The Transformation of Palestine

By Barbara Unmüßig

March 8, 2010
Opening remarks by Barbara Unmüßig
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear friends,

A warm and cordial welcome to the international symposium on the Transformation of Palestine. The question of Palestine and the conflict in the Middle East are on the agenda of international politics since decades. Many events were held and will be held to discuss and assess political progress towards a solution acceptable to both sides. The key questions of the Arab-Israeli, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts have neither changed nor been answered. The political context however has. New actors emerged and global politics have taken a different turn.

In the coming two days, this international symposium in the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung will take a close look at the Palestinian history and it significance for today’s politics and life conditions of its people. A distinguished group of Palestinian political representatives, international officials, Palestinian and international researchers, will contribute to an analytical debate of the complexity of historic and current Palestinian existence. 

Palestinian recent history was – and still is until today – shaped by conflict and war. As a result, Palestinian society today is socially and geographically fragmented. Palestinians live in various environments and geographical locations, in the occupied Palestinian Territory defined by the lines of 1967, in Israel, in Arab Countries, such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, in Europe, the US and other parts of the world.

The watershed event that divides Palestinian history into a pre- and post-period, is the year of 1948 when 800,000 Palestinians had to leave their homes and to move into neighboring countries and areas that lay outside the lines of the emerging state of Israel in its borders of this year. Others remained behind and became non-Jewish citizens of the Jewish State. A development with profound consequences not only for the Palestinians, but for the people of the Middle East. Today 2.4 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, 1.4 million in the isolated Gaza Strip and some 1.3 million as citizens in Israel. In the occupied territories and the neighboring countries the refugees of 1948 and their decedents enjoy different social and legal statuses. Particularly, in the camps of Lebanon Palestinian refugees live in squalid conditions. The United Nations Agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, estimates the total Palestinian refugee population at 4.8 million.

The socio-economic realities of these fragmented Palestinian communities are very different from each other. In the two days of this symposium, the panelist will present and discuss their views of the complex social, political and economic realities of Palestinian life 60 years after. 

What are the political impacts of 1948? How do the Palestinians define their challenges today? How will the Palestinian society deal with internal political splits? What roles are there to be plaid by Secularism and Political Islam? To which extent does and can external factors influence the development of Palestinian society? Can democratic and civil structures withstand the conditions of occupation, regional conflict and internal political division? These are a few questions to be discussed in the five panels.

To this point, I have only briefly mentioned the state of Israel and the challenges Israeli society is facing. Political, socio-economic and security issues of Israel’s state and society as well as the specific German-Israeli relations are at the center of many debates and publications of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. Almost exactly two years ago, in April 2008, the 60 year anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel was subject to conferences, public events and official commemorations. However, the picture would not be complete without looking at the other side: At the Palestinians, who are left without a state until today. And who are working hard in the direction of establishing it.

Both Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives are marked by the events of 1948.  For both people – needless to say – the year of 1948 is a reference point in their respective national histories. It is the purpose and objective of this symposium to achieve an improved and analytical understanding of the history of this people. And – more importantly – of the implications and consequences of this history and its lessons for conflict resolution today.

The international community is very clear: The two-state solution is only way out. There is no alternative to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. As an international observer, as a German organization active on both sides of this protracted conflict, we believe in co-existence and peace. Since more than a decade, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung is engaged in joined cooperation programs with civil society organizations in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory through its offices in Ramallah and Tel Aviv. As the Green Political Foundation we cooperate with Palestinian and Israeli NGOs, with grassroots movements, with the peace camp, we are engaged in democracy promotion programs, in cross-cutting gender initiatives, in ecology and most recently climate and energy politics.

As a result of this experience we come to the obvious. There is no pro-Palestinian, no pro- Israeli position. Ultimately, Palestinians and Israelis will come to terms with the obvious, co-existence and conflict resolution.  And this is our position!

I will leave it now for the presenters and discussants to work out the details of this path, to assess the feasibility and likelihood of reaching a negotiated political solution after some 19 years of negotiations. Starting with the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 94. And to come to terms with some of the most complex questions of conflict resolution in today’s international politics.
All the best now for an enlightened and respectful debate!

Barbara Unmüßig

From 1996 to 2001, Barbara Unmüßig chaired the supervisory board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and was elected president of the foundation in May 2002. Her numerous contributions to periodicals and books have covered international trade and finance, international environmental issues, and gender policy.