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5 Jun, 2012

Speakers Outraged at Israeli Attacks on Palestinian Civilians


PARIS, (UN Department of Public Information), 31 May 2012 — The role of information technology in Palestinian social cohesion and state-building, strategies to bolster education and the need to hold Israel to account for human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territory were examined this morning as the United Nations International Meeting on the Question of Palestine continued in Paris. (Click here for the original source of this dispatch).

Entitled “empowerment of women and youth: a core prerequisite in building the Palestinian society for an independent State of Palestine”, the session opened the second day of the two-day Meeting, convened by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, which aims to mobilize international support for youth and women’s initiatives for achieving a peaceful end to the Israeli occupation.

Addressing the plenary session were Louise Haxthausen, Programme Coordinator of Conflict and Post-Conflict Operations of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris; Nawaf Salam, Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations in New York; Sabri Saidam, Ramallah-based Adviser to the President of the Palestinian Authority on Information Technology and Technical Education; and Muath Abu Arqoub, Ramallah-based youth activist and expert on social media.

Ms. Haxthausen said the very complex environment in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, with its constant humanitarian emergencies, development and subsequent unravelling of it, made it difficult to consolidate gains in women’s empowerment and participation. There was a general feeling of uncertainty, individually and collectively. Constant fear and violence had particular repercussions for women and youth. But there were also very strong feelings of resilience, which were vital to development, as well as an emphasis on education, which, although not lifesaving, created a feeling of normalcy. Strong cultural ties between Gaza and the West Bank and Jerusalem were crucial for socio-economic development and cohesion among the Palestinian people.

The occupation’s unseen psychosocial impact on education was tremendous, stunting the ability of educators to teach and students to learn, she said. To protect the right to education in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, UNESCO provided preparedness training for school administrators and community leaders to shield schools from attacks, and it monitored grave human rights violations against children. Education, school enrolment and graduation were highly valued in Palestine, but few women opted for science and technical courses, making it more difficult for them than men to find jobs after graduation. Moreover, many of the most talented and skilled women and youth left to pursue careers and lives abroad. In recent years, studies showed a decline in education quality. To reverse that, UNESCO was encouraging higher levels of professionalism through a teachers’ code of conduct, licensing schemes and other tools.

Most grade-school teachers in Palestine were women, but more could and should be done to increase women’s participation in academia, she said. UNESCO was carrying out research in that area through the Ramallah-based Palestinian Women’s Research and Documentation Centre. The agency promoted the development of social media, which gave Palestinians whose physical movements were restricted, a vital tool for communicating with the outside world. UNESCO also encouraged women’s participation in the media. It worked to eliminate the glass ceiling they faced in that field and partnered with media organizations to support women’s career development. The “Arab Spring” had shown the media’s tremendous impact on development. In 2009, UNESCO had started a citizen blogging programme in the West Bank. The subsequent demand among citizens for social media training was huge, and many of the trainees had since employed social media to raise Palestine’s profile across the Arab region.

Mr. Salam discussed the failure of the Security Council to protect Palestinian civilians from the Israeli occupation. Since adopting landmark resolution 1265 (1999) on protecting civilians in armed conflict, the Council had incorporated such protection into the mandates of peacekeeping operations in a myriad of strife-torn areas, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Haiti and Sudan. But due to the lack of political will of some Council members, Palestinians remained the exception to the rule. Palestinian women and girls were particularly vulnerable to the occupation, but again, the Council had exhibited paralysis in implementing its resolution 1325 (2000) on protecting women and girls from violence in conflict zones.

The restrictions on movement caused by the occupation impeded women’s access to health care, forcing some to give birth at checkpoints because they could not reach a hospital, he said. Palestinian female prisoners constantly faced torture, humiliation and horrendous living conditions, and while Israeli female prisoners lived in separate quarters supervised by women only, their Palestinian counterparts lacked such protections.

Similarly, Palestinian children were deprived of an elaborate protection system, and the Israeli authorities were not held to account, even though a November 2011 report of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed that 84 per cent of all murders and injuries of Palestinian children were committed by the Israel Defense Forces, he said. In violation of the rule of law principle of proportionality, Israeli forces detained and prosecuted, blindfolded, stripped and beat Palestinian children as young as 12 years old for throwing stones. In its February 2012 report, the Defence of Children International shed light on the ways in which Israeli forces used children as human shields in Israeli military operations.

“It is high time for the few Security Council members hindering any progress on the Palestinian question to allow for the Council’s condemnation of such Israeli practices,” he said. Israel’s old adage that international humanitarian law did not apply to Palestine since “it is not a State” added insult to injury and was a manifestation of Israel’s disdain for the international community’s will and Council resolutions. The time for ending the Palestinian exception to the Council’s protection was long overdue.

