Plenary Session also examines Impact of Dire Humanitarian Situation In Occupied Palestinian Territories on Efforts to Create Lasting Institutions
Helsinki, 28 April – The United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People this afternoon focused its discussions on the progress towards obstacles that might undermine the Palestinian Authority’s two-year plan to build an independent state, with speakers warning that the Authority’s efforts were held back by the physical and political restrictions imposed by Israeli occupation. The two-day Seminar’s first plenary session focused on the achievements, as well as the challenges of the state-building initiative, with a diverse group of experts also weighing in on key matters such as institution-building, governance, and socio-economic development. They also stressed the urgency of reconstruction in the Gaza Strip and making headway in the Palestinian National Early Recovery and Reconstruction Plan for Gaza.
Opening the session, Mohammad Shtayyeh, President, Palestinian Economic Center for Development and Reconstruction, based in Ramallah, said that while the focus was on the current state-building programme, Palestinians had actually begun preparations for an independent State in 1994 with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the Palestinian people had held many elections and had benefitted from the activities of a very vibrant civil society.
Turning to the subject at hand, he cited several key landmarks — such as United States President Barack Obama’s address to the General Assembly in September 2010 in which he expressed his desire to see the birth of a Palestinian State within a year, and the upcoming July 9 Palestinian local elections — emphasizing that all tracks were heading in one important direction, where, in September, the political track was supposed to meet the institution-building track, to yield, through a negotiated agreement, a peaceful settlement and an independent Palestinian State.
He recalled that the Palestinian Authority had been established as an interim organization to work towards the end of Israeli occupation and the emergence of an independent Palestine by 1999. Clearly, that had not occurred and, with the historic Palestinian-driven state-building process nearing conclusion, what the world was witnessing ahead of September 2011 was a paradigm shift from bilateral negotiations towards international responsibility. The overall effort employed by the Palestinian Authority now combined elements of national liberation, institution-building and peacebuilding, he added.
The elements of a state were already deeply rooted in Palestinian culture, and while the Palestinian Authority had achieved much over the past two years, absent the Israeli occupation, it could have achieved even more. In any case, he said, state-building must lead to an outcome that was irreversible. In his experience, such efforts were decidedly reversible. For example, his agency had re-built the Beit Hanoun Bridge three times. It had repaved roads in the Occupied Palestinian Territory time and again only to see them destroyed by fighting. With that in mind, he said that in order for the current state-building programme to be irreversible, a sustainable political framework must be in place.
Continuing, Mr. Shtayyeh said the Palestinian Authority was very young and it had inherited destroyed cities, neglected infrastructure and nearly impassable roads. Nevertheless, it had made strides in security sector and judicial reforms, as well as vital improvements at the municipal level, including bolstering the participation of women. He also noted the establishment of a high commission dealing with corruption and a High Council dealing with youth matters. Much of the overall success was being undercut by the impact of Israeli occupation, a budget deficit and a lagging economy. An enabling economic environment had been lacking because the Palestinian economy had been conditioned to serve the Israeli economy. However, when an independent Palestinian State was created, that situation would change quickly and dramatically for the better, as Palestinian institutions would regain control of natural resources, access to local waters and freedom of trade with other partners.
“We cannot afford to continue with this “interim” period with no timeframe,” he said drawing the Seminar’s attention to the assessment by the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee and the Bretton Woods Institutions that Palestinian institutions were now able to carry out the functions required for statehood. “If not in September, then when?” he asked.
Focusing on the humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Reena Ghelani, Deputy Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Jerusalem, said that it should be no surprise that relief agencies worked most frequently in the West Bank, Gaza and the region known as “Area C”, comprising over 60 per cent of the West Bank — all places where the apparatus of the Israeli occupation was most concentrated and most intensely enforced. For the purposes of time, she mainly covered the situation in the West Bank, and using a Power Point presentation, painted a vivid picture of a fragmented and disjointed land.
She noted that some 39 per cent of the West Bank was under the control of Israeli land authorities, forcing Palestinians to apply for permits that were “virtually impossible to get.” Palestinians were not allowed to develop or plan for any construction in Area C, which included the Jordan Valley and other areas that “were absolutely essential” for the creation of a future Palestinian State. And in East Jerusalem, only 13 per cent of the land had been approved for Palestinian construction. As such, the restrictive Israeli planning regime directly contributed to the dire condition of the Palestinian people living there as it affected nearly every aspect of their daily existence. “You, the international community, are paying for the Palestinian Authority to build schools that the Israelis are destroying,” she said.
