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


GA/PAL/782
15 June 1998

NORTH AMERICAN NGO SYMPOSIUM ON QUESTION OF PALESTINE
BEGINS AT HEADQUARTERS

Favouritism towards Israel by the United States had made a mockery of its claim to be an honest broker between the parties, the United Nations North American NGO Symposium on the Question of Palestine was told this morning.

Speaking at the opening of the three-day Symposium, David Graybeal, Chairman of the North American Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine, said, "Many of us are to blame for our failure to use the freedoms of civil society to organize a massive movement, an avalanche of outrage, against the inhuman, insufferable indignities and injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians during this 50 years of dispossession."

If the world was in the age of the American Empire, "we must weep for the future", he continued. It was an America that pledged liberty and justice for all, but was selective in who that "all" included. It was an America whose declaration of independence claimed "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind", but which now ignored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Court of Justice.

Nasser Al-Kidwa, Permanent Observer for Palestine, said that, in the last few weeks, the world had witnessed Israel's intransigence through its Government's arrogance and inflexibility. The Israeli Prime Minister was dealing with the United States' proposals for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory in a manner that demonstrated that he did not want the negotiations to succeed.

The Palestinian people would never settle for less than justice, and they thanked the First Lady of the United States for her statements in support of their cause, not only because her position was just, but also because she recognized the only way to achieve peace in the Middle East, he said.

Ravan A.G. Farhadi, Vice-Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said that by reaching out to their diverse constituencies and creating greater awareness of the basic aspects of the Palestine question, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could do much to generate support for the Palestinian people and their efforts to achieve their national rights.

The 1991 Peace Process and the 1993 Declaration of Principles were agreements that were based on the realization that the Middle East conflict could only be resolved by political and not military means, and that there was no peaceful alternative to mutual reconciliation and compromise on the land question, he continued. Although they did not represent the desired final settlement, the agreements were recognized as an essential step towards that objective.

The Symposium, with the theme "50 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. The first plenary discussion this morning centred on the theme topic "Memory: Remembering the Palestinian history." Speakers were Don Peretz, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, State University of New York at Binghamton; Randa Farah of the Centre d'études et de recherches sur le moyen orient contemporain, Amman; Marc Ellis, Research Fellow, Harvard University; Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Professor of Political Science, Birzeit University; and Baker Abdel Munem, Head of the General Delegation of Palestine in Canada.

The Symposium will hold plenary discussion at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 16 June, on the theme "Conscience: Strategies for contesting the future".

Opening Statements

RAVAN A.G. FARHADI (Afghanistan), Vice-Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, on behalf of the Chairman, said that by reaching out to their diverse constituencies, and creating greater awareness of the basic aspects of the Palestine question, NGOs could do much to generate support for the Palestinian people and their efforts to achieve their inalienable national rights. At the same time, NGOs needed to ensure that their work complemented international community's efforts.

He said those international efforts had developed a growing consensus on the essential elements for a peaceful settlement. They included the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, the right to self-determination; withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem; an end to settlement and land confiscation; and the need for resolving the problem of Palestinian refugees in conformity with General Assembly resolution 194 (III). The 1991 Peace Process and the 1993 Declaration of Principles were agreements that were based on the realization that the conflict in the Middle East could only be resolved by political and not military means, and that there was no peaceful alternative to mutual reconciliation and compromise on the land question. Although they did not represent the desired final settlement, the agreements were recognized as an essential step towards that objective.

It was necessary to implement agreements reached between the parties and for Israel to refrain from using its dominant positions to achieve gains on the ground in advance of the final status talks, he continued. The proposal for convening a Conference of the High Contracting Parties of the Fourth Geneva Convention to examine measures to ensure its respect in the occupied Palestinian territory, including Jerusalem, also needed to be pursued in light of the expansion of settlements and other provocations. The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People had also decided to request the inclusion of an item related to the "Bethlehem 2000" project in the agenda of the Assembly's next session. The project was a Palestinian initiative with international appeal and visibility and which should help promote Bethlehem as a beacon of peace, justice and reconciliation on the eve of the next millennium.

