Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 1992, Page 26, 85
Arafat and ANC's Tambo Address Geneva Conference on Palestine
By Don Betz
As the sixth round of the Middle East peace talks convened in Washington, the United Nations was hosting its ninth annual international Non-Governmental Organizations meeting/symposium on the question of Palestine at its Geneva headquarters.
The opening session saw the large conference room filled beyond capacity with NGOs, representatives of international agencies, intergovernmental organizations, envoys from 40 governments and the press.
They were drawn by the open speculation that Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and Oliver Tambo, national chairman of the African National Congress, both would appear and address the conference. Tambo entered the room after Arafat and slowly made his way to his place aided by associates and his cane. The Arafat-Tambo embrace brought the entire room spontaneously to its feet.
Tambo had flown from Johannesburg to represent Nelson Mandela and the ANC. He spoke slowly and deliberately to great effect. His definition of the "new world order" envisioned "a greater portion of the world's resources for use against poverty, disease and ignorance. The construction of a world order firmly rooted in freedom, democracy, justice, peace and the pursuit of progress and happiness for all mankind is also becoming a viable prospect," he said.
Tambo called for "a world in which no people will ever feel the need to struggle as we have been called upon to struggle. This must be a world in which the affirmation of our collective humanity is based on the recognition of our individual humanity. It must be a world in which every individual, regardless of race, color, creed or gender, has the right to belong, to the free pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment, and to security of life and limb."
Tambo counseled that "anything that is injurious to any section of humanity is harmful to allhumanity and that any order that is not freely and collectively worked out and voluntarily accepted by all cannot be just and lasting." Only in that way, Tambo said, can humankind create "the free empire of all humanity in which the highest interest will be to promote the fullest development of all human beings. . . individually and collectively."
He expressed unequivocal support for Palestinians, the PLO, and the goal of Palestinian self-determination expressed in an independent state. He said that while the ANC supports the current Middle East peace process, "the unconditional upholding of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination must be an essential condition for a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East conflict, including Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories and the security of all states in the region, including the state of Israel." Thunderous applause accompanied him to his seat.
"Peace needs more courage than war."
Yasser Arafat developed political themes during his remarks, delivered in Arabic. He noted that Palestinians have been actively and publicly pursuing peace for years, and most resolutely since the Algiers Palestine National Council meeting in 1988. He voiced strong doubts about the sincerity of Israel's commitment to a bona fide peace negotiation.
"All this takes place within the framework of a pre-planned Israeli scheme aimed at suppressing our people, usurping their basic right to a free and dignified life, destroying their economic infrastructures, and at compelling them to make more concessions concerning their legitimate national rights," Arafat said.
He reminded the audience of the depth of Palestinian commitment and involvement that eventually produced the Madrid meeting. Palestinians are cooperating with current efforts to establish "just peace in the area and with a high sense of responsibility and suitable flexibility," he said, repeating the phrase three times for emphasis.
Arafat spoke of the current negotiations and of the "participation of our people in the current peace process" and acknowledged the efforts of East Jerusalem leader Faisal Husseini, who was present in the hall. The Palestinian involvement, Arafat continued, was based on a democratic decision taken after deliberations "in our legislative, executive and leadership institutions, especially the PNC."
Despite some actions taken by Rabin, Arafat sees little evidence that Israeli policy has changed substantively. Arafat pointed out that Israeli hindrances to the peace process include a continuation of the occupation's iron-first policies and more settlements "which will reach, as Rabin has declared, the 11,000 settlement units that were approved by the Shamir government." Regardless of appearances, Arafat argued, "this government's real position denies the the national rights of our people."
Arafat reaffirmed the Palestinian position that only legislative political elections under international auspices and not administrative elections "as they have [been] proposed under the guns and cannons of [Israeli] tanks" are acceptable.
Actions or Words?
The PLO chairman did, however, characterize the Israeli elections last June as "an important step because they were an expression of the rejection of the policy of war, procrastination, expansion and the building of settlements." But for Arafat, Rabin's statements are contradicted by his actions. "He [Rabin] offers the world sugar-coated words but on the ground he wields the iron fist," he said.
He was sharply critical of the U.S. relationship with Israel. "The U.S. administration, for purely domestic purposes, takes a totally biased position in favor of Israel," he declared. He chided the U.S. government for unblocking the loan guarantees "without any prior official or public commitment by Israel to President Bush's initiative." Departing from his prepared text, Arafat exclaimed, "All I want is Israel's public commitment to the George Bush initiative!"
He graphically described deteriorating conditions in the occupied territories and asked how the U.S. can expect to be considered fair and unbiased while granting billions of dollars to Israel when "everyone knows how our people face the worst economic conditions." Again he set aside his text to shout that "there is real famine in Gaza! Let the whole world realize that there can be no peace and stability on the corpses of the Palestinian people."
The PLO chairman reminded participants in the meeting that their countries are signatories to the Fourth Geneva Convention and that they should spare no effort to see that "this conversation is applied to occupied Palestinian territory." In this way, he argued, the Palestinian people can be protected from some of the worst manifestations of the 25-year-old occupation.
In a deliberate move, he turned toward some of the Israeli NGO representatives and said: "I would like to tell our Israeli NGO friends, the supporters of peace and the forces which support our rights and our people, that peace needs more courage than war." He encouraged the Israelis present to push hard for a genuine and just peace.
"We are a sovereign and free people whose hopes in the values of life, justice and peace have not yet been killed," Arafat said. "Here are our hands, extended to you. . . Shall we find in return an extended hand to build together a just and comprehensive peace? We have reached a point in time where neither sugar-coated words nor promises that are not to be fulfilled are enough. It is time now that our enemies should have the necessary courage to make a just and comprehensive peace for our children and their children."
Palestinians living within the Green Line were broadly represented.
The remainder of the three-day international conclave focused on action-oriented strategies. Speakers and resource persons from Israel, Palestine and nearly every continent offered their perspectives on the current negotiations and the prospects for real peace in the reasonable future.
Palestinians living within the Green Line were broadly represented and very active as they explained their living conditions in Israel. Their participation in the U.N. NGO meetings has steadily increased over the past five years. One of the most effective presentations was made by Abie Nathan, Israeli businessman and veteran peace proponent, who recently served a prison sentence for meeting with Yasser Arafat and other PLO officials.
Discussions focused on the daily lives of Palestinians living under occupation, and on Palestinians everywhere seeking self-determination. As one speaker noted: "Although we will discuss countless matters, ultimately all of us must judge our work by simple measures.
"Did our collaboration shorten the occupation by one single day? Did it change one person's pejorative perception of Palestinians and their struggle? Did our efforts save a single life? Is a Palestinian child safer today than he/she was yesterday because of what we dare to do?
"When we can honestly answer 'yes' to these queries, then we will know that first taste of victory in this triumph of the human spirit that is the struggle for Palestine." ❑
Don Betz, Ph.D., is vice president of university relations and professor of political science at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, OK. He is chairman of the U.N.'s International Coordinating Committee on the Question of Palestine.