Under-Secretary-General, in Closing Statement To Final Panel Discussion, Hopes for Peace, Prosperity, Peace in Region
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
TOKYO, 27 June -- After two days of a lively and frank exchange of views, the fifteenth International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East concluded its work today, with many speakers emphasizing the positive role of such meetings in promoting mutual understanding and proving the importance of communication, even in a time of tension and strife.
Closing the concluding panel of the two-day Seminar, which focused on "The Way Forward" in the Middle East, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Kiyo Akasaka expressed hope that step by step, such events could bring closer the objectives of peace, prosperity and security in the region.
Summarizing the proceedings of the Seminar -- entitled "Re-engaging the Israelis and the Palestinians in the Search for a Comprehensive and Lasting Political Settlement", and organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information in cooperation with the Government of Japan and the United Nations University in Tokyo -- Mr. Akasaka said "both small steps and big steps" had been proposed on the political, economic and social fronts. Some participants had emphasized that, along with political discussions, economic and social initiatives were urgently needed to promote confidence between the parties. Sewage purification, academic cooperation, water management, ecological, industrial, agricultural and transportation projects had been presented among the areas of cooperation that could pave the way forward, as well as numerous civil society initiatives.
"We are often mesmerized by conflict, and political and security concerns are increasing mistrust between the Palestinian and Israeli people," he said. Local governments, civil society, non-governmental organizations and individual people must work together to overcome those problems.
The Seminar also heard a forceful and forward-looking call for a revitalization of the peace process, which came through video-conference from the West Bank.
"We are now more than ever in need of restarting the peace process," said Riyad al-Hassen, Head of the Palestinian Public Information Service and Media Adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas. The situation was at a boiling point, and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian question would remove one of the detonators from the hands of radical forces and create hope for the future. He hoped that it would be possible to restart the talks without conditions or preconditions.
Two panel discussions preceding the concluding session considered the issues of regional economic cooperation and Israeli-Palestinian cooperation at the civil-society level. Participants pointed out that, while political difficulties and security concerns persisted, people's lives were closely intertwined. Without economic development on the regional level, the international community would not be able to build a solid foundation for durable peace in the region.
On civil society cooperation, the Seminar heard presentations by the Chair and members of the Steering Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative, which was launched following last year's Seminar in Moscow. Speakers reported on various initiatives involving intercommunity cooperation in education, science and technology, public health, employment, and urban and environmentally sustainable coastal development. They also explored ways to promote further cooperation with the involvement of regional and international actors.
The Steering Committee's Chair, Ilan Juran of the Polytechnic University in New York, said that, with the players on the ground ready to cooperate, it was important to help them launch their initiatives to address common concerns. He proposed a workshop to assess how to move forward, under the leadership of the United Nations system and with the participation of donors and international organizations. An institutional structure should be put in place to coordinate international support.
Another panellist, Benny Vaknin, President of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Tel Aviv, who is also a former Mayor of Ashkelon, agreed that all activities of the public sector, including industry, commerce, regional infrastructure for export capacity and agricultural development, must be the main target in the coming months to prepare a programme for a workshop between Israeli and Palestinian Mayors in order to present ideas for the next Seminar.
Panel on Regional Economic Cooperation
Introducing the theme for today's first panel on regional economic cooperation, its moderator, HANS VAN GINKEL, Rector of the United Nations University, said that, while political difficulties and security concerns persisted, people's lives in the Middle East were closely intertwined. Both Israelis and Palestinians shared a number of common concerns, to which their neighbours were also not immune. Without economic development on the regional level, the international community would not be able to build a solid foundation for durable peace in the region.
In that context, it was important to promote regional economic cooperation, not only for improving the living standards of Palestinians, but also for building confidence between Israelis and Palestinians, he continued. The panel would explore ways to promote economic cooperation in a regional context and with the involvement of international actors, including Japan.
Opening the discussion, TATSUO ARIMA ( Japan) said his country was trying to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people and promote economic development in the region. Last March, the Japanese Government had hosted a confidence-building conference between Israelis and Palestinians for the third time, with the aim of deepening mutual trust through direct dialogue. One of the participants had said a land without hope was a land without a future. It was important to consider how to mobilize resources to rekindle hope in the hearts of Palestinians. That required an enormous and sustained effort on behalf of the international community.
