Press Releases

    UNIS/INF/307
    4 December 2008

    Re-issued as received

    UN Communications Head Praises Role of 'Visionary and Courageous' Civil Society Actors, as International Media Seminar on Middle East Peace Concludes

    Joint Infrastructure Projects in Palestinian Territories Discussed in Final Panel on the Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative

    (Received from a UN Information Officer)

    VIENNA, 4 December (UN Information Service) - After two days of a constructive and frank dialogue, the sixteenth International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, which focused on the role of the international community in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, concluded its work this morning in Vienna, following a two-part panel discussion specifically looking at progress in the Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative since the Tokyo Media Seminar in 2007.

    In concluding remarks, Kiyo Akasaka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, noted that, over the past two days, they had discussed different activities being undertaken by civil society representatives, particularly those of the Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative promoted by "visionary and courageous people", including Israeli and Palestinian mayors. Even though some of those projects were in their early stages, they hoped that they would produce concrete results in the near future, so that they could make a real difference in the lives of peoples on all sides.

    Mr. Akasaka suggested that, to help the peace process move forward, they needed to "keep engaged, keep informed and keep listening to the views of opponents." Non-governmental organizations and the media had a lot to do with that, both by helping people to get engaged and to help keep them informed. For its part, the United Nations would continue to provide this sort of dialogue, through this annual seminar.

    Peter Brezovsky, Ambassador for International Organizations and Conferences with the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs of Austria, welcomed the multifaceted participation and colourful debate over the past two days. Vienna saw itself as unique, as the seat of the only United Nations headquarters in Schengen Europe, and wanted to expand its cooperation with the United Nations, in particular over the next two years in its capacity as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. In terms of follow-up, they would have a big European Union-Arab League meeting here in the Hofburg Palace, in two weeks time. He ended by affirming that the whole of the Austrian Government, not just at the highest level but also at the level of mayors, was trying to live the outcome of such debates.

    Introducing the morning's round table discussions on the "Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative: What has been Accomplished since 2007 Tokyo Media Seminar", Paula Refolo, Director of the Strategic Communications Division at the United Nations Department of Public Information and moderator for the seminar's final panel, noted that, while political difficulties and security concerns persisted, people's lives in the region were closely intertwined, and both Israelis and Palestinians shared a number of common concerns. At last year's seminar in Tokyo, it had been agreed that the seminar should not be an end in itself, but a platform for continuing dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian society. So, today, it was fair to ask what had been achieved since then.

    In a keynote address for the panel, Ilan Juran, Chair of the Steering Committee of the Civil Society Initiative, said that the Initiative, that had come out of the 2006 Moscow Seminar, looked to promote Israeli-Palestinian cooperation between city governments in concrete grass-roots projects for educational, social and economic development of civil society. Owing to a shortage of water in the region, a key focus was the upgrading of the wastewater treatment system in Gaza. A joint pilot project between Gaza and Ashkelon had been put in place, that would include constructing a treatment facility for sludge composting; the establishment of a quality control centre; and the promotion of public education on the acceptability of reused water. A second project involved a joint wastewater programme between the municipalities of Hadera and Beit Sahour.

    Also speaking in the first part of this morning's panel were Benny Vaknin, Mayor of Ashkelon; Hani Al-Hayek, Mayor of Beit Sahour; Haim Avitan, Mayor of Hadera; and Sion Cohen, Vice President of Infrastructure Planning of Mekorot (the National Water Company of the State of Israel). Panellists discussed the two joint wastewater projects that had come out of the Civil Society Initiative, emphasizing not only the benefits that such projects would bring for the communities in terms of services and the ability to have some control of their resources, but with regard to the possibilities it provided for strengthening ties between mayors, professionals and community members. "If we truly want to achieve our hopes and objectives of spreading a just peace in the region, we will all need to start thinking as a civil society, and to start envisioning all these joint initiatives and exploit them for the cause of peace," a participant said. Also underscored was the greater effectiveness of joint projects, including through a greater ability to raise donor funding in a joint campaign by the two communities.

