United Nations Counts on Diversity of Media to Shape Perceptions, Secretary-General Tells International Seminar on Peace in the Middle East
United Nations Counts on Diversity of Media to Shape Perceptions, Secretary-General Tells International Seminar on Peace in the Middle East
|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
United Nations Counts on Diversity of Media to Shape Perceptions, Secretary-General
Tells International Seminar on Peace in the Middle East
TOKYO, 9 June — In its work to foster peace in the Middle East, the United Nations counted on the diverse contributions of traditional and new media, which played a critical role in promoting transparency and shaping perceptions of the region’s most important challenges, the head of the United Nations Department of Public Information said today, as he opened a two-day international media seminar in Tokyo.
“We look forward to hearing the many different perspectives and experiences they represent,” said Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said in welcoming participants who had travelled “from near and far” to attend the International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East. The Seminar was taking place amid continuing turmoil in the Middle East, ongoing tragedy in Syria and a political stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians in United States-mediated negotiations, which challenged the prospects for a two-State solution, he said.
Delivering a message from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, he pledged that the United Nations would do all that it could to help a meaningful resumption of the peace process, and expressed regret that the intense diplomatic efforts of the last year had not yielded the desired outcome. “There is no contradiction between Palestinian reconciliation and peace negotiations,” he emphasized. “Palestinian unity is essential for the viability of any peace agreement.”
For its part, he continued, the United Nations had consistently supported efforts towards unity within the framework of commitments made by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which included recognizing Israel’s right to exist and renouncing terrorism and violence. The Organization would was committed to working with the parties and with international partners for an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian State living in peace alongside Israel, within secure and recognized borders.
In other opening comments, Hirotaka Ishihara, Japan’s Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, said his Government supported a two-State solution, a goal that could only be achieved through negotiation. Japan welcomed the formation of a new Palestinian cabinet of technocrats, as well as the commitment of President Mahmoud Abbas to non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements — the “Quartet principles”.
Also delivering opening remarks were David M. Malone, Under-Secretary-General and Rector of the United Nations University, and Takahashi Hayashita, President of Sophia University.
The International Media Seminar was established by a 1991 General Assembly resolution to provide a forum for dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian journalists, as well as others from the region, with the participation of the international community. It aims to enhance understanding between peoples and to achieve a just and lasting peace based on two States living side by side in peace and security. The Seminar was organized by the Department of Public Information in cooperation with Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sophia University.
PETER LAUNSKY-TIEFFENTHAL, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, delivered a message from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who expressed regret that intense diplomatic efforts over the last year had not yielded the desired outcome. Although negotiations had reached an impasse, that did not mean an end to diplomatic efforts. The Secretary-General had repeatedly appealed to the parties, as well as the international community to work constructively to find a meaningful path forward, using the current “pause” to consider options without taking unilateral steps that would undermine the prospects for a resumption of direct negotiations. “There is no contradiction between Palestinian reconciliation and peace negotiations,” he emphasized. “Palestinian unity is essential for the viability of any peace agreement.”
For its part, he continued, the United Nations had consistently supported efforts towards unity within the framework of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s commitments, which included recognizing Israel’s right to exist and renouncing terrorism and violence. In addition, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) continued to provide assistance and protection to some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. In that context, he expressed deep concern about the plight of Palestine refugees in Syria, who were again being displaced by conflict, with dramatic humanitarian consequences.
He said the Secretary-General was committed to working with the parties and with international partners to end the occupation that had begun in 1967, and for the establishment of a Palestinian State living in peace alongside Israel, within secure and recognized borders, and for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East. In that effort, he counted on journalists, civil society representatives, academics and policymakers, who played a critical role in promoting transparency and shaping perceptions of the world’s most important challenges.
HIROTAKA ISHIHARA, Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Japan, said his Government supported a two-State solution whereby Palestine and Israel would coexist in peace. “This is only achievable through negotiation,” he emphasized. Japan also welcomed the 2 June formation of a new cabinet of technocrats, as well as the commitment by President Mahmoud Abbas to non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements – the “Quartet principles”. Japan’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister had conveyed strong messages to the Prime Minister of Israel during his visit in May that the resumption of peace talks would benefit everyone, and that the parties should refrain from unilateral actions that would undermine the prospects for peace. Japan had also sent its Special Representative for the Middle East and Europe to exchange views with President Abbas.
