As a result of Israeli non-compliance and procrastination, the Palestinian and Israeli sides would not be able to reach a settlement in the short time remaining before the end of the transitional period, the Permanent Observer for Palestine told the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People this morning. Speaking about the developments in the Middle East peace process and the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, including Jerusalem, he said the five-year transitional period as determined by the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements would end on 4 May 1999. In the face of that expiration, the "do-nothing option" -- the exclusion of any meaningful Palestinian actions entailing legal and political ramifications -- would effectively mean a surrender of Palestinian rights to Israeli will. Also, the mandates for the existing Palestinian institutions, including the Palestinian Legislative Council, would expire, leaving a dangerous legal and political vacuum with unpredictable results. Also this morning, the Chairman of the Committee reported on the Bethlehem 2000 International Conference, which was held in Rome on 18 and 19 February in preparation for the multifaceted undertaking that, from Christmas 1999 to Easter 2001 in Bethlehem, will commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. The Chairman of the Committee said that the success of the Conference had been reflected by the number and level of participants and the seriousness of deliberations. Freedom of movement, unhindered access to the holy places by the faithful of all religions and nationalities were essential to the city's revival, he said. The Committee also approved the programme for the African Meeting in Support of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, which is to take place in Windhoek, Namibia, on 20 to 22 April. The Chairman also informed the Committee that the Government of Egypt had agreed to host in Cairo a meeting devoted to the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Organized by the Committee, the meeting would tentatively be held on 14 and 15 June 1999. Representatives of Italy and Ukraine also made statements this morning. The Committee will meet again at a date to be announced.
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People met this morning to consider developments in the Middle East peace process and the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, including Jerusalem.
It was also expected to hear the report of its Chairman on his attendance at an international conference for the Bethlehem 2000 project, a multifaceted undertaking to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, which will be held in Bethlehem from Christmas 1999 to Easter 2001. The conference was held in Rome on 18 and 19 February 1999. Also, the Committee was scheduled to consider a working paper outlining the programme for an African Meeting in Support of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, to be held in Windhoek, Namibia, from 20 to 22 April 1999.
At the opening of the meeting, IBRA DEGUENE KA (Senegal), Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, introduced Telma Abascal, who had been appointed Chief of the Division for Palestinian Rights of the Secretariat, following the retirement last December of Laura Reanda.
Meetings and Conferences
Reporting on the Bethlehem 2000 International Conference, which had taken place in Rome on 18 and 19 February, the Committee Chairman, Mr. KA (Senegal), said that the Conference had reviewed the status and needs of the project and promoted public support and participation in the initiative. The fact that the Conference had been highly successful was reflected by the number and level of participants, the high quality of the statements, the seriousness of the deliberations and the broad interest on the part of the media. Representatives of 93 governments, seven United Nations bodies and agencies, three intergovernmental organizations, and 71 non-governmental organizations had participated in the Conference.
He said that in the Rome Declaration on Bethlehem 2000, the participants of the Conference acclaimed the unanimous adoption of General Assembly resolution 53/27 on the matter as a clear reflection of the world community's strong desire to bring an era of dialogue, tolerance and reconciliation to the people of Bethlehem and the entire Middle East. The participants had noted the important work done by the Palestinian Authority in connection with the project and emphasized the urgency of making concrete improvements in the situation on the ground in the city and its vicinity. Freedom of movement, unhindered access to the holy places in Bethlehem by the faithful of all religions and nationalities were essential to the city's revival.
PIER BENEDETTO FRANCESE (Italy) said that the Bethlehem 2000 International Conference had helped to establish the basis for the celebration next year as an inspiration for the dialogue for the promotion of peace in the region. The Italian Government had been pleased to contribute to the project. It viewed with concern the modest progress in the peace process in the Middle East in the past year and continued to provide friendly support to that cause.
M. NASSER AL-KIDWA, the Permanent Observer for Palestine, said the participants' conference on Bethlehem 2000 had been a success that would contribute positively to the approaching new millennium.
The Committee approved the provisional programme for the African Meeting in Support of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.