    Participating in a second panel, which explored with national organizations how "common immediate needs of the two communities" might be met, were Takeshi Naruse, Senior Adviser on the Middle East and Peacebuilding with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and former Resident Representative at the JICA Office in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; Naum Berkovich, Chairman of the Association of the Partnership Russia-Israel-Palestine; and Jerome Safar, First Deputy Mayor of Grenoble, France, representing the Mayor of Grenoble, Michel Destot, who is the President of the Association of Mayors of French Cities. The panel looked specifically at Japanese-led civil society projects, partnership efforts with French cities and Russian input to civil society initiatives.

    Panel IV -- Part One

    PAULA REFOLO, Director of the Strategic Communications Division at the United Nations Department of Public Information, who moderated the seminar's final panel on "Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative: What has been Accomplished since 2007 Tokyo Media Seminar", noted that this morning's panel focused on the role that civil society and other actors played in facilitating the peace process, and economic and social development, in the region. While political difficulties and security concerns persisted, people's lives in the region were closely intertwined, and both Israelis and Palestinians shared a number of common concerns. It was important to promote cooperation between them, not only to improve standards of living but also to build confidence between the two communities.

    "At last year's seminar in Tokyo, it was agreed that the seminar should not be an end in itself, but rather a platform for continuing dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian society," Ms. Refolo said. So, today, it was fair to ask, "What has been achieved since Tokyo?"

    In a keynote address for today's panel, ILAN JURAN, Chair of the Steering Committee of the Civil Society Initiative and Executive Director of the Urban Infrastructure Institute at New York Polytechnic University, said that he had been the head of the Civil Society Initiative for two years now, since it had been established at the Moscow International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East 2006. The origins of that Initiative had actually begun 10 years ago, with the "Peace through Education, Common Infrastructure and Economic Opportunities" project at the Polytechnic University in New York. That project had historically brought together the Mayors of Ashkelon and the Mayor of Gaza to work together on social projects - including a computer learning and information centre implemented by a joint board of governors from Gaza, Ashkelon, Boston and Hamburg; the creation and development of new entrepreneurship in the information technology sector, contributing to economic development and creation of job opportunities in Israeli and Palestinian cities; and a joint university programme for municipal systems management - which had the objective of promoting mutual understanding of the regional challenges and global issues facing the local governments.

    The Civil Society Initiative, that had come out of the 2006 Moscow Seminar, looked to promote Israeli-Palestinian cooperation between city governments in concrete grass-roots projects for educational, social and economic development of civil society. Specifically, the shortage of water in the region was both a challenge and an opportunity: an opportunity for civil society initiatives to explore solutions together, Mr. Juran noted.

    A key focus, therefore, of the Civil Society Initiative was the upgrading of the wastewater treatment system in Gaza, Mr. Juran said. A joint pilot project between Gaza and Ashkelon had been put in place, in which the mayors of those communities and the coastal authorities had identified a number of priorities, including constructing a treatment facility for sludge composting; the establishment of a quality control centre; and promoting public education on the acceptability of reused water. A second project that had come out of the Civil Society Initiative had been a similar joint wastewater programme between Hadera and Beit Sahour.

    Some lessons could already be learned from those two projects, Mr. Juran observed. These joint projects had a unique value for building confidence and trust, which was essential for any mutual understanding among communities. They had also showed the importance of operating jointly to resolve critical issues and efficiently establish a sustainable process of regional development, and had underscored the need for direct dialogue on the community level and public awareness. There was now a need for a continuous international support for furthering the dialogue, from the United Nations and from the international community in general, in particular to support these grass-roots programmes. The role of the media was also critical in promoting the local and international public awareness, and contributing to mobilize wide societal support for expanding inter-community initiatives.