Stressing the importance of laying the groundwork for a two-State solution, he said Japan had provided more than $1.44 billion to the Palestinian cause since the Oslo Accords, and had promoted the “Corridor for Peace and Prosperity”, aimed at ensuring economic independence and prosperity for Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Its flagship project, Jericho-Agro Industrial Park, had reached the stage where a Palestinian company would begin production later this year. Japan had also established the Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development to mobilize their resources and experiences. Relations between Israel and Palestine and their neighbours were also important, he said, noting that Egypt’s presidential election marked a crucial step towards political normalization in that country.
DAVID M. MALONE, Under-Secretary-General and Rector of United Nations University, Tokyo, said the United Nations had been only modestly successful — and only at the margins — in fostering peace in the Middle East. “We have no peace in the Middle East, despite many, many years of efforts,” either among or within countries, he pointed out. The region was seriously challenged, and while United Nations involvement had taken place at various levels, the peace process was among the most abstract. Regional Governments had had great difficulty engaging positively on the substance of peace, he said, asking whether the Middle East was being viewed through “the wrong end of telescope”.
Happy, inclusive societies generally tended to live in peace with each other within their neighbourhoods, he explained, encouraging participants to consider how successful regional societies had been in creating such models for themselves, rather than focusing exclusively on inter-State relations. Development was generally considered in terms of economic development, yet social development was equally important. Japan offered an example of how a society could be in harmony with itself, he said, adding that the country enjoyed excellent relations with all significant parties in the Middle East and had reached out systematically in its international relations.
TAKASHI HAYASHITA, President of Sophia University, Tokyo, noted that the school had celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013, and that 2014 marked the first time that an institution of higher learning had hosted the United Nations International Media Seminar. Sophia University was dedicated to international education and to promoting international understanding, and in order to deepen that commitment, it had recently established a new faculty of global studies, which included Middle East studies. Recalling that Pope Francis had recently visited the Middle East, praying for peace at the separation barrier, he said Sofia University fully supported his efforts with the hope that peace would finally descend on the region.
Mr. LAUNSKY-TIEFFENTHAL, said the Seminar aimed to sensitize public opinion on the question of Palestine and to examine the evolving media-related dynamics shaping events in the region, while exploring how they related to the situation between Israelis and Palestinians. Discussions would focus on the role of the media in recent events, providing an opportunity for representatives from media, civil society, policymaking and academia to share their views.
The Seminar was taking place against the backdrop of continuing turmoil in the Middle East, he said, noting that the tragedy in Syria had killed more than 100,000 people and internally displaced more than four million. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had estimated that more than 1.8 million Syrian refugees were now in neighbouring countries, and more than half of the population was in desperate need.
It had also been a difficult year in the search for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said, with the end of negotiations under the “Kerry initiative” of United States engagement. As the Secretary-General had stated, the political stalemate posed great risks to prospects for a two-State solution. Not making a choice in favour of peace and coexistence, within the two-State framework, was the most detrimental choice of all, he said. Failing to continue meaningful negotiations towards the two-State solution would lead further down the path of a one-State reality on the ground.
The Secretary-General continued to stress that settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were illegal under international law, he continued, also underlining that demolishing Palestinian households and other property contravened Israel’s obligation to protect civilians under its occupation. In addition, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was a profound concern, and steps must be taken to improve conditions in the enclave and to ensure a complete opening of crossings into the area, including Rafah, to allow for legitimate trade and the movement of people. At the same time, violence against civilians, including rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, was equally unacceptable, he emphasized.
Turning to the Seminar, he said the first panel discussion would focus on whether the current stalemate signalled the end of the two-State solution and examine the future of peace efforts. The other four panels would focus on key media-related dynamics that had emerged in the region over the last year and how they related to the Israel-Palestine situation in particular.
Panel Discussion 1
Moderated by Mr. Launsky-Tiffenthal, the panel discussion titled “Status of Peace Efforts — What Now?” featured presentations by Phyllis Bennis, Director, New Internationalism Project, Institute for Policy Studies; Avraham Burg, International Coordinator, Bruno Kreisky Forum; Yutaka Iimura, Special Representative, Government of Japan for the Middle East and Europe; and Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer, State of Palestine to the United Nations.
