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

22 April 1999


(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

WINDHOEK, 20 April -- At the first plenary session of the United Nations African Meeting in Support of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, which was chaired by Namibia's Ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Andjaba, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Special Envoy of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, warned that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had become the hostage of the right-wing forces of Israel, which were holding the entire peace process hostage to their own ambitions.

Delivering a keynote address, Suleiman Al-Najab noted that under Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the two main Israeli political parties, the Likud and Labour, the current peace process had for all practical purposes come to an end. Despite the personal involvement of United States President William Clinton, Mr. Netanyahu was using the pretext of concerns over terrorism to encourage the extremist forces on the Israeli side and force the Palestinians to become Israeli collaborators.

The thrust of the current Israeli policies was to force the Palestinian Authority to downgrade their expectations, he said, cautioning that Israel was trying to implement the interim arrangements as the final solution.

Land-for-peace agreements, he said, had been swept under the carpet under the current Israeli Government, and instead of abiding by agreements reached at the highest international level, the Israeli Government pursued policies of colonizing the occupied territories.

The Palestinian cause had, despite the efforts of the Netanyahu Government, made good progress on the international front and succeeded in getting a more even-handed treatment from the present United States Administration, Mr. Al-Najab noted. But despite that, the extremism of the Netanyahu Government scheduled its upcoming elections at the worst possible time -- on 17 May -- barely two weeks after the 4 May deadline for the
implementation of the Oslo Accords.

Latif Dori, Secretary of the Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue, warned that the entire region was faced with two crucial issues in the immediate future: Israel's upcoming national elections, which would determine who the next Prime Minister would be and what the new Government would look like, as well as the end of the interim period and the Palestinian declaration of independence.

While the current Israeli Government had achieved "a new low" at the United Nations and its diplomatic isolation was becoming more acute, the upcoming elections presented all parties concerned with a new opportunity to wrest the future from the hands of the extremists, he said.

Mr. Dori said the Palestinian Authority had made over the last year very significant diplomatic progress, including the unequivocal support of the European Union to the creation of the Palestinian State. Even Washington had recognized that the Palestinian Authority had met all its obligations under the Wye River Memorandum, and the question was no longer "if", but rather "when" the State of Palestine should be declared.

As a result, he said, the Palestinian people faced a crucial question: what would be the best timing for the declaration of the Palestinian State? Should it be declared on 4 May, the day the five-year obligations under the Oslo Agreements end, or should the Palestinian people, as urged by many good friends, wait a little longer?

Leaving aside the question of the timing for the declaration of the Palestinian State, economist Ibrahim Matar, former Chairman of the Department of Business and Economics at Bethlehem University, traced the history of dispossession of Palestinian land by successive Israeli Governments since 1948.

This was most clearly illustrated by the progressive occupation of Jerusalem, which he said happened in two distinct phases. In May 1948, 60,000 Palestinians were forced out of West Jerusalem and all homes and land seized under the controversial Absentee Property Regulations. All such property was sold to so-called "custodians", and today, remained in Jewish hands -- including the land on which the Israeli Parliament or the Knesset was built on, the land to which the Lifta family still held the original title deeds.

During the June 1967 War, Israel brought East Jerusalem also under its control, including the walled Old City, dismissing and disbanding the Palestinian municipality and deporting the elected Palestinian Mayor, Rohi El-Khatib, to Jordan, Mr. Matar said. The fact, however, remained that although Palestinian land had been usurped and the Palestinians declared permanent absentees by the Jewish State, the Palestinian people still held all legal titles in land registries.

On 22 June 1967, the Jewish State formally annexed East Jerusalem, as well as parts of the West Bank, thereby increasing the size of East Jerusalem to three times its original size. Further gerrymandering of boundaries in order to always ensure a Jewish majority in any given area led to further exclusionary practices. One significant development of this policy was the creation of Jewish "fortress settlements" such as "Ramot Shu'fat", designed to encircle Palestinian areas and artificially boost Jewish numbers in such areas to where they now rival that of the Palestinian people.

Since 1967, the Israeli Government had confiscated some 28,000 dunums of land and real estate (one dunum is equal to 1,000 square meters), most of this by what Mr. Matar described as "legalized theft" by applying severely discriminatory laws. This was further expanded upon by applying restrictive building requirements on the Palestinian population, or consigning Palestinian land as "Green Zones" to prevent any Palestinian construction from taking place in such areas.

Mr. Matar, in conclusion, called for any agreement on Jerusalem to include the relocation of all illegal Jewish settlers; repatriation of all Palestinians by changing their status from "absentees" to "present" or compensation for those who did not want their property back in accordance with United Nations resolution 194 of 11 December 1948; the restoration of Palestinian sovereignty to East Jerusalem, as the capital of the Palestinian State, and the declaration of West Jerusalem as an open city, freely accessible to people of all three monotheistic faiths.

Gershon Baskin, the Director of the Israel/Palestinian Center for Research and Information, presented the audience with photographic evidence of further and ambitious Israeli expansion into the occupied Palestinian territory. These included aggressive seepage of Jewish settlements into "Green Areas", as well as a network of expensive roads designed to link the various and especially isolated settlements to each other.

Mr. Baskin said, in his opinion Mr. Netanyahu remained as committed as ever to his ideological opposition to the creation of a Palestinian State. This impression had come after lengthy discussions with close advisers to the current Government and included the following points:

-- Israel was afraid of an independent Palestine with its own military capabilities, especially of how such a strike force could be deployed inside an independent Palestine;

-- A sovereign Palestine would have full control over its own borders, and potentially allow hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to enter its territory, thereby potentially destabilizing its own economy;

-- An independent Palestine could enter into defence pacts with potentially hostile nations such as Iraq or Iran and should the current Hashemite Government of Jordan fall, could invite foreign troops to its territory; and

-- An independent Palestine would have sovereign control of material resources, particularly water resources, thus, potentially affecting Israel's supply.