    BENNY VAKNIN, Mayor of Ashkelon, said, in his view, up to now, the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis had been solely through politicians, in seminars, but it had not been among civil society, and through mayors and through cities. He had worked hard to initiate projects with the Mayor of Gaza, and when it was successful, they organized trips among their staffs to visit the municipal governments of the other city. Next, they had taken a joint fund-raising trip to the United States, raising money with which they built the Computer Training Centre, which brought together Palestinians and Israelis to study together. Another project was a vast recycling facility in the border area between Ashkelon and Gaza, for which they had a grant from Canada to launch a feasibility study. The result of these joint projects had been to strengthen professional and human relationships between the two mayors, between their professional staffs, and other members of the community.

    The dream now was to connect some 10 to 20 cities in the West Bank and Gaza through these kinds of projects, Mr. Vaknin said. Moreover, he had noticed a big difference in the ability to generate international donor funds when the Palestinian and Israeli municipal governments joined together.

    HANI AL-HAYEK, Mayor of Beit Sahour, said that if they truly wanted to achieve their hopes and objectives of spreading a just peace in their region, they would all need to start thinking as a civil society, and start envisioning all these joint initiatives and exploit them for the cause of peace. They would then build a civil lobby against the military lobbies that now existed, and influence events through civil actions. They were hostages of armies in their region. Armies were totally free to move and act, without resistance. Civil society needed to marginalize armies and, thus, promote a cultural of peace and not a culture of war.

    The aim of such projects was to assemble and reunite all of civil society to accomplish that task. In that connection, Mr. Al-Hayek pointed to the joint civil society initiative on wastewater in Beit Sahour. That was an opportunity to preserve water, which was so badly needed in Beit Sahour and Bethlehem. Now, they had no control over their water supply in Beit Sahour, but through this project, they could have some control.

    As part of this project, Mr. Al-Hayek had visited Hadera and the water treatment plant there. He emphasized that experience and knowledge should be available to all, so that they could change their lives and improve their societies.

    There was only one obstacle to this project, which was that the plant was to be built in area "C", which was in Israeli territory, Mr. Al-Hayek said. In that connection, he regretted that the culture of war still prevailed. The Municipality of Beit Sahour had started to build public gardens for the local community of Bethlehem, in the area of a former Israeli military base. But, that garden had been taken over and confiscated by the Israeli military, which opposed the building of this " Peace Garden". Mayors and other members of civil society had to link together to oppose such militarism.

    HAIM AVITAN, Mayor of Hadera, noted that he met several times with the Mayors of Ashdod and Beit Sahour and others to discuss the project purifying wastewater in Palestinian towns and villages. The first objective was to purify the water for use. But, there was another advantage; it helped to build connections between communities. For the moment, this was a pilot that they intended to do first in Gaza and then to apply to other cities.

    Challenges faced were the eternal struggles between the Palestinian Authority and a lack of trust among the people on the ground, who did not know what their intentions were, Mr. Avitan said. He had recently been re-elected, and had received congratulations from mayors and colleagues on both sides. That small gesture demonstrated, more than anything, that it was possible to build connections.

    SION COHEN, Vice President of Infrastructure Planning of Mekorot (the National Water Company of the State of Israel), focusing on sewage treatment and reuse of water, said he had discussed projects with the water treatment experts in Beit Sahour, and he knew that sustainable solutions were achievable. They were in the fifth year of drought in the region. Wastewater treatment could provide a solution to that shortage, as well as have a real health impact by preventing the pollution of aquifers, among others.

    The holistic approach had to be taken to the whole water cycle, Mr. Cohen said. The proposed solution would, in time, accelerate the availability of water, even in the face of population increases and the increasing standard of living, which boosted the amount of water used. Technology was available for use immediately, but it had to be adapted for each area. In Israel, at the end of the 1990s, they had constructed a huge sewage treatment plant in Tel Aviv that had sent recycled water for agricultural production in the south, thus doubling the area that could be used for that purpose. By 2020 they hoped to have 100 per cent of all agricultural water use to be provided by recycled wastewater, up from 40 per cent today.

