Symposium Work Programme
The North American Non-governmental Organizations (NGO) Symposium on the Question of Palestine met this afternoon to begin its three-day session on the theme, "Thirty years of occupation -- looking ahead towards self-determination and statehood". It has been convened under the auspices of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.
The Symposium aims to mobilize NGO action in support of Palestinian rights and in meeting needs for reconstruction and nation-building during the transitional period, in light of the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements and subsequent agreements signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). (For further background information, see Press Release GA/PAL/757 of 5 June.)
HAIDER ABDEL SHAFI, a member of the Palestinian Council, said that since the start of the peace process, there had been an Israeli redeployment outside the main cities and some refugee camps. Israel remained an occupier in control of over 90 per cent of the West Bank and 30 per cent of the Gaza Strip, yet it was shirking its responsibility. Israel had an obligation to provide means for the occupied people to make a living, but by extending blockades and restricting movements, it was doing just the opposite.
While the pretext of security was valid in principle, Israel could not claim both security and territory at the same time, he said. Israel often invoked the question of terrorism to justify its illegal actions, which violated international norms and human rights principles. On the surface such claims and actions seemed logical and permissible. However, it was clear that Israel's lack of respect for the terms of peace and its continued rejection of Palestinian rights were the real underlying factors of the security problem.
Democratic governments deserved blame for maintaining an attitude of waiting in the face of Israeli violations of international principles and United Nations resolutions, he said. Although Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories had been judged repeatedly to be illegal and an obstruction to peace, the democratic world did not force Israel to stop, even though it possessed the needed leverage. The democratic world should abandon its stance of apathy and helplessness in the face of Israeli intransigence.
The prospects for self-determination and statehood in the near or mid- term did not seem promising, he said. Palestinians must put their house in order through better organization, making decisions based on collective thought and choice. Although the Israeli position was an indirect call for violence, fighting was not a present option for Palestinians. If Palestinian society was democratized, it could achieve greater steadfastness, reflect a better image, and gain more sympathy and respect. The movement to build democracy in the occupied territories needed the support of non-governmental organizations.
The Symposium then began its first panel, which will consider the theme, "Key issues of a just and comprehensive settlement of the question of Palestine". Issues to be discussed include Israeli settlements, the question of Jerusalem, Palestine refugees and displaced persons.
GEOFFREY ARONSON, Director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and editor of the "Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories", spoke on the issue of Israeli settlements. He said it appeared that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was embarking on a quickened pace of settlement expansion after his first year in office. The Israeli press had quoted a United States government report which stated that there were no fewer than 9,000 housing units in various stages of planning, not including the new housing units in Jabal Abu Ghneim. Of those 9,000 units, perhaps as few as 2,500 units had been approved with some degree of finality by Israeli authorities. That represented construction at a similar pace as what was carried out under earlier Israeli administrations.
The extent of settlement expansion was constrained by factors over which the Government had no or little control, he went on to say. Those factors included the state of Israel's economy, as well as absence of demand which dominated Israel's housing market from 1992 to 1996. That had been a result of the arrival of almost 500,000 new Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union.
Recently, the Israeli press published Prime Minister Netanyahu's secret map for the final status of the West Bank, he said. It represented a refashioning of the process and timetable that he had inherited from his predecessors one year ago. The Prime Minister was moving the agenda away from the issue of deployments and towards Jerusalem and the settlements. The map also indicated the beginning of the battle over the borders of a "greater Israel". The map was faithful to a number of Israel's longstanding geo- political principles, including the demand for defensible borders and strategic superiority throughout the territory, expansion of the territorial bridge linking Jerusalem to the Israeli coast; and the expansion of metropolitan Jerusalem.
Rev. NAIM ATEEK, Canon of St. George's Episcopal Cathedral and Director of SABEEL Liberation Theology Centre, Jerusalem, speaking on the question of Jerusalem, said the city was unique. It was the only place where the three Abrahamic and monotheistic faiths lived side by side, close to their holy sites. However, Jerusalem was being stripped of its inclusivity and dressed in a new garb to serve one people, a people in power, who refused to accept a history other than its own. Jerusalem encapsulated the whole conflict.
The Israeli Government had lost its moral fibre, he said. It wanted to impose its will on the Palestinians, whether by military actions and killing people, or around the negotiating table. It wanted to achieve its expansionist policies by devouring Palestinian land and preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state and the sharing of Jerusalem. Israel was unwilling to feel the pain of its Palestinian neighbour.
In the face of demographic and structural changes and with Israel's clear political intent, what could be done for Jerusalem? he asked. The answer was to bring resolution of the issue back to the United Nations. The United States and the Russian Federation had been incapable of solving the conflict equitably. It was ironic, and even tragic, that the United States insisted on maintaining sanctions against Iraq until it complied with United Nations resolutions, while Israel, without any sanctions, persisted in flouting other resolutions of the Organization. According to those texts, all unilateral steps by Israel since 1967 regarding Jerusalem were null and void. The establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, on the whole of the West Bank and Gaza and with East Jerusalem as its capital, was the only formula for a viable and secure peace.
The international community must stand up for what was right, he said. Israel must be challenged to realize that it could only survive as a state if it acted justly. The Palestinian presence in Jerusalem and in the whole of Palestine must be strengthened through the provision of suitable housing, employment opportunities, better schooling and a higher standard of living. Palestinian Christians and Muslims, especially those having a Jerusalem identity card, should return to live in the city.
He said the Palestinian community must be reinforced through the promotion of harmonious values and religious tolerance. Human rights must be protected and the rule of law and personal freedoms strengthened. Sadly, Jerusalem was being shaped along the lines of discrimination, racism and exclusiveness. That should be repudiated. History had taught that no one group could ever exclusively possess Jerusalem.