Mr. Baskin urged the Palestinian negotiators to be better prepared for final status negotiations and called upon them and the international community to avail themselves of the best possible legal advice in advance. This should include a strategy for returning all of Palestinian assets currently being held by the Israeli Government and create a more level playing field. This, he suggested, could be achieved along the following lines:

-- The Palestinians must correctly anticipate, in advance, the true Israeli positions and understand them;

-- The Israeli Government must be coerced into responding to Palestinian positions, and not the other way around;

-- Rather than respond to Israeli discussion documents directly, the Palestinians should instead prepare lists of questions to be directed at their opponents and avoid allowing Israel to set the agenda;

-- At all times, the Palestinians should be cognizant of Israeli "security concerns" and avoid allowing the Israelis to view every issue in these narrow terms;

-- The Palestinians should always demand, within agreements reached, special contingencies for partial implementation or non-implementation of the agreements on the part of Israel, including both political and economic contingencies (such as in the case of the closures of the West Bank);

-- The Palestinians should know in advance what their own "red lines" would be, and use this as a blueprint to keep their own negotiators within their mandate.

In her contribution, Elizabeth Sidiropoulos of the South African Institute of International Affairs, said an important lesson had been learned from the South African experience: true peace was only possible once true reconciliation had taken place. With Mr. Netanyahu's Government consistently failing to recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people, peace in the Middle East remained elusive.

The Oslo accords did not guarantee Palestinian statehood, and the Wye River accord only increased the onus on the Palestinian Authority to stamp out "terrorist activity" while Jewish settlement of occupied territories continued apace, she said. Palestinian Authority officials feared that a formal declaration of the Palestinian State on 4 May could prompt the Israeli Government to move to annex area C instead, which comprises about 70 per cent of the envisaged Palestinian State.

With some 144 settlements, she said, the majority of which in the occupied West Bank, a territorial settlement had become extremely complex. And the Likud Government, despite the various accords, was pressing ahead -- perhaps for this reason -- with their policies. While the recent accords did not expressly forbid new settlements, it certainly was against the spirit of both Oslo and Wye.

As such, this echoed South Africa's own history of resettlement of black people under the apartheid policies, and the South African Government had issued strong calls in this respect on Israel to halt its expansionist policies, especially in respect of Jerusalem, she said. As the capital of a future Palestine, it would be unacceptable to the Palestinian Authority to divide the city in any way, but with Israel in de facto control of the city, only sustained pressure from the United States could budge the Israeli position. But given the apparent unwillingness by the United States to force Israel's hand, that appeared unlikely.

While the declaration of a Palestinian State could be used to make the case that the Palestinian issue had been resolved, it still remained to be seen if this was viable -- for Palestinians to exercise their inalienable rights, the Palestinian State must also be sovereign, viable and secure. Declaring a Palestinian State now could see Mr. Arafat held hostage politically by the Israeli Government. It would be, for all intent and purpose, little more than an apartheid-era Bantustan, she warned.

With Israel exercising control over all vital resources such as water, commerce, borders and security, it was in both Israel's and the future Palestine's interest to develop a mutually beneficial relationship, she said. This called for reciprocity from both sides -- even if the world opinion is mustered behind the Palestinian Authority, its ambitions would come to nothing if there was no genuine commitment between the two States to co-exist.

There must be peace, there must be a state, but not at the cost of conditions that undermined that very peace and that very state, Ms. Sidiropoulos stated.

Ambassador Badr Hamman of Egypt said in a brief presentation that the present Likud Government was simply expanding on policies initially implemented by the previous Labour Government. He questioned whether Israel was intent on occupying as much land as possible so as to leave the Palestinian people with a non-viable State. If so, they had achieved that, he said.

The international community should therefore, as a matter of urgency, call on Israel to immediately halt all new settlements, Ambassador Hamman said. The world should also not recognize any part of Israel that was not part of the Jewish State before 1967, and deny all forms of finance, aid or grants that could be used to build new settlements.

Chief Editor of the Johannesburg-based Sunday Independent John Battersby said that every effort should be made to level the playing fields between Israel and the Palestinian people. In this respect, South Africa could play a vital role, both in its capacity as current chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), as well as in its unique position as a bridge between the Group of Eight major industrialized countries and the developing world.

This position as a bridge-builder was best exemplified by South Africa and Saudi Arabia's brokering of the Lockerbie case and the handing over of Libyan suspects to be tried in the Netherlands under the Scottish law, Mr. Battersby said. He, however, cautioned against the declaration of a Palestinian State on 4 May, arguing that the Palestinian people should, through the Non-Aligned Movement, pursue the moral high ground and try and level the playing fields between the PLO and Israel before any final status

In the ensuing debate it was suggested that, while the prognosis for an equitable settlement of the question of Palestine looked poor, efforts should be made to bring additional pressure to bear on Israel and its major partners, namely the United States. Although large tracts of Palestinian land had been illegally occupied by Israel, there was nothing in international law that precluded the reversal of the situation on the ground.

The Observer for Palestine at the United Nations, Nasser Al-Kidwa, said Israel should therefore be put under more pressure to comply with the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention; not to do so would be sending the wrong message to Israel. All new Israeli settlements must be stopped immediately, he said.


* Reissued to correct symbol of press release. It had been previously issued as PAL/1871.

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For information media - not an official record