5 Jun, 2012
PARIS, (UN Department of Public Information) 30 May 2012 — The Israeli occupation’s harsh socio-economic impact on Palestinian youth and women and the subsequent challenges and home-grown and global efforts to improve their lot were examined this afternoon as the United Nations International Meeting on the Question of Palestine held its first plenary session in Paris. (Click here to see the original source of this dispatch).
Entitled “The situation of youth and women in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”, the session followed the opening of the two-day Paris meeting, convened by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, which aims to mobilize international support for youth’s and women’s initiatives for achieving a peaceful end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Addressing the plenary session were Siham Rashid, Project Manager of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) in Ramallah; Matthias Burchard, Director on the Representative Offices to the European Union and Geneva of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); Nour Odeh, a Ramallah-based freelance journalist and media consultant; Akram Natsheh, a representative of Hebron-based Youth against Settlements; and Mohammed S.M. Iqtifan, Campaign Coordinator of the Gaza-based Migratory Letters Campaign.
Ms. Rashid shed light on the Israeli Government’s series of laws to expel and restrict Palestinians from Jerusalem. She said the Jerusalem Master Plan 2003 scheme, a mandatory legal guide for all zoning and planning in the city, aimed to maintain a population ratio of 70 per cent Jews and 30 per cent Arabs through strict control of Palestinian construction. Israel’s discriminatory laws had led to forced family separations and fragmentation, and high poverty and unemployment rates among Palestinians.
Owing to Israel’s education policy in East Jerusalem, an estimated 9,000 Palestinian children did not attend school in that city, while half dropped out, according to the Palestinian Education Department, she said. An estimated 6,500 students and more than 650 teachers had difficulties reaching schools due to access restrictions, including Israeli checkpoints and the separation wall. Because of a shortage of classrooms, children often studied in overcrowded, makeshift rooms in facilities not built for educational purposes.
Women and girls were also sexually and psychologically harassed at checkpoints; forced to undress in order to pass through, she said. That situation had led some mothers to keep their daughters out of university so as not to be subjected to strip searches at checkpoints en route. The separation wall and its accompanying restrictions threatened the right to health, education, decent work and an adequate standard of living, particularly for expectant mothers, female students and workers.
Home demolitions had forced many women to live in poor, unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, she said. According to the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, which had documented the psychological and emotional impact of forced evictions, women were gravely concerned about the impact of forced evictions on their children. Research conducted by Save the Children UK and the Palestinian Counselling Centre revealed that home demolitions destroyed family structures, increased poverty and vulnerability, and displaced families from an environment that gave them cohesion and support. She recounted the story of a girl names Mariam whose home was destroyed and who came to see home demolitions in her neighbourhood as commonplace. “It is imperative that we demonstrate to Mariam, all Palestinian boys and girls, that bulldozers and home demolitions are not and should never be considered normal,” she said.
Israel must fully implement its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women to protect women living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, she said. Moreover, the international community had a collective responsibility to ensure that the voices of women and girls from Jerusalem were heard, valued and properly considered in any forum that concerned the definition of their future. Their vision was crucial to improve their future and a prerequisite to all efforts to achieve a just, lasting peace as set forth in Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on women and peace and security.
Speaking next, Mr. Burchard discussed UNRWA’s strategies to improve the lot of Palestinian women and youth. UNRWA’s 2010-2015 medium-term strategy promoted gender equality in all UNRWA services. The Agency’s health programme gave priority to reproductive health care and family planning concerns. Its microfinance programme strove to give women the same access to loans as men, while women comprised 40 per cent of the recipients of the Agency’s cash-for-work programme in the West Bank, which gave short-term job opportunities to the most vulnerable refugees. In response to needs identified in the Jordan Valley area, the Agency had set up a training programme for women in photography, accounting, banking and financial management, as well as in food processing. It also offered referral and support services for female victims of violence, particularly domestic and sexual violence.
To reduce the unemployment rate among youth, which was particularly high among young women in Gaza, UNRWA had launched the Young Women Leaders Programme in 2011, which gave female graduates the requisite skills in information technology, project planning, management and English to compete in the labour market, he said. UNRWA’s Engaging Youth Conference, held in March, had gathered for the first time global leaders such as the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and 24 young Palestinian refugees to discuss the needs, hopes and aspirations of Palestinian refugee youth in a changing Middle East.