    Panel IV -- Part Two

    Ms. REFOLO said that, having heard the first part of the panel on civil society about the common immediate needs of the two communities and the projects jointly undertaken to address those needs, they would like to explore how such needs might be met with the representatives here today from national organizations.

    TAKESHI NARUSE, Senior Adviser on the Middle East and Peacebuilding with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and former Resident Representative at the JICA Office in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said that, as a Resident Representative for JICA, he had been in the Middle East for the beginning of the second intifada in 2000 and for the elections that had seen Hamas elected to the Palestinian Authority. Those had been pessimistic events. However, he had become more and more optimistic while he was there, because that was his role as an international assistance worker. And Japan, as a peace-loving country, was ready to contribute more for the stabilization of the world.

    JICA was the world's largest bilateral donor agency as of this year, Mr. Naruse said. That meant that JICA could implement assistance on a larger scale and in a more dynamic way. Japan, including JICA, was also thinking about cooperation with Syria in this effort, he added.

    His experience had shown him that the community was always the most important participant in ensuring stability or instability, Mr. Naruse said. Donor society, like those present today, should involve the community from the very beginning of any interventions. Yesterday they had spoken of bottom-up and top-down approaches, which he had understood as being associated with economic versus political approaches. For them, bottom-up meant working with the community at the ground level and encouraging them to help themselves, and top-down meant the widening out of such programmes and the provision of greater funds (such as the "corridor for peace and prosperity" agro-industrial project linking Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Japan).

    A 10-minute film was then shown on Japan's efforts to promote peace in the Middle East through JICA economic cooperation efforts, including health, sanitation and education projects.

    NAUM BERKOVICH, Chairman of the Association of the Partnership Russia-Israel-Palestine, said he was here to promote dialogue in civil society or what he called "people diplomacy". "People diplomacy" was not just a talk shop; it was building trust. People diplomacy could work out independent recommendations to conflicts. Examples of people diplomacy that played an important role in Palestinian-Israeli dialogue included universities in Ramallah and Jerusalem, and dialogue between mothers who had lost their sons in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, on both sides.

    A good example of interreligious dialogue was in Haifa - a city of Jews, Christians and Muslims - which housed a unique Centre for Jewish-Arab Cooperation in the Middle East, Mr. Berkovich said. In winter 2004, four Palestinians and four Israelis scaled together one of the world's most unassailable peaks and claimed it for their joint effort.

    Russia had a role to play in fostering dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, Mr. Berkovich believed. He concluded by recalling what Yitzhak Rabin had said on 13 September 1993, when he had acknowledged that "ones fate is to live all together on one land".

    JEROME SAFAR, First Deputy Mayor of Grenoble, France, representing the Mayor of Grenoble, Michel Destot, who was the President of the Association of Mayors of French Cities, said that, in the context of the twin cities project, in which Grenoble was linked with Rehovot in Palestine, they had decided to build new cooperation with one goal; economic and social development for them and their twin societies. They also had many initiatives for culture and education. However, they had to offer hope, and that was first of all economic, to build equality in access to natural resources.

    The twin cities initiative, started after the Second World War, was still a good idea. But, they needed more today. They needed not just to provide cultural exchanges; they had to build confidence. They could not do that without economic support and knowledge transfer. The big cities of France - Bordeaux, Paris, Marseilles - with their rich industrial, technological and academic capacities, could do that. That would not be an end to the twin relationship, but for social and economic development, single local actors were not sufficient by themselves.

    Mr. Safar was sure that peace was possible if economic and social development was built. He had been very interested in the civil society initiatives discussed today, and would look forward to discussing how Grenoble could, together with the United Nations, be involved.

