Participants express alarm over violations of Palestinian rights, call for a coordinated response by civil society
The United Nations Meeting of Civil Society in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace, held today, followed the United Nations Latin American and Caribbean Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace, also held in Montevideo, on 29 and 30 March. Both were organized by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, and took place as an increasing number of Latin American and Caribbean Nations formally recognized the State of Palestine, along pre-1967 borders, giving the Palestinian strategy credibility, momentum and hope.
Opening today’s Forum, Zahir Tanin (Afghanistan), Vice Chairman of the Committee, echoing the sentiments of many speakers over the past three days, stressed Latin America’s crucial role in enlarging the global constituency for Middle East peace and its peacemaking process. He said there were important lessons to learn from Latin America’s large Jewish and Palestinian populations, which coexisted peacefully, without a concrete wall and layers of fear separating them.
Similarly, Pablo Lumerman, Director of the Buenos Aires-based Foundation for Democratic Change, and Juan Raul Ferreira, President of the Montevideo-based Uruguay-Israel Cultural Institute, recounted their own personal experiences, as Jewish South Americans, working with groups of Arab South Americans, to forge constructive dialogue to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Pedro Armengol, Executive Director of the Brasilia-based Unified Workers Central, Brazil’s main national trade union, said in January the Union had issued a declaration in solidarity with the Palestinians, condemning Israel’s occupation policies and recognizing the rights of the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons and those whose homes had been destroyed to make way for Israeli settlements. He urged other unions and social movements to do the same, and joined Ruben Elias, President of the Commission for Support of the Palestinian People in Uruguay, in calling on South Americans and the international community at large to boycott Israel to protest the occupation.
Two journalists attending the Meeting noted the Latin American media’s important role in shaping public opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said press in the region had tended to provide biased coverage in favour of Israel, the stronger and more influential party to the conflict. Pedro Brieger, a Buenos Aires-based journalist and sociologist, pointed to an article in an Uruguayan newspaper covering the United Nations Meetings that focused on claims that Israel would closely scrutinize the events and the speech of Uruguay’s Foreign Minister — which discussed his Government’s signing on Tuesday of a Protocol with the Palestinian Authority to establish diplomatic ties — as if to persuade or pressure the Uruguay Government in a subtle way to support Israel’s stance. Another newspaper article described the Meeting as an “anti-Israeli” forum.
Other speakers today focused on efforts by Palestinian and Israeli civil society to resolve the conflict peacefully, through non-violence and education.
For example, Abdullah Abu Rahma, Coordinator of the Bil’in, Ramallah-based Popular Committee against the Wall, recounted how his organization had joined with Israeli and foreign activities since 2005 to organize weekly non-violent demonstrations to protest Israel’s separation wall that cut through his and other West Bank villages. The protestors invoked the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion that declared the wall illegal, and continued their non-violent resistance despite being fired on by Israeli soldiers and jailed by the Israeli authorities.
Elisenda Balleste Buxo, Professor and Director of the Bachelor in International Relations Programme of the Puebla, Mexico-based Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, pointed to joint Israeli-Palestinian efforts to teach both sides of the story. For example, the Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam school in Israel had created a bilingual, Arabic-Hebrew curriculum for Palestinian and Jewish children, in which they learned about each other’s traditions. “This school is a clear example of how to develop strong community links between the two nations,” she said, adding that it would “create leaders that will be more inclined to peaceful co-existence and maybe someday peace.”
Today’s meeting featured two panel discussions. The morning panel on the “perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Latin America and the Caribbean” was chaired by Carmen Zilia Perez Mazon, Cuba’s Ambassador to Uruguay representing the other Vice-Chairman of the Chairman. Speaking in that session were Mario Casartelli, an Asuncion-based journalist, writer and author of “Palestine: The key between the rocks”; Mr. Brieger; Ms. Balleste; and Mr. Armengol.
The afternoon panel on “bringing civil society together to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process” was chaired by Arlene Clemesha, Member of the International Coordinating Network on Palestine. It featured presentations by Mr. Abu Rahma; Lina Maria Eraso Quintero, Project Director of the Mexico City-based Centre for Civic Partnership; Mr. Lumerman; Mr. Ferreira; and Ruben Elias, President of the Montevideo-based Commission of Support for the Palestinian People-Uruguay.
Ricardo Gonzalez Arenas, General Director of Political Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay, also made opening remarks in the morning.
