The role of youth and women in the peaceful resolution of the question of Palestine
UNESCO Headquarters, Paris
30 and 31 May 2012
The Meeting saw expressions of palpable frustration at the lack of effective international action, including that of the United Nations, to help liberate the Palestinian people from the occupation, and the lack of protection of civilians, especially women and children, in spite of resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, there were numerous expressions of hope at the new opportunities arising with the increasing involvement of youth and women in actions of peaceful resistance which led to concrete results, including through new tools such as the social media that facilitated their actions and amplified their effect. The Palestinian society was vibrant and active; there was an acute sense of urgency to resolve the conflict and a lot of potential that could be tapped. Regrettably, the Israeli public continued to be disconnected from the situation of Palestinians; social media was useful in reaching out to the other side. A main thread of discussions throughout the Meeting was also the need for the rights-based diplomacy, shared by many expert speakers and Meeting participants.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, addressing the Meeting in a video message, said the Palestinian women and youth continued to face exclusion, unemployment and poverty, with the occupation making access to education, jobs and health care more difficult. He noted the important role of Palestinian women and youth in achieving a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the need to listen to them and to work with them. He called for a greater say for both groups in decision-making while stressing the two-State solution was long overdue.
The Chairman of the Committee noted that youth accounted for 64 per cent of the Palestinian population and women comprised half. These were the ones who suffered the most under the occupation, from violence, unemployment, lack of opportunities, social pressures and exclusion. The Chairman noted that through social media, youth had shown their readiness to become agents of change, and invited the youth to use these means to further create pathways for peace while refraining from spreading messages of hate. He recalled that the changes that swept the Middle East region, including protests by Palestinian youths and women, resulted also in the Palestinian factions coming together to lay the groundwork for a longed-for reconciliation.
The Deputy Director-General of UNESCO noted the Meeting came at a watershed moment, seven months after Palestine became the 195th member of UNESCO. The Agency was deeply committed to a just, lasting peace in the region, and was working to create conditions for genuine dialogue, based upon respect for shared values and equal dignity for all. As part of its long-lasting commitment to strengthen Palestinian institutions, UNESCO's Ramallah office was highly active in educational and cultural activities. Building peace must start with women and it must begin in the minds of girls and boys, he said. Experience showed that women's empowerment was a breakthrough strategy for sustainable development. UNESCO was working toward that goal in Palestine.
Palestinian Authority's Minister for Women's Affairs, speaking on behalf of President Mahmoud Abbas, said that notwithstanding all that was happening in the region and the present obstacles, the Palestinian people still extended their hand to achieve the two-State solution. Speaking as a keynote presenter, the Minister echoed the call for women to have a central role in resolving the conflict and creating a strong, vibrant Palestinian State. Palestinian women had demonstrated their resistance by standing up to the occupier for over 60 years alongside men and through women's groups and women's movements; they played a major role in building State institutions, and effectively contributed to political parties and the political arena. Today, female leaders promoted a positive image of women, which encouraged the Palestinian Authority to include other women in national decision-making and to integrate a gender focus into all Ministries. Women were increasingly educated, representing more than 60 per cent of college graduates. However, job opportunities after they graduated were limited. To prosper, young women needed a peace that guaranteed their rights. The Minister appealed to the international community to consider the plight of women and youth, who were the key to the future.
In a deeply touching keynote address of a fighter and human rights advocate of over sixty years, Stephane Hessel, a diplomat, writer, and concentration camp survivor, described how he saw the decades pass, while the Palestinians remained in an unacceptable situation, subjected to continuing occupation; a true reason for outrage. In the meantime, the Israeli propaganda had prevented many in the world from truly understanding the Palestinian plight. The Russell Tribunal on Palestine, launched in 2009 by human rights activists and lawyers, with international law as a legal frame of reference, had scrutinized the actions of Israel, the European Union, United States and major industrial companies that violated international resolutions and court rulings concerning the rights of the Palestinian people, he said. The Israeli Government, which had never taken seriously the need to move toward peace, would have to acknowledge one day they had gone down the wrong path, as it was in the Israeli public's best interest to understand that Israelis and Palestinians must be able to stand on equal footing to build a prosperous Middle East.
During the plenary sessions, expert speakers reviewed the impact of Israeli policies and practices on women and youth. They shed light on the Israeli Government's series of laws aimed to maintain in Jerusalem a population ratio of 70 per cent Jews and 30 per cent Arabs, through strict control of Palestinian construction, leading to forced family separations and fragmentation, and high poverty and unemployment rates among Palestinians. Due to access restrictions, including checkpoints and the separation Wall, students and teachers had difficulties reaching schools; this, together with sexual and psychological harassment to which women and girls were subject at checkpoints, contributed to high school drop-out rates. Movement restrictions also impeded Palestinian access to healthcare. Home demolitions destroyed family structures and increased their poverty and vulnerability. Palestinian female prisoners constantly faced torture, humiliation and horrendous living conditions. Similarly, Palestinian children were deprived of the protection guaranteed under international law; they were detained and prosecuted, blindfolded, stripped and beat, sometimes as young as 12 years old, and were used as human shields in Israeli military operations. The psychological and emotional side effects of the occupation on women, who had the double burden of enduring detention, physical assault, home demolitions and movement restrictions, while raising and protecting their children, often while their husbands were in Israeli jails, were immense.
