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

24 May 2000



(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

ATHENS, 24 May -- At the third plenary session of the United Nations International Meeting in Support of a Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine and the Establishment of Peace in the Middle East, held in Athens on 23 and 24 May, participants addressed the theme of "Civil society in support of the peace process". Among the issues discussed were the role of people-to-people diplomacy, the role of academic institutions, initiatives by the international non-governmental organization (NGO) network in solidarity with the Palestinian people and the role of the media.

Samia Khoury, President of Rawdat El-Zuhur Women's Organization in Jerusalem stressed the importance of developing democratic procedures and empowering civil society so that people become aware of their civil responsibilities and get involved in developing the necessary tools to enable them to face the challenges that will come about with the building of the Palestinian State.

Although various people-to-people initiatives for building bridges exist, the number of people involved in such programmes is minimal and the impact of such initiatives has not been felt, Ms. Khoury said. She urged both Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations to play a larger role in influencing their governments to work honestly, sincerely and democratically to bring about changes that would help their communities see the advantages of peace and stability in the region.

Nevertheless, talking about peace is not enough, and building bridges of trust cannot happen by talking about those bridges, Ms. Khoury said. Only a drastic change on the ground will produce results, and people-to-people programmes will become a natural outcome of peace, not an imposed and artificial programme. For the peace process to produce a lasting peace and not a lasting process, it is a must for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territory without further stalling.

Michael Hindley, Political Consultant from Lancashire and former Member of the European Parliament, told participants that people needed to develop a more realistic view of what the European Union could and could not do, rather than view it as a form of deus ex machina that could solve all their problems. There was an abiding myth, he added, that the European Union, as distinct from its member States or from the United States, was a neutral body. That was not true.

Speaking about NGOs, Mr. Hindley noted that the rise of Western liberal NGOs was almost in direct proportion to the disillusionment with the political process in the West, and that therefore, the existence of NGOs was implicitly and explicitly a criticism of the political process. In the Palestinian territory, however, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority has dramatically changed the situation for NGOs. The relationship between NGOs and the emerging State was a competitive one that was fraught with difficulty, he added.

Mr. Hindley also suggested that Palestinian NGOs might play a constructive role in helping the emergence of a more mature form of advocacy, as opposed to the current passionate expression of righteous and aggrieved indignation, which is no longer convincing.

Soyata Maiga, Lawyer and Vice-Chairman of the Bar Association of Mali, said that African support for the legitimate struggle of the Palestinian people dated back to 1975, when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Council of Ministers declared that black Africa had a duty to play a constructive role in efforts to bring about a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

Since then, while various national and subregional associations have been established in solidarity with the Palestinian people, African civil society organizations seem not to have taken much interest in the question of Palestine and the peace process, Ms. Maiga said. She attributed the cause to a dearth of information on the process, its difficulties and requirements.

To address that problem, she suggested that the international community, and in particular Palestinian leaders, should devise, work and implement a communication strategy targeting the various components of African civil society.

The efforts of the international community to find a just and lasting solution to the Middle East problem are constantly being challenged by the intransigence of the Israeli side, Ms. Maiga said. The involvement of a neutral and impartial civil society would undoubtedly facilitate the settlement of the conflict, she added.

Jeroen Gunning, Researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Durham, spoke about the various problems confronting international NGOs in their work. One point mentioned by Mr. Gunning concerned the somewhat contradictory relationship of international NGOs to Islamist institutions. Islamists, he said, held positions theoretically irreconcilable with the notion of secular democracy championed by many international NGOs. Yet there was no denying that Palestinian Islamist societies were generally authentic grass-roots organizations, mobilizing people and providing services, mostly without discrimination, where they were most needed. Not to support such institutions would be a betrayal of the civil society ideal, he added.

One area in which international NGOs could become more active was by educating the Israeli public, Mr. Gunning said. Taking into consideration the fact that Israeli policy-making was sensitive to Israeli public opinion, international NGOs, being neither Israeli nor Palestinian, had a unique opportunity to make a difference. They could target ordinary Israelis who failed to understand the Palestinian case out of ignorance, or as a result of believing their State's propaganda, and try to emphasize that working with and for Palestinians did not mean they were against Israelis or their needs.