RICARDO GONZALEZ ARENAS, General Director of Political Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay, said Uruguay’s aim in hosting the Meeting was to achieve peace. He expressed hope that the debate would contribute to further understanding between the Israelis and the Palestinians and help restart the peace process. There could be no peace without the existence of two sovereign States that would implement the commitments. On 15 March 2011, Uruguay recognized Palestine as an independent, sovereign State, after a long, progressive process to strengthen Uruguay’s bonds with the Palestinian Authority. Two days ago, Uruguay and the Palestinian Authority established diplomatic relations and opened representative offices in Ramallah and Montevideo.
He condemned all terrorist attacks, which only threatened peaceful co-existence. He supported the two-year Palestinian state-building plan. Civil society played a fundamental role in strengthening a debate to encourage political players to restart negotiations and in building a culture of peace. Civil society increasingly played a constructive role in conflict resolution, and its influence was growing internationally, including in intergovernmental bodies. It had also an important role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He hoped that the Israelis and Palestinians could work together on a path toward understanding and peace.
ZAHIR TANIN (Afghanistan), Vice Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, expressed hope that the presentations today would stimulate robust discussion that would inspire stronger efforts toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. During the conference on Middle East peace held earlier this month in San Jose, Costa Rica, participants adopted a final declaration that stressed Latin America’s crucial role in enlarging the global constituency for Middle East peace and its peacemaking process. He echoed that sentiment, and said civil society — including Latin America’s Palestinian and Jewish communities — also had an important role to play in the regard.
More people of Palestinian origin lived in Chile than in Lebanon or Egypt, he said. More Jews lived in Buenos Aires than in the Israeli city of Beersheba. But, unlike in Israel and Palestine, Jews and Palestinians in Latin America are not separated by a concrete wall. They did not attack or fear each other. There were lessons to be learned from that.
Perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Latin America and the Caribbean
MARIO CASARTELLI, an Asuncion-based journalist, writer and author of “Palestine: The key between the rocks”, began by telling the story of indigenous farmers in Paraguay whose land had been stolen by powerful landowners. Instead of returning the land to the farmers, the landowners said they would negotiate with the farmers first and then return the land, which they never did. Because of the landowners’ influence on the local media, news stories gave biased coverage in their favour about the dispute. He asked what the case would be had the indigenous farmers been the powerful ones. He saw similarities in the indigenous Paraguayan farmers fighting the invading powerful landowners and the Palestinians struggling against an occupier.
All of Latin America, except Colombia, had recognized the State of Palestine, he said. That was not just a symbol, it was a significant first step, he said, stressing that all great events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, had started off as dreams. Government representatives of both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were invited to participate in the Meeting, although those from the Israeli side had chosen not to come. But the conflict was not just about those two sides. Everyone had a stake in the peace process. Depending on how it was presented, information could either instigate and justify wars, or foster peace. Powerful media had a role in manipulating, magnifying or minimizing certain events. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was not a religious war; it was a war over land.
Ordinary Israelis and Palestinians he had interviewed believed peace was possible if moderate voices were listened to and were allowed to make decisions, he said. But their leaders thus far had been unable to make that goal a reality. Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., he said peace was not the absence of tension; it was the presence of justice. It must be based on international law, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must prevail. It must be a peace in which leaders respected the rights of those they governed. Peace should be a global concept. The occupation was a violent invasion that could only beget violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the occupation would end when the Palestinians gave up their struggle. On the contrary, peace would prevail when colonization ended.
The Palestinian diaspora suffered greatly, while its land was occupied by others, and it was subjected to a separation wall, checkpoints, and scarce access to water, medicine, jobs, and education, he said. Jews had also suffered in the past, and had also been victims. But their descendants had forgotten that past. He wondered to what extent it was possible to understand another person’s suffering, and to put oneself in the shoes of another person. That was essential to achieve peace and justice.
PEDRO BRIEGER, a Buenos Aires-based journalist and sociologist, discussed inconsistencies in media coverage of the two-day United Nations Latin American and Caribbean Meeting in Support of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace. For example, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had quoted the Secretary-General at yesterday’s Meeting, but Ban Ki-Moon had not attended the event. An article published yesterday in the Uruguayan newspaper El Pais focused mainly on claims that Israel would closely scrutinize the Meeting and the speech of Uruguay’s Foreign Minister, as if to persuade or pressure the Uruguay Government in a subtle way to support Israel’s stance. El Pais also quoted a speaker as having asked for a boycott of Israel. But the speaker, in fact, had only asked for a boycott of products produced in Israeli settlements.
