With Palestinian Authority’s plan for statehood nearly complete, Secretary-General says ‘time is of the essence’, calls for speedy resumption of peace negotiations

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As UN Seminar Opens in Helsinki, Participants Told ‘Countdown to Independent Palestinian State Has Begun’, But Israeli Occupation Measures Could Stall Progress

(Received from a UN Information Officer)

HELSINKI, 28 April — With the Palestinian Authority making steady progress towards completing its State-building programme by August, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called for “serious and effective” international assistance to the Palestinian people, a speedy re-launch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and an end to internal Palestinian divisions, all of which would be vital in the months ahead.

“Time is of the essence […] the institutional achievements of the Palestinian State-building programme are approaching their limits within the political and physical space currently available,” said the Secretary-General in a message delivered by Rima Khalaf, Under-Secretary-General, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), to the United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People, which opened today in Helsinki, Finland.

Urging “serious efforts” by all to bring the parties back to the negotiating table as soon as possible, based on existing agreements between them, the relevant Security Council resolutions, the Road Map and the Arab Peace Initiative, the message of the Secretary-General pointed out that: “The goal remains clear — an end to the occupation that began in 1967 and to the conflict, with the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian State, living side by side with Israel in peace and security. The two-State solution is in the best interest of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

The Secretary-General welcomed the timely focus of the two-day Seminar — mobilizing international efforts in support of the Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s detailed two-year plan for building the institutions to sustain an independent Palestinian State — and noted that the Palestinian Authority had accelerated progress in improving its governmental functions in the limited territory under its control, despite constraints on the ground.

It was imperative to stop actions that prejudged the outcome and undermined the climate of trust needed for progress in negotiations. “In this regard, Israel’s continued settlement activity in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem is unacceptable,” the message of the Secretary-General pointed out, reiterating that settlements were illegal under international law. Further, real progress towards Palestinian unity was necessary within the framework of the Palestinian Authority and the commitments of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which were the prerequisites for establishing a viable Palestinian State. He also expressed concern about the recent escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip, as well as the dire humanitarian situation there, “which remains unsustainable”.

Encouraging the parties to persist in their goal of resolving all final status issues, the Secretary-General pledged to do everything is his power, through his work with the other members of the Quartet on the Middle East peace process, to help their representatives exercise responsible leadership to that end. “Going forward, our task now is to support the Palestinian National Plan for 2011 to 2013, which will lay the basis for additional improvements in the Palestinian Authority institutions,” he added, welcoming the organization of a donors’ conference at an appropriate time this year to provide an opportunity to reinforce support for that Plan.

Abdou Salam Diallo, Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, which convened the Seminar, said that with the Palestinian leadership pressing ahead, and the diplomatic campaign for statehood reaching “unstoppable momentum”, all strands were expected to come together in September. “The countdown to an independent Palestinian State has begun. Much has already been accomplished, yet, much more remains to be done within a very short time frame,” he said.

While drawing the attention of the more than 100 Government and civil society representatives, Middle East experts and academics gathered for the Seminar, to recent “impressive” economic growth in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, he cautioned that it masked the gap between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Foreign aid and remittances still appeared to drive that growth. Unemployment was “alarmingly high”, particularly in Gaza and among the young, while participation in the formal economy remained low, chiefly among women.

“This state of affairs is not sustainable. No Palestinian State can prosper and deliver economic opportunities unless it is underpinned by a growing modern economy, which trades worldwide and unleashes the full potential of its highly educated and motivated workforce,” he said, stressing that education must be made more relevant to meet the demands of a competitive global marketplace. Expanding women’s opportunities was sound economics, as well as a basic rights objective. “Our seminar will dwell on how to achieve these goals.”

Mr. Diallo urged everyone to remain acutely aware of the myriad obstacles weighing down the Palestinian economy, but, echoing a recent United Nations report, said that: “despite the progress achieved, the key constraints to the existence and successful functioning of the institutions of a potential State of Palestine arise primarily from the persistence of occupation and the unresolved issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Palestinians were therefore reaching the limit of what was realizable unless the measures of occupation were rolled back, he declared, highlighting that in the West Bank, for example, onerous and highly unpredictable movement and access restrictions, settlements, home demolitions and the separation wall “have put a chokehold on investment and opportunity”.

“There is little point for the international community to continue to treat the symptoms, while avoiding the root causes, which are the continued Israeli occupation which stifles the realization by the Palestinians of the inalienable national rights to self-determination, sovereignty and to return,” he said. Therefore, at the political level, support needed to be built for the broad international recognition of an independent Palestinian State, and its formal welcome to the family of nations at the United Nations. The Quartet needed to finish the job of defining a set of permanent status parameters without further delay, so that the parties could resume their peace negotiations as soon as possible.

