Press Releases

    PAL/2049
    PI/1723
    12 June 2006

    Grass-Roots Initiatives, Civil Society Role in Peace Process Discussed, as International Media Seminar on Middle East Peace Concludes

    (Received from a UN Information Officer.)

    MOSCOW, 9 June -- The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East this afternoon debated how intercommunity cooperation could build local capacity, and the role of civil society participation and grass-root initiatives in the peace process, as it concluded its annual meeting.

    In a first panel, representatives of civil society presented their perspectives on how intercommunity cooperation in educational, scientific and professional training initiatives could, most significantly, support local capacity-building for economic and social development.

    Shashi Tharoor, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, moderating the panel on "The Challenge of Local Capacity Building and Intercommunity Cooperation", said that, two years ago, a seminar discussion on the role of civil society had found that, while little tangible progress had been made on the implementation of the Road Map and rancour over contentious issues had dominated the political agenda, civil society initiatives had kept the flame of dialogue alive.

    Ilan Juran, Executive Director of the Urban Infrastructure Institute in New York, called on the members of the Quartet and the international community to support future grass-roots projects developed by the two communities that served local needs.  To make that a reality he hoped that an international steering committee would be established to organize and coordinate such joint initiatives.

    Ayed Abu Ramadan, Executive Manager of the Gaza Agricultural Project of the Palestinian Authority, told the story of his project, which had showed determination and accomplishments, but also the hardships that faced all such development projects in Palestine.  The Gaza Agricultural Project, which aimed to protect the assets of the region, to sustain and improve greenhouse production, and to generate new and permanent work opportunities, was now threatened with closure, owing to high operating costs.  He called on the international community to keep that seed of peace alive.

    Benny Vaknin, President of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Tel Aviv and former Mayor of Ashkelon, said that mayors could do a lot by joint ventures and through joint cooperation, which would bring huge benefits to all sides, all the while preparing the field for peace.

    A second panel, made up of representatives from unions, academia, municipalities and non-governmental organizations, presented their perspectives on prospects for intercommunity cooperation at the local level and grass-root initiatives that could contribute to the peace process.

    Maged Abu Ramadan, Mayor of Gaza, said that, to reach equity, there was a big need to bridge the development gap between the Israeli and Palestinian communities.  However, given their history, the cooperation needed was hard to initiate.  It needed a third party to help them, such as the cooperation agreement between Barcelona, Gaza and Tel Aviv. 

    Zvi Zilker, Mayor of Ashdod, said that everyone had to agree to go through two bridges:  one was the governmental bridge, the political peace agreement that would be signed; the other was at the local level, where academics and experts could get things accomplished.  During the last 10 years as the Mayor of Ashdod, he had hosted the former Mayor of Gaza, and meetings of manufacturing associations from the two communities.  He had also held meetings in Italy, Cyprus and Israel, to promote joint efforts for peace between nations through local partnerships.

    A question and answer session addressing issues on both panels was held following the second panel.

    The Seminar, entitled "New Challenges in the Middle East Peace Process and Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue", is organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

    In his closing address to the Seminar, Mr. Tharoor said that they had had two days of intense discussions on the new challenges facing the Middle East peace process and how to promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians in their search for a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East, under current difficult circumstances.  He agreed with speakers that it was very important to emphasize the importance to talk.  He hoped the conversation that had begun here would continue in other meetings, other rooms and other countries.  As had been observed, the opposite of love was not hate; the opposite of love was indifference.  That was what the international community could not afford -- indifference.  What had become clear during this seminar was that the world, and certainly the Middle East, was full of people who were not indifferent.

    This was the fourteenth in a series of international media seminars on peace in the Middle East that the Department of Public Information organizes, at the instruction of the General Assembly.  They are held in a different country every year.

    Panel on "The Challenge of Local Capacity-Building and Intercommunity Cooperation"

    SHASHI THAROOR, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said that the panel would deal with civil society participation and Israeli-Palestinian intercommunity cooperation in grass-roots-level initiatives for economic, social and educational development.

    He said that, two years ago, in Beijing, China, a seminar discussion on the role of civil society had found that, while little tangible progress had been made on the implementation of the Road Map and rancour over contentious issues dominated the political agenda, civil society initiatives had kept the flame of dialogue alive.  In the panel, representatives of the trade unions, academia, elected officials of Israeli and Palestinian municipalities, the Economic Development Corporations and non-governmental organizations would present their perspectives on their initiatives and the prospects for further intercommunity cooperation at the local or grass-roots level.  Participants would hear their experiences, lessons learned and continuing hopes for both peoples.

