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Commissioner Diamantopoulou's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, 8-10 September 2002
Anna Diamantopoulou reported to the Commission today on her visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. This is the first official visit of a Commissioner to that region since the outbreak of the Intifada, apart from the President's trip as part of the Troïka.
The Commissioner's visit focused on three issues within her portfolio :
o to support the role of civil society in helping resolve the conflict, especially the particular role women can play: we have some experience of this in Ireland, in Bosnia and conflicts in other parts of the world;
o to establish a dialogue with the Israelis and Palestinians on social issues, especially unemployment and social exclusion, including aspects related to foreign workers, and problems arising from violence;
o to reinforce the work we have begun - and the President has also been particularly active in this area - on the fight against antisemitism and Islamophobia.
Main points of the visit
She met representatives of almost 40 civil society organisations and peace activists from both Israel and the Palestinian territories. And she held meetings with political leaders and representatives of the government, including Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, and other ministers in the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.
Her visit took place at a particularly tense and delicate time. The situation in the Palestinian territories is desperate : she saw this at first hand in Ramallah and Jerusalem, at the checkpoints and in a refugee camp. This brought home in a very real way the facts behind the recent report of the UN special envoy Ms Bertini - two-thirds of the population is trying to exist on less than $2 a day, with problems of malnutrition among children beginning to emerge, and a health crisis mounting as restrictions on freedom of movement prevent babies from being vaccinated. Towns like Nablus have been under continuous curfew for 80 days; and indeed in Ramallah, the curfew was lifted only the day before my visit. The Commissioner made clear to Palestinians the EU's total condemnation of the suicide bombings and terrorism which has taken place. But she also noted that current conditions in the territories, which are deteriorating day-by-day, are a breeding ground for hatred and violence.
Without comparing this in any way with the situation in Israel, which is on a completely different scale, she noted that there are also social problems in that country, including a very serious incidence of violence against women and very poor conditions for foreign workers. The Israeli economy is also suffering from the effects of the Intifada and indeed the policy of closures.
Within the peace movement, she noted very mixed feelings. She spoke to very courageous women who are struggling to keep talking in spite of severe opposition within their own communities. Because of the restrictions on movement, many Palestinian women cannot come to meetings, and the dialogue is unfortunately beginning to fade. For some people, the visit was the first opportunity they had to talk face-to-face since the outbreak of the Intifiada. Many felt that the good work which had been built up over years with Commission financial support had been undone.
In spite of the bleak picture there are signs of hope : the Fatah movement, including Tanzim, have called yesterday on all Palestinian groups to give up violence; there is still a willingness among some peace activists to continue talking; and there are signs within the Israeli government that they are beginning to recognise the problem - Mr Peres said that he would meet five Palestinian ministers to discuss an easing of the situation.
Some ideas for action
As a result of her visit the Commissioner refered to a possible contribution to the overall strategy that Chris Patten, Commissioner for External Relations, has formulated, and outlined three concrete suggestions how, building on the visit, this cound be done.
First of all, she proposed that something specific be done to promote the role of women in fostering dialogue in the current conflict. Even if there is no official peace process, contacts between people and civil society organisations can help. provide pressure and impetus for change. There are of course already the projects supported under the Partnership for Peace initiative. She suggests helping through technical expertise in supporting the role of women in particular in these projects. And to accompany this, she said it would be useful to support the idea which emerged during her visit of promoting a women's conference. These have been put to the Quartet.
Second, she suggested helping develop further the instruments we have in the Association Agreements. We have a full agreement with Israel, with meetings already arranged for October, including the economic dialogue. She proposed to examine how we can strengthen the social dimension of our work with Israel in the Association Agreement. And she noted that it would be an important signal if we could also do the same with our Interim Agreement with the Palestinians.
Finally, she urged that we need to address the problems we have in Europe concerning Islamophobia and anti-semitism. This would again be an important signal to both sides of Europe's concern and engagement in the process of mutual understanding and reconciliation. She suggested to follow this up with organising a conference here in Brussels, and also to strengthen the monitoring work of our Centre in Vienna.