Developments in Middle East
Mr. AL-KIDWA, the Permanent Observer for Palestine, said that the five-year transitional period agreed upon during the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements would end on 4 May 1999. Unfortunately, it was clear that the two sides concerned would not be able to reach a settlement in the less than four weeks remaining, as a result of Israeli non-compliance and procrastination. Some had advised that the Palestinians do nothing -- meaning the exclusion of any meaningful Palestinian actions entailing legal and political ramifications. Arguments in favour of that option were basically that Palestinian action would destroy the peace process and provide the Israeli Government with a pretext for extreme counter-measures and, finally, would have a negative impact on the Israeli elections.
That "do-nothing" option would effectively mean a Palestinian surrender of the realization of their rights to unilateral Israeli will with no time limit, he said. At best, it would lead to an unlimited transitional period and, at worst, a wilful subjugation of Palestinian rights. Another danger with that option was that the mandates for the existing Palestinian institutions linked to the transitional period -- such as the Palestinian Legislative Council and even the Presidency -- would also expire, leaving a dangerous legal and political vacuum with unpredictable results.
He said that some parties had advocated the postponement of any Palestinian action to a later date, such as after the Israeli elections. The issue was not the Palestinian ability to be patient; they had been patient for a long time. The issue was the legal and political vacuum and the unforeseen results that might ensue. Whether that would be the case for only one month or longer was irrelevant. Another reality that seemed to be ignored by many parties was the apparent unwillingness of the present Israeli Government to negotiate with the Palestinian side on the extension of the existing agreements for a specific period, until the upcoming elected government was ready to negotiate. As such, the Israeli Government bore an even greater responsibility for the current situation and its consequences.
Given those realities and potential scenarios, he said, the Palestinian side was required -- and even obligated -- to take concrete legal and political actions in order to create different dynamics and to prepare for a new stage. Those actions must achieve two goals: to prevent any legal and political vacuum after the elapse of the transitional period; and to achieve the establishment of a broadly recognized Palestinian State, or at least to bring such an achievement within a specific time frame. In that regard, the Palestinian side must take into account its weaknesses and relevant inability to impose a different situation on the ground. It should, thus, take special care to ensure a positive position on the part of the international community. A decisive element would be the degree of international acceptance or recognition of those Palestinian actions.
It was necessary, he said, to rectify current impressions that the Palestinian side was threatening to take "unilateral action" and that it was just waiting for an opportunity to opt out of the peace process. Those were false characterizations. Any decisions aimed at the realization of Palestinian rights could not be labelled "unilateral" simply because they were not fully consistent with the provisions of the peace agreements. If any actions were taken after the end of the transitional period, then they could not be inconsistent with those provisions, would not violate the agreements and would be consistent with international law. On the contrary, the threatened Israeli response, if carried out, would be a violation of the crux of the Middle East peace process and would constitute a gross violation of international law.
He expressed concern to the Secretariat regarding the use of the agreed term "occupied Palestinian territory, including Jerusalem". Four months after the decision had been made, the Secretariat could not ignore positions and directives by Member States.
VOLODYMYR YEL'CHENKO (Ukraine) informed the members of the Committee about a visit last Tuesday of the President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, to Kiev. During the visit, Mr. Arafat had been received by the President of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma. During their talks, the two leaders had expressed satisfaction with the current state of bilateral relations and addressed the issues of expansion of the Ukrainian-Palestinian trade and economic ties. Various aspects of the Middle East peace process and problems of international security in the region had also been discussed.
Regarding the issue of Palestine's independence, he said that the Ukrainian side had confirmed its continuing support for the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and sovereignty. At the final press conference, President Kuchma had stated that Ukraine stood "for the statehood for its friends". That goal could be achieved, provided both sides to the peace process fully met their obligations and commitments.
Mr. KA (Senegal), Committee Chairman, then announced that the Government of Egypt had agreed to host next June in Cairo a meeting, organized by the Committee, devoted to the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Tentative dates of the meeting would be 14 and 15 June. It was envisaged that members of the Bureau would visit Gaza or Ramallah for a meeting with the President of the Palestinian Authority.