Participants Express Alarm over Repressive Policies in City As Experts, Activists Call for Coordinated Response by Civil Society
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
ISTANBUL, Turkey, 27 May — With tensions high in Jerusalem, and public criticism growing worldwide over the lack of action to alleviate the desperate situation of Palestinians clinging to survival there, experts, students and representatives of non-governmental organizations attending a United Nations Forum called today for an end to Israel's repressive policies in that city, urging fellow members of civil society to mobilize a coordinated, rights-based response.
The United Nations Public Forum in Support of the Palestinian People followed the International Meeting in Support of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, held in Istanbul from 25 to 26 May. Participants in both events shared the view that solving the complex and sensitive question of Jerusalem was vital to tackling the wider conflicts and unresolved issues in the Middle East. They similarly decried illegal expansion and consolidation of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, as well as provocative measures against Palestinian residents, including house demolitions, evictions and land confiscation.
Organized by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, in cooperation with the Global Political Trends Centre of Istanbul Kültür University, the Forum featured three expert panels on, respectively, "The situation in Jerusalem"; "Approaches to promoting a just and lasting solution to the question of Jerusalem"; and "The role of civil society actors in promoting peace".
Opening the Forum, Zahir Tanin ( Afghanistan), Head of the Committee's delegation, said the question of Jerusalem sparked passion in the minds and hearts of people around the world. The Holy City was considered a religious and cultural touchstone by people from every society and the three monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But instead of creating a bastion of harmony, those same passions were changing one of the world's great cities into one of oppression, he noted, recalling that the Committee had regularly spoken out against Israel's policies in Jerusalem.
The Committee considered that a negotiated agreement on the status of Jerusalem should take into account the political and religious concerns of all its inhabitants, he stressed. Such an agreement should include internationally guaranteed provisions to ensure freedom of religion and of conscience for its inhabitants, as well as permanent, free and unhindered access to the holy places for the Palestinian people, as well as those of all religions and nationalities.
Among the experts addressing the Forum, many of whom shared personal experiences of daily life in Jerusalem, was Daphna Golan-Agnon, who said the public protests and demonstrations occurring regularly in Jerusalem were a symbol of what should happen in the wider context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; people were saying "enough is enough". Things were becoming so untenable that "naming and shaming" Israel was no longer enough. It was time for all to start developing a vision for a shared Jerusalem, she emphasized. Everyone must start examining the past in order to devise a shared future, she added.
"I don't have any magic solutions," she said. The reality was that "we are going to have to live together, […] we are in the same neighbourhood. That is a fact." She said she made a point of making her Israeli-Palestinian students communicate with each other and learn about their respective cultures, adding that there was something to be gained from building contacts and identifying cultural touchstones among the younger generations. "If children grow up only seeing each other as terrorists and oppressors, there will be no hope for the future," she said.
Nazmi Jubeh, Co-Director of Riwaq: Centre for Architectural Conservation, said Israel's policy in Jerusalem was based on three major elements — demography, land and "Israelization" of the City's physical characteristics. At the same time, the City's most abiding characteristic was the "apartheid separation wall", which had ripped communities and families apart. It had fragmented the social structure of East Jerusalem and the people's political ability to combat the occupation.
He said it was sad and deeply troubling that most of the people living there were now poverty-stricken, recalling that, before 1993, Jerusalem had been the social, cultural and educational centre of Palestinian life. Since then, there had been a systematic destruction of all the institutions relevant to those areas, he said, noting that while civil society continued to operate, most institutions had been shuttered. The question of Jerusalem could not be solved until the City's institutions, especially its cultural centres, were rebuilt and made operational again, he stressed.
Moderating the discussion were Phyllis Bennis, Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and Co-Chair of the International Coordinating Network on Palestine; and Sylvia Tiryaki, Deputy Director of the Global Political Trends Centre at Istanbul Kültür University.
MENSUR AKGÜN, Director, Global Political Trends Centre, Istanbul Kültür University, welcomed the participants and expressed gratitude to the United Nations and the Secretariat of Palestinian rights Committee for their enormous cooperation. He said the Centre had been established about a year and a half ago and carried out studies on the prevention and resolution of conflicts such as those involving Armenia and Turkey, and Cyprus and Turkey.