The Japanese Government had recently announced its intention to provide additional humanitarian assistance in the amount of some $12.5 million, targeted primarily towards Gaza, he continued. Japan's projects in 2005-2006 had included the construction of a water-waste treatment plant, the building of housing in Gaza, and the strengthening of institutional and management capabilities in the Office of the President of the Palestinian Authority. Since the beginning of the Oslo process, Japan's aid had amounted to some $900 million. It was not so much the figure itself as the accumulation of well-defined and carefully crafted projects, always having creation of job opportunities in mind. Also under way were several grass-roots programmes in Israel. In addition to short-term and immediate humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians, it was important to help them create their own State with an attribute of sustainable economic development. For that reason, the Government of Japan was developing the "corridor for peace and prosperity" project.
He added that, during a meeting last Monday with Syrian officials, representatives of the Japanese Government had expressed their belief that Syria could play a more positive role in the region, for example by exercising its influence on Hamas to help resolve the situation within Palestine and ensuring stricter control of its border with Iraq. His Government was also providing clear support for President Abbas and promoting the revitalization of the Arab Peace Initiative, which could be harmonized with the Road Map.
SAMIR ISSA NAOURI (Jordan) said a political settlement alone would not be durable and stable, unless it was augmented by an economic component on a regional basis. Various parties should channel their ingenuity and initiatives towards building a better future for themselves and future generations. It also required active international support and assistance. Yesterday, Japan's Foreign Minister had presented his Government's initiative to establish a corridor for peace and prosperity along the banks of the River Jordan, on the borders of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. That was a good example of the initiatives required for future economic regional cooperation.
Jordan strongly supported that initiative, he continued. A four-way meeting of technical teams from Japan, Jordan, Palestine and Israel would be held at the Dead Sea to go over the results of the technical study carried out by Japanese experts and the results of the talks they had held with technical teams from the three countries. The initiative would not only help alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people by creating more employment opportunities and promoting economic development, but would also attract investment by the private sector, from both inside and outside the area.
JANET MICHAEL, Mayor of Ramallah, said she had come through a system of bridges and checkpoints to participate in efforts to push the peace process forward. The municipalities of Palestine were part and parcel of the efforts to develop communities and raise the standard of life in Palestine. They were trying to develop and build the cities, taking an active role in water and sanitation projects, and building roads, parks and libraries, as well as other projects.
What was happening in Palestine now was a tragedy that frustrated many hopes, she continued. Occupation was stifling Palestine, and many municipalities were divided into two parts by Israel's security barrier. Most of the land around Palestinian cities was dominated by Israeli security operations, and municipalities could not operate any vital projects or build on that land. Movement was restricted by checkpoints and inspection areas. The municipalities had found themselves in a particularly difficult situation after the latest elections, particularly as Israel withheld Palestinian taxes and income. As a result, the municipalities had been unable to collect fees and taxes from citizens who had not been paid in full for about a year now. They were paralyzed, and environmental projects and services had been halted. Waste, garbage and disease were spreading.
Speaking about cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, RONIT TIROSH, Member of Israel's Knesset, said "we had better times" in the past. Since the beginning of the latest intifada, Israel had had no choice but to put up a separation barrier. "Believe me, we would prefer to direct the money we spent on this barrier to education, but millions of dollars are being spent on security, trying to provide security for the people," she said. "We all want peace, but we don't have a choice."
As an example of security difficulties, she spoke about two women, one of them pregnant with her tenth child, who had tried to enter Israel two weeks ago, wearing explosive belts. Such incidents eliminated the chance for the cooperation that had existed before. However, there was no doubt that, with the closing of border crossings, the private sector had suffered. At present, agricultural and production activities in Palestine had collapsed, which was detrimental to Israel's economy, as well.
Despite the difficulties, individual people and organizations found ways to cooperate, she said. It was important to find a balance between Israeli security concerns and ensuring livelihoods for the Palestinians. Should the borders be opened, significant benefits for the Palestinian side could come from renewed cooperation in the areas of export, creation of jobs and increase in the gross domestic product (GDP). Israel could also gain from the creation of job opportunities and development of exports. Together with the Palestinian market, the benefits from exports to the Arab countries could amount to some $12 billion.
