State of Palestine Designated to Lead ‘Group of 77’ and China in 2019, Palestinian Rights Committee Chair Announces
Despite the increasingly dire circumstances in the territory occupied by Israel and in exile abroad, the Palestinian people would never abandon their struggle for peace, freedom and self-determination, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine stressed in closing remarks as the United Nation Forum on the Question of Palestine concluded today.
“We have a monumental task before us,” said Riyad Mansour, who is also a Member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Central Committee. To say the Palestinian people were going through an extremely difficult time would be an understatement, he said, calling upon the entire international community to stand with them in solidarity. In particular, urgent efforts were needed to end the blockade on the Gaza Strip and to open new avenues for advancing peace.
He expressed gratitude to the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian people for hosting the Forum in the midst of a turbulent week that had seen deadly violence against protesters at the Gaza border, bringing the Palestinian cause into focus in both the Security Council and the Human Rights Council. The anger and frustration expressed by some participants in the Forum was both understandable and justified, he added. The Palestinian observer delegation was already taking action, he said, noting that the Human Rights Council had voted just hours ago to deploy a fact-finding mission charged with examining the violence in Gaza. In addition, it was drafting a Security Council resolution aimed at securing international protection for Palestinian civilians.
Turning to the discussions held during the two-day Forum, he welcomed the creative and innovative thinking of the participants, declaring: “We will look into all practical ideas to help us move forward to advance the cause of the Palestinian people.” He said they were eager to put 70 years of displacement and more than five decades of Israeli occupation behind them. He went on to ask the international community not to abandon them in that struggle, stressing: “The march will continue, the Palestinian people will not vanish.” Among other contributions that Member States could make was to ensure that the decision by the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem remained an isolated incident.
Fodé Seck (Senegal), Chair of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, also delivered brief closing remarks, highlighting the severe funding shortfall currently faced by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Noting that the State of Palestine had been designated as the next Chair of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, he called for the international community’s support. It was time to be pragmatic and efficient, he emphasized.
Earlier in the day, the Forum convened two interactive discussions featuring high-level panellists from across academia, Governments and civil society. The first, on the theme “Refugees and the Resolution of the Question of Palestine”, was moderated by Mouin Rabbani, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestinian Studies. Panellists responded to questions about the historic events of 1948 and the resulting legal and psycho-social ramifications for the Palestinians expelled from their homeland, as well as several generations of their descendants. Panellists with experience in the field of transitional justice emphasized the potentially powerful benefit of establishing a system of truth, reparations and reconciliation in Palestine.
The second panel discussion, held in the afternoon, was moderated by Fateh Azzam, Policy Adviser at the Al-Shabaka Palestinian Policy Network. Panellists stressed the importance of building partnerships with civil society and youth, while continuing to exert economic and diplomatic pressure on the Government of Israel. Responding to questions concerning human rights violations and statehood, they said it was important to fight for equality alongside the struggle for self-determination.
The Forum held the third panel discussion of its two-day session this morning, focusing on the theme “Refugees and the Resolution of the Question of Palestine”. Moderated by Mouin Rabbani, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestinian Studies, it featured four panellists: Susan Akram, Clinical Professor of Law, Boston University; Lubnah Shomali, Executive Director, BADIL Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights; Jessica Nevo, Founder, “Just in Case” Toolbox for Justice in Transition; and Francesca Albanese, Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University.
Prior to the discussion, participants viewed a video clip from the documentary Voices from Across the Divide, which chronicles personal narratives of Palestinians expelled from their homeland in 1948.
Mr. RABBANI, opening the session, noted that it would build on yesterday’s panel discussions, which focused on the historic events of 1948 and their legal implications. It would also explore the lives of today’s Palestinian refugees, he said, asking the panellists to consider how their situation was relevant to the question of Palestine as a whole.
Ms. ALBANESE said that some Palestinian refugees, first displaced into neighbouring Jordan and Syria, had later moved further afield across the region as well as into Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Noting that the question of Palestinian refugees reflected a historic breach of international law — and that it remained a divisive and central issue in the longstanding conflict with Israel — she said those questions must ultimately be resolved from within the framework of those initial violations. Citing a 1920s law which established that repayment was due for any illegally seized property, she said Palestinian refugees today suffered limitations to the enjoyment of their rights wherever they lived as well as discrimination in their host countries. “They are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she said, stressing that Middle East peace negotiations must address their right to return, among other issues.