Zelmys María Domínguez Cortina, Board Member, Organization of Solidarity of the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America, and Researcher, Centre of Studies on Africa and the Middle East in Havana said that the Cuban people, organized in the widest spectrum of social organizations, professional associations and NGOs, had always been resolute supporters of the Palestinian people's rights. Ms. Cortina spoke about the various Cuban civil society organizations that supported the rights of the Palestinian people, focusing on the work of two such institutions, the Centre of Studies on Africa and the Middle East and the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The Arab-Israeli conflict had always been among Centre's main research topics, Ms. Cortina said, adding that the conflict had been the object of multiple publications, conferences, courses and lectures. She also noted that one of the most recent and important initiatives undertaken by the Solidarity Organization was the organization, last year, of the "International Conference of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, for its Right to Self-Determination and Independence", in Athens. A Final Declaration and an Action Plan were approved at the end of that conference, serving as tangible proof of the solidarity work those organizations encourage around the Palestinian cause, she added.

Addressing the role of academic institutions in supporting the peace process, Na'ama Carmi, Council Member of Mertz in Tel Aviv, said that academia can contribute in two ways: through research that informs the peace process and assists politicians in modifying and tuning alternatives in negotiations; and through study programmes that promote peace, understanding and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Research on peace-related issues does exist at Israeli universities, Ms. Carmi said, citing the example of Tel Aviv University's Tami Steinmentz Centre for Peace Research, the goal of which is to "promote systematic research and thinking on issues connected with peacemaking processes and conflict resolution". The problem, however, is that the results of such research are not accessible to the public, Ms. Carmi said. Another, more serious problem is that the research material is not sufficiently used by politicians. The solution, she suggested, is in providing academic institutions with good public relations that would make their work accessible both to the media and to politicians.

As for study programmes, academia is not doing enough, Ms. Carmi said, adding that there was a need for common study projects in Israeli and Palestinian universities. Such projects would teach courses to Israeli and Palestinian students as equals, with the students able to hear the other side's view and voice directly.

Nikolas Voulelis, Managing Director of the Athens News Agency, said the most important role played by Greek civil society in support of the peace process was that of the media. In general, he said, the Greek media have lagged behind their international counterparts in the coverage of international conflicts, such as that of the Middle East. In recent years, however, the reawakening of nationalism in the Balkans and the political realignments in Greece have led to the development of national stereotypes and attitudes over alliances and solidarity on a purely "fanatical" religious basis, he said. That resulted in an across-the- board downgrading of the support of Greek public opinion for the Palestinian cause.
The moral lesson was clear, Mr. Voulelis said. The entire structure, role and tremendous influence of the media -- especially the electronic media -- in the world today derived from the interdependency between political power, economic power and the power of mass media owners, who decided whether they were going to shape a climate of tolerance or intolerance vis-à-vis a people, a country, religion or a minority. What was now required, he added, was the consideration of steps to shape a public opinion based on the principles of peaceful coexistence, understanding, tolerance and respect for the rights of every people, nation or minority.

Closing Session

Following the third plenary session, the Meeting held its closing session. Statements were delivered by Greek Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Angeliki Laiou, Representative of Palestine Emil Jarjoui, Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Ibra Deguène Ka, and Committee Rapporteur Walter Balzan, who presented the Meeting's Final Statement, the full text of which follows below:

Final Statement

1. The United Nations International Meeting in Support of a Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine and the Establishment of Peace in the Middle East was held in Athens, on 23 and 24 May, under the auspices of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Participants in the Meeting included international experts, eminent political personalities from Greece, representatives of governments, intergovernmental organizations, United Nations system entities, the Palestinian Authority, civil society organizations and representatives of the media.

2. The Meeting was convened by the Committee with the aim of promoting intensified political and other action by governments, intergovernmental and civil society organizations for the attainment by the Palestinian people of its inalienable rights and in support of the Middle East peace process. The Committee expressed the view that it was important to promote international support for the success of the peace efforts and that, at this crucial juncture, the international community should spare no effort in pursuit of a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the question of Palestine, and in the quest for peace and stability in the entire region of the Middle East.

