Palestinians push propaganda at summit

JOHANNESBURG, Sept. 3 (JTA) — The focus of Palestinian efforts at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development is clear from a quick visit to the booth reserved for Palestinian nongovernmental organizations. A visitor can find plenty of material on the Israeli “occupation” of land the Palestinians claim, as well as the anti-Israel tirades that the Palestinians have made a staple of international conferences in recent years.

What the visitor can not find is any material related to the ostensible purposes of the conference — environmental affairs and sustainable development.

Unless, that is, you include the materials detailing Israel’s alleged assault on the Palestinian environment.

According to Palestinian propaganda, Israel uproots some 700,000 trees per year in Palestinian areas, or an average of about one tree a minute.

Another handout carries unsubstantiated charges against Israel for environmental destruction, while a third accuses Israel of destroying a “forest” to build the Har Homa neighborhood in southern Jerusalem — referring to the patch of trees that Israel leveled to clear the hilltop for development.

Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s environment minister, dismissed the Palestinian allegations of Israeli environmental destruction as absurd.

One local Jewish observer commented that it appears the Palestinians simply tagged a few environmental details onto their existing political material.

But if the Palestinians had hoped to reprise their “success” in turning last year’s U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban into an anti-Israel fair, they haven’t succeeded in Johannesburg.

Their protests at this year’s summit have been peripheral to the main business of the conference, which is seeking solutions to issues such as global warming and overuse of natural resources.

While accusations of Israeli apartheid struck a chord with participants at last year’s anti-racism conference, it’s more of a stretch to tie Israeli policy toward the Palestinians to environmental degradation.

In addition, embarrassed by its handling of the Durban conference, South Africa this year has restrained pro-Palestinian demonstrators, removing them by force when they tried to disrupt Israeli events in the conference’s first days and blasting them with water cannons on Monday when they tried to prevent a speech by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

In stark contrast to the Palestinians’ efforts, Israeli officials have taken a calculatedly mild line, stressing the need to turn away from conflict and toward cooperation. When Palestinian groups sought to shout them down, Israeli officials spoke of resuming the peace process.

The centerpiece of the Israeli presentation at the summit was the joint announcement, with Jordan, of a plan to replenish the Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea — showing how those interested in peace could benefit from cooperation.

A technical team from the Jewish National Fund gave a presentation on the use of scarce water resources, rehabilitation of degraded areas in the Negev, sustainable biodiversity and ecological forest renewal.

Governmental representatives from the United States, Germany and Oman — as well as NGOs — expressed an interest in learning more, JNF chairman Yehiel Leket said.

As a pioneer in agricultural advances that have helped make its deserts bloom, Israel believes an environmental summit is one forum where it can make a unique contribution.

“We can contribute our successful experience in many areas, relating to solar heating, making run-off water fit for agriculture and irrigation — and our technology that enables us to get it up to the standard of drinking water — the struggle against desertification and many more” areas, Hanegbi told JTA late last week.

Just yards away from the booth of Palestinian propaganda, the JNF booth had detailed material on its contributions over the past century.

“Our line here is that we are not involved in politics and do not want to get drawn into politics,” Leket told JTA. “We have much to share on sustainable development. So far we have managed to keep it that way. Coming here only as a professional body has borne fruit.”

Jamal Juma, the leader of the Palestinian NGO delegation, told JTA that the 13-man group was in Johannesburg to send a message to the world that they are a people under occupation — and thus can not be expected to worry about trifles like sustainable development.

In fact, the Palestinians use the term “occupation” almost like a mantra to justify the lack of any meaningful platform for sustainable development.

The Palestinians have received a lot of sympathy and understanding for their cause at this year’s conference, particularly from South Africans who suffered under apartheid, Juma said.

He added that his group had not set out to disrupt a JNF presentation last week, when police had to intervene to remove Palestinians who were interrupting the Israeli speakers, causing a half-hour delay. Juma said the Palestinian actions were within the bounds of decorum for an “open session” of the conference.

The Palestinians have tried to turn many aspects of the conference into Israel-bashing forums.

On Saturday, among thousands of marchers protesting globalization and poverty were many who shouted anti-Israel slogans and pledged support for the Palestinians. Placards at the march included slogans such as “U.S.-Israel-U.K. Axis of Evil,” “Stop the Holocaust of Palestinians in Palestine” and others praising suicide bombers.

South African President Thabo Mbeki addressed the demonstrators as they gathered in Alexandra, calling for an independent Palestinian state. He did not join the march.

“The Palestinian people have a right to their own state, the Palestinian people have a right to development,” Mbeki said. “We all of us have an obligation to engage in struggle to make sure that objective is achieved. The world needs peace. Palestine and Israel need peace.”

An Israeli spokesman called Mbeki’s pro-Palestinian statement “bland,” but took exception to the fact that he would address an audience waving placards praising suicide bombers.

Over the weekend, world leaders poured into Johannesburg to attend the main part of the summit, which took place Monday to Wednesday.

Among them was Peres. On Tuesday, a day after police turned water cannons on pro-Palestinian demonstrators trying to prevent Peres from addressing a Jewish group, the South African Institute of International Affairs canceled a Peres speech.

The group denied that its decision was linked to the anti-Peres demonstration, saying only that the cancellation was “for the best.”

Peres later told a news conference that the institute feared his appearance could cause violence and bloodshed, and he had accepted the cancellation.

On Tuesday, Peres addressed the summit, where he made an appeal for peace in the Middle East. He also met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whom he asked to help rein in Syria and Hezbollah, and some 25 world leaders.

In his speech to the plenum, Peres mentioned several regional projects Israel hopes to help implement:

• creating a “virtual pharmacy” to supply affordable drugs;

• planting one billion trees in 10 years to effect a change in the climate;

• establishing a regional water bank to facilitate planning and technological processes for water production, recycling, transportation and conservation; and

• developing a regional Information Technology system as a base for distance learning, distant medicine and academic research centers.

Aside from the dignitaries, another Israeli made waves at the summit just by appearing: Orah Tamano, an Israeli student delegate of Ethiopian descent.

People at the summit seemed amazed to learn that Israeli Jews could be black.

“Because Israel appears so much in the headlines, it creates the impression” — particularly in South Africa, with its legacy of apartheid — “that we are dealing with a country of whites who are in control and wronging the Arabs,” Tamano said. “It pretty much surprised them that here I am, a black young woman from Israel, and it was quite refreshing.”

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