General Assembly


Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People Concludes,

Expert Plenary Considers ‘Laying Groundwork for Sovereignty of State of Palestine’

(Received from a UN Information Officer)

HELSINKI, 29 April — With plans nearly complete for welcoming a sovereign, independent Palestinian State into the community of nations this September, the Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People today urged the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators to “help make the sun set on the occupation permanently”, by rapidly finalizing the permanent status parameters so that direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could proceed without delay.

“The ascension of an independent State of Palestine to its rightful seat at the General Assembly, which we all are looking forward to, will not signal the end of the Palestinian quest for nationhood, but a new beginning,” said Committee Chairman Abdou Salam Diallo in closing remarks to the two-day United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People, taking place in Helsinki, Finland.  He emphasized that while the challenges ahead were many, “they can and will be overcome”.

He noted that over the course of the Seminar on “Mobilizing international efforts in support of the Palestinian Government’s State-building programme”, participants had heard presentations by experts, who had welcomed the progress achieved in the implementation of the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan.  At the same time, those interventions had evoked renewed appreciation of the enormity of the tasks that lay ahead.

“We are looking forward to a State, which is unified and cohesive.  One in which the rule of law and social justice prevails, in which representative, accountable and transparent public institutions are engaged in a dialogue with civil society,” he said, stressing that such a State should also be open and inclusive, in which all citizens, including vulnerable groups, such as women and young people, were free to develop their full potential and count on economic opportunity and the protection of their rights.

He said he had appreciated the keynote presentation by Ali Al-Jarbawi, Minister of Planning and Administrative Development for the Palestinian Authority since the programme had been launched in 2009, who had outlined the progress achieved in the programme’s implementation.  The Chairman particularly had appreciated the Minister’s insights into the strategies embodied in the Palestinian National Development Plan for 2011-2013, which looked forward to the establishment of an independent Palestinian State and beyond.   Palestine was positioned strategically, next to some of the region’s most dynamic economies.

“When released from the shackles of occupation, it [Palestine] is poised to reach its full potential by building a robust economy fuelled by international trade,” said the Chairman.

Indeed, the continued Israeli occupation was the big variable in the equation.  The pace of development would remain “agonizingly slow” if every small project, every incremental step required high-level intervention and approval.  “As long as the energies of the humanitarian and United Nations agencies on the ground are consumed by the constant need to navigate the labyrinths of the Israeli occupation bureaucracy, as long as Gaza remains blockaded, progress will not be appreciable,” he said.  Furthermore, the countries, which had not so far recognized the State of Palestine, should do so, in anticipation of its admission to the United Nations in September.  “Members of the international community should actively support Palestinian unity, or at least not stand in the way,” he stressed.

The Chairman said the Palestinians had shared with the international community their National Development Plan for 2011-2013.  “Building on the Plan, it shows how to get from here to where they want to go,” he said adding that now the international community must show support and cooperation.  The price tag might be high, but it was a sound and intelligent investment in a peaceful and prosperous future.

A donors’ conference, to be held in Paris in June, was an opportunity to reinforce support for the Plan, he said.  Calling for the donor community’s full support and participation, he said what would be needed was not just additional assistance, but “smarter assistance, applied strategically, in a way that promotes rather than crowds out private sector activity, and puts the needs of the Palestinians first, rather than subordinates itself to the occupation.”

Helena Tuuri, Director of the Unit for the Middle East and North Africa in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, said that while the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remained deadlocked, the changes under way in North Africa and the Middle East had erased the belief that the situation would remain so forever.  Indeed, there were now strong feelings of change in the air and new dynamics in play.  The Palestinian Authority had done an excellent job of building the foundations of a viable independent State and was now calling on the international community to rally behind that effort.

Yet, she reminded the Seminar that while the international community could and must support Palestinian State-building programme, it was essentially just the “third party” in the process.  First and foremost, Palestinians and Israelis must press ahead to reach a negotiated settlement, as a sustainable solution “must come from inside”.  She added that the recently announced agreement on Palestinian national reconciliation would help get that process back on track.