NASSER AL-KIDWA, Permanent Observer for Palestine, said that the theme of today's symposium was a sad one -- 50 years of the catastrophic dispossession of the Palestinian people. Fifty years ago, an entire people was deprived of their national rights and uprooted from their lands and homes. On 14 May, as Palestinians commemorated that occasion with a million-person march, the Israeli army opened fire indiscriminately, killing several people, including children. There were attempts by Israeli officials and some on Capitol Hill to blame the Palestinian victims for being killed.

Today was not only a time to remember the past 50 years, but also a time to gather strength, he said. In the last few weeks, the world had continued to witness Israel's intransigence through the arrogance and inflexibility of the Netanyahu Government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was dealing with the United States' proposals for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territory in a manner that demonstrated that he did not want the negotiations to succeed. It must be stressed that Israeli settlements in the occupied territory were illegal, and that the territory was Palestinian land and would remain so; that the compromise accepted by the Palestinians was not a compromise on the West Bank and Gaza and would never be; and that the Palestinian people remained committed to peace under the existing accords.

He said that the world must make the necessary decisions before the available opportunity was lost. The Palestinian people would never settle for a partial justice, after suffering a half century of injustice. They thanked the First Lady of the United States for her statements in support of their cause, not only because her position was just, but also because she recognized the only way to achieve peace in the Middle East.

DAVID M. GRAYBEAL, Chairman of the North American Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine, said Israel's aggressiveness and intransigence was a major problem. Non-governmental organizations were divided about the Palestine Authority. Some supported it as the most comprehensive and authoritative voice of the Palestinian people. Some rebuked it as being too compliant in agreeing to sign the Oslo accords and too willing to overlook human rights abuses by its own police officers. The 1997 International NGO Symposium of Palestine recognized the state of Palestine, with borders in accordance with its Declaration of Independence, and called on all NGOs to join in recognizing that state. United States favouritism towards Israel had made a mockery of its claim to be an honest broker between the parties. Some faulted the United Nations with having accepted an unjust partition plan 50 years ago, and for failure to insist on compliance with the resolutions of its own Security Council, notably 242 (1967) and 338 (1973).

He said, "Many of us are to blame for our failure to use the freedoms of civil society to organize a massive movement, an avalanche of outrage, against the inhuman, insufferable, indignities and injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians during this 50 years of dispossession." A combination of powerful factors blocked the launching of that avalanche of public opinion, especially in the United States, where it was so needed. Hollywood and television had a steady output of Jewish and Israeli heroes standing against sinister and treacherous Arabs; and the print media had publications filled with pro-Israel and anti-Arab propaganda. The Christian Churches were also influential in supporting Israel and ignoring the Palestinians.

As the NGOs of the United States and Canada considered how to change public opinion, they were numbed by the power of the forces that confronted them, he said. Why did the United Nations allow the United States to flaunt the clear directives of the Council and continue to use its veto to protect Israel against world opinion? If the world was in the age of the American Empire, "we must weep for the future". It was an America that pledged liberty and justice for all, but was selective in who that "all" included. It was an America whose declaration of independence claimed "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind", but which now ignored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Court of Justice. The United Nations was urged to confront the United States over its shameful use of power, and to call it to participate democratically in the great parliament of mankind.

Plenary Discussion

Speaking in the discussion on "Memory: Remembering the Palestinian history", DON PERETZ, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, State University of New York at Binghamton, said that soon after the start of the first Arab-Israeli war, it became evident that the Palestine Arab refugee problem would be a major obstacle to ending the conflict between the two peoples. Now, half a century later when Israel was celebrating its jubilee and the Holocaust was being widely commemorated, the fate of the indigenous people of Palestine was often forgotten. In a sense, they too were victims of the Holocaust. As events in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s were instrumental in the creation of the Jewish State, the establishment of Israel led to the displacement of the Palestinians. Thus, it was fitting while commemorating Israel's fiftieth anniversary that the anniversary of Palestinian loss of a homeland also be remembered.