Walking the participants through the various obstacles to movement, including checkpoints, trenches and earth mounds, among others, she said such infrastructure was usually put in place to channel Palestinian traffic or hinder access to agricultural land. Such blockades and barriers effectively trapped whole communities in one place. At the same time, she stressed that while it was significant that some barriers and checkpoints had been had been removed,
Ms. Ghelani said that Israeli settlements were the most important factor shaping the planning regime. Perhaps the most famous barrier was the separation wall, which, if completed, would stretch some 700 kilometres. She noted that water sources were largely located on the Israeli side of the wall. Palestinians were required by Israel to obtain visitors” permits to go and work on their own lands. Those permits were valid for six months, requiring continuous reapplication. When the wall first started going up, the Israeli Government had given out 600 such permits, but in 2009, it had given out fewer than 100. Overall, she said, the Israeli planning measures had resulted physical and administrative restrictions that affected humanitarian conditions as well as state-building efforts.
The next speaker, John Clarke, Head of Coordination for the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) said effective state structures were essential for long-term development, and state-building provided incentives for long-term donor investment. It was also an essential compliment to — though not a replacement for — final status negotiations. Here, he recalled the recent United Nations-backed reports that had expressed support for the Palestinian state-building process and noted that those surveys had all agreed that the process was reaching the limits of what could be achieved unless the Israeli occupation measures were rolled back.
He said the United Nations was “working as one” more than ever in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. While the Organization might be known for making even the simplest operations complicated, in this case, it was streamlining and re-thinking programmes to better support humanitarian priorities. It would continue to support initiatives such as the “cash-for-work” programme in the Gaza Strip, but it would also look at longer term programmes. Specifically, he said UNSCO would try to align its development programming with the Palestinian state-building plan, including with a focus on Gaza, East Jerusalem and Area C, where Quartet Representative Tony Blair had received a number of approvals for initiatives aimed at spurring economic growth.
In closing, he drew attention to the joint World Bank/Palestinian Authority multi-donor trust fund, which was set to receive its first major infusion of resources in the amount of $75 million. If those monies could be allocated flexibly, UNSCO and other United Nations entities would be able to move ahead immediately with their initiatives once projects were approved. He said that UNSCO was committed to continuing to engage Member States at all levels, not just on development and humanitarian issues, but also on policy matters.
Mandy Turner, Lecturer in conflict resolution, from the University of Bradford, Bradford, West Yorkshire, said that addressing the challenges of implementing the Palestinian state-building programme and supporting the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people required “a hefty reality check on the current situation — particularly with the September “deadline” of a possible General Assembly and Security Council debate on Palestinian statehood looming. Along with that reality check, stakeholders must consider “who are “the Palestinian people”, and to what extent do we know what they want from a state-building process?”
She said there were real diplomatic and structural obstacles to the state-building project as it was currently being undertaken, including that it was extremely unlikely that Israel would allow an independent Palestinian State to emerge on the 1967 borders. She said it was also unlikely the United States would allow a truly independent Palestine to arise, and would therefore veto any Security Council vote on such a measure. As for the “immense” structural obstacles, she said the Palestinian Authority did not have control over its borders nor its revenues, and the territory of the proposed Palestinian State was terribly fragmented since Israel controlled around 82 per cent of the West Bank — 60 per cent of Area C and 22 per cent of Area B — and continued to blockade Gaza.
Ms. Turner went on to say that on a recent trip to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, she had interviewed some members of the donor community about Area C, and most had told her that they believed the area was now more difficult to access than Gaza. Only one percent of it was part of any planning and donors were frightened off because they feared that any structures built there risked demolition. Moreover, food insecurity in Area C was at 79 per cent some 20 per cent higher that it was in Gaza, where the challenges were more well-known. With such harsh realities on the ground, including Israel’s ongoing settlement expansion and efforts to fragment Palestinian land, she said “it’s time for everyone to finally acknowledge that Israel is carrying out a state-building plan of its own.”
She noted the realization that the processes of fragmentation and disempowerment currently in use by Israel must be counteracted and would perhaps led to an awakening among the Palestinian people. Indeed, a vigorous debate was taking place within Palestinian society — in the Occupied Territory, within Israel, in the refugee camps, and across the diaspora – about their future. In addition, it seemed that a consensus was currently being forged that only a democratic, reformed PLO, could decide on the way ahead, she said, adding that many believed that direct elections to the Palestinian National Council were also essential. Finally, she said that no State had been born because an occupier has given it statehood; States were born because the people under occupation had been united in their quest for independence.
