Palestinians begin to express opposition as OECD tourism meeting opens in Jerusalem

Palestinians have started to express objections and opposition to an OECD meeting that opened yesterday in Jerusalem — after months of public announcements and preparations.

The OECD – Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – is a Paris-based international organization grouping economically-developed countries who are also considered “democracies”.

A public meeting has been called in Ramallah this afternoon to discuss the international law aspects of the meeting.

The decision to convene the tourism conference in Jerusalem was announced in mid-June — four months ago.   It takes months and months of preparations to hold such a conference.

Why did it take the Palestinians so long to organize their response?   The conference was already in its second day when Palestinian officials called for its cancellation…

The sponsors of this afternoon’s meeting in Ramallah, according to the sponsors, the Palestinian NGO Forum [PNGO] and the Campaign for the Right to Enter the oPt [Occupied Palestinian Territory — the official UN term, following the usage of the International Court of Justice in its 2004 Advisory Opinion on The Wall] — suggest that this unusual OECD event is a “test of international law”.

Speakers were to be (1) Nabil Shaath, identified by the sponsors as “Member Central Committee of Fateh, Commissioner of International Relations, Palestine Legislative Council [PLC] member, member of Palestine Central Council and PNC [Palestine National Council] of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], and (2) Charles Shamas, identified as “Senior Partner with the MATTIN Group [whose] human rights practice is specialized in problems of international humanitarian law and human rights enforcement and State responsibility”.

The OECD Conference is due to conclude tomorrow afternoon.

Israel was admitted to OECD membership earlier this year, after some belated opposition expressed by various Palestinian figures, including the current Palestinian Authority [PA] Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki. Israeli officials were very annoyed by Fayyad’s action — which was not only merely symbolic, but also futile — and complained that it was a form of incitement, almost delegitimization.

Then, Israel was admitted to the Paris-based OECD, anyway.

This seems to have taken all of Fayyad’s energy and enthusiasm concerning the matter, for he has said nothing about the OECD tourism conference that is now going on in Jerusalem.

So, the banner was picked up and raised by the chief Palestinian negotiator, Sa’eb Erekat, in an email message sent out by the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department on 18 October — just two before the OECD tourism conference actually opened.

In this message of 18 October, Erekat is quoted as thanking “the countries that have decided to withdraw their attendance to the OECD Tourism Committee Summit to be held in Jerusalem, October 20 – 22. ‘Israeli control over Jerusalem is illegal and the Security Council has been clear on calling all member states not to recognize Israeli claims over the Holy City. By hosting the OECD conference in Jerusalem, Israel seeks de facto recognition of its illegal annexation of East Jerusalem, and by not attending, countries have sent Israel a clear message that it is not a state above the law’.”

UPDATE: Later in the day, it was reported here that Egypt [though it is not even an OECD member, but rather is a “regional partner”] would not be attending the OECD tourism conference. The Arab League called on Sunday [17 October] for a boycott of the meeting, now in its second day. “The Arab League is deeply concerned about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s scheduled ‘high-level tourism roundtable’ and urges all countries to boycott the conference, since ‘the fate of Jerusalem still depends on a fair settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute’, according to Assistant Secretary-General Mohamed Sobeih … who also told reporters that the League’s “Council of Arab Ambassadors has sent letters to respective European and non-European foreign ministers urging them to stay away from the conference”, according to Al Masry al-Youm, here.

It is only the second time (out of 85 previous OECD tourism conferences) that the OECD is holding this conference outside of Paris.

Israel’s policy on Jerusalem is not officially acceptable to most countries in the world, who have voted in the UN to declare “null and void” Israel’s unilateral actions to (1) extend its administration and laws to East Jerusalem after Israel’s conquest in the Six-Day War [June 1967], and (2) to declare “united Jerusalem” as Israel’s eternal and undivided capital in 1980.

Meanwhile, there were a series of flaps a week before the conference convened which nearly derailed the tourism conference.

About ten days ago or so, the Israeli Tourism Minister let loose and issued a statement saying that convening this OECD tourism conference in Jerusalem shows a broad level of political support for Israel’s positions. This was going too far, and the OECD and officials from several of its member states threatened to withdraw their participation — because, they said, they objected to a politicization of the conference.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to renew a untilateral ten-month “moratorium” in settlement construction that he declared earlier in the year in response to American requests for his help to re-start “direct” Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that were fizzling out without success anyway but finally called off by Palestinian negotiators at the end of December 2008, after Israel began a massive military operation, called Cast Lead, in Gaza. Israeli officials have said, since the Annapolis process of “direct” negotiations was launched in late November 2007, [designed to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008], that they do not consider any part of “Jerusalem” [not clear exactly what they mean by this, as they have now cut off, by their continuing construction of The Wall, parts of the “Greater Jerusalem Municipality” that they unilaterally created after the 1967 war — but it certainly includes most of East Jerusalem , which was not part of Israel at its foundation in May 1948, or its admission to the UN a year later, in May 1949] as a settlement. Netanyahu and his spokespersons have always specified, when questioned closely, that most of East Jerusalem was not included in his unilateral settlement “moratorium”.