WADIE ABUNASSAR, Director of the International Centre for Consultation, Israel, said he was proud to be a Palestinian and an Israeli. The vast majority of Arabs and Jews were far from understanding each other, and his dream was that every Arab should know about the Holocaust and every Jew should know about the Palestinian catastrophe. To leave behind the current turmoil, it was important to introduce concrete projects to promote understanding. For example, a book on difficult questions had been written jointly by Jews and Poles. A similar book should be written by Arabs and Jews together.
The Israelis should drop the idea that every Arab should be a collaborator and look at Arabs as partners instead, he continued, adding that clerics could play an important role in that respect. He also spoke about the need to invest in jobs for refugees, who now had no hope and whose suffering was used to promote terrorist ideas. He stressed the importance of teaching Arabic and Hebrew to the Israeli and Palestinian populations, respectively. "We cannot be neighbours without understanding each other and knowing each other's culture," he insisted. There was also great potential in using Israeli Palestinians -- some 20 per cent the country's population -- who should be encouraged to play a constructive role in seeking understanding.
A speaker in the ensuing debate said the high rate of military spending in Israel was affecting the country's economy in a negative way. The Palestinian economy was affected by security measures, movement restrictions and withholding of Palestinian monies. What would happen if Israel suffered from the same rate of unemployment as Gaza? He suspected that social upheaval would ensue. Peace was an important precondition for cooperation and development. Cooperation and a climate of peace were among the main tools for the region to compete and win in today's globalized world. Should peace prevail, Egypt could become the next Republic of Korea, for example.
Another speaker asked whether unemployment or security issues should be addressed first for economic development to happen. To that, the moderator replied that one should not be forced to choose between security and employment. It was important to resolve both issues.
A corridor of peace should become a highway, a panellist said. It was necessary to create an atmosphere of peace, and the role of journalists was important in that regard. Israelis should make more efforts to approach various segments of Palestinian society, taking into account both cultural and language issues.
Palestinians should stop blaming others and start taking responsibility for their own fate, a journalist from Israel said, adding: "We hear 'you did not give us enough, you did not help us enough'." Israel had withdrawn from Gaza, giving that area a chance to become something different. Instead of creating hope for the Palestinians, Gaza had chosen to create terror.
RIYAD MANSOUR, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations, said that, with international assistance, the Palestinian Authority was trying to give people hope. He was encouraged by such projects as the initiative that, with the help of European countries, had sought to preserve old buildings in Ramallah. There was also a marvellous school of music that had an open-door policy for children in the neighbourhood. However, along with those experiences, the Palestinian people had the terrible experiences of refugee camps. With the combination of the positive and the negative, they were trying to end the occupation and build their own State.
Stressing the importance of understanding reality "not as you wish it to be, but how it is", he said Palestinians were not evil people who preferred to be terrorists. Economic development and progress could not flourish in a vacuum; the occupying Power was in control. Anyone who could not see the link to economic development was not applying scientific analysis to understand reality.
Regarding Gaza, he said that, in making a unilateral decision to withdraw, Israel had not consulted with the Palestinians. The situation in the Gaza Strip was affected by "this system that is obsessed with security". If it was impossible to move products around with the closing of borders, then economic development could be perceived in a very limited way.
As for the wall in the West Bank, he said that he would have no problem if Israel chose to build a wall on Israeli territory, but if the path of the wall took 10 per cent of Palestinian land and if 90 per cent of the water resources were within the parameter of the wall, how was it related to security and not to a land-grab? The International Court of Justice had determined that the wall had not been constructed for security reasons, was illegal and had to be demolished. That was an objective assessment, and Israel needed to reassess its actions. "Build it on your own land, make it as high as you want, but don't build it on our land and create human devastation," he said.
That statement elicited a lively reaction from the floor, with several participants crying out: "What about suicide bombers? Do you think our sons enjoy standing as soldiers on roadblocks? We want to keep our children alive." A speaker said 90 per cent of the separation barrier was just a fence. "Since it was built, we stopped being killed in Tel Aviv," he insisted.
Panel on Challenges of Civil Society Initiatives
Today's second panel was moderated by DYSANE DORANI, Chief of the Palestine, Decolonization and Human Rights Section of the Department of Public Information.
