|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Israeli Settlements ‘Removable Obstacle’ to Peace, as Many West Bank Settlers
Would Be Willing to Evacuate under Right Terms, Asia-Pacific Meeting Told
Panellist Says Japanese Non-governmental Organizations Trying to Restrict Import
Of Products Made in Settlements, Promote Palestinian Goods in Japan, Asian Markets
BANGKOK, 11 July — Settlements were “a removable obstacle”, and of the 130,000 settlers in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, to be evacuated in order to create the Palestinian State, most would be willing to do so in return for generous compensation by the Israeli Government, the United Nations Asian and Pacific Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace heard this morning.
On day two, the Meeting was again gripped with the issue of settlements as the main obstacle to the two-State solution, focusing on their illegality under international law, ensuring the viability of the State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, as well as political efforts to break the status quo.
Panellists included Iain Scobbie, Professor, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; Hind Khoury, former General Delegate of Palestine to France and former Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, Palestinian Authority; Li Guofu, Senior Research Fellow, China Institute of International Studies, Beijing; Taro Kono, Member of the House of Representatives of Japan in Tokyo; Nidal Foqaha, Director-General, Palestinian Peace Coalition — Geneva Initiative, Ramallah; and Gadi Baltiansky, Director-General, Geneva Initiative in Israel, Tel Aviv.
Mr. Baltiansky said there were several well-known obstacles to peace, including a lack of courage among the leaders looking to postpone the hard decisions; pessimism; the Palestinian split between the West Bank and Gaza; the Israeli settlement policy; and, perhaps more than anything, a “deep and deepening scepticism that peace is at all possible”. That was a self-fulfilling prophecy, which discouraged any action that might bring change.
As for the issue of settlements, he said that was a “removable obstacle”. According to the model proposed by the Geneva Initiative, close to 130,000 settlers out of 325,000 in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, would have to be evacuated in order to create the Palestinian State. Some would do so willingly in return for a generous compensation by the Government. A small minority might oppose evacuation, perhaps even violently, but the State of Israel would be “strong enough to deal with such resistance”.
Yet, he said, every supporter of the two-State solution should oppose the existing trend of adding about 2,000 housing units per year in settlements. Even so, opposition to settlement construction was not enough, especially when 70 per cent of Israelis and Palestinians were convinced that the chance of peace in the next five years was “slim to non-existent”. Nevertheless, more than 60 per cent on both sides supported the two-State solution along well-known parameters: a non-militarized Palestine based on 1967 lines with mutual land swaps and East Jerusalem as the capital and “Jewish Jerusalem” as the capital of Israel; detailed security arrangements; a fair and agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem; and mutual recognition and agreement on the end of claims and conflict. Those were actually also the parameters of the Geneva Initiative.
Moreover, he warned, the conventional wisdom that peace was not doable in the coming years was “wrong as well as dangerous”, he said, adding that the only way to predict the future was to shape it. Political efforts aimed at breaking the status quo was the recipe. Out of 193 United Nations Member States, close to 30 per cent were from the Asia-Pacific region. That important bloc could not remain indifferent. Recent developments in the Middle East showed that words could be followed by deeds. If the “old and new” Arab world reintroduced the Arab Peace Initiative and emphasized once again that peace with the Palestinians meant for Israel full normalization with the entire neighbourhood and beyond, then the message for the Israeli public would be very clear: “if you don’t give up, it makes it hard, if not impossible for us to do so.”
Not giving up could be demonstrated, for example, through the passage of a Security Council resolution calling for a two-State solution based on the previously mentioned parameters, he said. He was against an imposed solution, but thought it was a good idea to “push our leaders to a place, perhaps even to a physical space, where they will have to take their decisions”. If peace in the Middle East was in the interest of the region, the continent and the world, no one could remain silent.
Viewing the settlements issue through a legal prism, Mr. Scobbie discussed, among other things, their illegality in international law, noting that Article 49 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (Fourth Geneva Convention), to which Israel was a party, said, “The occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” When the International Court of Justice addressed the applicability of that Convention in the occupied territories and the legality of settlements, it ruled that the Convention applied to any armed conflict between the high contracting parties and that it was irrelevant whether a territory occupied during that conflict was under the sovereignty of one or other of the combatants. The Court found that Israel’s settlement policy was in breach of the Convention’s Article 49. It was well-established that settlement of occupied territory by the nationals of the occupying Power was unlawful.
