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At Summit, Palestinians Focus on Propaganda Instead of Development

September 3, 2002
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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, dismisses the Palestinian allegations of Israeli environmental destruction as absurd.

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

In stark contrast, the Keren Kayemeth Leisrael-Jewish National Fund booth, a few seconds’ walk away, has detailed material on the contributions made by Israel’s largest and oldest green organization during the past century.

JNF and other Israeli spokespeople largely have avoided politics at the conference, confining themselves to professional matters.

Jamal Juma, the leader of the Palestinian NGO delegation, told JTA that the 13-man group was in Johannesburg to give a clear message to the world that they were a people under occupation — and thus could 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.

Much of the material at the Palestinian NGO booth is reminiscent of the anti-Israel screeds at last year’s World Conference Against Racism in Durban, including accusations of Israeli racism and apartheid.

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.

There appeared to be a cause for everyone among the marchers, who walked peacefully from the black township of Alexandra to the plush venue of the world summit. Extra security was in place around Jewish installations.

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.”

Earlier the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister, Farouk Kaddoumi, strongly criticized Israel for its “occupation” of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Kaddoumi said Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had not been able to participate in the summit because “Israel has him under house arrest.” In fact, Israel has said that Arafat is free to travel abroad, but has hinted that it might not let him back into the West Bank.

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.

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 from Monday to Wednesday.

Among them was Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. On Monday, police used a water cannon to restrain Palestinian protestors who tried to prevent Peres from addressing a South African Jewish group.

About 100 supporters of the local Palestine Solidarity Committee were doused with water by police trying to move them from the front of the venue, a college in central Johannesburg.

“Down with South African Zionists killing Palestinians,” one of the protest banners read, referring to South African Jews who make aliyah and then serve in the Israeli army.

But another Jewish immigrant was making waves at the summit: 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.”

Back at the NGO hall, other exhibitors — virtually all involved in sustainable development projects, from forests to communities, wild life to food aid — said they had not paid much heed to the Palestinians’ propaganda.

Asked their views on the anti-Israel material in the booth, those nearby said they had not even noticed. One said the NGO portion of the conference was open to all, and that any group was free to present its views.

In any case, said a member of the JNF team, the Palestinians in the hall were dwarfed by something far more interesting: a 40-foot-tall red condom above a booth on AIDS programs.

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