She went on to highlight some of the discussions that had taken place during the past two days, and particularly noted the plenary presentations that had focused on rebuilding the Gaza Strip, and the socio-economic situation of women in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  Referring to another presentation, she said that, as a small nation, Finland had long understood that investing in education was vital to its sustainable growth and development.

In conclusion, she said the Palestinian Authority had demonstrated that its institutional capacity was sufficient for supporting State functions.  Despite funding gaps, the remaining obstacles were not institutional or financial but political.  Certainly other challenges might lie ahead, but the European Union continued to believe that a negotiated settlement was necessary for a sustainable peace.   Finland, for its part, hoped the diplomatic Quartet would enhance its efforts to that end.

In his closing remarks, Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations, said that the discussions and participation over the past two days had been an outstanding demonstration of solidarity with the cause of the Palestinian people, and more specifically, in this case, the Palestinian Authority’s State-building programme.  “This gives us a source of energy to continue the struggle for self-determination,” he said, welcoming constructive discussions that had taken place with various Finnish Government officials on the ways that they could work towards the shared goal of Palestinian independence.

Mr. Mansour stressed that the Palestinian Government would, over the next six months, concentrate on four interrelated tracks that would converge in September to produce significant results.  The most fundamental track was the struggle of Palestinian people under occupation.  “We are not giving up that struggle; that is the struggle of our lives,” he said, stressing that all those living in Jerusalem and in Gaza “are not going anywhere”.  Palestinian people in all villages and towns would remain steadfast; they would remain unified and they would remain dignified.

As for the second track, he said Palestinian officials planned to remain open to restarting direct negotiations with Israel, but under conditions that would not only increase the chances of success, but would also allow the Palestinians to negotiate on a more equal footing.  He stressed that the Palestinian people were committed to work with anyone in the international community who was willing to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table to reach a peace settlement.  The third track involved pressing ahead with the State-building programme, especially its socio-economic aims, which ultimately was a part of overall resistance to the occupation.

Mr. Mansour thanked Finland and other European countries that were helping the Palestinian Authority complete its State-building effort, and said that such support would be necessary after independence because repairing a society that had been wrecked by decades of war and occupation would be a tall order.

In an aside, he said that proposal of the formation of a unity Government following the announcement of an initial reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas earlier this week would go a long way towards helping the Palestinian people “put our house in order”.  It would particularly help to jumpstart the effort to rebuild the Gaza Strip, where the people were crying out for help after the “savage war” unleashed on them by Israel three years ago.

Returning to his outline of the Palestinian Authority’s plans for the near future, he said the fourth track was a diplomatic initiative involving continued attempts to get as many countries as possible, especially, in Western Europe, to recognize the State of Palestine based on the 1967 borders.  Indeed, those States had been highly involved in the partition of Palestine, and in September, those same nations must show equal determination towards Palestinian independence.  “If we succeed in having two-thirds majority of the General Assembly recognize Palestine, why should any member of the Security Council vote against it?”, he asked, declaring:  “We will negotiate with Israel on all final status issues […] but our independence will not be negotiated with anyone.”

The Seminar also held its final plenary session this afternoon, with experts’ presentations related to laying the groundwork for the sovereignty of the Palestinian State, including the importance of the economic viability of such a State; overcoming political obstacles in implementing the State-building programme; the role of the United Nations system in mobilizing efforts at altering Israeli settlement policies and other measures negatively affecting the Palestinian economy; and the role of regional economic partners in supporting a political solution.

Leading off the session, Dr. Firas bin Ra'ad, Development Adviser in the Office of the Quartet Representative in Jerusalem, said that after years of unremitting efforts, the pursuit of the Palestinian people for independence seemed to be approaching its historical destination.  The challenge now was to align the drive towards statehood with the creation of sound policies that would help overcome the many obstacles that currently existed or would emerge in the future.  He said that international and regional efforts to unlock the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must persist.