In the meantime, he said the United Nations and humanitarian agencies were working tirelessly to alleviate the crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. However, further assistance was urgently needed. The relief agencies on the ground had recently launched their 2011 Consolidated Appeal Process for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, totalling some $575 million. “Our Committee wishes to call on all donors to accelerate their efforts to help meet the basic humanitarian needs of the Palestinians,” he said.

In a keynote speech, Ali Al-Jarbawi, Minister for Planning and Administrative Development of the Palestinian Authority, said he was addressing the Seminar with “mixed emotions, but with a sense of pride” at the resilience shown by the Palestinian people in building a functioning, independent State, despite overwhelming obstacles. Yet, he was fearful that those hard-won achievements would ultimately amount to nothing, as Israel continued its “aggressive and destructive” polices throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, in violation of international law.

Hailing the major progress towards implementing the Palestinian Authority’s State-building Programme, he said that initiative would be completed in August, as scheduled. He recalled that Prime Minister Fayyad had detailed the achievements at a recent donors’ meeting in Brussels, which had included the participation of representatives of the European Union, the United Nations, the Bretton Woods Institutions and the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee.

Following the broad and enthusiastic expression of support for the plan, the Prime Minister had declared that such endorsement “represents nothing less than a birth certificate for the State of Palestine”. Mr. Al-Jarbawi added that despite constraints, including denial of the use of most of its land and much of its natural resources, the Palestinian Authority had nevertheless made significant strides. “We have demonstrated beyond any doubt that we are capable to be masters of our own destiny in a state of our own,” he said, citing, among other things, the addition of more than 3,000 classrooms to Palestinian education system, high enrolment in universities, the provision of electricity to all villages and the planting of millions of trees.

“While these are just numbers, they are no less impressive,” said Mr. Al-Jarbawi, because they had been achieved under oppressive occupation. The Palestinian Authority was proud of what it had achieved with the help of its partners, including the United Nations, to improve living conditions on the ground. “We have continued to build, even as Israel has continued to destroy […] but we can go no further while living under the constraints of a hostile occupying regime,” he said. Indeed, the State-building process must come to an end; it must lead to justice, freedom and self-rule for the Palestinian people. He feared Israel did not share that view — he believed Israel would be “more than satisfied” with some form of self-rule that maintained a parallel occupation regime.

Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East had revealed that ordinary citizens did not want injustice and oppression to continue indefinitely, and it was clear that Palestinian people were ready and able to exercise their inalienable rights. “What we really need now, more than ever before, is determined political and diplomatic support to bring an end to the Israeli occupation, so we can live in a State of our own,” he said, stressing that such a State should not be “a fractured State of leftovers”; the entire Israeli occupation regime must be completely dismantled.

“Our goal is to have a free and independent Palestine […] that can be a beacon of humanitarian values and religious tolerance around the world,” he said, reiterating Palestinians’ realistic desire to be not only an anchor of peace in its region, but to play active and positive role as a member of the wider international community. All stakeholders must work together in the same spirit of determination to make an independent Palestine a reality.

To that end, this coming September, with capable institutions in place and with adequate pledges from the Paris conference, set to take place in June, “we will be ready to make this a reality,” he said. The Israeli military occupation was now the only remaining obstacle to Palestinian statehood. As such, forthright and determined action by the international community would be critical in removing that obstacle. “Financial aid alone will only maintain the status quo, and this is clearly not the way forward to peace,” he said, adding that, if more time was allowed to pass, “the two-State solution will slip beyond our grasp.”

Earlier in the meeting, Ritva Koukku-Ronde, Under-Secretary-General for Development Cooperation and Development Policy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, welcomed participants, noting that across North Africa and the Middle East, rapid developments were under way. People were standing up for core human aspirations and expressing their desire to shape their own lives. The role of the international community, including the United Nations and the European Union, was to support those countries and people to ensure stable and sustainable social and economic development in the region and beyond.

Yet, even as those historic changes were taking place, the critical issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace remained stalled “and the immediate prospects of reviving it remain gloomy.” She said that Finland hoped that the new regional dynamics would help bring both sides back to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, her Government had yesterday witnessed “encouraging news” from Cairo as leaders announced an initial agreement to end the four-year rift between Palestinian factions. Israel, along with Palestinians and the international community should try to capitalize on all those historic developments.