Ms. BENNIS said the best news about the peace process was that the United States-controlled talks, which represented almost 24 years of failed diplomacy, had ended. The latest round had offered nothing new, and had failed because they were based on maintaining Israeli power in the region rather than ensuring justice, without which there could be no peace. The United States said that both sides had been unhelpful, Israel by its refusal to release 29 illegally held prisoners as agreed and its announcement of 700 new illegal settlements, and the Palestinians in having signed 15 human rights treaties. She encouraged participants to compare Palestinians actions to hold themselves accountable to international law with Israel’s illegal actions. Looking ahead, different approaches to diplomacy — rather than diplomacy itself — must be considered, she said, stressing that, in any scenario, the solution must be based on justice. The goal of the United States-led process was to eliminate the conflict, and as long that country was in charge, under political cover provided by the Quartet, Israeli hegemony would remain the objective. If talks were determined by the United Nations, the focus would be on international law and implementation of all United Nations resolutions, including resolution 194 (1948), which guaranteed refugees’ right to return and to receive compensation. A change would be seen in the power relationship between the two sides. While Japan supported Palestinian rights and reconstruction, it had not challenged the United States-dominated peace process, she said, noting that its money would be worth more if it were to present “the pause” as an opportunity for new diplomacy.
Mr. BURG said he did not wish to repeat criticisms that played the “accusation game”. Both peoples were victims of a vicious cycle that had found no solutions. He said he had given up hope that some external magician would arrive on a white horse and bring redemption to the region. No such player could do that. What was needed was a change of paradigm, he said, recalling that the paradigm of partition had prevailed for decades. “Partition does not work in this neighbourhood,” he said, adding that an alternative was needed. The United States had proven itself naïve. It was not an honest broker, and could not be when it provided one side with support and safety nets. The Europeans were also “in deep mud”, as their soft power prevented them from fostering a deal. The Arab world had repeatedly abandoned the Palestinians, while Israel had done whatever it could to exhaust all potential mistakes before it did the right thing. Despite all the regional “earthquakes”, the conflict still posed a moral and political challenge to the West, he warned. In addition, the peace agreements between Israel and its neighbours were solid. Oslo provided the framework for the Palestinian Authority’s artificial existence, but it appeared that the “post-Tunis” generation of Palestinians preferred the most challenging approach to Israeli occupation: civil, non-violent disobedience, for which Israel had no energy or answer. The despair over the two-State solution indicated a need to transform the discourse from one of power to one of rights and liberties encompassing an alternative to partition. He said he was unsure of Israel’s acceptance of such a change. In politics, the burden of change was the responsibility of the weak element, because the strong element had no motivation, he pointed out. The key was in the Palestinian hands.
Mr. IIMURA said that, while the peace process was at a critical juncture, it had not ended. It was critically important that the international community firmly maintain the idea of a two-State solution as the only way to solve the problem, and urge the parties to resume direct negotiations. For its part, Japan had strongly encouraged both sides to resume the talks and refrain from unilateral actions that would have a negative effect on the situation. It had called on Israel to freeze settlement activity, which contravened international law, and cautioned the Palestinian side against actions that would provoke Israel. On the economic front, efforts should be stepped up to prepare the future State of Palestine for self-sustainability. Japan’s “Corridor for Peace and Prosperity” initiative, launched with Israel, Jordan and Palestine, aimed to create a vigorous private sector through the Jericho Agro-Industrial Park. It aimed to create 7,000 jobs and generate $41.6 million annually. The Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development aimed to harness the resources of those countries towards economic growth.
Mr. MANSOUR said it was true that Palestinians saw themselves as victims in the relationship, and that they would show the way towards resolving the conflict. Israel would not help to change the status quo. “It is our responsibility that we will carry the torch and show the path for how we can bring justice to this conflict” for the benefit of both sides. “Our State exists, but our land is under occupation,” he said. The Palestinian negotiating team had thought that the aim of the negotiations was to end the occupation and realize a two-State solution. However, Israel’s negotiation team had not prepared its people for an eventual withdrawal from Palestinian land. Had it been interested in peace, it would not have increased settlement activity by 123 per cent over the previous year, demolished homes and tried in the Knesset to pass laws extending Israeli sovereignty over Muslim holy sites, he pointed out. It was for such reasons that the negotiations had not succeeded, adding that Israel would not change its behaviour unless it had an incentive to do so. He called for exacting a heavier cost for Israel’s settlement activities, noting that the Europeans had opened the door with their funding guidelines, which must be strengthened and enlarged. In addition, Governments must treat as criminals activist settlers who committed crimes against Palestinian civilians.
