Press Releases

    GA/PAL/854
    20 February 2001

    UNITED NATIONS SEMINAR ON ASSISTANCE
    TO PALESTINIAN PEOPLE OPENS IN VIENNA

    (Received from a UN Information Officer.)

    VIENNA, 20 February (UN Information Service) -- "The dramatic upheavals of the past several months and the tragic loss of life have underlined the urgency of reaching a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine", Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today at the opening of the United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People.

    In a statement read out by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast, he expressed concern at the deepening spiral of violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. He appealed to all concerned to exercise maximum restraint to prevent further escalation. Stating that events since last September had damaged the Palestinian economy and reversed the economic recovery and progress, he said that border closures and other restrictive measures deprived the Palestinian Authority of necessary financial resources and further aggravated the serious economic and social crisis in the occupied territory. There had been a dramatic deterioration in the living conditions of the Palestinians. He expressed regret that, due to the closures and travel restrictions, the invited Palestinian speakers, including high-ranking officials of the Palestinian Authority, were unable to participate in the seminar as scheduled.

    Concerned about the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to continue to function, the Secretary-General said he had raised the matter with Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon, as well as other international leaders, including United States Secretary of State Colin Powell and European Commission President Romano Prodi. He had also instructed his Personal Representative to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Terje Roed Larsen, to undertake wide-ranging and urgent consultations with a view to preventing such a destabilizing outcome.

    The Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Ibra Deguéne Ka, expressed regret that the Israeli blockade had prevented the Minister for Economy and Trade, Maher Masri, and other officials of the Palestinian Authority, as well as representatives of non-governmental organizations from attending the seminar.

    In his opening remarks, the Chairman said the period of protracted hardship and violence had had a disastrous effect on the Palestinian economy as a whole and on the living standards of individual Palestinians. They now had to struggle for their survival rather than work for long-term development and prosperity. The priority now must be to address immediate humanitarian, economic and social problems. The international community must become more aware of the increasing difficulties confronting the Palestinian economy and of the precarious living conditions of thousands of Palestinians. Improvement of those living conditions, the establishment of cooperative relationships and business partnerships throughout the region and the promotion of regional development were the only foundations for a peace that would benefit all the people of the region, Arab and Israeli.

    At the two-day Vienna meeting, convened by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, participants will review the state of the Palestinian economy and examine efforts by governments and intergovernmental and civil society organizations to alleviate the current humanitarian emergency. While focusing on immediate priorities the seminar will also look at the broader factors that affect the Palestinian economy and its long-term prospects. It will also discuss ways to mobilize greater support for the attainment of the legitimate economic rights of the Palestinian people.

    The representatives of Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Russian Federation, Egypt and Morocco also spoke. Other statements were made by the representatives of the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).

    Following the opening statements, the seminar heard a discussion under Panel I of "The crisis of 2000-2001: the impact of Israeli policies on the Palestinian economy". The keynote presentation was made by the Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations, Nasser Al-Kidwa, speaking on behalf of the Minister for Economy and Trade of the Palestinian Authority.

    He said the Israeli authorities had systematically aimed to destroy the Palestinian economy, with severe restriction on the movement of Palestinian goods between the territories themselves, between Israel and the territories, between the territories and Jerusalem and between areas within Gaza. There was direct destruction of economic facilities such as factories and fields, and the withholding of revenues from value added tax and other taxes amounting to a theft of between $50-60 million per month. Those costs would mount unless the peace process was re-established and closure was lifted. The situation called for increasing economic support but, more importantly, emergency support in the form of humanitarian assistance and to meet the running costs of the Palestinian Authority.

    He went on to say that the international community should take clear political positions to the effect that current Israeli policies would not be tolerated. Palestinians risked losing everything they had built over the last seven years. Every effort should be exerted to stop that trend and to re-establish the peace process.

    The seminar will resume this afternoon when it will hear presentations by representatives of the United Nations system in the West Bank and Gaza on "The role of the United Nations system: assessments and efforts to alleviate hardships". Following that discussion, participants will hear speakers in a panel on "Assistance by Arab and Islamic States and intergovernmental organizations to the Palestinian people".

    Opening Statements

    KIERAN PRENDERGAST, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, speaking on behalf of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, expressed concern over the deepening spiral of violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory and appealed to all concerned to exercise maximum restraint to prevent further escalation. Although senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had made progress on some core issues such as refugees, Jerusalem, borders and security, "the dramatic upheavals of the past several months and the tragic loss of life have underlined the urgency of reaching a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine".