Setting the stage for the discussion, he said high politics tended to obscure the fact that difficult political and security problems had not deterred Israeli-Palestinian cooperation at the civil society level. During the fourteenth Seminar in Moscow last year, it had been agreed that this year's event should not be an end in itself, but rather the platform for continuing dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian civil societies. That had led to the establishment of the Steering Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative under the leadership of Israeli and Palestinian mayors.
The session's keynote speaker, HUGH RICHARDSON, Head of the European Union Delegation in Tokyo, represented the European Commissioner for External Affairs, Benita Ferraro-Waldner. He said that, in spite of the grave situation in Palestine, the European Union was committed to moving the peace process forward, building institutions of the future Palestinian State. It would continue to explore ways to increase civil society participation in Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.
The European Union was a member of the Quartet and the largest donor of aid to the Palestinian people, he said. In the broader Middle East, it was establishing ties within the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, better known as the Barcelona Partnership, and its "Neighbourhood and Partnership" action plans. Most of its assistance was channelled towards humanitarian projects. Among other things, tangible results had been achieved in providing assistance to the judicial processes and improving the situation in the financial sector.
He expressed support for the Palestinian emergency Government, to which the European Union stood ready to provide assistance. "We must not give up on the need for a political perspective to provide peace and prosperity to the region," he said. The European Union favoured a two-State solution, and was providing assistance through a variety of programmes. A crucial element for creating a positive atmosphere for peace negotiations was the development of an empowered civil society in Palestine, which could push for dialogue and the end of violence, support moderation and a non-violent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, civil society should assume an important role in education, housing, job creation, human rights promotion and empowerment of women, he said. In Israel, too, civil society should contribute to the dialogue. Economic viability was unthinkable without a viable public sector. Among the Union's projects were efforts to create a suitable business environment and promote exports, and a special fund that guaranteed loans to small entrepreneurs. Launched a decade ago, a "partnership for peace" in support of civil society promoted confidence-building, human rights and rehabilitation of torture victims. The European Union also supported a "good water programme", bringing together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli communities.
The Chair and members of the Steering Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative presented a number of initiatives involving intercommunity cooperation in the areas of education, science and technology, public health, employment, urban and environmentally sustainable coastal development, among other things. They also explored ways to promote further cooperation with the involvement of regional and international actors.
The Steering Committee's Chair, Professor ILAN JURAN of the Polytechnic University in New York, said many issues could not be resolved, unless addressed together. Efforts were being made to bring non-governmental organizations and the mayors of several cities in Israel and Palestine together to work on common problems, such as water contaminated by sewage. Over the past year, in association with non-governmental organizations, members of the Steering Committee had visited several Mayors in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. One of the challenges in engaging the Mayors related to the need to identify common needs. To facilitate such efforts, the French Government had proposed to establish a university for engineers from participating cities, who could then submit feasibility studies on possible common projects. In Gaza, a suggestion had been made how to revitalize agriculture with better means of export. One of the solutions was to manage the lifecycle of agricultural products to reduce the impact of unpredictable closures and other constraints. It was necessary to put structures in place to facilitate such projects, and the European Union should establish a programme in support of joint infrastructure systems. The support of the United Nations system was also important. Financial resources were needed to provide assistance to mayors.
BENNY VAKNIN, President of Metropolitan Transit Authority of Tel Aviv and former Mayor of Ashkelon, spoke about a joint computer learning project he had implemented together with the mayor of Gaza at the end of the 1980s. There was no need to wait for peace agreements to pursue joint projects. It was possible to work together to create the basis for mutual understanding and improve education and infrastructure. Under the programme, Palestinian and Israeli students had gone to study in Israel and Germany. Under another project, a team of engineers from Ashkelon had gone to Gaza to provide assistance in the construction of a recycling facility. Plans for another project were being made. Such projects could contribute to the peace process.
WALEED SIAM, Representative of Palestine in Japan, spoke on behalf of the Mayor of Gaza, saying there was no problem of coexistence at the grass-roots level. Members of civil society had the responsibility to build trust in search of political, social and economic solutions.
He said military security should not be a precondition for talking to each other. Two peoples in one land had equal rights to exist under a two-State solution, and Palestine and Israel should be equal partners. Palestinians were thankful to all donors, but they did not want to be a burden on the international community. Given a chance, they could work towards economic development, education and strengthening the infrastructure. Construction of ports, airports, highways and agricultural and industrial zones could resolve the problem of unemployment, a joint responsibility of both Palestinians and Israelis. "Let's put our hands together," he said.
