REMARKS BY CORINNE WHITLATCH
AT UN LATIN AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN MEETING
ON PALESTINE Concerning the Mitchell Committee Report
JUNE 12, 2001
 

 


Greetings.  I am delighted to be here with you in wonderful Havana and honored to be part of the United Nations Latin American and Caribbean Meeting on the Question of Palestine.

It's been an exciting week for me. Last Thursday I accompanied a delegation of seven high level church leaders in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Powell to urge our government to insist that Israel end all settlement activity as a necessary step to ending the occupation of Palestinian land. These church leaders had gone to Palestine last December.  They told Secretary Powell of their shame in seeing shell casings printed with "made in the USA" and the damage caused by helicopter gunships supplied by our country. They spoke passionately of the moral and pragmatic necessity of Jerusalem being an shared, open city for the two peoples and three faiths.

Secretary Powell's remarks to the delegation were focused on the Mitchell Report, as is the attention of the international community at this time.  I was asked to speak today about the Mitchell Report. As you know, the official title is the Report of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, a name I prefer because it emphasizes the international nature of the committee instead of placing emphasis on an American member.

I speak in support of the Report and encourage you to work for its endorsement by your organizations and governments.
Why? You may well ask.
You have heard of its omission – not calling for an international protection force for the Palestinians.  And you are suspicious of Israel's intentions  – seeking only to stop Palestinian violence without intending to stop its relentless settlement activity.

Despite these well placed reservations, I agree with the PLO that it does provide a "foundation for resolving the current crisis and preparing the path back to meaningful negotiations."

The report's emphasis on Israeli settlements is extremely important.  We all watched with dismay as settlement building continued while discussion of the issue was swept under the final-status-issue rug during the years of the Oslo process.  The Mitchell Report places a spot light on the settlement issue; it can no longer be deferred, dismissed, delayed or denied.  I will return to what the Committee reports about settlements later.

Perhaps of even more fundamental significance, is that the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee provides a vehicle that is moving Palestinian-Israeli negotiations off the U.S.-dominated  track and onto an international track that could better lead to the United Nations where we here think it belongs.
 
The Mitchell Report bulldozes some other barriers.  It is cast as both "international" and "independent," which means it is not a dictate of either of the United States or of Israel. This can only be said with a considerable bit of tongue-in-cheek.  The Palestinian leadership was forced to abandon its demand for an international commission of inquiry under UN auspices in favor of a fact-finding committee appointed by President Clinton. The U.S. and Israel are reported to have rejected Palestinian proposals to include Nelson Mandela orother prominent statesmen with allegiances to anti-colonial struggles.  Nevertheless, in addition to two former U.S. senators, the committee included the Norwegian foreign minister, the Foreign Policy chief of the European Union and the former president of Turkey.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan had an important role in the October 2000 meeting at the Red Sea resort that established the committee mechanism. He has endorsed the resulting report and has continued to be actively involved.   This is a radical departure from the Oslo peace process which generally was removed from the United Nations.

While the customary view continues that involvement of the United States is absolutely essential, this expanding table provides a way for the Administration of George Bush to take the lower profile role it claims to want, and gives the Bush Administration some cover from domestic political pressure to refrain from criticizing or pushing Israel.  One can hope that the involvement of other states may lessen the White House's  fear of failure resulting from Clinton's diplomatic crash.

By including two popular and powerful former U.S. senators, the Report can be promoted by the Administration with less risk of the Congress squashing it. George Mitchell's credentials lie not only in his diplomatic successes in mediating the north Ireland conflict, but because of his long service as Senate Majority Leader for the Democratic party and because of his Lebanese heritage. Senator Warren Rudman, who is Jewish and a Republican, chaired both the Senate Intelligence  and the Senate Ethics Committees.  For Secretary Powell to vigorously act on the Mitchell Report's recommendations, he needs the political protection provided by these former senators to stand up to the pro-Israel Democrats and the Republican hawks in Congress and the Defense Department.
 
The report outlines three steps: End the Violence ..Rebuild Confidence.. Resume Negotiations.  It's important to read the full document with the footnotes which can be found on the website of Churches for Middle East Peace  www.cmep.org.

A number of measures are listed for rebuilding confidence:
* The PA and Israel should identify, condemn and discourage incitement in all its forms.

* The PA should make a 100% effort to prevent terrorist operations and punish perpetrators, including immediate steps to apprehend and incarcerate terrorists.

* Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including Natural Growth of existing settlements.

* Israel should encourage nonlethal responses to unarmed demonstrators.

* The PA should prevent gunmen from using Palestinian populated areas to fire upon Israeli positions.

* Israel should lift closures and transfer to the PA taxes owed, and refrain from destruction of homes and trees.

* The PA should renew cooperation with Israeli security agencies

* The PA and Israel should jointly protect holy places.

* Israel and the PA should jointly endorse and support the work of Palestinian and Israeli NGOs involved in cooperative initiatives.

The Report's introduction concludes with "If the parties are to succeed in completing their journey to their common destination, agreed commitments must be implemented, international law respected, and human rights protected."  Those of us gathered today welcome the resuscitation of the principles of international law and human rights as fundamental to the quest for a solution to the conflict.