    Questions and comments from the floor were then made on a number of subjects, including brainstorming a way to preserve Beit Sahour's peace park; and ways in which Governments could enlarge opportunities for Palestinians, including by issuing visas for those participating in international programmes.

    Closing Statements

    KIYO AKASAKA, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, summing up the achievements of the sixteenth International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, said that they had a very constructive and frank dialogue. Discussions had sometimes been difficult, because the situation on the ground was difficult. They had discussed different activities being undertaken by civil society representatives, particularly those of the Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Initiative, promoted by "visionary and courageous people", including Israeli and Palestinian mayors. Even though some of those projects were in their early stages, they hoped that they would produce concrete results in the near future, so that they could make a real difference in the lives of peoples on all sides.

    Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his message to the seminar, had mentioned that he had regretted that the peace agreement was not likely to be achieved by the end of the year, as set out in Annapolis, but had emphasized that the parties had engaged in direct intensive negotiations, and had succeeded in creating trust and a framework for future negotiations. He had also set out his hopes for the future of those talks, while noting the growing gaps between the peace talks and the situation on the ground, Mr. Akasaka said.

    Almost every day, they heard unsettling news from the Middle East about the casualties and suffering of the people as a consequence of rocket fire, blockage of the Gaza Strip, fighting among Palestinians and so forth. However, they had heard that peace was what everyone was hoping for. They had heard from a Palestinian mayor that all the Palestinians wanted was what everyone else did - to live in peace and security - and from an Israeli mayor they had heard that nothing was more important in the Middle East than the peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Robert Serry, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, in his intervention yesterday, had outlined five things that had to be addressed if peace were to be achieved in 2009, including settlements; violence; movement and access; Palestinian unity; and a comprehensive and substantive approach to peace.

    The seminar had included four panel discussions, focusing on the role of the international community, regional actors, and civil society in the peace process, which had addressed a number of issues, including the need to address the root causes of the conflict and the possible impact that the newly elected American administration would have on the process, when it came to power later. As was noted by one participant, "A lot could go wrong next year, but with a lot of determination by the international community, a lot could go right too."

    Mr. Akasaka had said that, for him, the theme for this seminar was "What can we do to help the peace process to move forward?" To do that, he suggested that they needed to keep engaged, that they needed to keep informed and that they needed to keep listening to the views of opponents. Non-governmental organizations and the media had a lot to do with that, both by helping people to get engaged and to help keep them informed. For their part, the United Nations Department of Public Information would continue to provide timely, impartial, accurate and coherent messages, including statements of the Secretary-General, of the Security Council and other bodies. The United Nations would also continue to provide this sort of dialogue, through this annual seminar.

    PETER BREZOVSKY, Ambassador for International Organizations and Conferences with the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs of Austria, said that this had been a very good meeting. There had been wonderful cooperation with the United Nations and its team, but there had also been multifaceted participation and colourful debate over the past few days.

    Vienna saw itself as unique, as the seat of the only United Nations headquarters in Schengen Europe, and wanted to expand its role in that regard. It was particularly hoped that over the next two years, in its capacity as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, Austria could extend its cooperation with the United Nations.

    In terms of follow-up, Mr. Brezovsky observed that this morning he had been meeting with Arab League Ministers, and they would have a big European Union-Arab League meeting here in the Hofburg Palace, in two weeks time. Austria was proud to host a number of United Nations system organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), but it was also the home of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Wassenaar Arrangement and others. They tried to keep those non-United Nations organizations informed of United Nations activities. Dialogue was always essential.

    In conclusion Mr. Brezovsky affirmed that the whole of the Austrian Government, not just at the highest level but also at the level of mayors, was trying to live the outcome of such debates.

    * *** *

    For further information, please contact:

    Lothar Mikulla
    Associate Information Officer, UNIS Vienna
    Telephone: (+43-1) 26060-5693
    Mobile: (+43-699) 1459-5693
    Email: Lothar.Mikulla@unvienna.org