EITAN FELNER, Executive Director of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in Jerusalem, said the history of Jerusalem over 30 years of Israeli occupation had been one of dispossession, systematic and deliberate discrimination, and a consistent assault on the dignity and basic rights of its Palestinians residents. A cornerstone in city planning decisions was the maintenance of the demographic superiority of its Jewish population. The objective of maintaining the "demographic balance", as it was euphemistically called by Israeli officials, was to overcome the natural rate of increase of the Palestinian population -- which was a "demographic problem" in the lexicon of Israeli planning officials.
Over the years, all Israeli Governments had affirmed that goal as a guiding principle, he said. As a result, Israel's planning policy was designed to encourage Jewish immigration to and Palestinian emigration from Jerusalem. The massive construction of Jewish neighbourhoods on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem was one of the most overt aspects of that policy. Since 1967, Israel had expropriated more than one third of the land in East Jerusalem. While Palestinians owned most of those lands, no units were built for Palestinians, while more than 39,000 units had been built for Jews.
The cumulative effects of Israel's ongoing policy of discrimination had staggering consequences for housing conditions in the Palestinian neighbourhoods, he said. More than 27 per cent of Palestinian families in Jerusalem lived in conditions of housing density of more than three persons per room. Since Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem, the gap in housing density between the populations had dramatically increased, and the estimated shortage of housing units among Palestinians currently exceeded 20,000 residential units.
For the past 18 months, efforts by Israel to entrench its sovereignty in East Jerusalem had taken on a new character, he said. Israel's Interior Ministry has been carrying out a quiet deportation of Palestinians from East Jerusalem by revoking their residency status. Most Palestinians living in Jerusalem held the status of permanent residents. Prior to 1996, they could lose status only by living in a foreign country for more than seven years or by becoming citizens of another country. Now, Palestinians had to prove that they had never moved outside of Jerusalem and that they continued to live in the city.
He said the new policy was being implemented retroactively against persons who, over the years, had been given permits to travel abroad for extended periods and had not been warned that moving outside Jerusalem -- even to the outskirts of the city -- might cause them to lose their right to live in Jerusalem. It was a policy that blatantly discriminated between Palestinians and Israelis living in Jerusalem. Israeli citizens could leave the country for as long as they liked and always had the right to return.
ELIA ZUREIK, Professor of Sociology at Queens University, Kingston, Canada, gave a slide presentation on Palestine refugees and displaced persons. He said less than 50 per cent of an estimated worldwide Palestinian population of 8 million lived in historical Palestine. The rest lived as refugees or displaced persons. An estimated 3 million were registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Approximately 150,000, or 20 per cent of the Palestinians in Israel were internally displaced, most of whom had not been allowed back to their villages and towns. Others lived in Jordan, Syria or Lebanon. The total number of those expelled or internally displaced was 4 million.
If Israel had its way, very few Palestinian refugees or displaced persons would return home, he said. So far, very few had been able to take advantage of the peace negotiations and return to their homes. Given the rate of immigration from the Russian Federation, by the year 2005 there would be 4.8 million Palestinians living in historical Palestine compared with 5 million Israeli Jews. Since 1992, very few of the groups who became refugees or displaced persons in 1948 had been allowed to return. The Palestinian negotiators had not raised that issue for fear of antagonizing the Israelis. According to Israeli figures, some 4,000 to 6,000 refugees and displaced persons annually returned under Israel's family reunification scheme.
He said the Oslo agreement and the peace process which began in Madrid did not mention General Assembly resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948 [which provides for the repatriation or compensation of refugees]. Neither did they mention Security Council resolution 242 (1967). However, Palestinian refugees in the camps had expressed their desire to return under conditions set forth in resolution 194 (III) and did not want to see UNRWA dismantled. There was a movement to dismantle the camps under the guise of improving living conditions for refugees. While there was no denying the wretchedness of the camps, particularly in Lebanon, the issue of improving conditions without abandoning the right of return should be addressed.
NUHAD JAMMAL, of Grassroots International, asked Rev. Ateek and Mr. Felner for their comments concerning a recent advertisement in The New York Times, financed by the Christian right, which argued in favour of awarding exclusive sovereign rights over Jerusalem to the State of Israel. The advertisement said Jerusalem held a unique position in the Jewish religion.
Rev. ATEEK said the advertisement in question was really a reaction to a previous advertisement in The New York Times on the sharing of Jerusalem that was paid for by the mainline churches. The theological issues were a matter of interpretation. There was a great body of material in the Jewish religion that could be interpreted both exclusively and inclusively. His group sought to help people see the whole spirit of the text and see it as a means of bringing people together.
Mr. FELNER said sometimes residents of Jerusalem believed that the city was too crammed with symbols and history. One of the problems in addressing the question of Jerusalem was that there was a great misunderstanding of the subject. Of the territories that were now held to comprise unified Jerusalem, 51 per cent had been part of the West Bank until 1967. It had been stated that human rights were too important to leave for lawyers to decide; perhaps questions of sovereignty were too explosive to leave to religious leaders alone. Any exclusive claim to Jerusalem was illegitimate.
Mr. ABDEL SHAFI asked Mr. Aronson if the Oslo agreements permitted Israel's recent settlement activity.
Mr. ARONSON said there was an extraordinary amount of attention paid in the Oslo agreements to settlements, the legal rights of settlers, and the rights of the Israeli Government to control activities in settlements. The contradictions between Israeli settlement activity and the Oslo accords had not been recognized. One problem was that the Palestinian negotiators had not presented a determined opposition to Israeli expansion.
Mr. ZUREIK said the view that the Oslo agreements did not prohibit the expansion of settlements should not be endorsed. The agreements neither condoned nor prohibit such expansion. Under the agreement, control of the settlements clearly remained with Israel.