Even though the committee side-stepped any role as a tribunal placing blame for the outbreak of violence, it did counter Israel's finger-pointing by reporting, "We have no basis on which to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the PA to initiate a campaign of violence."

I want to go into more detail about the report's findings and recommendations about settlements. In a section titled "Why Did it Happen?," the roots of the violence are reported including the Palestinian perspective on settlements.

"Palestinians are genuinely angry at the continued growth of settlements and at their daily experiences of humiliation and disruption as a result of Israel's presence in the Palestinian territories. Palestinians see settlers and settlements in their midst not only as violating the spirit of the Oslo process, but also as an application of force in the form of Israel's overwhelming military superiority, which sustains and protects the settlements.

(Continuing with the Palestinian perspective:) "The Interim Agreement provides that ‘the two parties view the West Bank and Gaza as a single territorial unit, the integrity and status of which will be preserved during the interim period.' Coupled with this, the Interim Agreement's prohibition on taking steps which may prejudice permanent status negotiations denies Israel the right to continue its illegal expansionist settlement policy. In addition to the Interim Agreement, customary international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, prohibits Israel (as an occupying power) from establishing settlements in occupied territory pending an end to the conflict."

(And still from the Palestinian perspective;) "The PLO alleges that Israeli political leaders ‘have made no secret of the fact that the Israeli interpretation of Oslo was designed to segregate the Palestinians in non- contiguous enclaves, surrounded by Israeli military-controlled borders, with settlements and settlement roads violating the territories' integrity." According to the PLO, "In the seven years since the (Declaration of Principles], the settler population in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, has doubled to 200,000, and the settler population in East Jerusalem has risen to 170,000. Israel has constructed approximately 30 new settlements, and expanded a number of existing ones to house these new settlers."
 

The Confidence- Building section also has a lengthy portion on the settlements that highlights the linkage, strongly resisted by Israel, between its settlement activity and its security. "A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the GOI freezes all settlement construction activity," and another quote, "settlement activities must not be allowed to undermine the restoration of calm and the resumption of negotiations," and "Beyond the obvious confidence-building qualities of a settlement freeze, we note that many of the confrontations during this conflict have occurred at points where Palestinians, settlers, and security forces protecting the settlers, meet. Keeping both the peace and these friction points will be very difficult."

There are other fuzzy implications that Israel should evacuate some settlements. "The GOI should also give careful consideration to whether settlements that are focal points for substantial friction are valuable bargaining chips for future negotiations or provocations likely to preclude the onset of productive talks."And, "The GOI may wish to make it clear to the PA that a future peace would pose no threat to the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian State to be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."  Now, I doubt if Israel would wish to make this clear, but I'm going to urge my own government that it make clear that a Palestinian state will have territorial contiguity.

I was surprised that  the Report speaks of the strong support the U.S. has given Israel and notes that  "in international forums, the U.S. has at times cast the only vote on Israel's behalf."  The long-held U.S. opposition to the settlements is cited as an exception to that support. Quotes expressing U.S. policy opposing the settlement policy are in both the report and a long footnote.  Included is Former Secretary of State James Baker comment on how Israel announced new settlements on each of the four trips he made to Israel.  The committee then notes that "on each of our two visits to the region there were Israeli announcements regarding expansion of the settlements."

Again, bringing attention to the international grounding of the committee, the Report says, "Most other countries, including Turkey, Norway, and those of the European Union, have also been critical of Israeli settlement activity, in accordance with their views that such settlements are illegal under international law."

The PLO's official response calls the recommendations "a sensible and coherent foundation for resolving the current crisis and preparing a path back to meaningful negotiations."  The response   states that third party monitoring and enforcement are necessary, especially since the Report's did not recommend an international protection force, noting that it would require support of both parties.  I was pleased to read in the June 8 New York Times that European Union security officials, describing themselves as "witnesses"  have been posted at two key flashpoints, Beit Jala and Rafah in Gaza and that Israel appears to be unable to stop them.  The PLO  response includes a caution that we must all remember, that Israel's strategy is to publically accept the report while rejecting the only recommendations giving the report credibility in Palestinian eyes - a freeze on settlements and a revision of Israel's military policies.  We gathered here today have an important responsibility to keep attention on Israeli settlement activity as a source of violence that destroys confidence and hope for a just and durable peace.

Before I close I want to mention two activities of Churches for Middle East Peace and offer you some resources.  In December 1996, we published a full page ad in the New York Times signed by Heads of US Churches that proclaimed that "Christians Call for a Shared Jerusalem as the heritage, hope and home of two peoples and three faiths."  The most recent phase of our Shared Jerusalem campaign was printing posters for church bulletin boards.  I've brought posters for you. The beautiful design is taken from a drawing by a girl from Dar El Tifl school in East Jerusalem.  Also here for you is our recent newsletter, titled "Freeze Israeli Settlements" which includes information about our new Prayer Vigil for Middle East Peace campaign to build a church-wide movement in support of Middle East peace comparable to that which worked to bring down apartheid in South Africa and solidarity with Central Americans struggling for justice.  We invite the churches of the Caribbean and Latin America to join us and people in other nations in this prayer vigil project that will continue until there is peace.