Further, he said “the current rivers of change” flowing through North Africa and the Middle East should help progress, and the recent announcement on Palestinian reconciliation should serve to hasten, not hinder, the creation of a Palestinian State, living in peace with Israel.  In all that, the Office of the Quartet Representative planned to support all efforts to effect positive change through a “ground-up” approach focused on accelerating economic growth and job creation.  He stressed that while such initiatives were essential, however, they could never substitute for a negotiated settlement.

Reviewing the socio-economic situation on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, he said that in order to deepen, broaden and sustain the nascent economic recovery, the Palestinian Authority had to continue policy reforms, while international and regional donors needed to sustain their support over the short, medium and long terms.  In addition, there was a need for Israel to provide greater access to enable foreign investors to visit their investments in the Occupied Territory.  Another positive step would be opening up “Area C” for humanitarian services and participatory planning.

The living and working conditions for Palestinians in East Jerusalem must be improved, and reconstruction and recovery in Gaza, as well as efforts to promote trade, must be scaled up, he said.  The development of Palestinian offshore gas fields would help offset the “donor fatigue”, he said.  The “economics of peace and security”, if realized and supported by the international community, could only yield benefits to the Palestinian people, he added.

The next speaker, Shir Hever, Economic Researcher from the Alternative Information Centre in Jerusalem, recalled that all the documents and strategies at the heart of the Palestinian State-building programme had been based on the assumption that Israel would withdraw and the occupation would end.  Yet, he was certain that the Palestinian leadership did not believe that Israel would “just give” them a State; nor did they really believe that the international community would be so enamoured with the State-building programme that it would put the requisite pressure on Israel so that a Palestinian State would materialize.

The Palestinian Authority had chosen to make a political statement and “talk not about the path, but to imagine the end result,” he said.  Israel, he believed, was actually hoping for a unilateral declaration of independence, which would make it easier for it to dismiss the State-building exercise entirely and tighten its control over the Occupied Territory.  Moreover, the rhetoric that “we are 15 minutes to midnight” and “soon the Palestinian struggle will be over,” was somewhat dangerous because Israel might decide that whatever decision was reached in September, was “the” final solution and that, as such, there was no need for negotiations or international assistance.  The issue of international assistance and Israeli responsibility must remain the focus, he said.

Further, Mr. Hever said that referring to the people of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as “stateless” was misleading, since there was a State — Israel — that exercised control over practically every element of their daily lives, perhaps more than any other State authority intervened in the lives of its citizens.  Therefore, while the Israeli Government bulldozed homes and controlled movement of goods and people, it also had to own up to its legal responsibilities by seriously acknowledging the impact of years of neglect of and attacks on the Palestinian infrastructure as the State-building plan moved towards completion.

As for the contours of a “viable” Palestinian State, he urged participants to acknowledge that any such entity that was created on the 1967 borders would become one of the smallest countries in the world.  Crucial “nuts and bolts” issues would also have to be considered, such as providing sustained electricity, and water and health services, and installing trade infrastructure.  Such a Palestinian State would be at a disadvantage in trade relations and in establishing a currency, and would not have access to water sources that were not shared by Israel.

With all that in mind, the rational solution would be to create a joint committee where Palestinians and Israelis would discuss such issues together, he said.  Finally, he reminded the Seminar that the Palestinian peoples’ biggest financial asset was and would continue to be the debt owed by Israel for years of occupation.

In a joint presentation, Saeb Bamya, Palestinian Coordinator, and Arie Arnon, Israeli Coordinator of the AIX Group (joint Palestinian-Israeli International Economic Working Group), discussed ways to overcome the obstacles to building a Palestinian State.  Speaking first, Mr. Bamya said the AIX group was a think tank that had been established in 2002 following a seminar in Aix-en-Provence, France, aimed at joining economists, policy-makers and academics from both sides and providing space to exchange ideas about issues related to future permanent arrangements between Palestinians and Israelis.

