NGOs meet to protect Palestinians

NEW YORK – Under the slogan “End the Occupation,” non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and religious and civil organizations from around the world gathered at UN Headquarters here Sept. 23-24 to address the humanitarian crisis affecting the Palestinian people. The meeting was held as Israel’s military incursions into Palestine increased and suicide bombings in Israel resumed.

The United Nations International Conference of Civil Society in Support of the Palestinian People was opened by the Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Senegal’s Ambassador to the UN, Papa Louis Fall. “This meeting is being held at one of the most critical moments in the history of the Palestinian people,” said Fall.

Nasser Al-Kidwa, the Permanent Observer of Palestine to the UN arrived late to the opening session due to the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. The Security Council passed Resolution 1435, condemning last weekend’s attacks on the compound of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Fourteen countries voted in favor, with the U.S. the only abstention.

Al-Kidwa, on returning from the Security Council meeting, called the most recent Israeli attacks “an escalation,” and an attempt to “break the will of the people and destroy the Palestinian Authority.”

The conference addressed the deepening crisis facing the Palestinian people under the ongoing occupation, military attacks and “curfew” imposed by the Israeli military. Many Palestinian organizations and international NGOs operating in Palestine highlighted the scale of the humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza. The ongoing occupation has destroyed infrastructure, caused widespread hunger and poor sanitation and has prohibited service organizations from providing necessary aid.

Thomas Neu, a member of the Association of International Development Agencies in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, said the “NGOs and service organizations are not allowed to move to where they need to go.” He also pointed out that while most organizations came to Palestine for development programs, most are now engaged in emergency relief work.

The role of the U.S. as the main political and financial backer of Israel was reiterated throughout the conference. Many speakers felt that Israel would never end the occupation unless the U.S. ceases its annual $3 billion support to Israel. A new U.S. organization, the Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (www.endtheoccupation.org), was founded to pressure the White House and Congress to abide by international law, enforce the UN resolutions and stop funding the occupation.

Phyllis Bennis, co-chair of the Campaign’s Steering Committee, said that the international campaign to end the occupation must be “grounded in international law and human rights.” The Israeli occupation of Palestine beginning in 1948 was illegal and contrary to international law and the UN resolutions that created Israel itself. Dozens of UN General Assembly and Security Council Resolutions have demanded that Israel return to the pre-1967 border, allow the return of Palestinian refugees, observe the Geneva Convention and end the illegal settlements.

The NGO gathering reiterated that the fundamental cause of the crisis in Israel and Palestine remains the occupation itself, and called for its immediate end. Also, the meeting called on Israel to abide by the Geneva Convention, that demands the protection of civilians under occupation. Furthermore, the NGOs called for an international security force to protect Palestinian civilians during the dismantling of the occupation, since Israel is unwilling to do so.

The final declaration of the gathering also condemned the Bush administration’s plans for invasion of Iraq, stating that “such a war could be used to conceal the transfer – ethnic cleansing – of Palestinians from their homeland.”

According to all the eyewitness reports, the Sharon government is attempting to make a permanent system of exclusion and occupation in Palestine through the imposition of “cantons” and check-points. This NGO conference noted the urgency for civil society and the world’s people to take action to end the illegal and worsening occupation of Palestine before it is too late.

The author can be reached at ldellapiana@pww.org