ZAHIR TANIN (Afghanistan), Head of Delegation, Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said the question of Jerusalem was a key to the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and had been one of the issues spoken about most emotionally during the just-concluded International Meeting in Support of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. Indeed, the question of Jerusalem sparked passion in the minds and hearts of people around the world. But instead of creating a bastion of harmony, that same passion was changing one of the world's great cities into a place of oppression, he said.
Recalling that the Committee had regularly spoken out against Israel's policies in Jerusalem, he said it considered that a negotiated agreement on the City's status should take into account the political and religious concerns of all its inhabitants. Such an agreement should include internationally guaranteed provisions to ensure freedom of religion and of conscience for its inhabitants, as well as permanent, free and unhindered access to the holy places for the Palestinian people and those of all religions and nationalities. The Committee also stressed that any agreement that did not include East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian State would not lead to sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace, he said.
BURHANETTIN DURAN, Associate Professor, Istanbul Sehir University, said Jerusalem was not only critical to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps it was the key to solving all the major problems in the Middle East. Turkey understood that, and had long tried to pursue broad comprehensive policies encompassing elements such as security for all, political dialogue, economic independence, cultural harmony and mutual respect.
The Jerusalem question had many dimensions that went beyond the immediate region, he continued, adding that it could not be seen only as a problem between Arabs and Israelis. A central feature of the world's major monotheistic religions, Jerusalem held the key to just and lasting peace in the entire world, he said, adding that civil society organizations must press Israel to live up to its obligations in that matter. It must be pressed to end the evictions and home demolitions.
The first part of the discussion focused on forced evictions and settlements, as well as residency rights and revocations of identification documents. The experts were also expected to touch on security concerns, including rising crime rates in and around Jerusalem.
DAPHNA GOLAN-AGNON, Researcher, Minerva Centre for Human Rights, Hebrew University, said Jerusalem was strictly divided. Palestinian children attended schools largely in rented apartments, and rainwater was not distributed equally. She recalled that, as a child, her son had been confused by the stark differences between East and West Jerusalem, wondering why the East had no sidewalks and why all the street signs were in Hebrew. Jerusalem was a symbol of what should happen in the wider context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; people there were beginning to say "enough is enough."
Pointing out that demonstrations were now taking place on a regular basis, she said her own 20-year-old son had been arrested during an anti-police protest in Jerusalem just two weeks ago. The police had broken his hand but not his spirit, she said, stressing that things were becoming so untenable, that "naming and shaming" Israel was no longer enough. It was time for everyone to start developing a vision of a shared Jerusalem, and examining the past in order to devise a shared future.
MOUSA QOUS, Researcher, Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic Rights, said Israel's policy in Jerusalem since its occupation had begun had been to have as many Jews and as few Palestinians inside the City as possible. Israel had carried out an annexation of the people as well as the land. Palestinian citizens were issued permanent residency cards, but under strict conditions, he said, recalling that, by 1995, Israel had instituted the so-called "centre of life" policy, under which Palestinians travelling to and from Jerusalem needed to prove the City was the centre of their lives by carrying bills and work notices, among other personal identifying paperwork. Noting that he and his wife, a West Bank Palestinian, had been married for 12 years, he said she had only received her residency papers a year ago. The first 11 years of their union had been framed by the struggle to obtain her residency rights, he said, adding that Israeli policies were approaching apartheid-like levels of oppression and repression. It was past time for the international community to press for action.
The next part of the discussion focused on approaches to promoting a just and lasting solution to the question of Jerusalem, including Jerusalem and international law; East Jerusalem as the social, economic and cultural centre of a future Palestinian State; and the need to open Palestinian institutions in the City.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and Co-Chair of the International Coordinating Network on Palestine, stressed that Palestinian rights were no different from those of anybody else in the world, and that was why the work of civil society actors should be rights-based. Civil society's job was also to ensure that Governments did not support policies that abrogated the rights of Palestinians and others. "Civil society can be part of creating coalitions of the unwilling," she said, recalling how, in 2003, the wider Security Council membership had stood against that body's more powerful members to keep the United Nations out of the war in Iraq. Civil society must also defend international law, she stressed, adding that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a mere piece of paper without the will of average citizens to realize its vital tenets. Governments were generally not going to do the right thing until their citizens demanded it, she said, suggesting a response based on boycott, divestment and sanctions.