He said that, among other things, the Group had acknowledged the abiding asymmetry in the negotiations.  The international community — represented in this context largely by the United States — had not been able to ensure that Palestinians were able to negotiate with Israelis on equal footing.  “We need to reach greater symmetry between the two sides in order to reach a situation where two independent States live side by side and engage in many different ways,” he said.  In that regard, the AIX Group had outlined what it called a “reverse engineering” approach, in which the two sides would first agree on the contours of a permanent agreement and then decide how to reach that end.

Mr. Arnon said he believed the declaration by Israel, following the launch of the Second Intifada in 2000 and “the disaster of Camp David” a year later, that it had no partner with whom to negotiate peace, had perhaps dealt the most devastating blow to the process because it had given birth to a generation of pessimists.  However, the AIX Group had not given up hope, considering that if Israelis and Palestinians were to live together “in this very small place”, both sides needed to return to negotiations.

As for the economic challenges, he said that contrary to what many people thought, the equitable answer was not outright integration of the two obviously imbalanced economies, but to convince both sides to enter into some form of free trade agreement, which necessitated defined borders.  Also, labour flows between the two sides must be restarted, to contribute to faster growth of the Palestinian economy and close the economic divide between the two sides.  Borders were not the only important issue, however, and questions surrounding Jerusalem, the economy, security and refugees, including the notion of compensation for property lost in 1949, must all be discussed.  Tackling the matter broadly and comprehensively was the only path to a way out.

“What way out?”, interjected Mr. Bamya, when, after Oslo, Israel had begun a relentless campaign to change the facts on the ground.  The key was for those who purported to support the two-State solution — “Israelis, Palestinians, Quartet principals, whoever” — to really get behind that process, starting with agreeing on a territorial link between the West Bank and Gaza and including an equitable and viable solution to the refugee issue.  “I am a refugee and I am ready to accept the Palestinian State as my own, but every refugee should have a choice,” he said, calling for immediate action on the matter.

Zuheir Elwazer, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations Office at Vienna, traced the path of the “question of Palestine” through the United Nations General Assembly, from the so-called “partition resolution” to the creation of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).  He stressed the vital importance for Member States and the wider international community to enhance their support to UNRWA, which was carrying out vital functions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

He further called on the international community to stand together and oppose Israel’s ongoing actions — construction of the separation wall and settlement construction — which obstructed the efforts to lay the foundations of an independent Palestinian State.   Israel must abide by the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, which had declared the wall illegal and called for the dismantling of its existing portions.  That structure, in effect, created a “huge prison” for many Palestinians and must be torn down.

Hussein Ibish, Senior Research Fellow, American Task Force on Palestine, Washington, D.C., said that, in addition to laying the practical foundations on the ground for the Palestinian independence, the State-building programme was also capable of filling the vacuum when diplomacy was either stalled or progressing too slowly, as it had been the case for many months now.  Therefore, now was the time to take advantage of it so that it could fulfil that element of its purpose.  Indeed, the State-building programme might be seen as “the only game in town”.  It was, in essence, a parallel track that did not depend on Israeli support.

“Simply put:  there is no other ongoing and systematic programme for advancing the realization of a viable, practicable two-State solution and, therefore, it must be supported in the most vigorous and robust manner possible by all parties,” he said.  The most significant practical and political obstacles to the implementation of that project came from the Government of Israel and other elements of the Israeli society, “because Israel is the occupying Power in the territory in which the Palestinian State institutions are being built.”  Since inauguration of the State-building process, literally dozens of reports by multilateral institutions and non-governmental organizations had favourably assessed its progress in the West Bank, but every one of them had recognized that continued occupation clearly limited on how far it could go.