Asserting that the settlements breached the fundamental values of the international legal system, he detailed the United Nations response to settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which essentially began with a 1968 General Assembly resolution and its reference to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Assembly first mentioned settlements expressly in a text in 1971, noting that the Israeli authorities were not complying with that Convention. Later, by its resolution 66/225, the Assembly reaffirmed the applicability of the Convention to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and other Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967. He noted references by the Assembly to construction of the wall as being contrary to international law and seriously depriving the Palestinian people of their natural resources.
As a result of the Security Council’s failure to adopt resolutions condemning the settlements — the last such text was in June 1980 — because of the use of the veto by the United States, the Assembly convened its tenth emergency special session in March 1997 to take up the matter, he recalled. Generally, the Council had been “less assiduous” than the Assembly in taking action on the settlements, but it had affirmed that the Fourth Geneva Convention was applicable to the Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem, and determined in that same resolution 446 of 22 March 1979 that the settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 “have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East”. The United States, which had referred to the settlement activity as “illegitimate” as opposed to “illegal”, indicated that its policy was predicated on a shared belief with Israel that the conflict should be resolved by Israelis and Palestinians alone, and that “even the best intentioned outsiders cannot solve it for them”.
Mr. Scobbie also discussed the role of the United Nations Human Rights Council, stating that despite the Security Council’s inability to engage on the settlements issue, other United Nations bodies were doing so. Nevertheless, he said, the Government of Israel “continues to deny that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies as a matter of law to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, despite rulings by its own Supreme Court that, since 1967, Israel had been holding the West Bank “in belligerent occupation”. Further, the Israeli Government had consistently challenged the status of the Palestinian Territory as occupied, referring to it instead as “administered” or “disputed”.
Ms. Khoury said there was an urgency to salvage the two-State solution. Some Israeli leaders realized there were not that many alternatives to the peace process if they wanted to maintain a Jewish State. As the new leader of the Israeli political party Kadima had said, “The greatest threat to the State of Israel is not nuclear Iran, but that Israel might one day cease to be a Jewish State, because Palestinians could outvote Jews. So it is in Israel’s interest that a Palestinian State be created.”
In that context, she said, the Israeli Government’s aggressive pursuit of colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem was a clear message that Israel was not interested in completing the peace process, but rather in maintaining it, in order to continue to change the reality on the ground to fit its own policies. The viability of a future Palestinian State would require land and other natural resources, the presence and well-being of its people, and clear sovereign borders. It was the duty of the international community to ensure that none of those elements were forgotten or compromised in the peace process.
She distributed a paper which she said showed how Israel, through its colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, was jeopardizing those three elements, grabbing the very land it should constitute as the Palestinian State, thereby rendering the two-State solution a “non-option”. Israel had continued to usurp the land, water and other natural and economic resources, rendering the Palestinian people’s daily lives extremely difficult, economically unsustainable, and devoid of their most basic human rights. Jerusalem had become a kind of “human warehouse”. Israel was also trying to ensure full control of all borders.
Israel wished, she said, to establish a Palestinian State according to its own terms: truncated, non-viable and under Israel’s complete control. An analysis of the colonization programme and its infrastructure showed that Israel was willing to provide Palestinians a limited autonomy on scattered parts of the Occupied Territory as a solution to what it called the “demographic threat”. That strategy aimed to force Palestinians to accept Israel’s terms, eventually enabling it to pursue ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population and further control the demography and land, even after any peace agreement.
Absent accountability by the international community, Israel was encouraged to pursue its colonization programme unabated, in total violation and full breach of international law, she said. People of the Middle East, and specifically Palestinians, had paid a high price for that lack of accountability. It was high time that Israel’s violations of international law be halted once and for all. Members of the international community had the task, not only to salvage a sustainable solution, but to restore credibility to the body of international law.