    Despite international support and economic assistance to the Palestinian people in the past, he said, there had been a worrying decline in both new commitments and reimbursements. Events since September last year had damaged the Palestinian economy and reversed the economic recovery and progress. Repeated border and internal closures had led to a dramatic deterioration in the living conditions of the Palestinians, whose economy was largely dependent on that of Israel. Border closures and other restrictive measures deprived the Palestinian Authority of necessary financial resources and further aggravated the serious economic and social crisis in the occupied territory. Concerned about the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to continue to function, he had raised the matter with Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon, as well as other international leaders, including United States Secretary of State Colin Powell and European Commission President Romano Prodi. He had also instructed his Personal Representative to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Terje Roed Larsen, to undertake wide-ranging and urgent consultations with a view to preventing such a destabilizing outcome.

    Today's urgent requirement for humanitarian and relief assistance had taken precedence over medium- and long-term development needs, he said. Stressing that the United Nations leading role in alleviating the hardships of the Palestinian people, he called for international support to agencies such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and many others, so that they could continue their work in the region, adjusting the focus of their activities as required by the circumstances. Donor assistance was especially vital now. The international community must intensify its efforts to support and assist the Palestinian people, until a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the question of Palestine was achieved. The United Nations family would continue to stand by the parties in their efforts to bring peace and stability to the region.

    The Secretary-General expressed regret that the invited Palestinian speakers, including high-ranking officials of the Palestinian Authority, were unable to come to Vienna due to the closures and travel restrictions. That further illustrated the urgent need to normalize the situation.

    ALBERT ROHAN, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Austria, said that during the past summer the international community had looked forward to an agreement on the status of the Palestinians, but that hope had faded. The priority now was that all violence cease, negotiations resume and that the agreements of Sharm el-Sheikh be implemented. His Government deplored the provocation which had occurred at Al Haram al-Sharif, the subsequent violence in the territories occupied by Israel and the excessive use of force by that country. The utmost effort was needed to alleviate the pressure on the civilian population. European Union partners were taking urgent measures to that effect. It was in Israel's interest that such aid be given.

    He said the basic elements of a peaceful settlement remained unchanged and were spelled out in United Nations resolutions and the Madrid and Oslo agreements. Stressing the fundamental role that the United Nations played in the peace process, he paid special tribute to the UNRWA, which had provided humanitarian aid and the basis for development for the Palestinian people under difficult conditions. The United Nations had a vital part in finding a lasting solution. The Secretary-General was personally engaged and his decisive role at Sharm el-Sheikh had been internationally commended.

    He said Austrian emphasis had shifted to development cooperation. Significant results had been achieved in aid projects, which included establishing low cost housing, providing access to primary health care for poorer residents in the Old City of Jerusalem, establishing an environmental data bank aimed at the best use of land and water resources to be used by Palestinians for planning purposes,

    and medical help to victims of the current violence. An important goal had been to promote cooperation between Austrian and Palestinian institutions.

    IBRA DEGUENE KA (Senegal), Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said that by holding today's seminar in Vienna, at the heart of Europe and at a major United Nations centre, the Committee wanted to emphasize the crucial role of international support for the fledgling Palestinian economy, especially now. Although the focus should be on the medium- and long-term development of the Palestinian economy and the consolidation of established institutions and mechanisms, more urgent considerations would dominate the deliberations. Since last September, the occupied Palestinian territory, including Jerusalem, had been subject to repeated closures, tight restrictions on the movement of people and goods, customs and tax revenue withholding and other measures of collective punishment. He regretted that the Minister for Economy and Trade of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian experts invited to the seminar were unable to attend because of restrictions imposed by the occupying Power.

    The Palestinian people and the occupied Palestinian territory were in serious crisis, he said. The current period of protracted hardship and violence had been disastrous for the Palestinian economy as a whole and on the living standards of individual Palestinians. Jobs and markets in Israel had become inaccessible, tourists had been frightened away by the violence, food crops had been razed and fields were blocked out of reach, and armed settlers and Israeli soldiers were attacking unarmed Palestinians with impunity. Palestinians now had to struggle for their survival, rather than work for long-term development and prosperity. Infrastructure had been intentionally destroyed and development projects had had to be abandoned or frozen indefinitely.

    He expressed particular concern over the Bethlehem 2000 project, launched in 1997 by the Palestinian Authority to restore many religious and historical sites, rebuild infrastructure and prepare the city of Bethlehem for the millennium celebrations. The recent violence had wiped out many accomplishments, damaged the newly repaired infrastructure of the city and, above all, frightened away pilgrims. He hoped that the Palestinians would receive the international assistance needed to complete the enormous tasks of reconstruction and development, not only in the city of Bethlehem but also in other Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

    The Committee's essential mission was to promote a peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine, he said. When a just and final settlement was achieved the Palestinian people could embark on the path of economic and social progress, and Israel would be able to secure its borders and reap the full benefits of cooperation with the new Palestinian State. The same was true for the Middle East region as a whole. The vicissitudes of the peace process, however, were not cause for optimism. Today, the immediate needs of the Palestinians must be the primary concern. The international community had to help them survive this critical period so that they could eventually return to the road of economic recovery and development.