An Uruguayan television station quoted the Israeli Ambassador to Uruguay as saying that the two-day Meeting was not organized by the United Nations and that it was an “anti-Israeli” event, he said. Uruguayan newspaper Ultimas Noticias gave coverage to the Israeli Ambassador only, as if no Palestinian officials had spoken. A columnist in the Uruguayan paper Republica also described the Meeting as an “anti-Israeli” forum. He spoke of the tendency to claim that anything that did not support Israel was anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli. On the other hand, an article published a few days ago in Haaretz stated the Arab Peace Initiative was another lost opportunity for Israel.
Such examples illustrated Israel’s influence on the media worldwide, he said. A European Union conference on Libya was held a few days ago in London. Neither Libya nor any Latin American country had been invited, but the media coverage of that event referred to the efforts and declarations of the “international community”. The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People should take note of the important role and work of the Non-Aligned Movement and groups in other regions in helping to advance peace in the Middle East.
ELISENDA BALLESTE BUXO, Professor and Director of the Bachelor in International Relations Programme of the Puebla, Mexico-based Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, said: “Educate the children so you won’t have to punish them.” Education taught people about the concepts of peace, acceptance, tolerance, respect and fairness, which were extremely important in understanding such conflicts as the Israeli-Palestinian one. Academic institutions had great influence over Government decision-making, particularly in Israel, where they were subsidized to research national security. In some cases, they tried to validate Government action that was not well regarded by the international community or that discriminated against the Palestinians.
At the same time, Palestinian institutions had boycotted any form of cooperation with Israeli scholars, impeding the possibility for joint academic cooperation to resolve the conflict, she said. Local and international scholars had analyzed from different perspectives the two-State solution, the possibility of a binational State, Israel’s democratic processes, and Palestine’s democratic processes, among other topics, to encourage a just, lasting peace. But they all used traditional methodology, which did not allow them to analyze the conflict from another perspective, and which excluded important actors like civil society.
Moreover, they had not studied key concepts such as peace that would shed light on each party’s perception of the conflict, she said. From the internationalist perspective, peace meant no war. But that perspective had evolved to go beyond the absence of an armed conflict to include deeper processes such as peacekeeping. School textbooks also perpetuated a negative image of “the other”, which bred intolerance.
She pointed, however, to efforts to tell both sides of the story in primary school textbooks, citing the work of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. Another school, Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, which had scant support from the Israeli Ministry of Education, had developed a bilingual, Arabic-Hebrew curriculum for Palestinian and Jewish children. They learned about each other’s traditions and celebrated religious holidays together. “This school is a clear example of how to develop strong community links between the two nations,” she said, adding that it would “create leaders that will be more inclined to peaceful co-existence and maybe someday peace.”
Non-governmental organizations also had an important role in education, she said. She cited the Fund of the Holy Land Bethlehem, which promoted non-violent resistance to end the occupation of the West Bank, proposed a democratic Palestine and condemned terrorist attacks perpetuated by Palestinians on Israeli civilians. It sought to improve the lives of Palestinian children through its peace and reconciliation youth programme. In addition, Israeli and Palestinian authorities alike must do their part and stop sponsoring academic institutions that validated their policies.
PEDRO ARMENGOL, Executive Director of the Brasilia-based Unified Workers Central, Brazil’s main national trade union, said the Union had worked to liberate the working class against imperialist forces. It has always stood in solidarity with the Palestinian people and their just right to liberation and it had relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). On 28 January 2011, the Union issued a declaration in solidarity with the Palestinians, condemned Israel’s occupation policies that violated United Nations resolutions and international law, and recognized the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons and the destruction of Palestinian homes.
“We urge unions, social and popular movements to create a boycott campaign and sanction the occupation policies,” he said. During the second half of 2011, the Union would sponsor in Brazil a conference in solidarity with the Palestinian people. He encouraged all unions and civil society organizations to participate.
He regretted that Israel was the third largest consumer of arms, and opposed the free-trade agreement signed between the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and Israel. He condemned continued violation of human rights in Palestine and the brutal attack last year on the Freedom Flotilla, a convey of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza in an attempt to break Israel’s siege on Gaza, which included a Brazilian citizen on board.
Bringing civil society together to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process
ABDALLAH ABU RAHMA, Coordinator of the Bil’in, Ramallah-based Popular Committee against the Wall, recounted the story of his West Bank village’s non-violent resistance to the Israeli separation wall that cut through the village. On 14 March 2011, he was released from an Israeli jail after serving 15 months for organizing weekly demonstrations, attended regularly by scores of unarmed Palestinians, Israeli and foreign activists, against the 760-kilometre wall. He paid tribute to the 7,000 other Palestinians that remained behind bars.