The floor was then opened for discussion, with participants asking about some of the points raised by panellists.
Mr. BURG, responding, said that changing the oppressor’s behaviour was a huge question that pointed to the psyche of the Israeli occupier. The abused had become the abuser, and discovering the reason why would help to answer the question. Israel responded well to disasters, he said, adding that he did not know which disaster would unleash Israeli justice. One street in Hebron epitomized the occupation, he said — one side was well paved for Jews, and the other was in terrible condition and meant only for Palestinians. Oslo had introduced partition, and for 20 years, generations of children had not known anything about the other side.
Ms. BENNIS voiced concern that Israel was occupying another people’s land, denying refugees their right to return and treating a segment of its own population as fifth-class citizens. A lesson could be learned from South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, she said, noting that the reason Israelis accepted the status quo was because the price was sustainable. What had “pushed the buttons” in South Africa was the sports boycott against the Springboks playing in the World Cup. Israelis would pay attention when the cultural and academic boycott started to bite, she warned, adding that the United Nations must end its obsession with being even-handed.
Mr. MANSOUR, responding to a question about the one fifth of Israel’s population living below the poverty line, said funds must be cut from “the settlement enterprise” and the defence industry in order to help them. As for increasing the costs of occupation, the conditions must be allowed to ripen, since making a decision in an abstract way would not elicit the desired response. “You need to create a situation where people will do it spontaneously”, as had happened in the First Intifada, he said, adding that he had seen a greater international readiness for Palestinians to take “bolder” steps.
Governments could hold criminal activists accountable and international companies could refrain from expanding in the occupied territories, he said. Under the Oslo Accords, Palestinians had no jurisdiction over crimes committed by Israeli settlers or soldiers on their territory, but were required to document and hand them over to Israel. Palestinians had documented all the crimes committed since the Second Intifada and would send copies to the occupying authority, to the United Nations and the media, in readiness for the moment of “complementarity” with the International Criminal Court.
Mr. BURG added that boycotts were not helpful because 90 per cent of those who would be harmed wanted peace. Boycotts would drive neoconservative “Tea Party Republicans” to successfully lobby Congress for compensation. Turning to psychological elements, he said there was a competition of traumas. People did not understand the continuing role of Holocaust in Israeli decision-making. “This is the competition,” he stressed. “If you don’t undo competition and create a situation in which Israel realizes its responsibility for the refugee problem, the issues will persist.”
Another participant commented that the situation in Syria had arisen from the absence of a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and urged the international community to take seriously its responsibility to resolve it.
Panel Discussion 2
Deborah Seward, Director, Strategic Communications Division, Department of Information, moderated the second panel discussion, on “Shifting narratives in media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Middle East peace efforts”. Making presentations were Nobuhisa Degawa, Senior Commentator, Japan Broadcasting Corporation; Nour Odeh, Founder and CEO, Connect Strategic Communications Consultancy; Noam Sheizaf, +972 Magazine; and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, Huffington Post Live.
Mr. DEGAWA recalled that, 20 years ago, he had been dispatched to open the first Japan Broadcasting Corporation news bureau in Jerusalem, at a time when he had had high expectations about the future. The Oslo Agreement had been reached the year before, he said, adding that he had expected to be in Jerusalem for four years, that Israel and Palestine would reach a final status agreement and that he would cover the signing ceremony. Today, “I am not excited” about those prospects, he said, recalling that he had interviewed President Abbas two years ago during his visit to Japan, as well as the Prime Minister of Israeli, who had sought to avoid questions about resuming peace talks and to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme instead. There were forces opposed to peace on both sides, while others objected to “giving in” to the peace process. Under the Oslo Accords, no neutral mediator had been designated, and while the United States was important, it was not necessarily fair and neutral. Israel had power over the Palestinians, and Oslo did not outline ways in which to end settlement activity nor allow room for a partial agreement. If the promoters of peace were not in the majority on both sides, the peace process would not succeed, he emphasized. People were losing interest in Middle East issues, perhaps in part because there had been no progress. The media had a responsibility to draw attention to the peace process.