Ms. AKRAM recalled an intervention delivered yesterday in which the representative of Namibia had drawn parallels between her own country’s situation and that of Palestine, noting that the international community had initially addressed the status of Palestine and the then South-West Africa in a similar manner. The early decolonization process at the United Nations had placed territories under different types of mandates and classifications, she said, noting that Palestine was placed under the United Kingdom’s mandate. Meanwhile, some African colonies were placed under direct United Nations trusteeship and given a specific legal status with independence as the ultimate goal. In contrast, Palestine suffered from inconsistencies in the United Kingdom’s mandate, and no foundation for its statehood was established, she said. The Security Council’s actions on Palestine were also inconsistent as the organ failed to legally frame such issues as the inalienable right of Palestinians to self-determination and statehood. Instead, the Council addressed the situation through the lens of a political “land-for-peace” formula, she said. Citing lessons learned from Namibia’s experience, she underlined the crucial need to determine who was defined as a Palestinian national and how to put a uniform legal system in place.
Ms. NEVO said she had lived under Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, during which time that country’s citizens were marked as traitors if they dared to make art, read prohibited books or ask questions. A similar situation was taking place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with Israeli authorities trying to erase Palestinian culture as well as the historical fact of Al-Nakba. Advocating for the application of a transitional justice model — employed in such countries as Argentina, Chile and South Africa — she said that model should also apply in situations focused on reconciliation and reparations, where political transition was not on the table. Those included the situations of formerly colonized or enslaved persons in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, she said, also spotlighting the potential usefulness of such a model in the case of Palestine.
Ms. SHOMALI, underscoring Israel’s continued denial of reconciliation and reparations models — or to address Palestinian refugees’ right of return — said the principle of reparations had originally been established to prevent States from allowing conditions that would lead to the displacement or dispossession of their people. A reparations model reduced the financial burden on the international community and on refugees themselves, she said, also emphasizing the importance of acknowledgement, accountability and acceptance; the issuance of apology; and reform of social and political institutions. In the case of Palestine, she said, the implementation of a successful reparations model would involve such elements as the voluntary physical return of refugees, compensation for lost properties, and guarantees to the victims of non-repetition. It would also require a strong political agreement; the repeal or amendment of discriminatory legislation practices and policies; the means for enforcement; participation on the part of the victims; international support and political backing; a comprehensive legislative framework; a system of return and restitution, rooted in international law; and the fair redistribution of land.
In the ensuing discussion, delegates, civil society representatives and others commented on the historical and legal dimensions of the displacement of Palestinian refugees. Several speakers posed questions to the panellists, including about civil society’s role in exerting pressure on international actors and about the role and limitations of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), whose mandate was intended to be temporary but whose work had in effect become permanent. Some asked how the international community could circumvent the veto-wielding power of the United States in the Security Council, which had often been used to shield Israel from accountability for its actions. Others called for the immediate closure of the new United States Embassy in Jerusalem, warning that its move there from Tel Aviv had added fuel to sectarian fires already escalating around the globe.
Ms. AKRAM, responding to a question about the role of nationality in historical attempts to establish separate Jewish and Palestinian States, drew a distinction between “Palestinian nationality” — officially established under the 1924 Treaty of Lausanne — and “Jewish nationality”. Noting that Israeli laws depriving Palestinians of citizenship due to their ethnicity were illegal under customary international law, she said that while General Assembly resolution 181 called for equal rights for the citizens of both an Arab State and a Jewish State, there was no legal support for religion-based States.
Several speakers sought more information about the colonial and dictatorial regimes to which the panellists had called attention, asking what challenges and opportunities were presented by the transitional justice model.
Ms. NEVO, describing the implementation of such a model as a kind of “paradigm shift”, recalled that the Human Rights Council had appointed a Special Rapporteur on that issue. Special mandate holders and relevant United Nations entities could support national intuitions, including truth and reconciliation commissions tasked with collecting testimony from both victims and perpetrators, she said, noting that such processes could help in advancing acknowledgement and acceptance of historical events and spark a shift in perspective among those involved. She also described a pilot transitional justice project recently conducted among Palestinians and Israelis. Both she and Ms. Shomali agreed that it was not necessary to wait for a viable political agreement in the Middle East to begin planning for transitional justice mechanisms, the provision of reparations and the return of refugees.
Ms. SHOMALI, on a similarly challenging issue, raised the question of equitable redistribution of Palestinian lands, saying it was likely that returning refugees would be the fourth and fifth generation descendants of those initially displaced.
The Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine at the United Nations, addressing Ms. Akram’s initial presentation, said the United Kingdom’s historic decision not to grant independence to Palestine had been intentional because statehood would have prevented the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Disagreeing with her assessment that the lessons learned from the Namibian experience were not being utilized in the Palestinians’ case, he emphasized: “You cannot compare apples and oranges to begin with.” Efforts to bring the Palestinian cause before the United Nations were indeed under way, including attempts to become a full Member State. Any suggestion that Palestine — unlike Namibia — had failed to shoulder its responsibilities at the United Nations was incorrect. He noted that his observer delegation was in the process of drafting a Security Council resolution aimed at providing international protection for Palestinian civilians in light of Israel’s abdication of that critical responsibility.
Ms. AKRAM, responding, recognized the important legal steps taken by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), including its engagement with the International Criminal Court. She said that while not everyone should follow Namibia’s model, she had attempted to distil lessons from that case which could be useful in the Palestinian situation. As for the role and limitations of UNRWA, she said the Agency — which enjoyed no authority over a durable and permanent solution — had nevertheless developed a deep and singular experience in supporting the unique needs of Palestinian refugees. Meanwhile, those refugees, and all “stateless persons”, remained explicitly excluded from the statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), she pointed out.
The representative of Namibia, welcoming the discussion of her country’s history, recalled that many Namibians who had stood up for equal rights and statehood had been forced into exile. She went on to reject the notion that a person could be made a citizen of a country purely on the basis of race or religion, saying that idea had been misused and propagandized to an astounding extent in the Middle East.
The afternoon session opened with the screening of a short video clip from the documentary Voices Across the Divide. The Forum then held a panel discussion on “Ways Forward to Achieve a Sustainable Peace”. Fateh Azzam, Policy Adviser, Al-Shabaka, moderated the discussion, which featured four panellists: Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer, Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine to the United Nations; Yossi Beilin, former Justice Minister and former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Israel; Phyllis Bennis, Director, New Internationalism Project, Institute for Policy Studies; and Obada Shtaya, Regional Director, OneVoice Movement.
Mr. AZZAM opened the discussion by noting that the current political climate, both internationally and regionally, seemed to have shifted away from United Nations principles. While the big question was whether the two-State formula was dead, it was also worthwhile to think about its different permutations. The recognition of historical realities must be balanced against the framework of international law.
Ms. BENNIS said that “as a Jewish girl from California”, it was not up to her to say how many States there should be. At the moment, there was one piece of land with one governing Power, and the Government of Israel and its military were in control. There were two legal structures within that territory and the legal system to which you were accountable depended on ethnicity and religion. That, by definition, was apartheid and it was in violation of international norms, she pointed out. The current tragic moment of crisis was a reminder of the human price paid repeatedly for Israel’s lack of accountability. The leadership and energy needed to continue the fight must look beyond the United Nations towards civil society, she emphasized. Civil society had changed the discourse on that issue, and the word “Nakba” had become commonplace in talking about the Palestinian issue, whether at the United Nations or in The New York Times. Furthermore, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement had played a huge role in how people across the globe viewed the crisis.
Mr. SHTAYA noted that youth constituted the majority of the Palestinian population and had historically been leading the struggle against the occupation. However, that generational pattern of young people leading the rebellion meant that Palestinian youth did not have the opportunities available to young people around the world. The cost of the second intifada, in particular, had been very high, he said, adding that Palestinian youth now living in a globalized world had very different aspirations from those of their parents and grandparents. Polls showed that young people were non-partisan, even when committed to the national goal of ending the occupation. However, it was time to organize better, he said, stressing that Palestinians must go beyond tactics to a timeline and a strategy. It was crucial that the young people of Israel realized that self-determination was for everyone, not just some.
Mr. BEILIN said that “the world, by and large, is sick and tired of us”. It was not a coincidence that “the big earthquake of [the] Oslo [Accords] had happened due to secret talks” between Israel and the Palestinians without anybody knowing about it. The charismatic leadership of the Palestinians, the commitment on the part of the Israeli leadership and a young United States President had made Oslo possible, he recalled, adding that the big mistake of Oslo was that “we did not go directly towards a permanent agreement”. But the Palestinians had not been ready while the Israelis had been worried that if the permanent agreement failed, it would be hard to go back.
Noting that the current rift between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) made it difficult to reach a solution, he said General Assembly resolution 181 had been important and imaginative in envisioning a high level of cooperation between the two sides. “My translation” of that was a kind of confederation, he said; for Palestinians, it would mean full self-determination while Israel would have a recognized border after many years. As for the issue of settlements, he said that for a Prime Minister of Israel, that issue was more difficult than the question of Jerusalem or the issue of refugees. However, it would be easier to resolve that in the framework of a confederation, because settlers could be given a choice to live in the Palestinian territory or leave and be compensated.
