Karen Abuzayd, commissioner-general of the United Nations’ agency that provides aid and services to Palestinian refugees, and Alvaro de Soto, the recently retired UN diplomat from Peru, offer critical clarity with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
BEIRUT — It is very refreshing when law, international responsibility, and human courage converge in the remarks or actions of a single person. This occurred earlier this month in New Zealand, in a talk by Karen Abuzayd, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the United Nations agency that provides humanitarian aid and basic social services to Palestinian refugees. She made a few points that are noteworthy, precisely because international officials rarely speak with such clarity, moral force and political urgency. I quote her at length for the pertinence of her remarks:
She noted that “one of the most alarming but least acknowledged aspects of the present situation is the loss of Palestinian faith in the international community’s ability to act in their best interest…. Palestinians are bewildered by what they see as willful inaction, disinterest and mixed messages from the once-trusted international community. Over the past several years, Palestinian civilians have borne the brunt of the armed conflict with Israel. They cannot understand why the stipulations of international law, including human rights law and international humanitarian law, appear to be ignored in the occupied Palestinian territory. They fail to see how their freedom of movement and other freedoms can be trampled upon with such impunity, or why fundamental legal injunctions pertaining to proportionality and restraint in the use of force can be so blatantly ignored. They also marvel that alongside preparations for a peace conference and an emerging momentum for peace, the occupying power regularly carries out ruthless military operations, complete with house demolitions, arbitrary arrests and population displacement.
“Palestinians are puzzled by the adversarial policies that the international community has initiated, supported or acquiesced in, fully aware of their severe implications for the ordinary people of Gaza and the West Bank. They did not expect that their participation in democratic elections in 2006, acclaimed as free and fair, would provoke fifteen months of harsh sanctions that included the prohibition of remittances from abroad and the non-payment of salaries of civil servants. And Palestinians did not imagine that the declaration of Gaza as “hostile territory,” opening the way for the suspension of fuel, electricity, water and banking services, would be welcomed in some quarters and greeted with a deafening silence in others.”
She also feels that this grim situation can still be turned around. It requires political peace-making that is inclusive, and does not boycott or exclude anyone for purely political reasons. This would help restore integrity to the Palestinian political establishment, and allow mediators to work in a balanced and even-handed manner, keeping their eye on the ultimate goal of a negotiated agreement that serves Palestinians and Israelis alike.
When I was reading her remarks, I happened also to have an opportunity to talk with Alvaro de Soto, the recently retired U.N. diplomat from Peru who has 25 years of experience in conflict mediation and peace-making around the world. He negotiated the El Salvador agreement some years ago and then the Cyprus framework that was presented to referendums of Turkish and Greek Cypriots. His last post was the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.
When I asked him what was the main lesson of his experiences as related to the current stalled Arab-Israeli peace process, he replied: “The need to have unity and integrity of third party mediation efforts, and clarity of strategy.”
Echoing some of Abuzayd’s prescription for progress, he suggested that the Quartet (U.S., E.U, U.N., Russia) that was supposed to oversee the “roadmap” to Israeli-Palestinian peace needed review and revision.
“It was a good idea in its time,” he said, “but perhaps due to difficulties that have arisen partly from Quartet actions, its usefulness should be reviewed with a view to considering whether it needs some adjustment. I’m afraid the Quartet has gone off in a direction that discourages, among other things, the building of vital consensus among the Palestinians, which is necessary if any real progress is going to be sustainable over time. An opportunity was missed when the Quartet failed to support the national unity government the Palestinians formed early this year with Arab assistance.”
The Oslo process has not worked as envisioned, and both Palestinians and Israelis have moved away from it, he said.
“We have to ask if there is still a basis for proceeding on Oslo lines, or if we need to consider an entire paradigm shift. The roadmap may have outlasted its time. The step-by-step approach has not worked well, and we should look more towards addressing the core final status issues, but this is hard to do in the absence of a strong Israeli government and with a fractured Palestinian body politic. Putting people on terror lists and refusing to engage them is a serious drawback that needs to be reviewed also, because there must be a unified approach to engaging both sides of the conflict. A national unity government would have been the right way to move in Palestine, but an opportunity was missed there.”
Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award. ©2007 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global