UNRWA listened to what youth representatives had to say, pledged itself to the so-called “10 Youth Commitments” in education, health, vocational training, microfinance, skills, rights and participation, partnerships and communication, he said. At the March conference, the Palestinian refugee youth representatives had not asked the Agency to expand its food aid and health-care services. Rather, they had asked it to adopt a more meaningful and effective approach to address youth concerns, particularly employment, capacity-building and youth participation.
Ms. Odeh discussed the psychological and emotional side effects of the occupation on women, who had the double burden of enduring detention, physical assault, home demolitions and movement restrictions, while raising and protecting their children, often while their husbands were trapped in Israeli jails. Such oppression had led to a rise in domestic violence, trauma, a high sense of anxiety and other mental health problems. Palestinians were almost in a perpetual state of grief. Still, women were highly involved in human and social rights activism. Thanks to their advocacy efforts through the media, in May 2011, an archaic law that allowed perpetrators of so-called “honour killings” to go unpunished had been repealed. It was a resounding victory for those who had struggled for years to achieve justice for the victims, and part of Palestinian women’s fight to change legislation dating from the 1960s that were inherently disadvantageous.
Similarly, drawing on social media and other tools to make their voices heard, Palestinian youth were creating new political dynamics, he said. Last year, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had taken the unprecedented step of soliciting public input on his Facebook account on whom to appoint as ministers in his new Government. Youth’s determined spirit and calls for national unity had compelled Palestinian political parties in March 2011 to begin a national reconciliation process, resulting in a reconciliation deal two months later.
Youth’s support through daily rallies and social media campaigns of the massive hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners launched in January had brought world attention to their plight, helping to seal a deal that met the prisoners’ demands for better living conditions, she said. More than 3,000 young activists had organized town-hall meetings across the West Bank and global awareness campaigns to rally support for Palestine’s bid for full United Nations membership. But she cautioned against comparing young Palestinians to other Arab youth fighting for their rights. “We are not experiencing a ‘Spring’. We have been living in an ongoing ‘Spring’ for the better part of the past 50 years,” she said.
Mr. Natsheh cited the successes of Youth against Settlements, based in Hebron, and other youth groups in fighting the occupation through non-violent popular resistance. While such individual victories — among them the return of confiscated land and property to the Palestinians, the opening of roads, building of houses and support for Palestinians living in caves — were small, collectively, they made daily life easier for the Palestinians and fuelled aspirations for fully ending the occupation. In Hebron, where Israel had set up five settlements and hundreds of military checkpoints, effectively dividing the city in two, Youth against Settlements had carried out hundreds of protests and campaigns to end human rights violations against Palestinians and spread awareness about them globally.
After a year-long legal battle, his group had succeeded in having Israeli settlers evicted from a Palestinian house in the Tall al-Rumayda district, before turning the house into a cultural and education centre, as well as the group’s headquarters, he said. This year, it had organized 35 events in countries worldwide to demand that Israel open Martyr Street linking north and south Hebron, which Israeli authorities had closed without any reasonable justification. The group also had managed to curtail harassment and attacks on Palestinians by filming attackers in the act. It had turned over the video documentation to human rights groups, television stations and social media sites like Facebook.
His and other youth groups brought together, rather than divided, Palestinian young people of different religious backgrounds and political affiliations in the common struggle to end the occupation and create a Palestinian State, he said. Many who joined the groups had been approached by political factions keen on turning them into fighters for their respective causes, which only served to exacerbate divisions. The groups were a powerful force, despite operating with almost no money. Their main financial burden was the cost of paying fines and bail to secure the release of those arrested by the Israeli army during events. Increasingly, women were joining the popular resistance, even leading rallies and campaigns in some areas.
Mr. Iqtifan described what Palestinians had come to call “one big prison” and their feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. The Gaza wall was a reality experienced by young Palestinians. Gazans had electric power only six hours a day. Seventy-two per cent of the victims of the second Intifada were youths. The first thing Palestinian children saw from a young age was the image of the occupier. The massive material and physical losses, coupled with the lack of economic and educational opportunity, uncertainty about the future and psychological stress owing to the occupation, had created a cohort of disaffected youths which had the potential to become a socially and politically destabilizing force.