    ILAN JURAN, Executive Director of the Urban Infrastructure Institute in New York and cofounder of the Mediterranean Association for Cooperation, Resources and Development, said the issues and challenges facing both communities, including building infrastructure and shortages of energy and water, were shared.  When he had hosted a meeting in New York between the mayors of Gaza and the former mayor of Ashkelon to work together towards the economic and social development of those two areas, that had represented a real achievement that the academic community could bring, towards international solidarity.

    He said that his three priorities were education, employment and water, and those were still relevant issues on which the two communities and cities could work on together.  One initiative that had been undertaken back in 1998 was a computer information centre.  The international community, in the form of the United States Conference of Mayors, contributed to that joint project between Ashkelon and Gaza.  Such projects contributed to enhancing the skills of workers to be able to find employment in the international market.  A second project he was working on was the joint establishment of an international school for urban planning and sustainable development.  The goal was to promote common reference values that transcended local cultural values.  It would be a partnership between local government, labour unions and others.

    In that regard, he called on the members of the Quartet and the international community to support future grass-roots projects developed by the two communities that served local needs.  To make that a reality, he hoped that an international steering committee would be established to organize and coordinate such joint initiatives.

    AYED ABU RAMADAN, Executive Manager of the Gaza Agricultural Project of the Palestinian Authority, said that he would like to tell a project story that showed determination and accomplishment, but also the hardships that faced all such projects in Palestine.  The project was the Gaza Agricultural Project.  The goals of the project were to protect the assets of the region, to sustain and improve greenhouse production, and to generate new and permanent work opportunities.

    During the Israeli withdrawal, many of the greenhouses were destroyed or damaged and later many were looted, he continued.  They had rebuilt, however, and succeeded in planting and creating new jobs.  Their production had been more than 120 tons per day.  A by-product of that had also been that such activity nourished the Palestine and Israeli economies, benefiting subsidiary industries, including packing materials manufacturers and transportation companies.  And it was hoped that this project would only grow.

    The project would not have been possible without third-party assurances, he said.  Challenges included the fact that the main crossing point for agricultural products had been closed for 30 per cent of the time, and, when it was open, it only took limited truckloads, not the whole production.  It was strange that the days of closure were during January and February, when there were peak prices for crops in Europe, and also in March and April, during times of peak crop production.  Then, owing to high operating expenses, the project had had to close down.  More than 4,250 labourers had been laid off.  And the greenhouses, if they would be closed down, would no longer be secure and subject to being looted.  For that reason, he called on the Quartet to keep this peace seed alive.

    BENNY VAKNIN, President, Metropolitan Transit Authority, Tel Aviv and former Mayor of Ashkelon, said that, 10 years ago, when he had been Mayor of Ashkelon, he had contacted the then Mayor of Gaza, hoping to meet him.  He had called, he had sent letters, but it had taken a long while to get a response.  Finally, he had met him.  The Mayor of Gaza had not been very interested in his project.  He had said, why take initiatives when there was no peace?  He, however, had succeeded in convincing him to undertake one project, a computer centre.  The project had been a big success.  As the Palestinian and Israeli students had spoke with each other, they had changed their minds about one another. 

    He said they next planned a garbage recycling centre, which they wanted to build on the border, and they had a financial commitment from Canada for that project.  There had been a free flow of information and idea-sharing between Ashkelon and Gaza during the whole planning process.

    To those who asked why undertake such partnerships, he said that mayors could do a lot by joint ventures and through joint cooperation, which would bring huge benefits to all sides, all the while preparing the field for peace.  He was optimistic that they could do something now to help their peoples and prepare for future generations.  He hoped the United Nations would help.

    Panel on "The Civil Society Participation and Perspectives of Grass-Root-Level Initiatives"

    MAGED ABU RAMADAN, Mayor of Gaza, said that the promising potential initiatives raised earlier required the involvement of the international community, along with the funds for tools and materials for achieving them, to be realized.  The international community could cooperate in many fields, including education, and information and communication technology.  In view of their limited financial resources, the Palestinians had no choice but to look to their human resources.  Palestinians who were finally free to travel to the Gaza Strip were afraid that it was turning into a huge open air prison.  The international community had to make sure that such a situation did not continue.  Thanks to James Wolfenshohn, numerous projects in the Gaza Strip had been planned, but none of them would be able to be realized, if the restrictions on movements and entry continued.