“Time is not on our side,” she declared. Settlement expansion must cease immediately. The negotiations needed clear terms of reference to resume, and a calendar should be set to establish the Palestinian State. Achieving that was the duty of the United Nations, which had partitioned historic Palestine and had been trying to apply Security Council resolution 242 (1967) for 45 years. Palestinian leadership had made huge and painful compromises, agreeing to a reduced version of their State in order to complete the peace process, and its State-building exercise was admired worldwide. “Establishing the Palestinian State in the framework of the two-State solution will save the peace in the Middle East and the credibility of the international governance system”, she concluded.
Noting that China’s Ambassador yesterday had expressed the Government’s and people’s attitudes and position with regard to the Palestinian issue, Mr. Guofu said China had been among the first countries to have fully supported the Palestinians since 1964 and, despite geopolitical changes, could still assure its Palestinian friends that “China’s position will never change under any circumstances.” The settlements issue was clear to all in the international community. Whenever there was any sign of hope, there was a consensus among all Chinese scholars, but they were also cautious, because in a few days, that optimism could quickly turn to pessimism. He believed the issue would be solved, but in the short-term, the prospect was “very gloomy”.
He said the Palestinian issue of the past 60 years could be divided into two stages, the first being a period of mutual denial and military violence between the two sides. The second period was one of negotiations. However, after more than two decades, expectations had not borne out. In fact, after Oslo, Israeli society and the political forces in that society had been moving towards a more right-wing approach. After the second Intifada, it could be said that there was no more “left” in the political wing and its strength had so diminished.
Today, he said, Israelis did not feel any urgency to solve the problems. Israel had withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, the wall was being built, there had been almost no suicide bombing cases last year, so Israelis did not feel they had to undertake any initiatives, or “take anything from their pockets to reach agreements”. The timing was not suitable for an accord; they said Mahmoud Abbas was too weak and there was an ongoing debate with the United States and Israeli leadership over which issue should come first — the Palestinian one or the Iranian nuclear matter. Israel had indicated to the United States that before it solved the latter issue, it could not expect Israel to make any concessions on the Palestinian peace process. So the urgency of the Palestinian issue had been “greatly weakened” in the past year or two.
Finally, he said, there was a deeply-rooted belief among the moderates to prevent any progress because Israel would never give in to Palestinian demands, they said. On the other side, Palestinians would never agree to anything Israel was willing to give. Thus, the gap was widening as new settlements were springing up daily in the West Bank. Everyone from both sides knew the issues clearly, and one thing was clear: the need for a two-State solution. Privately, most people were convinced that that was the only way if Israel was to remain a democratic State of Jewish character. Furthermore, there was simply not enough space for the Palestinians to build their own country. A message should be sent to Israel that the Palestinians were not losing interest in that solution, and the international community should be reminded of its responsibility to put the Palestinian issue in the headlines daily.
Mr. Kono said he was very disappointed at the absence of the Japanese Ambassador to Thailand at the Meeting. He had been told that he was the first Japanese politician to have attended a meeting organized by the Palestinian Rights Committee.
The Japanese Government, he said, believed that settlements were illegal and violated the Oslo Accords. “But it stops right there.” The “old-school” Japanese diplomats were not about to anger the American Government, although young parliamentarians felt Japan should step up its presence in the peace process. Japan was essentially free of religion, and it had no special relationship whatsoever with any communities in the region, so it could become an honest broker in the Middle East. It had no colonial history there, and no relationship with the Holocaust or any pogroms. It did not sell weapons to other countries, so it did not make any money from the region. It did have a military agreement with the United States, so it could “talk” to the White House and agree to disagree on Middle East issues. At the same time, the Japanese economy was totally dependent on Middle East oil, so its economy depended on that region’s stability.
He also highlighted a phenomenon known as the “Japanese baby in Palestine”, which was a Japanese law that stated a baby born to Palestinian parents in Japan would be given Japanese nationality. That meant his Government had to “secure” them, meaning if something was happening in the West Bank or Gaza, Japan was automatically involved.
