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26-Feb-2021 00:20:37
Upcoming Israeli, Palestian elections could pave way to restoring legitimate political horizon in Middle East, top official tells Security Council.

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University Students Recount Memories of Interactions between Arab, Jewish Youth

Upcoming elections, currently being organized by both Israelis and Palestinians and slated to be held in 2021, will help to clear a crucial path towards restoring a legitimate political horizon in the Middle East, the senior United Nations official responsible for the peace process told the Security Council during a videoconference meeting today.

Tor Wennesland, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, noted an extraordinarily high rate of voter registration among Palestinians — many of them under 30 years old — and called upon the global community to help the two sides seize the opportunity presented by elections to pave the way for the peace process. Joined in his briefing by an Israeli and a Palestinian of university age, he emphasized the centrality of the democratic process and of deciding one’s own future, especially for young people who have grown up knowing only conflict.

Drawing a link between the upcoming elections and the stalled formal negotiations, he noted their potential to unite Palestinian factions. Declaring: “The holding of free and fair elections across the Occupied Palestinian Territory is a crucial step towards re-establishing Palestinian national unity, one that can renew the legitimacy of national institutions,” he said. Outlining progress towards the legislative, presidential and Palestinian National Council elections — slated for 22 May, 31 July and 31 August, respectively — he said the factions recently met in Cairo and agreed on several outstanding issues. Among other things, they stressed that elections must be held throughout the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, without exception.

Recalling that the Palestinian Central Elections Commission recently closed its voter registration, he said the total number of registered voters has now risen to more than 2.6 million, 93 per cent of all eligible voters. “It is encouraging to see such strong public participation in the democratic process,” he said, pledging that the United Nations will continue its efforts to safeguard the critical right to vote.

Meanwhile, he said, the COVID-19 crisis remains a persistent health threat that has triggered a massive economic fallout while unilateral steps on the ground continue to erode the prospect of a viable and contiguous Palestinian State, moving the parties farther from constructive dialogue and compromise. In response, the United Nations is working with the parties and a broad range of partners to address the Palestinian people’s pressing socioeconomic needs, including pandemic-related ones, he assured, adding that the Organization is also advancing the goal of ending the occupation and realizing a negotiated two-State solution.

Turning to diplomatic developments, he reported that the Envoys of the Middle East Quartet (Russian Federation, United States, European Union, United Nations) met virtually to discuss the latest political events and the situation on the ground. All agreed to meet on a regular basis to continue their engagement. On 23 February, members of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee met virtually in a meeting chaired by the Foreign Minister of Norway and the European Union High Representative, he said, recalling that they expressed renewed commitment to enhancing cooperation.

Welcoming the announcement of a Palestinian vaccination strategy and the initial allocation of at least 37,440 doses of vaccines to the Palestinian Ministry of Health by the COVAX-Advance Market Commitment facility, he reported that the Russian Federation and the United Arab Emirates also delivered 30,000 doses in February, adding to Israel’s earlier transfer of 5,200 vaccines to the Palestinian Authority, its vaccination of 5,000 Palestinian educational and health workers and efforts to vaccinate the population in East Jerusalem.

He went on to welcome Egypt’s decision to reopen the Rafah crossing — “the main gateway to the world for residents of Gaza” — on 9 February, while nevertheless pointing out that conditions on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territory remain a source of concern. Israeli authorities demolished or seized 170 Palestinian-owned structures in Area C and 10 in East Jerusalem, displacing 314 Palestinians, he reported. The demolitions were carried out due to the lack of Israeli-issued building permits, which are nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain. Daily violence also continued throughout the reporting period, including clashes, attacks, search-and-arrest operations, among other incidents.

Also addressing the Council was Oren Gian, an teenage Israeli student, who recounted his family’s escape from Iran to Israel decades ago. Sharing memories of his first interaction with Arab students, during a Model United Nations conference in northern Israel, he said that, despite his hesitation, he found that interacting with Arab students was not as difficult as he had expected. At the end of that year, he attended a summer institute on interfaith relations and citizenship in the United States, which attracted many Arab and Palestinian students, as well as a few Jewish ones.

Despite disagreeing with the Palestinian students on many subjects related to politics, he noticed that he began to feel more comfortable with them as time went by, he continued. They discussed topics in a respectful way, and later he kept in touch with one of the Palestinian students he had befriended. “Unfortunately, most Israeli and Palestinian students do not have these experiences,” he said, noting that they live in different towns and attend different schools. Israeli and Palestinian students need opportunities to meet so they can get to know the people on the “other side”, he added, emphasizing that they are the school principals, doctors, teachers and leaders of tomorrow. “It is much more effective to start to negotiate peace with people that you have already learned to respect.”

Malak Abusoud, a Palestinian student at Georgetown University in the United States, recalled her childhood growing up in Jerusalem and her constant fear of abuse and discrimination under the Israeli military occupation. She recalled that her cousin Mohammad, who lived in a refugee camp in impoverished conditions, was detained at age 11 for throwing a rock at a soldier, and that she herself stopped speaking Arabic in public and tried to hide her identity. “Israeli police are trained to see every Palestinian as a possible terrorist,” she explained, emphasizing that it is impossible to invest, grow or prosper when life is so full of uncertainty.

“What people-to-people peace organizations do not understand is that success or justice looks very different on both sides,” she said, noting that many of her Israeli friends who champion such organizations describe their impact as “life‑changing”. What the programmes offer them is simply a perspective that Palestinians are not actually so bad, changing a view crafted by a lifetime of Government propaganda. Palestinian students who have grown up amid violence have the extra burden of proving that they are human beings, even in such cross‑cultural programmes, she pointed out. “The problem is not the lack of conversation, as broadcasted by the media and perhaps this same Council, the problem is the lack of justice for Palestinians,” she stressed.

Welcoming the candid and powerful accounts by Ms. Abusoud and Mr. Gian, many Council members underscored the critical role that young people like them will play in raising awareness of the need for peace and preventing future conflict. Delegates also welcomed preparations for elections among Israelis and Palestinians, with many hailing the latter’s progress in particular as a crucial step forward. Several speakers called for renewed international support for a two-State solution and Palestinian sovereignty.

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