    The majority of the Palestinian people still supported the peace process, he said.  That was, given that such a peace meant the creation of a peaceful, economically viable Palestinian State.  Was it possible to believe in joint cooperation measures, however, when the Israelis still continued to treat the Palestinians as lesser than them?  If they wanted to reach equity, there was a big need to bridge the development gap between the two communities.  However, given their history, the cooperation needed was hard to initiate.  It needed a third party to help them, such as the cooperation agreement between Barcelona, Gaza and Tel Aviv.  Gaza had also managed to achieve cooperation agreements with Ashkelon, with the help of American cities, as mentioned earlier.

    However, to achieve cooperation among communities and raise their economic and social level was not enough, he said.  Militarist ideology had to be put aside for there to be peace.  The presence of extremists on both sides should be recognized.  If both sides failed to work towards peace, they were merely playing into the hands of those extremists.  By lifting the sanctions and supporting the humanitarian plight of the Palestinian people they could all work together towards peace.

    ZVI ZILKER, Mayor of Ashdod, said that everyone had to agree to go through two bridges:  one was the governmental bridge, the political peace agreement that would be signed; the other was at the local level, where academics and experts could get things accomplished.  During the last 10 years as the Mayor of Ashdod, he had hosted the former Mayor of Gaza, as well as meetings of manufacturing associations from the two communities.  He had held meetings in Italy, Cyprus and Israel, to promote joint efforts for peace between nations through local partnerships.  The twin cities concept was at the heart of that initiative, an initiative that was launched following the Second World War to help to build connections.

    He said one idea was to have a cruise with representatives from Mediterranean countries, such as Israel, Egypt, Italy, and Cyprus, during which time they could discuss issues that affected them.  He felt that there was a need to create a committee that reported to the United Nations, whose objective would be to implement such joint projects at the local level.  He had no doubt that members of this seminar would be able to submit a list of initiatives that would strengthen ties between the two nations.  That was part of the reason for coming here.

    He proposed a free trade zone in the port of Ashdod; the creation of similar facilities in Ashdod and Gaza for the development of economic cooperation; and youth meetings, within the framework of sports and cultural activities, for example.  He recognized that one meeting would not change everything, but it was like lighting one candle.  It had the ability to light up a dark room.

    Discussion

    ALEXANDRE GORELIK, Director of the United Nations Information Centre in Moscow, said that he felt that this had been a good meeting that had shown the desire on both sides to learn from each other.  Regarding the search for sponsors of a movement for joint projects, he would be glad to submit such an initiative to the Mayor of Moscow, who was interested in promoting global connections.  He felt that their small steps would, indeed, lead them somewhere.

    In response to the question of what came first, economic normalization or peace treaties, a speaker said that the two communities had to work together with the resources that they had.  It was not because they liked or did not like each other; it was because they needed each other and faced the same challenges in the region.  He proposed that, for the Palestinian people, projects involving information technology and training would be the most effective, as roadblocks and closures would have less effect.  Such work could be carried out through the Internet; with the click of a button, a product worth thousands of dollars could be exported.

    Mr. VAKNIN said that it was not about political issues.  The mayors who cooperated dealt with helping people, economic development and educating children.

    Mr. ZILKER said that he had been asked to close the port of Ashdod, owing to security concerns, but he had refused.  He said that, once you lost hope, the problem just got worse.  Without belief, nothing could be done.  They had to find ways to work together, to show their countries that they wanted peace.

    One speaker observed that the fact that they were all sitting down together at the same table to discuss these issues was already an accomplishment.  While they were building peace, they could not fail to build the State.

    Closing Statement

    Mr. THAROOR, in closing remarks, said that they had had two days of intense discussions on the new challenges facing the Middle East peace process and how to promote dialogue and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in their search for a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East, under current difficult circumstances.

    He said he agreed with speakers that it was very important to emphasize the importance to talk.  He hoped the conversation that had begun here would continue in other meetings, other rooms and other countries.  As had been observed, the opposite of love was not hate; the opposite of love was indifference.  That was what the international community could not afford -- indifference.  What had become clear during this seminar was that the world, and certainly the Middle East, was full of people who were not indifferent.

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