The representatives of UN agencies, in particular UNRWA and UNESCO, reviewed targeted programmes that benefitted women and youth, providing them short-term job opportunities; training to acquire skills to better compete in the labor market; support services for female victims of domestic and sexual violence; and programmes promoting the development of social media which gave the Palestinians a vital tool for communication with the outside world. UNRWA briefed about its efforts to take youth's views more into account and its commitment for a more effective approach to address their concerns, particularly employment, capacity building and youth participation.
However, it was noted the very complex environment in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, with its constant humanitarian emergencies, where initiatives were launched and subsequently demolished, made it difficult to consolidate gains in the empowerment and participation of women and youth. There was a general feeling of uncertainty individually and collectively, which had particular repercussions for these groups. The massive material and physical losses, coupled with the lack of economic and educational opportunity, uncertainty about the future and psychological stress owing to the occupation had created a cohort of disaffected youth, which had the potential to become a socially and politically destabilizing force. Moreover, many of the most talented and skilled women and youth left to pursue careers and lives abroad.
In spite of the many challenges, there were also strong feelings of resilience and hope. Palestinian women and youth were highly involved in human and social rights activism. Drawing on social media and other tools to make their voices heard, Palestinian youth were creating new political dynamics They have helped propel the politicians towards a national reconciliation process; have carried out global awareness campaigns to rally support for Palestine's bid for full United Nations membership; and have turned the world attention to the plight of Palestinian prisoners through daily rallies and social media campaigns in support of the prisoners' recent massive hunger strike. Youth groups fighting the occupation through nonviolent popular resistance, which increasingly involved women, achieved many individual victories — among them the return of confiscated land and property to the Palestinians, the opening of roads and the building of houses - which collectively made daily life easier for the Palestinians and fuelled aspirations for fully ending the occupation. Organisations like Youth against Settlements had carried out hundreds of protests and campaigns to end human rights
violations against Palestinians and spread awareness about them globally. In Gaza as in the West Bank, young Palestinians understood their situation and expressed hope for the future. More than half supported a two-State solution and ending the occupation through non-violent means.
Representatives of Palestinian civil society pointed to the disconnect between the Israeli public and the situation of Palestinians, noting there was not much of a common language between Palestinian and Israeli youth; while there were some youth movements in Israel that defended the rights of Palestinians, they had not yet broken the Israeli silence on Palestinian rights. Representatives from Israeli civil society noted there were portions of the Israeli public that supported Palestinian rights and aspirations. Representatives of One Voice-Israel and Windows: Channels for Communication shared some of their organisations' actions in support of the two-State solution, including action against the legalization of Israeli outposts in the West Bank, and programmes bringing together youth from both sides of the conflict, aimed at helping the Israeli youth understand that the security they desired could only be achieved through a true rights-based peace. A representative of the United States Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a coalition of more than 250 member organizations, which advocated for boycotting Israeli products and divesting from and imposing sanctions on Israel, pointed to the growing civil society action to end the occupation and human rights violations against Palestinians, such as the hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners, protests against the separation Wall, the Russell Tribunal and the World Social Forum Free Palestine to be held in Brazil in September. She noted the public opinion in the United States was shifting towards rights and peace, and growing civil movements in the United States, such as Jewish Voices for Peace, were speaking out against the occupation.
Participants discussed the empowering effect of the widespread use of information and communication technology and the ways in which social media was being used to reveal the reality of the occupation. It was noted Palestine had the world's highest rate of Facebook users per capita. Ninety per cent of the population had cell phones; more than 30 per cent had access to the Internet. Information technology was becoming the greatest weapon of war. Social media networks also enabled Palestinian youth to connect personally with their peers in the diaspora, and served as a bridge to Israelis who opposed the occupation, helping to form friendships and communications between the two sides and facilitating Israeli participation in weekly peaceful demonstrations against the separation Wall.
The Meeting also addressed the role of the international community in the resolution of the question of Palestine. The representative of the United States Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation stressed it was important to acknowledge that the peace talks had failed, and to develop an entirely different kind of diplomacy, centered on a rights-based approach. The Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations discussed the failure of the Security Council to protect Palestinian civilians from the Israeli occupation. He noted that since adopting landmark resolution 1265 (1999) on protecting civilians in armed conflict, the Council had incorporated such protection into the mandates of peacekeeping operations in a myriad of strife-torn areas; however, due to the lack of political will of some Council members, Palestinians remained the exception to the rule. Palestinian women and girls were particularly vulnerable to the occupation. But again the Council had exhibited paralysis in applying its resolution 1325 (2000) towards protecting Palestinian women and girls from violence. Participants also pointed to the need to better coordinate the efforts of the civil society, whose goal was to ensure the international law guaranteed human rights and equality for everyone, with those of the United Nations. The importance of creating partnerships between the civil society and the private sector in Arab countries was also noted.
In closing the Meeting, the Palestinian Authority's Minister for Women's Affairs, reminded members of the Security Council that they had a particular responsibility to hold Israel to account. There must also be a change in the Israeli mind-set starting at a young age so that Israelis and Palestinians could jointly end the occupation. She expressed the hope that the use of modern information technology to resolve the conflict would in the end prove to triumph over all military arsenals. The Chairman of the Committee emphasized that it was important to show the reality of the occupation that has lasted 45 years, to strengthen the commitment to put and end to it. In that regard, the efforts of the United Nations and civil society in terms of empowerment, capacity building and training, were valuable and fundamental.