NGO SYMPOSIUM ON PALESTINE DISCUSSES REFUGEE PROBLEM, ISSUE OF JERUSALEM
GENEVA, 3 September -- What to do about Palestinian refugees and territorial and political issues involving Jerusalem -- two thorny obstacles to a Middle East peace settlement -- were debated this morning on the second day of a symposium of non- governmental organizations (NGOs) on the question of Palestine. Prepared statements by academic experts and political figures were followed by comments and questions from NGO representatives in the audience.
Among the speakers was Rashid Khalidi, Professor of Middle East History at the University of Chicago, who said that real history had been almost totally ignored in efforts to achieve a settlement of the refugee issue, and that was part of the reason that true reconciliation had not yet really started in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Avishai Margalit, Professor of Philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that the humiliation of the refugees -- those in the camps -- was the hard core of issue; with them and the Israelis there was a major disagreement about history and narrative, and to make a common narrative acceptable to the two communities was very difficult to do.
Others addressing the meeting were Albert Aghazarian, Director of Public Relations, Birzeit University; Gershon Baskin, Director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, Jerusalem; David Andrews, Spokesman for the Fianna Fail for Tourism and Trade, and former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ireland; and Giorgos Dimitrakopoulos, of the European People's Party, Greece, and Member of the European Parliament.
The meeting, held under the auspices of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, continues through 4 September.
StatementsRASHID KHALIDI, Professor of Middle East History, Director of the Center for International Studies, University of Chicago, said that of all the issues which must be resolved for settlement of the question of Palestine, that of Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 -- more than half the population at the time -- and the related problem of those who became displaced persons after the 1967 war, was probably the most basic and difficult to resolve. The Palestinians could not forget the matter -- allowing for variousdissimilarities, one might as well ask Israelis to forget the Holocaust or Americans to forget Pearl Harbor.
Real history, he said, had been almost totally ignored in efforts to achieve a settlement thus far, which was part of the reason that reconciliation had not yet really started in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Real reconciliation could only begin when there had been acceptance of the weight of history. A General Assembly resolution of 11 December 1948 called for permitting refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours to do so, and for the payment of compensation for the property of those not desiring to do so, as well as for loss of or damage to the property of all refugees. He still favoured use of this resolution as the basis of a settlement, despite numerous difficulties, because it constituted a recognition in principle of the wrong done five decades ago -- both from Israel and the world community.
AVISHAI MARGALIT, Professor of Philosophy, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, said he was concerned that negotiations seemed to have changed from peace talks in the strong sense -- aimed at a true goal -- to negotiations in a weak sense, merely out of fear of war. He did not feel the aim of the new Israeli Government was really peace; the whole thing would go on, even the refugees would be discussed, but it would be a "peace process" in an empty sense. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was intercommunal strife -- there was history, honour and humiliation involved. The matter was deep and intractable; many Israelis thought there was no way Arabs would accept a just peace with Israel, because Arabs thought the very existence of Israel was an injustice; he himself thought that a "just peace" was a contradiction -- if there was justice, there would be no peace, and that was partly because of the problem of justice for the refugees. The humiliation of the refugees -- those in the camps, who had decided to stay in the camps and not to integrate into the Arab world or resettle in other ways -- was the hard core of issue. Between them and the Israelis there was a major disagreement about history and narrative; to make a common narrative acceptable to the two communities was very difficult to do.
DAVID ANDREWS, Member of Parliament of Ireland and former Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that in accepting the invitation to address this forum, he believed the solution of the Palestinian question was now possible and would be achieved. The settlement of the question would provide the example necessary to address the problem of Northern Ireland. He had been struck by the similarities between the issues of the minority population of part of the island of Ireland and that of Palestinians in Israel and, in particular, Palestinians in Jerusalem. It was his hope that the sharing of experience at such a level was a key to unlocking closed minds and to offering real and practical alternatives to perceived fixed positions. What was needed was an unswerving commitment to build upon the progress made to date; setbacks had been experienced, but that surprised nobody. It was necessary to learn from history and act on that knowledge. The sterility of confrontation was evidenced by the ongoing conflict on the island of Ireland. Fresh thinking on the issue of national sovereignty was needed in the Middle East, and Palestinians today, in the same manner as Jewish people 50 years ago, had the right to a homeland.
ALBERT AGHAZARIAN, Director of Public Relations of Birzeit University, Jerusalem, said that among the things the recent Israeli elections had indicated was a basic misunderstanding on how Jerusalem should be divided -- even now, the city was very divided, even if the original walls between the Palestinian and Israeli sectors had come down. To unify Jerusalem, one needed to bring many parts and parties together, while what had happened so far was a matter of hegemony, of one side making and imposing the decisions. One also had to understand the size of the land involved and its demography -- the large expansion of the city had been carried out very carefully to have the maximum amount of land occupied by the minimum number of Palestinians. Highways, green areas, public works had been carried out in such a way that they deprived Palestinians of land. In addition, official population figures excluded hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Attempts to destroy the complexity and history of the city, and its complex culture, would not succeed, as there would always be some who would resist.
GERSHON BASKIN, Director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, Jerusalem, said that while it was not clear whether or not a Labour Party Government would have made the kind of concessions on Jerusalem which would have facilitated peace, it was quite clear that the present Likud Government of Benjamin Netanyahu would definitely not make those concessions -- exactly the opposite was true. In his opinion, if Israelis were given legitimacy to voice their true opinions on Jerusalem, it would become quite clear that large sectors of the public recognized that Jerusalem was a very divided city and that talk of a united Jerusalem was perhaps wishful thinking. It was time for Israeli leaders in the peace camp to shape public opinion and to help Israelis understand that eventually, inevitably, Jerusalem would be shared. Jerusalem would be the capital of two States; Jerusalem could continue to be the capital of Israel and at the same time the capital of Palestine without harming in any way Israel's interests in the city. As the capital of both countries, Jerusalem would finally be recognized by the world as the seat of Israel's Government.
GIORGIOS DIMITRAKOPOULOS, of the European People's Party, Greece, Member of the European Parliament, and Vice-President of the Parliamentary Association for Euro-Arab Cooperation, said that immediately after the Palestinian elections, for which he had been an observer sent by the European Parliament, he and other observers had asked Yasser Arafat about future negotiations with Israel. Mr. Arafat had said the first topic would be the status and future of Jerusalem, that Jerusalem could be a city similar to Rome, which was capital of the Italian State and also capital of the Vatican. It was indeed necessary for both sides to begin to see how they could agree on certain principles involving Jerusalem, such as that of a shared capital; once that was accomplished, they could call in the technocrats. Currently, too much of the political power in the Middle East rested with the United States, which despite its might, simply did not understand the situation very well; the acts of the new Israeli Government also hinted that it did not understand the situation, but he suspected that was more of a case of not wanting to understand the situation. The continuation of the peace process had to take into account economic situations in the Middle East, other countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and organizations such as Hezbollah. The European Union also should play a greater role.
Rex Brynen * firstname.lastname@example.org * 7 September 1996