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Press Release
UNITED NATIONS
Department of Public Information · News Coverage Service · New York


GA/PAL/783
16 June 1998


NORTH AMERICAN NGO SYMPOSIUM ON 50 YEARS OF DISPOSSESSION OF PALESTINIAN
PEOPLE FOCUSES ON 'CONSCIENCE: STRATEGIES FOR CONTESTING THE FUTURE'



The current American mood towards the question of Palestine had been shaped by factors ranging from stereotyping of Arabs to congressional hostility towards the Palestinian cause, the United Nations North American Non-Governmental Organization Symposium on the Question of Palestine was informed this morning.

The Symposium, with the theme "Fifty years of dispossession of the Palestinian people", is held under the auspices of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Speakers at this morning's meeting focused on the topic "Conscience: Strategies for contesting the future", discussing upholding international legitimacy, the need for international protection and support of the Palestinian people, and mobilizing public opinion.

Keith Jennings, Director of the African-American Human Rights Foundation, said that many Americans knew very little about the rich diversity of Arab culture. Television and films were particularly to be blamed for the situation, through their negative stereotyping in both adult and children's entertainment. When an entire race of people was constantly depicted as bloodthirsty, violent and anti-American, those images "disinformed" the values for everyone. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had to function collectively as public relations firms for justice because the media Arabs needed new image.

Ruhama Marton, Chairperson, Physicians for Human Rights, said the public was unconsciously denying reality. People generally preferred not to know about the Middle East situation and were ignorant of the reality surrounding the issues. Policy makers found it easier and more convenient to feign ignorance. Non-governmental organizations needed to change public opinion. To do so, strategies must be developed to counteract the psychological defences used by the public and policy makers. Non-governmental organizations had to make the public, policy makers and governments uncomfortable. The challenge was to demand change. For example, the systematic use of torture in Israel could not be admitted by the Israeli public since it contradicted their humane self-image. It was important to challenge the idea that there was no torture with facts, which would eventually stop the denial. The involvement of Israeli doctors in torture also needed to be put on the international agenda.

Michael Lynk, Professor of Law at Ottawa University, said attempts at peacemaking in the Middle East had been marred by an imbalance of political power between the Israelis and the Palestinians, resulting in one-sided and unworkable agreements. Applying international principles of rights and duties to efforts to reach a successful resolution of the question of Palestine could be a harbinger for future relations between troubled neighbours in the region. For Palestinians in post-Oslo circumstances, the requirement for protection arose from a number of reasons, including the continued interference with internationally recognized entitlement to human rights; Israeli usurpation of the Palestinians' economy, territory and resources; and the denial of legal and social status owed to Palestinian refugees in the occupied or exiled lands where they resided. Israeli behaviour jeopardized the Palestinians' rights to exercise sovereignty and self-determination.

Amira Hass, a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, told participants that in the wake of the Oslo accords, Gaza and the West Bank were less connected than they had ever been before. The promise of a political entity had been based upon territorial integrity between Gaza and the West Bank, which meant at least ensuring Palestinians freedom of movement between the two territories. Instead, there had been a complete dismantling and demographic separation between Palestinian residents of the two and between Palestinians and Jews. Also, Israel still controlled the lives of the Palestinians. People believed that the Palestinian economy would improve after years of languishing under the Israelis, and that there would be prosperity after the disasters of the intifadah and the Persian Gulf war. The opposite had happened.

The Symposium will hold its final plenary discussion at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 17 June, on the theme "From memory to conscience".

Plenary Discussion

RUHAMA MARTON, Chairperson, Physicians for Human Rights, speaking on upholding international legitimacy, said it was important to distinguish between the psychological processes that governed the public and the policy makers. The public was unconsciously denying reality. People generally preferred not to know and did not want to know about the Middle east situation and were ignorant of the reality surrounding the issues. Policy makers found it easier and more convenient to feign ignorance. Non-governmental organizations needed to change public opinion by providing information about issues that were publicly denied and not addressed. In order to do so, strategies must be developed to counteract the psychological defences used by the public and policy makers. Non-governmental organizations had to make people, policy makers and governments uncomfortable.

She said that over the last 10 years her group and others had tried to change many things -- including torture by the Israeli Government. When confronting the Israeli Government about human rights, they bombarded it with facts and cooperated with those journalists who were prepared to challenge and change the consensus. The term "torture" was taboo in Israel, and the systematic use of torture could not be admitted by the Israeli public since it contradicted their image of being humane. It was, therefore, important that stories and facts challenged the idea that there was no torture, and eventually that type of denial would stop. The issue of torture and the involvement of Israeli doctors in it also needed to be placed on the international agenda. Clearly, the admission of torture was increasing in the Israeli public, and relevant NGOs were proud of that achievement. The American public was very sensitive to the violations of human and civil rights. Stories and demands should be fed to them, and approaches to the American Medical Association should also be pursued.

MICHAEL LYNK, Professor of Law at Ottawa University, speaking on international protection, said that the political and social aspirations of the Palestinians -- for self-determination, for peace in their homeland and in the region, for a right of the refugee population either to return home or to receive fair compensation, for a claim to Jerusalem, for the right to be free from occupation and its deleterious effects, and for the right to control their own natural resources, such as agricultural land and water -- all had a solid grounding in the accepted principles of international law. Reliance upon those principles strengthened arguments for the Palestinians to live as any other people as they sought support from the international community.