    The priority must be to address immediate humanitarian, economic and social problems, he said. The international community must become more aware of the increasing difficulties confronting the Palestinian economy and of the precarious living conditions of thousands of Palestinians. The improvement of living conditions in the Palestinian territory, the establishment of cooperative relationships and business partnerships throughout the region and the promotion of regional development were the only foundations for a peace that will benefit all the peoples of the region, Arab and Israeli.

    He said the Palestinian Authority, now responsible for the civilian affairs of the Palestinians living in the occupied territory, was still denied control over key resources such as land and water and direct access to external markets. A large share of its budget came from transfers of taxes and custom duties levied by Israel, and the Palestinians' economic dependence became even more evident when relations worsened. In recent months, the Palestinian Authority faced increasing problems in administering education, health care and other basic services, in maintaining public law and order and in trying to develop the economy and build Palestinian institutions. It was fortunate that, in all those efforts, the Palestinian Authority had the international donor community at its side.

    FAISAL AWEIDAH, Permanent observer of Palestine to the United Nations in Vienna, speaking on behalf of the Minister for Economy and Trade of the Palestinian Authority, Maher Masri, said the United Nations had sent a Commission to investigate the violence. The violence was the occupation of the Palestinian territory for the last 50 years. It was not only violence but also State terrorism. The Prime Minister of Israel had congratulated the Israeli army for assassinating a Palestinian official. The violence was beyond anyone's conception.

    He said Palestinians appreciated the assistance of donor countries, but whatever they had done had been destroyed in the last six months. Israel had completely rejected the effort to build up Palestinian development. The Security Council should act seriously and in the same manner that it had acted in Kosovo and other countries. The people of Palestine were suffering, and not just economically. They were struggling for survival. Last night, no one slept as all the cities were being bombarded.

    If Israel wanted to survive as a nation in the Middle East, it had to agree to peace. Palestinians had accepted that 78 per cent of its territory be given to Israel to become a State, he said. Still they wanted more land. The United Nations must seriously implement Security Council resolution 242 for the complete withdrawal of Israel from the territories occupied since 1967.

    The representative of Malaysia said the international community remained concerned about the tense situation in the Palestinian territory which had a serious effect on its economy. He was deeply concerned about the spiral of violence and his Government deplored all forms of violence and condemned the excessive use of force by Israel and its prohibitions on the movement of goods and people. The United Nations must continue to be involved in the process of peace and development in the Palestinian territories. UNRWA must be provided with sufficient resources to continue its work. The United Nations must ensure the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, primarily their right to self-determination.

    The Malaysian Government had established a special fund to help the Palestinian people and had increased its contribution to UNRWA. It had also provided technical assistance in programmes that included educational scholarships and pilot training. He reaffirmed his Government's commitment to the Palestinian people. The international community must lend its support to the Palestinian people in their quest for self-determination. Security for all countries in the Middle East could only be attained through settlement of the question of Palestine based on the principle of land for peace and Security Council resolutions 242 and 348.

    The representative of China said the Palestinian people's misfortunes and miserable conditions had drawn broad concern and sympathy from the international community. Meanwhile, the Palestinian people had not stopped their unremitting struggles and efforts to restore their legitimate national rights. The recent clashes had cost the Palestinian people heavy loss of life and property and a serious setback in their struggle to rebuild their homeland.

    He said the international community should fulfil its responsibility to help the Palestinian Authority to overcome their economic difficulties and improve living conditions. Providing assistance to the Palestinian people would help to relieve their difficult situation and promote peace talks. China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, had consistently supported the Middle East peace process and had been actively involved in mediation with both sides. It had given political and moral support, as well as economic assistance, and had participated in the rebuilding of the Palestinian self-rule area through bilateral and multilateral channels.

    The representative of Indonesia said the Palestinian people had struggled for more than five decades for self-determination. There could be no alternative to peace and stability. They must be able to live in freedom and dignity. Over the past seven years the Palestinians had shown determination in transforming the territory into a land of investment and growth. Now, more than ever, assistance was needed to overcome the obstacles and difficulties presented by Israel. It was inconceivable that an entire nation could be subjected to such enormous suffering and dislocation. Israel's actions violated numerous international humanitarian laws. History proved that military action could never subjugate the aspirations of people. It was time for Israel to cease its untenable actions. The winds of peace could not survive in an atmosphere of economic strangulation. The Palestinians had engaged in painstaking negotiations with the Government of Israel. He commended them for their efforts to attain a just and lasting peace. The United Nations had an imperative role to play in the Middle East peace process. The efforts of its agencies in the Middle East must be enhanced.