Ms. ODEH called attention to the “false balance” in the media coverage of the Middle East, saying it tried to categorize the story into a “he said, she said” model that gave equal significance to both sides. That was simply not the reality. Expressing frustration with the “fake balance” dictated by editorial boards, she said that telling the story was not about making people happy, but about presenting the facts. The Middle East conflict was not about a real estate dispute, or two Governments at war because they liked it; it was about a people under an occupation covering everything from the goods they consumed to the time they took to travel from one Palestinian location to another. However, the media approach was shifting, thanks to social media and the emergence of “citizen journalism”, she noted. People around the world now had better opportunities to hear voices that did not have to pass through editorial filters. But the mainstream media remained immune to the shift, she said, citing the recent story of two Palestinian boys killed by Israeli soldiers. Despite the shooting having been broadcast around the world, a Middle East analyst had answered, when asked about the boys, that it was not known if they were, in fact, dead. Casting doubt on factual events illustrated the influence of such narratives, she said, stressing that non-mainstream media must be encouraged to shift the narrative.
Mr. SHEIZAF said he had recently received a call from a journalist seeking help on a story about Israeli society. Previously based in Ramallah and recently relocated to Beirut nearing the end of the peace talks, he had been told that there was nothing to report. The story that the mainstream media demanded no longer existed. “We’re dealing with a transformative moment in the way we shape narratives,” he said. Noting that his magazine had existed for four years, he said it had received 8 million visits, 80 per cent of them mainly from the United States and Canada, but no one read the diplomacy or political system stories. The most widely read story had been an info-graphic about the freedom of movement, which looked at the routes that an Israeli and a Palestinian had to travel to reach the beach. Another was an exchange of Facebook messages between Israelis and Iranians at the height of tensions between their two countries. None of the stories contained the words “Netanyahu”, “Abbas” or “United Nations”. They were predominantly human rights stories that touched on activism. They lacked the overall context one would see in a formal conversation between a traditional anchor and commentator. “The new narrative has abandoned diplomacy to a greater extent than any one of us can imagine,” he said, adding that it bordered on hostility to diplomacy. The Palestinians he had met were not interested in a Palestinian State, and the Israelis were not interested in diplomacy. Today, the fragmented consumption of journalism fit the human rights narrative emerging from the ground. Israel did not have a good answer for why people had been deprived of their freedom of due process and travel, and no political actor had reacted in a good way to such challenges.
Mr. SHIHAB-ELDIN said he had been called an anti-Semite, a Hamas sympathizer and a mouthpiece for terrorists long before he had started working for the Huffington Post. The story in the Middle East was about justice, yet the framing of the conflict had been missing, in part, because of lobbying, censorship and self-censorship. Old narratives had allowed Israel to progress with impunity because the media war had long been disproportionate. However, the old rhetoric had lost its relevance, he said, citing the Israeli Prime Minister’s comments to the effect that peace was only possible with a divided Palestinian Government. With those words, he was trying to frame the Palestinian reconciliation as “yes to terrorism and no to peace”, which was overly simplistic. Media was a competitive business, and the mainstream media could no longer ignore stories from people on the ground who had exclusives “because they were there”. The narrative was starting to shift in favour of justice.
When the floor was opened for discussion, participants asked about subjects ranging from how to foster peace, to ownership of media content, to the shared lineage of Israelis and Palestinians.
Ms. ODEH, noting that the Pope was informed about Palestine, the injustices they suffered and the impact of the wall on Palestinian Christians, said that, by making decisions at an individual level, people could help end injustice.
Mr. SHEIZAF, discussing content ownership, said that Israel spent a lot on propaganda, in part because it was losing its grip on the conversation. The Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson operated on Facebook and Twitter, and was called an “information combatant”, he noted. “This is a lost battle because the [Israeli Defense Forces] is conducting the same war as Coca-Cola and you can’t win the Twitter war under a brand,” he said. “We’re entering an age of populism in politics, where there is a greater sense among politicians that they must respond quickly on social media.”
Mr. SHIHAB-ELDIN said the fact that it was more difficult for anyone to control the narrative was encouraging because that provided greater opportunities for expanding the narrative.