ZVI ZILKER, Mayor of Ashdod, said that taking care of the ecosystem of the shore, prevention of contamination of underground- and seawater would be equally beneficial for the populations of Ashdod, Ashkelot and Gaza, as well as the whole region. With funding by the World Bank, Japan and other donors, a project had been initiated to improve the purification system and develop a free-trade area that would allow for free passage of cargo, with full security. A mutual recycling project was also under way. Among other beneficial projects were the initiatives to build a desalination plant and create fish farms eight miles from the shores of Israel and Gaza. He hoped the new situation in Gaza would not impede the projects, which had been initiated for the improvement of both Israeli and Palestinian citizens.
HAIM AVITAN, Mayor of Hadira, said it was an open city that provided public services to both Israeli and Palestinian communities in the area. Most citizens wanted to lead a normal life in peace and prosperity, but some radical groups thought otherwise. The only way to overcome security and policy-oriented concerns was to think of the other side as an equal partner. Personally, he was fully committed to working together with his neighbours, but he also had to take into account the security concerns. Unfortunately, there had been some explosions and a lot of victims in Hadira, most attacks originating in the neighbouring Palestinian villages. It was important to overcome mistrust on both sides.
AVRAHAM YEHEZKEL, Chairman of Histadrut, an Israeli labour union, said that, notwithstanding the events of the last few weeks, it was important to strengthen the link between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions. Among other things, the organization was promoting a project for free-trade zones, seeking to attract the international business sector and multinational firms. Among other priorities, there was a need to explore joint agricultural, environmental, energy conservation, transportation and infrastructure programmes.
NOAM YIFRACH, Chairman of Maged David Adom (Israeli Star of David Society), said its representatives were providing medical assistance to Palestinians in Israeli hospitals, as well as to people trying to pass through checkpoints. They also provided advocacy services to Palestinians before the Israeli Government. Maged David Adom had also become a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Panel on "The Way Forward"
Introducing the future-oriented theme of the last panel, its Moderator KIYO AKASAKA, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information of the United Nations, said that "both small steps and big steps" had been proposed during the Seminar -- on the political, economic and social fronts. Some participants had emphasized that, along with political discussions, economic and social initiatives were urgently needed to promote confidence between the parties. Sewage purification, academic cooperation, desalination, water management, ecological, industrial, agricultural and transportation projects had been presented among the areas of cooperation that could pave the way forward. Civil society initiatives had been presented to the participants.
"We are often mesmerized by conflict, and political and security concerns are increasing mistrust between the Palestinian and Israeli people," he said. Local governments, civil society, non-governmental organizations and individual people needed to work together to overcome those problems.
Mr. JURAN said he had been encouraged by today's discussion, and there was no question that mayors and civil society representatives were, indeed, willing to participate in joint initiatives. It was important to support such efforts and generate the resources needed. With the players on the ground ready to cooperate, it was important to help them launch their initiatives to address common concerns. Following his recent visit to several Palestinian and Israeli cities, it was clear to him that decentralized intercity cooperation offered a venue for resolving common issues on the ground. Such projects could also assist in responding to regional challenges. It was necessary to rebuild the trust and implement confidence-building measures, so that people could understand each other.
With numerous concrete initiatives presented today, he proposed a workshop to assess how to move forward, under the leadership of the United Nations system and with the participation of donors and international organizations. The mayors could present their concrete proposals together and institutional structure should be put in place to coordinate the support of the international community.
Speaking to participants via videolink from Ramallah, RIYAD AL-HASSEN, Head of the Palestinian Public Information Service and Media Adviser to President Abbas, said the Seminar presented a great opportunity to exchange views with colleagues and establish links and mutual understanding on many issues. Palestine was experiencing very difficult circumstances. In brief, the Palestinian situation had now become more complicated and added new unexpected burdens to the Palestinian Authority. While the situation had many causes, the main one was that the peace process had stalled.
The deterioration of the popularity of the Palestinian Authority had resulted from the fact that President Abbas had not succeeded in releasing Palestinian prisoners, stopping the construction of the wall or restoring payment of Palestinian funds held by Israel. That might be the main reason for the increase of influence of Hamas. Now that Gaza had fallen hostage to Hamas, President Abbas had to solve that malig