The official Israeli position disavowed any responsibility for creating the problem of Palestinian refugees, although in recent years new Israeli historians with access to government documents from the late 1940s and 1950s had questioned their Government's official stance, he said. Israel had insisted that the refugee problem must be dealt with only within the context of a final peace settlement that took account of Israeli counter-claims. One of the critical issues in resolving the refugee problem would be compensation, a matter that was particularly relevant now that the question of compensation to Jewish victims of the Holocaust had again become the focus of international attention. The question of compensating Palestinians who lost property and livelihood in 1948 had received much less attention.

He said that few non-Palestinians were aware of the extent of the problem illustrated by figures such as the following: of the 370 new Jewish settlements established between 1948 and 1953, mostly inhabited by new immigrants, 350 were built in villages and on property formerly belonging to the Palestinians; and in 1954 more than a third of Israel's Jewish population lived on Arab property.

One of the most critical questions was psychological, revolving around the "right of return", he said. To the most unsophisticated and least informed of both Israelis and Palestinian refugees, it meant return to original homes, farms or business establishments that existed in 1948. That failed to account for the political, demographic, economic and physical changes of the last half century. A more informed perception might envisage return to original towns or villages. But an increasingly pervasive perception among informed Palestinians was that if Palestinians could not return to original homes or villages, Israel must recognize the "right of return" as legitimate. If that right could not be implemented within Israel, then it must be permitted within the state of Palestine.

RANDA FARAH, of the Centre d'études et de recherches sur le moyen orient contemporain, Amman, said her studies had focused on how popular memory helped to forge the Palestinian nation, and had drawn on the narrative of three generations of families in the Al-Baq'a camp, 20 kilometres north-west of Amman. The study also focused on how and why refugees reconstructed their memories. The camp was one of the largest in the Middle East where the refugees were mainly the original inhabitants of central and southern Palestine. Those refugees, after many failed attempts since 1948 to return to their villages, had sought refuge in camps. Individual narratives showed that memory played a part in forging the Palestinian identity with parents and grandparents remembering Palestine as a place, a land and a life.

Memory also maintained the sense of belonging to a particular place, and the village was the antithesis of the refugee camp, she said. Exile and return were also inspired by memory. Refugees spoke of the camp as the face of the nation and the Palestinian symbol of resistance. The dream of return, however, was jolted by the Oslo accords. The various narratives from the camp also showed that peace agreements were irrelevant to the 1948 refugees. Camps were now socio-economic categories without political perspectives. Refugees in the Palestinian diaspora felt that they were being marginalized by the historical process. Popular memory, however, did not disappear through fading political and geographic boundaries. Palestinians today could not tolerate how one people such as the Israelis were encouraged to remember the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Jewish State, while the Palestinians were encouraged to engage in realpolitik and to forget.

MARC H. ELLIS, a research fellow at Harvard University, said that for all those involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the search for a path beyond the present situation, the founding of Israel and the Palestinian catastrophe were forever joined together. The only remaining question was whether their fruits of division and atrocity would continue, or whether a way would be found to create a new reality that took the division between celebration and commemoration to a level of unity hitherto unknown in the conflict.

He said that such unity could only be envisioned if the following understandings were embraced: Israel had now conquered all of historic Palestine, from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River; and the Palestinian population within the expanded Israel, almost 3 million people, were now a remnant population. In light of that situation, the Jewish State had only three options: to permanently conquer another people and dominate them through second-class citizenship within the 1967 borders of the State and some form of limited autonomy in the West Bank; to give up the occupied territories and accept a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as the shared capital; or to include Palestinians within Israeli society as citizens with equal rights and responsibilities.

The first option would necessitate a permanent militarization of Jewish and Israeli life, while the latter would gradually transform Israel into Israel/Palestine, he said. Because of demography, culture, economy and architecture, Israel/Palestine already existed regardless of the option chosen. The difference was one of repression or recognition, denial or embrace, domination or freedom. As their history was joined together, so too was the future, as freedom, justice, security, normalcy, healing and prosperity could only be found by Jews and Palestinians united.

