Future of Palestinian Institutions Closely Linked to Progress on Two-State Solution, Secretary-General Tells Rome Meeting

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Urging Donors to ‘Push Back’ against Israeli Occupation Policies, Palestinian Minister Says ‘Development under Occupation Is a Charade’

ROME, 27 February — With cash-starved Palestinian institutions standing on “political quicksand”, and mounting tensions in the West Bank over settlement construction and the recent death of a Palestinian prisoner in Israeli custody, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the parties to refrain from actions that could undermine the prospects of reopening long-stalled peace negotiations.

In a message delivered on his behalf to the United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People by Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, Mr. Ban said the future of Palestinian institutions was closely linked to concrete achievements towards the two-State solution, and as such, failure to make tangible progress to that end “only means a continuation of the suffering, violence and instability in the whole region”.

The Seminar, organized by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, is the first such gathering since the General Assembly voted decisively in November 2012 to accord Palestine non-Member observer State status at the United Nations. Over the next two days, representatives of Governments, United Nations agencies and civil society will join senior Palestinian officials to weigh the challenges and opportunities of providing such assistance in the new reality of a State under occupation.

The Secretary-General said the meeting was taking place as the Palestinian Government faced an “unprecedented” financial crisis that put at risk the significant achievements in institution-building made in recent years under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He reiterated the importance of the full transfer of Palestinian tax and customs revenues by Israel in a timely and predictable manner, and renewed his call on all donors, especially Arab countries, to fulfil their pledges and increase their support.

Meanwhile, the United Nations continued to support Palestinian institution-building, and provided critical humanitarian assistance in both the West Bank and Gaza. In response to continuing needs, he said that the Organization and its partners sought some $400 million for humanitarian action this year, with a focus on food insecurity and protection. Work was also continuing with the Palestinian Authority on elaborating the first UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, a strategic plan intended to guide United Nations development programming from 2014 through 2016.

Underscoring that the viability of Palestinian institutions was linked to concrete progress on achieving the two-State solution, he said the United Nations was, therefore, deeply concerned about actions and events that might undermine that effort, including Israel’s continued illegal settlement construction and the death four days ago of Palestinian prisoner Arafat Jaradat. Calling for an independent and transparent investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Jaradat’s death, he said that a solution must be urgently found for the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody whose health conditions had dramatically deteriorated as a result of their prolonged hunger strike.

Abdou Salam Diallo (Senegal), Chairman of the Palestinian Rights Committee, echoed the Secretary-General’s concern, stressing that mass protests under way in the West Bank were a direct result of the Israeli policies of occupation, economic strangulation, and undermining of Palestinian institutions. They reflected “massive human rights violations”, of which Palestinian political prisoners were the prime target.

“Given the credible reports of abuse and torture happening in Israeli prisons, we demand a full international investigation into the death of prisoner Jaradat and into prison conditions in general,” he declared, adding that the Committee had “knocked on every door”, including that of the Security Council and the International Committee of the Red Cross, advocating the speedy release of prisoners, particularly the hunger strikers, whose lives were in imminent danger.

Calling the Seminar’s attention to Israel’s full control over some 62 per cent of the West Bank, where it continued, “recently even with more vigour”, to expand illegal settlements, he pointed out that the isolation of East Jerusalem from the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza presented in themselves “almost insurmountable obstacles” for the capacities of the Palestinian Authority.

He went on to say that the Committee deeply deplored the economic reprisals which the Israeli Government had imposed immediately after the Assembly had granted Palestine non-Member observer State status. When Palestinian tax revenues collected by Israel had been blocked, fortunately, international and regional donors had mobilized and steps were under way to release United States aid. In the meantime, Israel had transferred December taxes. “However, a resumption of the regular payments is far from certain,” he added.

The Chairman said 2013 would be a “pivotal year” for the peace process and that a push by the international community was needed on multiple fronts — political, economic, legal and on all the other major issues of interest — to re-launch international engagement, restart meaningful negotiations, achieve reconciliation, strengthen Palestinian institutions, and end the Gaza blockade.

“The reason for hope is that a narrow but vital window of opportunity may be opening on the political front,” he said. “As a Committee with a cross-cutting political and humanitarian mandate, we feel we have an important contribution to make,” he added, explaining that the body had gathered leading experts who would provide access to technical advice on the best way to take advantage of the new status of the State of Palestine. “We need to break the vicious circle of the occupation that costs the Palestinian economy nearly $7 billion per year, he declared.

Delivering the keynote address, Nabeel Kassis, Minister for Finance of the State of Palestine, said that, while the challenges on the ground in occupied Palestine were significant, there were also many opportunities. “If we work together to seize them, we can achieve our goal of ending occupation and exercising our inalienable rights, including self-determination and the establishment of an independent State,” he said, emphasizing that it was essential to ensure that Palestinians could finally exercise the rights that other free nations took for granted, but Palestine could not, due to Israel’s ongoing occupation.

He said that since the occupation began in 1967, the Palestinian economy had never been allowed to reach its full potential. Indeed, the Israeli military Government had promulgated numerous orders which forced regulations on Palestinian affairs and trade, tourism, banking and agriculture, “essentially controlling every aspect of our lives”. Unfortunately, Israel had succeeded in making the Palestinian economy subservient to its own. Even after the signing of the Oslo Accord, the Palestinian economy had been, and remained, literally surrounded by a wall, governed by a dominant colonial Power, choked by illegal settlements and undermined by Israel’s severe restrictions on movement of people and goods.