The final expert in today’s plenary, Khaled Abdel Shafi, Senior Programme Adviser of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People, said it made him “very sad” to still be discussing the reconstruction of Gaza some 28 months after the Israeli war that had wrecked that area. The main reason for the delay was the blockade Israel had imposed four years ago, so perhaps the devastating impact of that measure should be included in the discussion. In any case, the Palestinian Authority had presented to donors its National Early Recovery and Reconstruction Plan for Gaza in March 2009. Some $4.3 billion had been pledged and the Plan had basically languished due to the lack of access to the area and restrictions on the entry of goods and construction materials.
Meanwhile, the blockade had forced Gazans to create a so called “tunnel economy,” in which goods for daily subsistence, tools and construction materials were smuggled underground through Egypt and into the blockaded area. With such supplies, he said, some of the water mains and sewage systems had been repaired and most of the homes that had been partially damaged had been refurbished. He said that UNDP had estimated that it would take some $2.3 billion over the next three years to address all the water and sanitation, electricity and other vital infrastructure needs.
He noted that the announcement yesterday of an initial reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah opened the door for more opportunities to jumpstart the reconstruction process. At the same time, he hoped that Egypt would provide alternative access that would help ease the entry of construction materials into Gaza. In a final plea, he said that Palestinians, the United Nations, and the international community had capacity to deal with technical and physical aspects of the recovery. However, the real tragedy was the abiding hopelessness, fear and despair within Gazan society as a result of the Israeli blockade, Palestinian divisions, and fragmentation of Palestinian lands. As such, the truly difficult work surrounding the recovery would have to be devoted to addressing such ills.
In the discussion that followed, a European civil society representative asked about “the health” of the Palestinian civil society. A representative of the American Task Force on Palestine, said that Ms. Turner “got it wrong” and the United States was committed to the attainment of a Palestinian State but through a trilateral policy that it [the United States] dominated. He also wondered if any of the panellists had suggestions about what options might be considered if Israeli”s and Palestinians failed to reach a two-State solution.
Both a representative from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) were also interested in options beyond the two-State solution. The representative of Morocco highlighted the situation of Palestinian refugees, which he said needed to be urgently addressed.
Responding, Mr. Shtayyeh, said the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was very imbalanced – with Israel being very strong and the Palestinians being very weak. The desire to correct that situation at the negotiating table had led to the inclusion of a third party, such as the United States, or, more recently, the Quartet. That approach had failed, particularly since the Quartet was actually dominated by Washington, and Washington was not in a position to put pressure on Israel, “because Israeli leaders know they can put pressure on the American President by using Congress to twist his arm.”
“We are generally just victims of American elections […] either we continue to live with this reality or find other venues,” he continued, recalling the recent proposal put forward by the Russian Federation to hold an international conference on Middle East peace in Moscow. Indeed, the peace process had begun as a multilateral process and so perhaps it was time to consider that route again. With that in mind, he said that September discussions in the General Assembly were important because they would be proof that a number of United Nations or alternative forums were available to pursue action if negotiations remained deadlocked. So while, talks would continue with Washington, he hoped the international community would rally behind the effort to attain Palestinian statehood.
For her part, Ms. Turner said that while Washington continued to say that it was behind a two-State solution, it had not taken much action to see the reality come about. Recalling her own experience, she said that when she had first begun to study the Palestinian question, she had been struck by the fact that other seemingly intractable issues, such as the situation in Timor-Leste, had reached conclusions, but the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands had continued. Clearly, political will was lacking. The problem with agreeing to some form of transitional administration ahead of outright statehood was that such a process “will undoubtedly be dominated by America, and that would be disastrous, if you look at what has happened in Afghanistan and elsewhere.” She was also fearful of any type of “contingency statehood,” where sovereignty would be promised, but delivered only when an endless list of conditions was met. It was clear therefore that if the United States and the wider international community were really committed to a Palestinian State, then they must stop take spouting platitudes and take concrete action to that end.
The United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People will reconvene Friday, at 10 a.m., in plenary to consider matters regarding developing sovereign institutions and creating a sustainable Palestinian economy.