On the positive side, she said that in the United States, whose Government bore a huge responsibility in fomenting the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the wider Middle East, the political discourse on those issues was beginning to change among average Americans. While changing the discourse was not enough, it was certainly a start, she said, adding that a strategy of advocacy, rights and education was what would change laws and protect the rights of people in Jerusalem.
NAZMI JUBEH, Co-Director, Riwaq: Centre for Architectural Conservation, said Israel's policy in Jerusalem was based on three major elements — demography, land and "Israelization" of the City's physical characteristics. At the same time, the City's most abiding characteristic was the "apartheid separation wall", which had ripped communities and families apart. It had fragmented the social structure of East Jerusalem and the people's political ability to combat the occupation.
He said it was a sad and deeply troubling fact that most of the people living there were now poverty-stricken, recalling that, before 1993, Jerusalem had been the social, cultural and educational centre of Palestinian life. Since then, there had been a systematic destruction of all the relevant institutions. While civil society continued to operate, most of the institutions had been shuttered. The question of Jerusalem could not be solved until institutions in the City, especially its cultural centres, were rebuilt and made operational again.
The final round of the Forum dealt with the role of civil society in promoting peace in Jerusalem, with experts and the audience discussing the City's spiritual significance and people-to-people diplomacy.
RAMZI ZANANIRI, Executive Director, Near East Council of Churches, said religious theorists and other experts all agreed that Jerusalem was the " Holy City" in a holy land for all humanity. "The promise of the land is the prelude to universal salvation," he said, reading from the Bible. Echoing other speakers, he said that, rather than sparking unity among all faiths under God, Jerusalem was instead turning into the ember that might spark a third intifada. The Israeli occupation, characterized by oppressive policies such as heavy military presence in churches and holy sites, must end in order for a solution to the overall Middle East conflict to be found, he said.
Despite the situation, churches and religious organizations from all faiths were pressing ahead with their efforts to end the occupation, he said. Intercultural and interreligious dialogues were under way, attempting "to breach the walls and barriers built by the occupation", he said, adding that he was concerned at the same time that such dialogue could be held hostage to political strife. Religious groups would nevertheless press on because they were filled with hope and the power of God, he said.
FADWA KHADER, Director-General, Sunflower Association for Human and Environment Protection, said she too had felt the pain of being a mother in Jerusalem, recalling that her teenage sons, who happened to be Christians, had been detained for months after being picked up with other youngsters gathered to protect the Al-Aqsa mosque in 2000.
She said that 60 years of aggression and more than 40 years of occupation was "enough", but daily harassment continued in Jerusalem, where the people lacked access to their own water supplies, were forced to work on the black market and were unable to build livelihoods where they lived. Palestinians living in Jerusalem were forced to pay 12 different types of taxes, she continued. "What types of services do you think we are getting for those taxes?" she asked. "Absolutely none," she replied. Civil society organizations were the "Government of the people" inside Jerusalem, working alongside the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to ensure that the Palestinian people could live in dignity.
Mr. TANIN ( Afghanistan), wrapping up the Public Forum, said the Palestinian people had suffered too much for too long. Governments, the United Nations and civil society must all play their own roles and in working together to bring peace and justice to Jerusalem, and to find solutions to the wider Middle East conflict. The Public Forum had heard about civil society's tireless efforts, its struggles and its invocations of international law.
The Committee stood behind those efforts to broaden the movement to include more individuals and groups, he said, underscoring that the Committee would spare no effort to provide civic actors with a platform to share their unique views about on-the-ground realities. Whenever possible, the Committee would invite civil society representatives to speak at its meetings and events. "The important thing is that we all stay connected and work together towards a common good," he said. That was, ultimately, the establishment of a viable, contiguous, sovereign and democratic Palestinian State.
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For information media • not an official record