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World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

August 31st 2001

Palestinian-Israeli conflict: a noisy presence at NGO Forum
by Stephen Webb

Angry exchanges over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict disrupted major panel and thematic discussion two days running at the NGO Forum - UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, this week.

A panel discussion on colonialism on August 28 and a thematic meeting on anti-Semitism on August 29 were reduced to shouting matches between Jews and Palestinians accusing one another of racism.

A draft declaration from the Forum recognized that Palestinians were people enduring a "colonialist, discriminatory military occupation that violates their fundamental human right of self-determination".

It also recognized that by international law, the Palestinian people have the right to resist that occupation by any means, and that Palestinian refugees have the right to return to their homes of origin.

Asked during the discussion on colonialism if the focus on Palestinians meant there was a hierarchy of struggles at the Forum, Mahmood Mamdani, professor of government at the University of Columbia, New York, said, "Of course not. The oppression of the Southern Sudanese and the Dalits is very important ... It is just that the world today is focused on an event, just as ten years ago it was focused on South Africa."

When Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, spoke of Israel's violation of Palestinian rights, signs were held high saying: "Discuss racism not politics". Soon after, shouting broke out and could barely be contained by the chairperson.

Although Mary Robinson, UN high commissioner and secretary general of the World Conference Against Racism, had said there was a clear understanding that the formulation "Zionism equals racism" had been done away with, there were still efforts to keep the Zionism issue on the racism agenda at the Forum.

Reacting to that, Jewish participants handed out a document produced earlier in the month saying that the singling out of any individual state, people or movement for demonisation could serve no purpose other than to further deepen ongoing conflicts and to marginalize already vulnerable groups.

It said, "There is, unfortunately, a conflict in the Middle East between Palestinians and Israelis at this time. There is not a conflict between Palestinians and Jews."

Palestinian supporters argued that Israel was an apartheid state, founded on the seizure of land and predicated on exclusivity, with rights flowing from ethnic and religious identity.

Thematic commissions on "Anti-Semitism" and on "Palestinians - New forms of apartheid" on August 29 heard a Jewish speaker describing the UN as a perpetrator of Nazi racism, a Palestinian supporter calling for sanctions on Israel, and a more moderate voice suggesting that Palestinians would do better for their cause if they resorted only to non-violent protest.

Jeremy Jones from Australia spoke more generally about anti-Semitism, saying cooperation against anti-Semitism and racism has to be addressed internationally, to combat such activities as racist hate material on the Internet.

But he also criticized the United Nations, saying that although Australia has a long way to go in dealing with racism it has gone further than the UN in applying restrictions on hate material.

Mr Jones said, "We must say to victims of anti-Semitism and racism, 'You are not alone. The rest of the civilised and decent society is with you."

NGOs at the Forum have been aware that, for the first time, the World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation includes three members from the Palestinian community.

The WCC, deeply involved in efforts for peace in the Holy Land since the state of Israel was created in 1948, has consistently condemned anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination or intolerance based on race, religion or national origin. It recently reiterated its recognition of the existence of the state of Israel and of the right of the Palestinians to have their own state.

One member of the WCC delegation, Palestinian author and journalist Marwan Bishara, said the church must not only recognize but also actively support Palestinian and Israeli rights. It can do this, he said, because of its ongoing and extensive dialogue with Israeli and Palestinian church representatives.

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