Mr. DEGAWA, in response to a question about Israeli and Palestinian lineage, said that, for the Japanese, nationality was a matter of course, while Palestinians had not had a nation for a long time. Israelis had established their nation. To understand the history, “you have to be there”, he said, adding that that would help one to understand the difficulty of forging peace. A one-State solution was not possible, and a two-State solution was the only viable option.
Mr. SHIHAB-ELDIN said the question spoke to the lack of interaction between the two sides. If the figurative or physical walls came down, that would facilitate a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.
Ms. ODEH emphasized that the conflict was not about what had happened 3,000 years ago. To draw the map in that way would make the entire world look very different, and many countries would not exist. Palestinians and Israelis of Middle Eastern heritage might have shared a grandfather or grandmother, she said, but the situation was not so much about lineage as political and national rights. “We talk about peace as if it was a present to buy at a supermarket.” It was not, and that was not the answer to the conflict.
Panel Discussion 3
Moderating the third panel discussion, titled “Coverage and narratives surrounding Palestinian refugees — turning the spotlight on Yarmouk” was Chris Gunness, Spokesperson, UNRWA. The panel featured presentations by Faisal Irshaid, BBC World; Nidal Bitari, Palestinian Association for Human Rights in Syria; Phyllis Bennis, Director, New Internationalism Project, Institute for Policy Studies; and Ryoji Tateyama, Visiting Fellow, Institute of Energy Economics, Professor Emeritus, National Defence Academy, Japan.
Mr. GUNNESS, introducing the panel, described the successful UNRWA global social media “thunder clap” campaign in support of Palestinians in Syria, in particular, the Yarmouk refugee camp.
Mr. IRSHAID said that to understand the situation in Yarmouk, one must look at the Syrian conflict from its start in March 2011. At that time, BBC had expected the uprising to mirror what had taken place in Tunisia and Egypt. Instead, the Government had responded with an “iron fist”, shifting the situation from peaceful demonstration to armed conflict. In December 2012, BBC had received reports from field commanders that the regime would fall by the summer of 2013, and as such, had focused on ground developments rather than humanitarian issues. “We were absolutely wrong,” he said, noting that, by June 2013, the regime had shown that it was strong and “here to stay”. In January 2013, the United Nations had estimated that 1 million people needed immediate humanitarian aid. By January 2014, that number had grown to 10 million, which was why BBC had sought to spotlight the humanitarian situation. At the end of 2013, there had been few foreign journalists in Syria, and the best source of information was “user-generated content”, or citizen journalism. Online communities had formed to tell the world what was happening. BBC had to verify social media information, sometimes three times, because there was strong propaganda by both the opposition and the Government, as well as many false leads and misinformation.
Ms. BENNIS explained, by way of background, that the reason why Palestinian refugees remained in Damascus and elsewhere in the region, six decades after 1948, dated back to al-Nakba (the “catastrophe”), when 750,000 Palestinians had been expelled from their homes at gunpoint, or had fled for fear of fighting during Israel’s creation. They remained refugees today, many in camps inside Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. There were now more than 4.5 million of them around the world, and many of those in Yarmouk were refugees for the fifth time, having moved in 1948, 1967, 1970 and 1982 amid changing political and military realities.
Mr. BITARI shared his experience as a refugee in Syria, saying that, at the start of the conflict, people had thought it was in their best interest to remain neutral. Palestinians in Syria had enjoyed privileged economic and social rights — the same as Syrians — and more than those of Palestinians in Lebanon and elsewhere. As activists inside Yarmouk and other Syrian camps, they had tried not to give the impression that they were pro-regime and against the opposition — or vice versa. “We don’t want to be used by either the regime or the opposition.” However, the situation had changed in July 2013, when the regime had bombed Yarmouk and the Free Syrian Army had entered the camp the next day.
Mr. GUNNESS added that Syria had historically been extremely generous to Palestinian refugees, more so than most Governments might be to a huge foreign population. Different narratives had emerged, one stressing that various events had been inflicted on the camp and the other stressing that foreign terrorists had entered the country and the Government was trying to defend itself. How could those account be reconciled?
Mr. IRSHAID said the two narratives were advertised for different regional audiences, and it was difficult for a news organization to verify information without staff on the ground.
Mr. BITARI added that there was a strong civil society presence inside the camps. People were prepared to communicate with the media, whether Arabic or international.