Ms. Koukku-Ronde went on to say that the overall policy objective of Finland’s bilateral cooperation in the Palestinian Territory was to support the Middle East peace process through assistance to the Palestinian Authority towards meeting the basic needs of the people. Finland had also been involved in education initiatives, and she was pleased to see the relevant indicators on the upswing. Indeed, today, nearly 100 percent of all young boys and girls in the Occupied Territory were enrolled in school. Finland also supported access to water and sanitation, and had contributed to enhancing the competence of the civil police force. It had also helped bolster the participation of civil society agencies. Despite such Palestinian-driven changes and international assistance, however, she stressed that the situation could only truly be resolved through a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The message of Mahmoud Abbas, delivered by Ali Al-Jarbawi, drew the Seminar’s attention to the situation on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where Israel continued to carry out illegal practices and policies against the Palestinian people and their land. Indeed, despite the fact that there was a global consensus against Israel’s settlement construction, it had continued to ignore the calls to stop such construction, threatening to render the two-State solution impossible.

“We call on the international community, including the United Nations Security Council, to redouble its efforts and take all necessary measures to compel Israel to abide by its obligations under international law […] and cease all of its settlement activities along with all other violations against the Palestinian people it holds hostage to its occupation,” President Abbas said in his message. At the same time, he underscored that settlements, while “a major obstacle to peace”, were not the only final status issue that must be fully resolved, and in that regard called for immediate steps to resolve other vital concerns, including Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, borders, security, waters, and Palestinian prisoners, in order to secure lasting peace.

Highlighting the decision announced yesterday between Palestinian parties to end their rift and form a unity Government, he stressed the Palestinian Authority’s belief that such reconciliation was imperative for healing and strengthening the Palestinian people as they continued their journey to realize their noble goals. Finally, he renewed his appeal to the Quartet members to demonstrate bold leadership by clearly endorsing the parameters of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on 1967 borders. Such an endorsement, along with an invitation to both sides to return to the negotiating table, would seriously contribute to reviving the political process on a credible basis and help bring to fruition a peace treaty between the two sides by September.

In the ensuing discussion, Hisham El-Zimaity, Assistant Foreign Minister of Egypt for International Organizations, delivering a statement on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, outlined the historic steps taken by the Palestinian leadership since 2009 to bring about the birth of an independent State. Thus far, that effort, despite political and financial challenges, had launched some 1,500 projects, including the establishment of dozens of new schools, medical clinics and homes. It had also begun constructing new roads and instituting judicial and security reforms, as well as ensuring financial transparency and other essential elements of sustainable socio-economic development.

“However, the only remaining impediment is the continued occupation by Israel and its denial of Palestinians’ right to independence,” he said, echoing calls of other speakers for an immediate end to the occupation, which would enable the Palestinian leadership to rebuild the fractured political, social and economic ties that could underpin the fabric of a newly born nation. He noted that every Palestinian citizen under the age of 44had been born under Israeli occupation, which highlighted the urgency of rolling back such measures. Noting that United States President Barrack Obama had expressed the wish to welcome the new country of Palestine among General Assembly member States in September, he asked: “So, are we, as an international community, ready to deliver?”

The Assistant Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference said the Palestinian cause remained a top priority for the Conference and the wider international community. The Seminar had been convened at a critical time, when Israel was continuing its actions to impede progress in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including ongoing attempts to change the historic character of areas in and around the West Bank and East Jerusalem. All such actions undermined efforts to achieve a two-State solution, he declared.

The Permanent Observer of the Arab League to the United Nations Office at Vienna was among those praising the reconciliation agreement announced yesterday between Hamas and Fatah, which would certainly bolster the ongoing State-building initiative. Turning to the dire situation on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, he said: “No one can imagine the frustration of Palestinians being denied the opportunity to control their own destiny for decades.” He said that the only just solution to the protracted conflict was the full Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territories to the 4 June 1967 line, including from the Syrian Golan and lands in southern Lebanon, in line with Arab Peace Initiative and relevant United Nations resolutions.

The representative of Turkey said that there was no need to “wait for dust to settle down” in the wake of bold changes taking place in North Africa and the Middle East; the dignity of the Palestinian people must be restored. They must attain an independent State. “The dignity of the entire international community is at stake,” he said, reminding Israel that “the same principle of international law it was denying today might be the very international legal tenets it would need to embrace tomorrow.” He appealed to all sides for common sense to prevail.

The United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian people will meet again today at 3 p.m. in plenary session to consider the State-building programme of the Palestinian Government.

For information media • not an official record