In February 2005, he said he and other villagers formed the Popular Committee after Israel began building the wall, which cut off Bil’in’s water resources and land, destroying the livelihood of local farmers. Other West Bank villages also formed Popular Committees, which used the Internet and news media to spread the word about their non-violent resistance. They invoked international law, and the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion, which declared the wall illegal. Israeli soldiers responded violently to the peaceful protests — a move which “gave us power.” As a result 5,000 people were injured and 50 killed by Israeli bullets, including two members of Mr. Abu’s family; 500 were arrested. Since 2005, Mr. Abu had been arrested four times.
In 2009, human rights groups and officials, including European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Catherine Ashton, expressed concern for Mr. Abu’s welfare and the Popular Committees’ cause, he said. In 2008, the Berlin-based International League for Human Rights awarded him the Carl Von Ossietzky Medal for Outstanding Service in the Realization of Basic Human Rights. He then showed the Meeting the film “Bil’in in My Love”, which documented his village’s non-violent resistance and that of other West Bank villages. The film was available at http://www.bilin-village.org.
LINA MARIA ERASO QUINTERO, Project Director of the Mexico City-based Centre for Civic Partnerships, said her organization worked on conflict resolution. After seeing the video, she asked if violence would continue to increase. She called on Latin American and Caribbean groups that spoke out about conflict to organize for a peaceful resolution through dialogue. Her organization acted as a facilitator of multi-stakeholder dialogue in Mexico on public security and human rights. That was a major concern in Mexico, where violence related to drug trafficking had already claimed the lives of 35,000 people.
Dialogue was not easy, she said. It awakened great passion and rattled nerves. But it could bring together people of vastly different perspectives to reach a common objective and understand their interdependence. It also gave civil society leaders the ability to positively influence Government. Once dialogue advanced, it would be difficult and counterproductive to return to violence. Dialogue was particularly important for diaspora communities.
PABLO LUMERMAN, Director of the Buenos Aires-based Foundation for Democratic Change, stressed the importance of non-violent resistance in the Middle East. He saw parallels between the struggle of the Palestinian people and that of other diasporas. He stressed the importance of forging interreligious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural dialogue. He was an Argentine Jew. He and other members of the Jewish and Arab Argentine communities had formed a “Group of Cousins” to work together to export peace to Israel and Palestine. It was working to create a path for people of all religious persuasions in the Holy Land. Civil society’s work must complement that of Governments. It could contribute strongly to peace. He invited everyone present to continue discussing solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
JUAN RAUL FERREIRA, President of the Montevideo-based Uruguay-Israel Cultural Institute, also stressed the importance of interreligious and multi-ethnic dialogue. He was Jewish. His children were part Arab. Dialogue between people of opposing views was useful even in situations when they did not reach agreement because it forced people at least to hear the views of the other. It was timely that the Meeting was being held in Uruguay, where there was religious tolerance and the ability of opposing political parties to freely express their views. Uruguayan State policy called for embracing any peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Uruguay could and should export its tradition of religious and political tolerance and co-existence to other parts of the world. He called on all civil society organizations to actively work together to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
RUBEN ELIAS, President, Commission for Support of the Palestinian People in Uruguay, said peace could not exist if it was not fair. It required several steps. At the end of the 21st century there were two paradigms that could not be ignored: human, economic, social and cultural rights, and the rights of the environment. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was rooted in the breach of all of those rights. The response to it was driven by the conscience of people that supported what they considered just and condemned what they believed violated human rights. There were lessons to be learned from the slow, painful process of rebuilding societies in Latin America following its own dark period of dictatorships, State terror and disappearance. There were always two sides of the story.
Israel was not a democracy, he said. The Israeli Government said it wanted peace, but it continued building settlements, engaging in genocide and committing crimes against humanity in the form of murder and other human rights violations against the Palestinians. The Palestinian people’s right to return was still valid today. Israel was preaching human rights but it was not practicing what it preached. He condemned all violations against the Palestinian people. Civil society must be pro-active to enable people to overcome their situation. He called on the international community to boycott Israel as it boycotted South Africa in protest of its previous racist apartheid Government.
ZAHIR TANIN (Afghanistan), Vice Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, wrapping up the Meeting, said in hearing from the speakers’ experiences, analyses and strategies for achieving peace, the Committee saw that the physical distance between Latin America and the Middle East was not an issue. The Committee stood behind their efforts and encouraged them to keep working toward a just, lasting peace. It would catalogue their actions and reports in the “NGO Action News” newsletter produced by the United Nations Secretariat’s Division for Palestinian Rights. He encouraged civil society to stay connected with each other and the United Nations by joining the Committee’s civil society network. Groups could apply for accreditation through the Division for Palestinian Rights’ website.