IBRAHIM ABU-LUGOD, Professor of Political Science, Birzeit University, said 1947 would live in Palestinian memory as the moment when an entire people were dispossessed. That process, however, began at the turn of the nineteenth century and concluded in 1948 when Israel announced the emergence of the Jewish State -- an unprecedented act in the history of the present century.

The General Assembly policy at that time reflected the hegemony of the powerful but declining colonial system. The vast majority of the Jewish population had emigrated from Europe in the wake of the Zionist explosion, and the Balfour Declaration enabled that population to equip themselves socially and politically.

The Israeli forces eventually succeeded in imposing their power and jurisdiction over 80 per cent of Palestine, he said. There were initially three areas -- Israel, the West Bank territory which was incorporated by Jordan, and Gaza Strip which was incorporated by Egypt. Israel then waged war against Jordan and Egypt and seized all of Palestine. The people of Palestine were essentially subjugated without control of their destiny. Their history had been marked by their efforts to regain their national rights.

He said the Palestinians, subsequent to their incorporation into other lands, seemed to have lost their political voice in the international arena until 1974, when Yasser Arafat addressed the Assembly. In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was established and demonstrated a commitment to retrieving the national rights of the Palestinian people. Peace was finally envisaged as the coexistence of two people on the same land based on the inalienable rights, self-determination and the sovereignty of the Palestinian people.

He said the essential foundations of Palestine's statehood were laid out carefully, and the institutional base helped Palestinians to resist violence against the Israeli army. The second front was to wage a political and legitimate effort to dismantle the Israeli army of occupation. Israel's humiliating occupation brought about the intifadah which rendered Israel's occupation obsolete and basically indicated that it would not bring about Palestinian surrender. The Declaration of Principles, Cairo and other agreements were signs that Israel realized that the occupation would not yield the results it sought.

Today, Israel retained its ability to confiscate Palestinian land, close areas, build new settlements and destroy the national economy of the Palestinians. There must be an international consensus on the equal rights of the Palestinians, with coexistence being the only solution.

BAKER ABDEL MUNEM, Head of the General Delegation of Palestine in Canada, said that Palestinians in general, and Palestinian politicians in particular, frequently faced questions, comments or remarks of the following kind: was there any hope of a settlement with Prime Minister Netanyahu? Prime Minister Netanyahu was killing the peace process; would the Israeli Government, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, accept the new United States' proposals for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank? The Israeli settlements were expanding daily on the Palestinian land, especially in and around Jerusalem; where would the capital of the state of Palestine be? Was it not Jerusalem? And how could there be two capitals for two States in one undivided Jerusalem?

He said that such questions could be answered, the comments understood and the remarks correctly interpreted through a good reading of the past, correct view and understanding of the present, and an excellent forecasting of the future. Towards that end, the following points must be taken into consideration: all the Palestinian people supported peace and dreamed of seeing peace prevail in Palestine; the majority of Palestinians supported the ongoing peace process, but some were against it, which was no secret; those for and against the peace process differed on "what price" to pay for "which peace"; and each Palestinian, whether supporting or opposing the peace process, had his/her own opinions and arguments, based on a patriotic Palestinian point of view, and believed that his/her position was the correct one.

Response to Questions

A representative of the Canadian Arab Federation asked Mr. Peretz to elaborate on his remark that some Palestinians had a simplistic view of the "right of return". Mr. PERETZ said there were three views: those who believed they could return to their original homes, villages and businesses which, however, no longer existed. There were also those who believed in returning to the site of their homes and villages, even though those sites had changed, and those who believed in returning to Palestine.

Responding to a representative of the International Committee for Arab- Israeli Reconciliation on whether a Palestinian state should be democratic and secular, Mr. Abu-Lughod said he had grown up in a democratic secular state and found it difficult to understand why any government would oppose that. By the theoretical commitment of the Palestinians, they were trying under very difficult conditions to create a democratic secular state.


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