Mr. Saidam centred his talk on the empowering effect of the widespread use of information and communications technology in the Occupied Palestine Territory. Palestine had the world’s highest rate of Facebook users per capita. Ninety per cent of the population had cell phones; more than 30 per cent had access to the Internet. Facebook was the “screwdriver” that could remove Heads of State from office, and Israel needed to fear that use. Traditional weapons used so far by Israel, notably weapons of mass destruction, were becoming obsolete. Information technology was becoming the greatest weapon of war. Even the Israeli Prime Minister admitted that information technology was the foremost threat against Israel. Information technology enjoyed freedom from censorship and allowed people to speak freely. “Today, we are faced with a third intifada, an electronic intifada, which can become a true insurrectional movement,” he said.

He then showed a short film of a Palestinian villager in Bethlehem confronting Israeli soldiers who had stopped him and other Palestinians at a checkpoint. The film, made by Palestinian youth in the presence of foreign journalists, was a poignant example of how social media was being used to reveal the reality of the occupation. He then recounted the story of how his mother, who, en route to a doctor’s appointment in Jerusalem, had died after Israeli soldiers detained her at a checkpoint, making it impossible for her to keep the appointment.

Mr. Arqoub said action against the occupation, be it through leadership in the field, the media or the resistance, was fuelled largely by youth, which comprised three quarters of Palestinian society. Having relied on local universities as a vehicle for political participation and freedom of expression, youth were expanding their reach to the online world. Some studies estimated that there were between 900,000 and 1 million Facebook users in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the highest per capita percentage of online users in the world, and that number was rising fast. Youth spent between two and four hours a day online, not just for socializing, but also for civic activism.

Socio-political changes sweeping the Arab world had undoubtedly increased subscriptions to and involvement in social media, particularly among youth, as a tool for building an open Palestinian society and fostering lively debate on various issues, he said. The Quds News Network, a Palestinian youth site launched in 2011, already had more than 240,000 subscribers and was a primary source of news for many people. Launched three months ago, a news agency publishing made-up stories was also rapidly gaining followers. It gave details on the practices of the occupation, and it was sharply critical and contemptuous of Palestinian politicians and the Palestinian situation in general.

Social media networks were used as a rallying call for such things as a third Palestinian intifada, scrapping the new draft tax law, ending corruption and promoting political groups, he said. They also enabled Palestinian youth to connect personally with their peers in the diaspora, and gave Palestinian women a chance to express themselves and take part in social and political debates, promoting themselves as equal partners in the process. Moreover, they served as a bridge to Israelis who opposed the occupation, helping to form friendships and communications between the two sides and facilitating Israeli participation in weekly peaceful demonstrations against the separation wall. He cautioned, however, against the abuse of social media.

During the ensuing discussion, Mauritania’s representative asked Mr. Arqoub if social media had brought Palestinians into a more dynamic frame of mind and enabled them to foster ties with Israelis who were sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. Peru’s representative asked about the online links between South American youth of Palestinian descent and Palestinian youth.

The Director of the Representative Offices to the European Union and Geneva of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) appealed to UNESCO to involve more Palestine refugees, particularly youth and women, in the organization’s conference, and he pledged UNRWA’s support for that. He asked Mr. Salam to elaborate on how Lebanon’s recently adopted law to facilitate Palestine refugees’ work in Lebanon could be implemented. Another speaker asked Mr. Salam why resolution 1325 (2000) on women and peace and security had not been implemented.

Several representatives of civil society organizations asked about UNESCO’s policies concerning Palestine, particularly now that the latter was a member of the agency. They asked how the rights of Palestinians fit into UNESCO’s mandate to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, particularly in the face of Israeli law that did not recognize the rights of Bedouins. One participant asked how the agency was protecting Palestinian heritage, which was being plundered and hijacked to promote tourism to Israel.

A journalist wondered if too much attention was given to short-term employment rather than to long-term development and a secure future, and how UNESCO could help change that in the sectors it worked in.

In response, Ms. Haxthausen said UNESCO had staffed UNRWA’s education sector. UNESCO was working with UNRWA and the Palestinian Ministry of Education to harmonize education policies for all Palestinian children, and through its Ramallah office, the agency sought to involve refugees, particularly female refugees, in education as well as cultural activities. Palestine’s admission to the organization and the fact that it was becoming a State party to UNESCO conventions gave Palestine new rights, particularly cultural rights. As a result, there definitely was room for more cooperation in the future. In the next few months, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee would consider Palestine’s request for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to become a World Heritage Site.

Mr. Saidam said young Internet users had relatively limited influence on political leaders. The latter must become more receptive to bloggers. Concerning online communication with the Palestinian diaspora in Latin America, the problem was they did not speak Arabic, making it difficult for them to communicate with their Palestinian brethren.

Mr. Salam said there was not just a single law, but an entire attitude that had begun to change in 2005 to give Palestinian refugees greater rights in Lebanon’s labour market. Regarding lack of implementation of resolution 1325 (2000), he said hundreds of United Nations resolutions had not been implemented due to the lack of political will of Members, particularly those with veto power in the Council.

Mr. Arqoub pointed to a recent incident in which Palestinian schoolchildren had been burned on a school bus during a field trip. Several negative postings by Israeli youth on Facebook about the Palestinian children had stirred caution over the role of social media. He noted, however, the truth-revealing power of social media, stressing that virtual media coverage of the uprising in Tunisia had differed greatly from that of traditional media.