had adopted policies which addressed the realities on the ground. For example, the United Methodist Church had recently called for an end to such practices as the denial of Jerusalem identity cards to Palestinians citizens. The Church said that Governments, by their silence and financial assistance, had contributed to the situation on ground, and asked them not to move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The position of the United Methodist Church and of other mainstream organizations was a result of the continuing programme of eduction over the years by the North American Symposium. However, although a constituency existed that was well informed and committed to the issues, the Symposium lacked the resources to mobilize them. That was evidenced by the failure to change United States policy and to influence practices on the ground. The North American Coordinating Committee was in need of greater funding; few members had been forthcoming in actually supporting it. Some organizations, when their representatives were not elected to the steering committee, simply walked away.
Although the mainstream press would not report on the important issues with the necessary depth and insight, cooperative action between NGOs could be effective in getting the message out, he said. Outreach efforts must continue. For example, members could work with the Palestinian non- governmental organizations around such issues as their negotiations with the World Bank regarding the NGO trust fund.
A participant asked how freedom of speech and protection against arbitrary detention would be respected under the Palestinian Authority. If the Palestinian Authority could arrest and detain Elias Surraj, the head of a human rights organization, what did that mean for other NGOs in Palestine and for the future of the Palestinians as a whole?
Mr. ZAYYAD said that Elias Surraj was a friend of his and had been surprised by his arrest. There was a problem in that many people still identified with political factions and did not realize that there was now a Palestinian Authority. There was a thin line between being a human rights activist and a political activist. Having said that, he did not justify or accept the arrest.
In response to a question about the continuing expansion of settlements in Jerusalem, he said the Netanyahu Government was willing to establish a settlement in South Jerusalem so as to surround, isolate and separate the city's Arab community. Pressure should be applied to prevent Israel from implementing that programme. The question of Jerusalem was still on the agenda of the future status negotiations. On another matter, he said that now that there was a Palestinian government, the role of NGOs must be re-evaluated. They should function as NGOs, not as political factions.
Ms. KHOURY was asked what she expected to happen in the "hot spots", in view of the general consensus that there would be no improvement under the new Israeli Government. She said the Israelis might surprise everyone. Whatever happened, they would not stall and delay as the Labour Party had done; it would be clear where they stood.
She said the role of NGOs was important whether the Palestinians were under occupation, forming a new state, or living in a free and democratic society. Politics dominated all aspects of Palestinian society. It was difficult to say that the NGOs could not be political. Nevertheless, not all NGOs were politically oriented. A number of NGOs had been in Palestine before the Israeli occupation. The Palestinian Authority should continue fulfilling the basic responsibilities of a national government while delegating certain tasks to the NGOs.
Asked about the greater effectiveness of the NGOS in Canada, Mr. EKIN said there were significant constituencies of Palestinian Canadian voters.
Mr. ABDUL-HADI said the Palestinian NGOs had reviewed their activities in the light of new circumstances, in order to avoid duplication of effort. However, the Palestinian Authority thought that if the NGOs tried to develop different perspectives, they were in the opposition. In the past, NGO support for political activities had been sought; now, political activity was considered unacceptable. He emphasized that the arrest of Samir Suraj was a clear violation of human rights.
A participant said that those attending the Symposium were committed to human rights, support for Palestinian people and the development of democratic institutions. They had opposed Israel's human rights violation and would be lacking in integrity if they did not point to the violation of human rights by the Palestinian Authority, which put respect for human rights in jeopardy. A petition to the Palestinian Authority calling for the immediate release of Elias Surraj would be ready for signature tomorrow morning.
M. NASSER AL-KIDWA, Observer for Palestine, said the Palestinian Authority had the utmost respect for the right of non-governmental organizations to take whatever position they deemed appropriate. It would not dream of judging those positions. On the contrary, the Authority would consider issues and positions raised by them. However, discussing matters outside the scope of Symposium and raising the question of petitions, howsoever justified, should be done in another framework.
Any attempt to draw a parallel between Israel's gross and systematic abuses of Palestinian rights and any human rights violations which might occur in Palestine from time to time would be a grave injustice to Palestinians and their cause, he said. It would also be an injustice to the person the participants were trying to protect.