Reliance upon the relevant principles of international law would turn the old quip "law is politics by another means" on its head, he said. Attempts at peacemaking in the Middle East had been marred by an ample imbalance of political power between Israel and the Palestinians, resulting in peace agreements that were not only one-sided, but ultimately unworkable. Putting international principles of rights and duties at or near the centre of efforts to reach a successful resolution of the question of Palestine could be a harbinger for the future conduct of relations between troubled neighbours in the region.

He said that for the Palestinians in post-Oslo circumstances, the requirement for protection arose from at least three specific patterns of behaviour: the continued interference with internationally recognized entitlement to human rights; the ongoing usurpation by Israel of the Palestinians' economy, territory and resources; and the denial of legal and social status properly owed to the Palestinian refugees in the occupied or exiled lands where they presently resided. Those patterns of behaviour not only infringed upon the fundamental human rights and refugee rights guaranteed by international law, but also jeopardized the opportunity for sovereignty and self-determination that the Palestinians had the right to exercise.

KEITH JENNINGS, Director, African-American Human Rights Foundation, speaking on mobilizing public opinion, said that most Americans did not know what was going on with respect to the situation in Palestine. Today, there was a great sense of frustration among the Palestinian people that stemmed not only from the pace of the peace process, but also from the fact that the Palestinian Authority existed but did not have the tools to do an effective job. The current American mood had been shaped by a number of factors ranging from stereotyping to the existence of probably the most hostile Congress ever with regards to the Palestinian cause. Most Americans would be unable to name any notable Arabs or Arab-Americans, and many knew very little about the rich diversity that comprised Arab culture. Television and film could be blamed for that situation, through negative stereotyping of Arabs both in adult and children's entertainment.

He said that the late 1980s films, including made for television movies, gave the American public the image of the Arab as a terrorist. That image sent a subliminal message to American viewers about who their enemies were and who they should hate. When an entire race of people was constantly depicted as bloodthirsty, violent and anti-America, those images "disinformed" the values for everyone. In the news media, the same insensitivity existed, where, in relation to Arabs, phrases and words such as the "face of terror, radical and fanatic" reinforced stereotypes of the Arab as terrorist. The increased political influence of the Christian right which emphasized the shared Judaeo-Christian heritage was another factor influencing American public opinion.


He said that, in order to mobilize public opinion, it was important that NGOs started to reach out to different sectors and communities. The support for peace needed to be based on the support for the rule of international law. NGOs had to collectively perform as public relations firms for justice because the media Arabs needed a new image. In forging a durable peace, it needed to be recognized that Israeli security and Palestinian justice were two sides of the same coin. Understanding between the people of the United States and Palestine had to increase, and ways to foster citizen-to-citizen contact through cultural and educational exchanges needed to be found. Also, a systematic campaign of public education towards building a broad-based constituency for Palestinian self- determination had to be undertaken.

Also speaking on mobilizing public opinion, AMIRA HASS, a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, said that the same civil administration that had existed under the occupation had remained, but under a new name. Everyone had been told that the Oslo accords were about a gradual elimination from Palestinian life of the occupation and all its characteristics. In exchange, there was to be a decline in violent Palestinian resistance to the occupation, to the building of settlements, closure and the control of workers entering Israel. However, all of these still remained.

She said that people really believed that the Palestinian economy would improve after years of languishing under the Israelis; that there would be prosperity following the disasters of the intifadah and the Persian Gulf war; and that there would gradually emerge a consolidated political entity in Gaza and the West Bank. But the opposite had happened in the case of the first promise: between 1992 and 1996, real gross national product (GNP) declined by 18 per cent, except in 1993 when it fell by 26 per cent. In 1997, each family had reduced its basic expenditure by almost 9 per cent compared to the previous year. Most trucks going in and out of Gaza were bringing in goods from Israel, instead of exporting Palestinian goods as promised.

Gaza and the West Bank were less connected now than they had ever been before, she said. The promise of a political entity had been based upon territorial integrity between Gaza and the West Bank, which meant ensuring Palestinians freedom of movement at least between the two territories. Instead, there had been a complete dismantling and demographic separation between Palestinian residents of the two and between Palestinians and Jews, who had full freedom of movement. Israel still controlled the lives of the Palestinians.


She said that occupation was much more about control of people's lives than about torture and other outward manifestations. The occupation had taken different forms that allowed the Israelis to maintain control. One new form of control was the building up of a leadership that was accorded normal rights disguised as privileges, such as freedom of movement, which was denied to the majority. That elite also had more economic freedom and greater possibilities to improve their economic conditions, while the majority was denied basic economic rights.

Response to Questions and Comments

What prevented the United Nations from expelling Israel and the United States? a participant asked. Was there any legal reason? Responding, Mr. Lynk said that the United Nations Charter required every Member State to be peace loving. There were attempts in the 1980s to expel Israel, but a more realistic solution would be for the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention to take up Israel's violations of international law.

In view of increased repression by the Palestinian Authority and by Israel, and in view of increasing population and rising pressure on resources like water and land, how could the inevitable shocks and explosions be cushioned? another participant asked. Ms. Marton said that the so-called peace process was working against everyone, including the Israelis. There was no peace, and the process was another means of occupation, albeit a concealed one. Ms. Hass said Oslo was tailored to cushion explosions.

Another participant said Israel's possession of atomic bombs represented an international threat, and the time had come for it to disclose to the world the truth about its nuclear arsenal.

A participant said that the Palestinian Rights Committee had allowed the circulation of the latest Amnesty International report on Israeli violations, but had suppressed circulation of information on Palestinian violations. It made little difference to a Palestinian undergoing torture whether the torturer was an Israeli or a Palestinian.


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