Mr. MANSOUR said the most important thing for Palestinians was “to put our house in order”. Palestine must be united, he said, recalling that that Palestinians had been negotiating with Israel even before the division. Furthermore, the Palestinian political platform had achieved something of historic magnitude. For a long time, Palestinians had depended on the Arab countries hosting Palestine refugees to speak for them, but now the PLO was speaking for Palestinians. “We are not going back to the state of not having representation,” he said, adding that the platform remained the end of occupation and an independent Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital. There was no reason to seek a new political platform, he stressed.
Referring to Mr. Beilin’s words, he said: “If you find a magical way of ending the occupation, then we can have the luxury of deciding whether or not to have a confederation.” However, the conversation should not start with confederation before ending the occupation, he emphasized. While some political opportunities had been wasted, Palestinians had in recent years followed a new policy of convincing 138 countries to recognize their State. As a result, it had been able to change its status to that of observer State. That had allowed Palestine to join the International Criminal Court and various human rights treaties, he said. Noting that the current United States Administration had lost its role as the broker of the peace process, he said that when the State of Palestine was elected Chair of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China in 2019, it would further strengthen its position.
In the ensuing discussion, delegates and civil society representatives asked about the revocation of the residency of thousands of Palestinians in Jerusalem and the settlements.
Ms. BENNIS said that when General Assembly resolution 181 had provided 55 per cent of the land to what had then been 30 per cent of the population, it had not reflected reality, let alone democracy. While the international community was getting caught up in the idea of a two-State solution, what existed today was one State, he pointed out, underling that those supporting the two-State formula must also consider how exactly to divide the territory in such a way as to ensure equality between two States.
Mr. MANSOUR said the notion of statehood had not been invented by Palestinians, adding that the United Nations Legal Department had scrutinized the definition of statehood according to the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, when Palestine had applied to become an observer State. The General Assembly had, through voting, recognized Palestine as a State, he said, comparing that event to birth by caesarean section.
Mr. BEILIN said many “idiotic” debates had been held, recalling that in Oslo, the Palestinians had asked for the leader to be referred to as President, while Israel had insisted that the Palestinian leader should be referred to as the Chairman. Eventually, they had settled on the Arabic word that meant both. There was no shame in having a confederation, he said, emphasizing that he had been against settlements “from day one”. However, they were a reality with which any future Israeli Prime Minister would have to deal.
Participants raised further questions about human rights violations, General Assembly resolution 181, and the status of Jerusalem.
Mr. SHTAYA said that as a Palestinian born and raised in Palestine, he wished to see an amalgamation of realpolitik and the creative.
Mr. MANSOUR pointed out that resolution 181 had given Jerusalem a special status. He went on to note that the assassinations of Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat had contributed to the expiry of Oslo, adding that Benjamin Netanyahu had spent all his life fighting against the Accords. Turning to resolution 181, he said it had provided borders and maps, but ironically, the State known as the Jewish State was almost half Jewish and half Palestinian. What they wished to call themselves in Israel was their business, but equality was a concern for everyone, he emphasized.
Ms. BENNIS said she agreed that Palestine was under occupation, and she was not judging Palestinians for demanding statehood, but everyone knew that any future Palestinian State would have neither arms nor control over its air space. Turning to the question of Palestinian rights, she said that, increasingly, young people on American campuses, including Jewish youth, were asking how to support Palestinian rights and how American aid to the Israeli military was linked to police brutality within the United States. It was an exciting time for Palestinian activists, she noted.
MR. BEILIN said he had no nostalgia for Oslo, adding that the contents of the accords were not revolutionary. However, it was not dead, he stressed. Regarding equality in Israel, he said that, regrettably, there was no real equality, and both Jews and Arabs in Israel should fight for Arab equality. However, it would not help the Palestinian cause to question whether Israel should be a Jewish State or not, he added.
Responding to further questions about statehood, Zionism, and non-governmental diplomatic efforts, he said that it seemed Palestine did not need its neighbour since the entire international community as well as Jewish organizations and the whole Arab world was with Palestine.
Ms. BENNIS emphasized the importance of bringing all kinds of non-violent pressure, including economic and diplomatic pressure, to bear on Israel. It was necessary to recognize that it was not simply a border issue, but a question of occupation with an occupier in possession of nuclear weapons.
Mr. MANSOUR said that he saw a hard struggle ahead, both for those on the ground and those in other places. However, Palestinians lived in hope of a sustainable peace, he added.
Mr. SHTAYA said he had three words: “Invest in Palestine.”
Representatives of Ecuador and Malta also spoke.