The question remained as to how children lived in such circumstances, he said. But young Palestinians understood their situation and they expressed hope for the future. More than half supported a two-State solution and ending the occupation through non-violent means, while 87 per cent were confident in their ability to lead the country in the future. The problem was a lack of enforcement on the international community’s part.
“What can one say to an elderly Palestinian refugee waiting for resolutions 194 and 242 to be implemented?” he asked, adding: “How much longer do we have to wait for a solution?” Israel had withdrawn from occupied areas before, including Gaza, the Sinai in Egypt and southern Lebanon, but without agreeing to a definitive resolution to the area in question with the countries in question. Similarly, implementation of the Oslo agreement was a complete failure on the ground. The occupation had persisted without Israel creating a relationship with the Palestinians based on trust. Both sides must be on equal footing, but that was lacking in the Arab-Israeli conflict. That key lay in Jerusalem, the city of peace.
He said that young Palestinians until now had not had a chance in practical terms to effectively participate in political life. Notwithstanding that predicament, they continued to be active, and were increasingly determined. The international community had a great responsibility, not just towards the persecuted population, but also towards its own people who had stood in solidarity with the Palestinians. “The homeland we love remains in our hearts, we have not lost it,” he said.
During the ensuing discussion, some participants shed light on their own experiences under the occupation while posing questions to panellists. For example, a representative of a non-governmental organization who had been imprisoned in Israel for a year said he understood very well the psychological repercussions of detention. Released prisoners were heroes in Palestine, when they really should be seen as victims of the Israeli torture machine. He asked if there was a serious trend to document the ongoing dialogue among Palestine refugees in the diaspora and called on UNRWA to provide more information in that regard.
Delegates also took the floor. Kuwait’s representative noted that UNESCO reports did not include specific information on the growing dearth of classrooms in Palestine. He asked what measures the Palestinian Authority was taking to call for Palestinian membership in the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), in order to support youth in health, telecommunications and other fields. He also called on non-governmental organizations and the private sector in Arab countries to establish partnerships to help the Palestinians. Gabon’s representative asked if young Israelis were as concerned as young Palestinians about the need for a two-State solution.
A journalist asked about the existence of individual films concerning violence against Palestinian women and of Palestinian associations that documented that violence.
In response, Ms. Rachid said indeed many videos existed, and she could discuss that in more detail after the meeting. Additionally, several organizations were working to document the concerns of refugees, and UNESCO was working to identify solutions to high drop-out rate among schoolchildren. The United Nations had worked for years to document the plight of prisoners held in Israeli prisons. But the halt in funding for its programmes had impeded legal and social projects.
Ms. Diab took the floor to point out the harsh reality of Palestinian prisoners and the negative impact on their families. Their children were left behind to be raised by other relatives. If they were deemed unfit as parents by the Israeli authorities, their children could be taken away from them and raised by strangers.
Mr. Burchard said UNRWA was indeed working with UNESCO, and it had sent documentation to the latter on the situation concerning classrooms. Additionally, European Union delegations published internal monitoring reports, but they had yet to include a chapter on youth and education. UNRWA’s $77 million budget deficit, the equivalent of two months’ salary for doctors, nurses and teachers, had forced the Agency to cut back on some services.
Ms. Odeh said Israeli youth were not paying the price of the occupation. They were living a very different life and knew little about the Occupied Palestinian Territory in general. The Israeli Government had made it its business to make the occupation profitable and detached from any moral obligations. Because of that disconnect, there was not much of a common language between Palestinian and Israeli youth. It was high time that the international community changed its narrative by listening more to those on the ground. Peace was not the goal; the end of the occupation was. Peace was a by-product of a long, painful process.
Similarly, Mr. Natsheh said that, while there were some youth movements in Israel that defended the rights of Palestinians, they had not yet broken the Israeli silence on Palestinian rights.
Mr. Iqtifan said the issue was not one between Palestinian youth and Israeli youth. The problem lay with Israeli soldiers’ attacks on Palestinian youth. While 52 per cent of Palestinian youth supported the two-State solution, most were pessimistic that the conflict would be resolved. Israel had given up some territories in some settlements without any quid pro quo. But the international community could not wait for Israel to come up with the solution. It had to put an end to the racial segregation itself.