The single most important document governing the issue was the 1994 Paris Protocol, he said, recalling that it had established a Customs Union between Israel and the Palestinian territory that it occupied. By the agreement, the two parties, among other things, recognized the need to create an enabling economic environment for their respective peoples. Yet, Palestinians had little or no control over their economic affairs; all border crossings, except the Rafah crossing to Egypt, and all sea and airports were under total Israeli control. Consequently, instead of prosperity, the Palestinian people suffered rising unemployment and declining economic growth, he said, adding that, over time, they had become dependent on foreign donors and the larger Israeli economy.

He went on to point out that Israel had violated every aspect of the Protocol, and it was, therefore, high time to revisit it. By that, he did not mean renegotiating its clauses but ensuring that the measures already in place were implemented by Israel in good faith. Among the major violation were Israel’s freezing of Palestinian taxes it collected, blocking movement of goods, services and people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and Israel’s continuing policy of maintaining exclusive control over the type and quality of goods it allowed into the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

“And the list of violations goes on and on,” he continued. The common denominator was that the breaches were carried out unilaterally, with utter disregard for Palestinian priorities and previous legal agreements. Indeed, the situation could only be characterized as “colonial exploitation”, as Palestinians were deprived of the benefits of their own resources. The huge sum of money generated by settler-produced goods traded with Israel’s euro zone partners — including Ahava beauty products that exploited Palestinian Dead Sea minerals — was “shameful”, he said, emphasizing that if the average consumer knew about the harm that settler products caused, they would think twice about purchasing them. Such products should ultimately be banned, but in the meantime, they should at least be clearly labelled, he added.

The Minister urged the international community to find ways to “push back” against policies that strengthened Israel’s hold on the Palestinian economy, explaining that its illegal use of Palestinian natural resources alone had cost the local economy around $1.8 billion in 2010. Overall, the economic burden of the occupation in 2012 had been some $7 billion, he said. “This is a burden that no economy could withstand.” Such polices denied Palestinians the right to develop a stable society. “Development under occupation is a charade,” he declared, stressing that the donor community must hear that truth so that it could push back against Israeli policies rather than acquiescing to them.

Mr. Kassis went on to underline the need to build upon the overwhelming support shown by the General Assembly in November 2012, expressing hope that the international community would help bolster Palestinian institutions, which were the fruit of hard work by Palestinians and investment by the international community. He also urged support for Palestinian civil society. A “paradigm shift” must occur, whereby the donor community became more willing to challenge Israel publicly and on the ground, including by speaking out against projects that seriously disrupted the Palestinian economy.

He urged a shift from statements and resolution to concrete actions. Calling on the international community to “stand firmly with us to end occupation and economic exploitation”; that was the right thing to do for regional peace and the world at large. He reiterated his call on States to sanction companies that directly or indirectly sustained the occupation or profited from it, and noted, for example, that there was a segregated bus company operating in the territory that was off-limits to Palestinians. “This is unacceptable,” he declared.

The Minister also noted that an international security firm provided equipment and services to Israeli prisons, which held children under the age of 16 and detained some prisoners for years without charge. Just four days ago, Arafat Jaradat had died shortly after being interrogated by Israeli authorities, he recalled, welcoming in that regard calls for an independent international investigation into the matter. As for the subject at hand, he said that holding accountable corporations that profited from the occupation would send a strong message to Israel that the world would not stand for its illegal practices. “But the economy is only the icing on the political cake, and there is no need of icing if there is no cake,” he said, underscoring that an independent State was the ultimate goal for Palestinians.

He said that, while some believed the two-State solution was moribund — and it was indeed in great danger while the Israeli land-grab continued — the peace process could yet be saved “provided we move immediately and decisively”. To avoid reaching “the point of no return”, bold measures and policy changes by the international community were required. The international community should realize by now that “we are not dealing with an ordinary conflict” that was amenable to methods of conflict resolution. Rather, the situation was an act of dispossession that should be addressed through international law. “It is time to act and make those necessary, even difficult, decisions,” he emphasized.

Also addressing the opening session, Fernanda Guerrieri, Directeur de Cabinet of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Seminar host, said that over the years, the agency had devoted its efforts to helping improve the agricultural sector and to alleviating food and nutrition insecurity throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In particular, since 2002, it had supported the preparation and response to relevant threats through emergency relief, rehabilitation and the revitalization of productive capacity.

“These interventions are essential to enhance overall food security, reduce dependency on relief assistance and contribute to institution-building,” she said, adding that over time, FAO had developed a partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture aimed at creating an enabling environment for the whole sector. With a view to alleviating food and nutrition insecurity in Gaza, the agency’s Director-General had approved last month the extension proposed by the World Food Programme of an emergency operation to cover the full year. It sought to help the population of Gaza meet its daily food needs and enhance dietary quality, and to pre-position emergency food stocks so as to help address potential emergencies.

Looking ahead, she noted that among other challenges, given limited natural resources available and a fragile ecosystem, it would be imperative to ensure that development of the agricultural sector did not compromise the resource base for future generations. She also said FAO was helping the people of the region enhance their disaster risk reduction strategies and highlighted the need to effectively address the complex situation in the West Bank and Gaza. FAO would seek to partner with a broad array of international partners to that end, she said.