3. The Meeting was held against the background of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on interim and permanent status. The participants emphasized that the agreement on permanent status issues -- Palestine refugees, the status of Jerusalem, settlements, borders, sharing of water resources -- should be based on the norms of international law and international legitimacy. It was noted that the present phase in the negotiations was crucial and constituted a turning point for the peace process. The participants expressed concern that yet another target date for the conclusion of a framework agreement had been missed. In light of this, the parties were urged to do everything in their power to preserve and solidify the accomplishments of the peace process and to make an effort to achieve a final settlement agreement by September. The participants have also stressed the urgency of reaching an agreement on interim issues, namely the third Israeli redeployment from the West Bank, the release of Palestinian prisoners, the opening of the northern safe passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the operation of the Gaza seaport and economic issues.

4. As the peace process continued to experience difficulties and the situation on the ground remained volatile, meaningful progress was needed in the negotiations on both interim and permanent status issues. In this regard, it was emphasized that the permanent status negotiations had been adversely affected by the lack of real headway on interim issues. This situation required immediate attention of the co-sponsors and of the international community.

5. The participants were also of the view that, for the peace process to succeed, the parties should strive to create, in the negotiations, an atmosphere of genuine commitment to the guiding principles of the peace process, as laid down in the bilateral agreements signed to date. The participants noted in particular that, in recent months, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been offset on a number of occasions by Israeli actions on the ground and Israeli Government statements, which were incompatible with the spirit and the letter of the peace process.

6. The participants reviewed the various aspects of the permanent status negotiations and the question of Palestinian statehood. In this context, they reaffirmed that the Middle East peace process is based on Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) and the principle of land for peace. The participants stated that the impending declaration of Palestinian statehood was a natural and inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, independence and sovereignty. The international community was again called upon to support this right of the Palestinian people and spare no effort for making it a reality.

7. The participants discussed the role played in the peace process by the co-sponsors, the United Nations system, Europe, the international donor community and intergovernmental and regional organizations, and stressed that the role of all those institutions in supporting the Middle East peace process remained crucial.

8. The participants reiterated the permanent responsibility of the United Nations with respect to all aspects of the question of Palestine, until a satisfactory settlement based on relevant United Nations resolutions and international legitimacy is reached and the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people are fully realized.

9. The participants noted the important role played by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in rendering varied humanitarian assistance to Palestine refugees for over 50 years. In this connection, they strongly urged the international donor community to continue to support the vital activities of the Agency and contribute generously to its budget in order to allow UNRWA to maintain the level of services provided to Palestine refugees.

10. The participants appreciated the contribution by the members of the European Union to the peace process. The European Union's political support and large volume of economic assistance were viewed as vital to the efforts aimed at rehabilitating and developing the Palestinian economy.

11. The international donor community, for its part, remained an important supporting factor in laying the foundations for the viability and sustainability of the Palestinian economy and society. It was reaffirmed that the donor community's assistance was of great importance to the Palestinian people, particularly during the difficult transitional phase. The role played by international donors will become even more critical in the period following the establishment of a Palestinian State.

12. The participants acknowledged the important role played by civil society in the process of transition to Palestinian statehood, as well as in building and developing Palestinian institutions. They also noted that non-governmental and other civil society organizations were making a determined effort to help the parties overcome decades of animosity and suspicion in order to build bridges of trust, understanding and partnership.

13. The participants expressed gratitude to Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, for the message addressed to the Meeting, for his consistent support of the rights of the Palestinian people and his unrelenting personal efforts in the search for peace and stability in the Middle East.

14. The participants also welcomed the statement made on behalf of Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and President of the Palestinian Authority, and expressed appreciation for his strong commitment to a peaceful solution of the question of Palestine.

15. The Chairman of the Committee, Ibra Deguène Ka, and the delegation of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, had the honour of being received by George Papandreou, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Greece, who stressed the importance of supporting the Middle East peace process and the rights of the Palestinian people.

16. The participants expressed gratitude to George Papandreou, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and to the Government of Greece for hosting the Meeting and for the assistance and support extended to the United Nations Secretariat in its preparation.
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