Ms. BENNIS said that discourse followed reality. There were at least six wars being fought in Syria, and as long as they continued, there would be no marrying of narratives. The priority was to end the war and rebuild social cohesion. It was not enough to change the discourse on the ground, and Governments around the world must do more to stop the violence.
Mr. TATEYAMA, asked about lessons learned from international intervention in Yarmouk, touched on the situation in the Shatila, Burj Barajneh and Rashidiyeh camps in Lebanon. He said he had been sent to southern Lebanon in the 1980s to help Palestinian and other refugees living near the camps. In the early 1970s, Palestinian armed groups had launched attacks across the border with Israel, and in 1982, the Lebanon war erupted, with the Israeli invasion aiming to eliminate the PLO political and military infrastructure. It had also been aimed at establishing a pro-Israeli Government in Beirut, but that plan had not been realized. Palestinian fighters, including former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, had been forced to leave Lebanon, and the Israeli occupation had continued for three years, before its forces had eventually withdrawn from southern Lebanon. As for suggestions that local solutions could set an example for peacemakers, he said the humanitarian crisis should not be tackled solely from the top down. Local organizations and humanitarian agencies also had an important role to play.
Mr. BITARI, addressing that point, said the context of the Lebanese civil war was very different from what was happening in Syria today. People fleeing the camps were not allowed to leave Syria, and Lebanon had closed its borders. Jordan had refused, since the start of Syrian revolution, to receive refugees, while Turkey now demanded visas. Many who had fled had been arrested because their travel documents were not recognized by the destination countries, and their only solution was to return to Palestine.
Mr. IRSHAID agreed in principle that the problem would be solved when Palestinians could return home. However, the Russian Federation had also used its veto power in the Security Council, he said, stressing that international players must resolve their own problems before the Palestinian situation could be resolved. People were staying in Yarmouk to protect their right of return.
When the floor was opened for discussion, one participant said that suggestions that UNRWA did not have a protection mandate was “slightly wrong” in that the General Assembly had passed a resolution adding one. Another participant took issue with the “sterile” conversation about Yarmouk and the situation in Syria, saying that what was missing in Middle East context was discussion of the international community’s failure to hold international players and countries accountable.
Mr. GUNNESS replied that UNRWA had a specific mandate. If it accused anyone of a crime against humanity, Palestinian refugees would not receive the one food packet that allowed them to survive. The Agency was currently delivering humanitarian aid to 18,000 people in Yarmouk. There were parts of the United Nations whose legitimate role it was to make judgements on the basis of international law, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had done in her recent support of the rights under discussion today. With confusion over mandates, the only people who suffered were the beneficiaries.
Mr. IRSHAID said Palestinians were being punished for things they had not done. They had committed no crimes. He was not a politician. As a BBC journalist, he sought to ensure that the real story was being told. “We got a lot of wrong information from people trying to push propaganda,” he said, which forced him to ensure that he had the right information. He had not turned a blind eye to human suffering.
Mr. BITARI, to comments about a sterile conversation about Yarmouk, said he had taken 18 days to prepare his comments about each incident that had taken place at Yarmouk. T he road to human rights respect was long. For sixty years, Palestinians had waited for human rights laws to be implemented. He was here today because the people of Yarmouk were demanding the United Nations to save their lives.
Another participant from the Syrian Government thanked UNRWA for its work to satisfy Palestinians’ concerns. The problem was with those countries that did not fund UNRWA. She did not expect anyone to question the Syrian Government’s support for Palestinians. All Syrians were suffering. She urged thinking about ways to solve the crisis and to stop the support for the foreign terrorist groups inside Syria. She held up a note verbale by the Palestinian Authority, which thanked the Syrian Government for its support for people in Yarmouk.
Mr. IRSHAID pointed out that the current discussion was an example of two narratives to the conflict. It was up to people to decide what was actually happening. Journalists needed to report facts.
Mr. BITARI said that the international community had neglected the situation in Syria. The people in Yarmouk wanted to open the door for peace and maintain their right to live.
Ms. BENNIS rounded out the discussion by saying that the question hinged on stopping the war. The people of Japan could pressure their Government and demand that it take a strong position at the United Nations, calling for an immediate ceasefire to all the wars inside Syria and for an arms embargo on all sides involved.
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