Japan had no veto power at the United Nations, he went on to say, adding that it therefore did not “derail anything there”. It was also one of Palestine’s largest donors. The diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East peace process, for example, should be a Quintet, with Japan’s direct involvement. Moreover, his country had given aid to support Palestinian water resources, to construct and maintain the sewage system, and for renewable energy resources in the West Bank. He described one flagship project called the “Corridor for Peace and Prosperity”, which involved construction of an agro-industrial park in Jericho. It was working closely with the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Jordan to make that a success. He hoped the project would alleviate some so-called “eastern segregation”, he added.
Importantly, he noted, Japanese non-governmental organizations were promoting Palestinian products in Japan and the wider Asian market. They were trying to identify products made in the settlements. Since the Japanese Government was not introducing such a bill, the thinking was to introduce a “private-members bill” to Parliament to restrict import of products made in the settlements. Yesterday, a speaker had said that the settlements’ economy was strongly intertwined with the Israeli economy and, thus, restrictions or sanctions on settlement products alone would not be effective. That might be so, but “we will start with products made in the settlements and we will see how it goes.”
Mr. Foqaha said the settlements rendered the creation of a sovereign and viable Palestinian State “impossible”. When it came to Jerusalem, it highlighted the Israeli policies of displacement and isolation. Israel’s isolation of occupied East Jerusalem had many devastating ramifications, for example, it disconnected Palestinian families from their relatives in other cities; obstructed business transactions and undermined commercial activities; and denied Palestinians their basic right to freedom of worship by denying Palestinian Christians and Muslims access to their holiest religious sites.
He said that in the last two years, settlement construction, including housing and infrastructure, had accelerated at an “unprecedented” rate throughout the West Bank, particularly in and around occupied East Jerusalem. That was part of an alarming trend, which had been ongoing for the past three years, during which Israel, the occupying Power, had been responsible for the addition of some 28,000 new housing units in Israel’s illegal settlements across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The average Israeli family had 3.7 members. With that in mind, those units could house at least 103,600 new settlers.
Israel’s settlement regime was inconsistent with a two-State solution, he said, adding that Palestinians would not engage in negotiations without a full settlement freeze. That was not a Palestinian precondition, but an Israeli obligation per, among other things, the Road Map. If Israel did not consider the Road Map to be binding, then it should state so explicitly. The settlements enterprise delegitimized negotiations and the peace process. Their continuation violated the Road Map, sabotaged the Palestinian efforts to build State institutions and seriously impeded any future evacuation.
He said to break the status quo required the following: a freeze of settlement activities by the Israeli Government; an agreement on borders and security; and turning Area “C”, which constituted approximately 60 per cent of the Palestinian Territory) to “B” or “A”, or implementation of a comprehensive development plan for that area, which would maintain its Palestinian identity and create geographic integrity for the future Palestinian State.
Representatives of non-governmental organizations and the media, many from the Asian-Pacific region, took the floor in the discussion that followed, raising such questions as the definition of the international community. That concept, said the speaker, was always used to the detriment of the Palestinians. It seemed that “the international community” referred to the United States and those that agreed with it or were its “lap dogs”, such as the European Union.
He said, “An air of defeatism has descended on the conference,” adding that the major campaign by civil society should not be underestimated. Non-violent resistance was the most effective resistance to the occupation and the only realistic path, because Israel was the fourth largest military might in the world and the eighth largest arms-dealing nation. If those countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause joined the civil society campaign, along with all the Arab nations, then “we would see some changes in the status quo,” he said.
The issue of apartheid was also raised, as one speaker said he was “shocked” to hear that Israelis did not know there was something “seriously wrong” there.
Among the responses, panellists said there might be a thousand days of failure, but there would be one day of success. Politically, these were the dark days in terms of the prospects for peace, but it was in the dark when one needed a flashlight. That was why the peace campaign in Israel and the voices here were so important. In the short-term, they said, the situation was very bleak, owing to a lack of political will. Despite that, there were many solidarity movements around the world, and justice would prevail. Since Governments were not taking action, civil society was, in the form of a rights-based campaign. Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole was a very young population, and it was not going to give up its rights.
As for the international community, for too long, a super-Power had made all the decisions and stood strongly behind Israel, said a panellist, suggesting that the world, fortunately, was becoming more “multilateralist”.
The Meeting will reconvene at 3 p.m. today to continue and conclude its programme.
* *** *For information media • not an official record