“Security is the sine qua non of governance, and the new Palestinian security services have been the key predicate for most of what State-building has accomplished since 2009,” he said, noting that law and order had been restored to formerly lawless — or anarchic — cities, such as Jenin and Nablus, encouraging investment.   Israel had initially been sceptical about the new security forces, but military and national security officials in Israel were now almost unanimous in praising their performance, and particularly their security cooperation with Israel's own forces.  Another serious issue was the almost daily Israeli incursions into “Area A”, which must end.

Charges that State-building was a form of “collaboration” were strongly refuted by consistent efforts by the Palestinian Authority to expand the reach of the project beyond “Area A”, efforts that had been rejected, blocked and undone by Israel, he said.  Perhaps the most interesting example was the struggle over the road to the village of Qarawat Bani Hassan.   Israel would not grant its residents a permit to build a paved road, so the Palestinian Authority quietly had paid for the small road to be created last year.  Some months later, Israeli forces had destroyed the road, which was then rebuilt, again with the Palestinian Authority’s funding, and in March, destroyed one more time.

“Ultimately, the State-building project, if it is to be meaningful, cannot be restricted to Area A, or even B, but must operate also in Area C, since the overwhelming majority of it will be an essential part of the State of Palestine,” Mr. Ibish said.  Through such efforts, along with school projects in occupied East Jerusalem and other measures, the State-building project posed a simple question to Israel:  “Is this territory going to be part of our State, or part of yours?  If it's not going to be part of our State, then what kind of Palestinian State are we talking about, and what future are we really envisioning?”

While the whole idea was based on top-down diplomacy converging with bottom-up State-building in order to achieve a breakthrough, he did not see that breakthrough coming in September.  Although, the Palestinian Authority could receive a positive vote in the General Assembly, he was “very doubtful” that such a vote would change the situation on the ground.  On the positive side, it seemed that that the State-building process was set up for the long haul and could provide the foundations for a solid future — and continued negotiations — whether or not September produced a Palestinian State.

Wrapping up, he said the recent announcement of a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah — “an agreement about which, so far, almost nothing is known” — perhaps raised more questions that it answered.  A unity Government between the two might lead to a reduction of aid from key donors, such as the United States, and a pull-back by Israel from the overall state-building exercise, in which it would certainly have to play some role.  “Unity is generally a good thing, but here, there are risks,” he said.

In the ensuing discussion, one speaker cautioned that “viability” must not only be viewed in economic terms.  Rather, in the case of Palestine, territorial exigencies must be considered.  He also said that the importance of aid to the Palestinian cause could not be overstated.  At the same time, such funds seemed to wax and wane with progress or reversals in the peace process.  Indeed, it seemed as though when the peace process was showing signs of life, donors more actively provided financial support.  “So the issue is not donor fatigue; it is that donors need to see a political horizon,” he said.

A representative of the Palestinian civil society urged more recognition for the Palestinian refugees, particularly those that fell outside of UNRWA’s mandate.  She also called for the international community to increase its pressure on Israel so that it would end its deleterious practices in East Jerusalem.  Another vital issue was for the European companies and businesses to stop trading with Israel and propping up its “occupation economy”.

Responding to some of the comments, Mr. Bamya said that the international community had to step up.  Thus far, those that claimed to be interested in a two-State solution comprised, in his mind, the NATO — “No Action, Talk Only” — group.  As for focusing solely on economics, he said that using economics as the starting point had proved vital to arriving at sustainable solutions in many cases.

Mr. Ra’ad agreed with those that saw September as an important landmark, but noted that while there were “different streams” that could be followed, they should all lead to direct political negotiations.  That would be the most difficult challenge, and the Palestinian leadership had to make the return to such talks a central priority.

On the aid, Mr. Hever said that even as they rebuilt bridges and schools, donors must always be reminded that such acts were ultimately Israel’s responsibility.  Indeed, aid to the Palestinian people could only be considered “bad” when it was used to obfuscate or absolve Israel’s legitimate responsibility to provide compensation for the decades of damage the occupation had inflicted on the Palestinian people and their lands.

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For information media • not an official record