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Trip Report: Visit by the Elders to Gaza, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank, Oct. 15-23, 2010

October 25, 2010

Led by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, a group of Elders visited Gaza, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank including East Jerusalem. The aim of our visit was to encourage a just and secure peace for Israel and its neighbors based on international law.

We met with key officials who are involved in the peace process and private citizens who are affected by the lack of progress. We did not find anyone who had confidence that present efforts would succeed, and there was a general consensus that any resumption of "direct talks" would just permit Israel to continue colonizing occupied land in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Syria, and Lebanon.

Everyone in the West Bank and East Jerusalem knows (and Elders witnessed on our previous visits) that settlements continued to be built even during the hotly debated "freeze." In order to secure another 60-day delay, the reported U.S. offer to give Israel F-35 airplanes, guaranteed American Security Council vetoes, long-term control of the Jordan River Valley and other tight controls over a future Palestine reconfirmed suspicions of U.S. bias.

There was considerable discussion throughout the region of Abbas' proposal to the Arab leaders of requesting U.S. and U.N. recognition of Palestine as a state within 1967 borders and proceeding even when the likely U.S. veto occurs, ultimately winding up in the U.N. General Assembly.

Palestinian leaders in Gaza, Damascus, Ramallah, and East Jerusalem expressed eagerness to bring Hamas and Fatah factions together and were relieved by reports that U.S. opposition has been at least partially lifted. They and Egyptian negotiators felt that security was the only remaining unresolved issue and that substantial progress was being made. A scheduled Hamas-Fatah meeting in Damascus for October 20 was postponed because of a dispute between Presidents Assad and Abbas, but both sides said they would soon meet in Beirut, Yemen, Gaza or another site.

Hamas leader Masha'al reemphasized that he acknowledged Abbas as the sole spokesman for the PLO and that Hamas would accept any agreement negotiated with Israel if it is approved by Palestinians in a referendum. President Abbas said this also was his requirement. Hamas also said they would not stand in the way of implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative, which had been endorsed earlier by President George W. Bush and Secretary Condoleezza Rice as a "foundation for peace."

The mistreatment of Palestinians was shocking. 40,000 children in Gaza were without schooling because of Israeli prohibitions against the importation of building materials and a substantial shortfall in UNRWA's budget. A few of the destroyed homes and some classrooms have been built with cement brought in through tunnels, but UNRWA personnel will not use this materiel and are trying to educate a few students in hot and airless shipping containers. No supplies that could be used for farming, sewing, or the production of goods are permitted, and the Egyptians admit the entry only of medical supplies and the transit of a few people. 1.5 million Gazans, half of them children, are living in a cage. Young people in particular are filled with rage and despair, while the social, political, and religious influence of Hamas increases.

In Jerusalem we met with a group of Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel. They gave us a list of 35 laws that severely restrict their civil rights and reported that under the influence of the current government 20 similar bills are being seriously considered that will restrict further the rights of Muslims, Christians and other non-Jews. These involve such rights as travel, ownership of property, marriage, employment, free speech, access to public media, and the newly proposed requirement that they acknowledge living in a "Jewish" state. When we discussed these issues with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, they expressed concern about some new proposals but defended most existing laws as necessary or advisable.

We also received on-site reports from Palestinians who live in occupied East Jerusalem but are not considered to be citizens. In the Silwan community of 55,000 Palestinians there are no playgrounds, no schools being built, and the per capita allocation of municipal funds for basic services is only 15 percent as much as in Jewish neighborhoods. Homes are being demolished and families evicted under the guise of archeological or historical development and Jewish families who move in are given heavy security and special privileges. We discussed all these issues with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who proudly showed us a comprehensive development plan with parks, parking lots, and a massive tourist facility where Palestinian families are now living. He said that the condemned homes had been built during the 1950s without proper permits, and acknowledged that less than 100 building permits had been issued annually for the past 43 years.

We met with two elected members of the Palestine Legislative Council and a former government minister, who had been Hamas candidates approved by the U.S. and Israel to seek office in the January 2006 elections. After gaining a majority of the Legislative seats, Hamas was declared to be a terrorist organization and successful candidates were prevented from taking office. Subsequently, all those living outside Gaza were arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for at least three years. After releasing them from prison, Israel began moves to deport the four candidates in East Jerusalem. One is back in prison, and the other three have taken refuge in the office of the International Red Cross. One was a college professor, one a mechanical engineer, and the other a prominent business man with an MBA degree.

On our final day we summarized our findings and opinions and presented them to about sixty diplomats assigned to Israel or to the Palestinian Authority, followed by an extensive discussion period.

The preeminent hope among Palestinians, other Arabs, and a number of diplomats is that the United States and other members of the International Quartet will propose a comprehensive plan to deal with Israel's security and freedom of the occupied territories, based on the Quartet's existing proposals and the Arab Peace Initiative.

A much more complete trip report is available on The Elders website,

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