    The representative of Turkey expressed regret that the Palestinian delegation had been prevented from attending the seminar. He said violence only served the interest of the enemies of peace. His Government had approved a contribution to UNRWA and additional funds to help the Palestinian people. It had provided medical assistance to the victims of the recent violence. He hoped the international community would honour its economic and financial commitments to Palestinians. He supported the establishment of a lasting peace in the area. Peace had no alternative, he said.

    The representative of Algeria said his Government supported the United Nations and all of its various organs in their effort to help establish a just and lasting peace in Palestine. The prevention of the Palestinian Minister from attending the seminar was another example of Israeli arrogance. Without the exercise of all the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including the establishment of its own independent State, there would be no peace in the Middle East. The Palestinians and others were aware of the contributions that the Algerians were making. It was not necessary to be proud of such help, as it was a duty. His Government was ready to continue to make its contribution to mitigate the suffering of the Palestinian people.

    The representative of the Russian Federation said the tragic events of the last months had shown that the financial and other means made available for Palestinian development were likely to be destroyed if the situation remained as it was. The task of the international community was to speak firmly in favour of the continuation of the peace process. It must do whatever it could to ensure the continuation of the negotiations. He said that the Russian Federation was ready to make all of its efforts ready to support the process. It would participate in joint efforts to reach that goal.

    SAID KAMAL, Assistant Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, speaking on behalf of the Secretary-General of the Arab League, said the core of the problem was represented by the Israeli attitude to the achievement of peace and its evasions of commitment to signed agreements. To achieve peace and stability, the Palestinian people must be protected, and the Israeli crimes against them should be brought before the international criminal tribunal.

    Since the Madrid conference the Arab League had turned its focus on the development in the Palestinian territories. In view of the recent deterioration of the situation, the League, at its Cairo summit, had assured its support to the Palestinian people in their intifadah. Ministers had set up two funds: the intifadah al-Quds fund with a capital endowment of $200 million allocated to support families of the intifadah's martyrs, finance the education of their sons and heal the injured, and the Al-Aqsa fund, established with a projected capital of $800 million. The latter was to be allocated to finance projects protecting the Islamic and Arab identity of Jerusalem and to enable Palestine to develop its own economy and overcome the blockade and isolation imposed by Israeli authorities.

    He recalled that the recent meetings of the Arab Economic and Social Council this month had discussed in detail the economic circumstances of the Palestinian people and their need for assistance. The Council had called for more support to ease the crucial situation in the Palestinian territories. He thanked intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations for their assistance to the Palestinian people. He appealed to States and international organizations to apply economic sanctions against products from Israeli settlements.

    The representative of Egypt expressed his country's unwavering support for the Palestinian people. He deplored the destruction of the Palestinian economy. His Government would spare no effort to achieve a just and lasting peace for the Palestinian people. He expressed appreciation for the Committee's unrelenting efforts in the cause of the Palestinians. In light of the current situation, greater resources were needed for all levels of Palestinian development. It was the responsibility of all members of the international community to take the necessary measures to achieve that objective.

    The representative of Morocco said his Government found the situation under which the people in the Palestinian territories lived to be untenable. It was the task of the international community to bring pressure to bear on Israel, so that it ceased to nourish its arrogance and mistrust of others.

    ABDELAZIZ ABOUGHOSH, Assistant Secretary-General, Organization of the Islamic Conference, speaking on behalf of the Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, reaffirmed his organization's support for the Palestinian people and their attempts to achieve their inalienable rights.

    He said the undermining of the infrastructure, houses and mosques, the sealing of towns and villages and confiscation of tax revenues and customs had caused untold damage to the Palestinian economy. The international community should have intervened and brought an end to that action and help the people to overcome the vicious aggression. The principal activities of the Islamic Conference were to support the Palestinian people and their intifadah. Two funds of $1 billion were established. Official and popular Arab institutions had made contributions. There was also support in terms of medicine and help to the families of the martyrs. Islamic official institutions, such as the Islamic Bank and others, had made decisions to support the Palestinian economy. The great popular support extended by the Islamic people was not to be overlooked. Millions had taken to the streets to demonstrate their support to the Palestinian people and the intifadah. The media in Islamic States also played an important role in informing the people about the brutality of the Israelis.

    The suffering of the Palestinian people was increasing on a daily basis, he said. Today more than any time before, the international community must stop the Israeli aggression, protect Palestinian people and insist that the Israeli Government implement Security Council resolutions enabling restoration of their inalienable rights including the right to return to their land.

    The Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) said the report compiled by the Office of the Special Coordinator in the Occupied Territories had estimated the loss of the Palestinian economy to be $1.5 billion. ESCWA followed the repercussion of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinians. The last finding for the year 2000 indicated that the occupation had, year after year, affected the lives and livelihood of Palestinians, severely restricting the growth of the Palestinian community. Land was still being taken over by Israel. Tension and uncertainty aggravated by the restrictions on the movements of goods constituted another factor in the deterioration of the economic situation. Restrictions on access to water constituted a growing health problem.

    She said that ESCWA was the only United Nations entity where Palestinians enjoyed full membership. She described the agency's activities and said that meetings, information dissemination, training programmes and publications had been used to raise the different issues of Palestinian development. The annual survey on economic and social development covered the West Bank and Gaza. The causes and effects of inflation and the impact of European partnership were subjects for research. Training was provided in areas of agriculture development.

    The agency was committed to the greater well-being of the Palestinian people and was all the more determined to assist them as they faced greater deterioration in their economy and living situation.

    Panel I - Crisis of 2000-2001: Impact of Israeli Policies on Palestinian economy

    NASSER AL-KIDWA, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations in New York, said the fact that he had to speak as a substitute for Maher Masri illustrated the dangerous situation that Palestinians were facing.

    He said the current crisis had begun immediately after the start of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's tenure. A major issue revolved around the failure by Israel to implement agreements already reached, particularly the redeployment of Israeli forces in the Palestinian territories. Mr. Barak had implemented only those agreements explicitly approved by his predecessor, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The continuation of the settlement policies, including further confiscation of land, was another problem. The combination of those issues with the events of last September and the extreme use of force by the Israelis served to undermine the positive impacts of substantial positions taken by the same Governments in the peace negotiations.

    Unfortunately, he said, it had not been possible to reach agreement before the recent Israeli elections. The new Prime Minister, whose name was linked with the massacres of Sabra and Shatila and synonymous with war, had won with the lowest turnout of voters in Israeli history. He had called on the Labour party to form a "unity government". The Labour party, however, would only provide a cover for the actions of Sharon. Given his background and the political positions on which he ran for election, it was impossible to imagine any serious progress in the peace process. The new Government had indicated that the important positions presented by former United States President William Clinton or Prime Minister Barak were no longer on the table. Moreover, Sharon had stated that he would not negotiate on the terms of the interim agreements as long as the violence continued, even though the violence was being perpetrated against the Palestinians.

    He said that the last few months had witnessed an extremely dangerous pattern of Israeli behaviour which included the wilful killing of civilians -- using sharpshooters -- even when there were no disturbances or any threat to the Israelis, imposition of collective punishment, and bombing and shelling of populated areas and buildings belonging to the Palestinian Authority. Those actions constituted grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention and other instruments of international law, as well as many Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.

    On the economic level, he said, the Israeli authorities had systematically aimed to destroy the Palestinian economy with severe restriction on the movement of Palestinian goods between the territories themselves, between Israel and the territories, between the territories and Jerusalem and between areas within Gaza. They had destroyed economic facilities such as factories and fields and the withheld revenues from value added tax and other taxes amounting to a theft of between $50-60 million per month. He outlined actual losses incurred by the Palestinian Authority in the areas of trade and labour, including the destruction of infrastructure which amounted to $1,598 million, a $418 million loss in labour, $52 million loss of tourism, and $200 million of agricultural losses. Those costs would mount unless the peace process was re-established and closure was lifted. The situation called for increasing economic support, but more importantly, emergency support in humanitarian assistance and to meet the running costs of the Palestinian Authority.

    He went on to say that the international community should take clear political positions to the effect that current Israeli policies would not be tolerated. There had been a 70 per cent positive response to the call for a reconvening of the High Contracting Parties of the Geneva Convention. Moreover, the Security Council had to deal once more with the issue of protection of Palestinian civilians, specifically with the establishment of a United Nations Observer force. The Council had voted on the establishment of such a force and although there were no negative votes, the resolution did not get the needed nine votes. Many of those who had abstained, however, indicated that their problem was that the timing was not right. He thought that the next time the resolution would have the necessary positive votes and he hoped no permanent member would cast a negative vote.

    He said the Palestinians risked losing everything they had built over the last seven years. Every effort should be exerted to stop that trend and to re-establish the peace process.

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