The issue of continued movement in East Jerusalem settlement construction disrupted a visit of American Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year, and a planned start of “indirect” Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that the U.S. succeeded in extracting from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). It then impacted, again, on the American-arranged move to “direct” negotiations [after what Abu Mazen told Arab media was “inhuman pressure”] in exchange for no concessions at all, and despite a complete lack of any progress.

However, after a recent announcement by the Israeli Housing Ministry that it was issuing about 238 new tenders for housing in the East Jerusalem settlements of Ramot and Psgat Zeev, the whole situation has blown up again, and briefly threatened the convening of the OECD tourism conference in Jerusalem.

Six OECD members withdrew their participation before the Israeli Tourism Minister withdrew his remarks.

One European diplomat said yesterday that although the tourism conference opened as planned, the level of participation was “very, very low — second or third-ranking officials from the embassies in Tel Aviv”, instead of the ministerial-level delegations that were expected.

It seems that this is a sort of “price tag” … extracted from the outside against the Israeli settlement policy, and not what Israeli settlers have vowed to impose on Palestinian residents of the West Bank in response for any Israeli government effort to restrict the Israeli settlements.

Nonetheless, the U.S. is acting as the Chair of this OECD tourism conference in Jerusalem [for which Israel’s Tourism Ministry is the official host], and U.S. Commerce Department official Isabel Hill is presiding.

The Israeli Tourism Ministry has approved a press release stating that this tourism conference in Jerusalem is “The first OECD event to take place in Israel since the country became an official member of the organization, the session welcomed high-level delegations from 28 OECD members”.

The OECD has 33 members.

This session in Jerusalem is focused on “green” or environmentally-friendly tourism, and there is to be a presentation of “research detailing the travel industry’s impact on the environment and new directions the international community can take to limit its damage”.  And, there was to be a “peer review” of tourism in Italy.

Two days ago, Sa’eb Erekat authorizing what appears to be a pro forma email message saying that “Stas Misezhnikov, the Israeli Minister of Tourism, stated Israel’s desire to use the OECD conference to solidify its illegal actions when he characterized the holding of the conference as ‘declaration of intent and a seal of approval on the fact that we have a state whose recognized capital is Jerusalem … The OECD is a widely respected organization. Its member states are considered role models for the international community. Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territory, included East Jerusalem, completely contradict the values of the organization. Holding this conference in Jerusalem creates the perception that the OECD is complicit with Israel’s provocative and unlawful actions in this occupied city’.”

And, this message went on to say: “Dr. Erekat called on those states that have indicated that they will participate in the conference, despite Israeli polices and statements, to cancel their participation and to publicly repudiate illegal Israeli actions, including the unilateral annexation of occupied East Jerusalem”.

The message added, with what is required politeness, that “The Chief Palestinian Negotiator praised the ‘vital role that Palestinian and international civil society groups have played in garnering attention on the issues surrounding this conference. Thousands of people, including international lawyers, students, solidarity movements, alternative tourism and Christian groups, have called on the OECD not to recognize illegal unilateral Israeli actions by holding this conference in Jerusalem’.”

Those wishing more detailed information are invited to consult the Negotiations Affairs Department website, here.

UPDATE: Ma’an News Agency published an article this evening — the second day of the OECD conference in Jerusalem — by Fatah Central Committee member Muhammad Shtayyeh [who is also President of PECDAR, the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, and an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] saying that holding the OECD tourism conference in Jerusalem “was a startling and misguided decision, coming from such a well-respected multilateral player. First, holding this conference in illegally-annexed and Israeli-occupied Jerusalem would appear to lend legitimacy to Israel’s universally unrecognized claims to the city. Second, the conference, including the attention and revenue Israel will garner from it, will serve to reward Israel, despite its continuing occupation and colonization of Palestine, including East Jerusalem. Most antithetical to this conference’s purposes perhaps, all of this is done while Israel exercises complete control over tourism to the occupied Palestinian territory and while Israel expands its colonial enterprise throughout the occupied territories in brazen defiance of the overwhelming international consensus. Nowhere has Israel’s colonial onslaught been more provocative or sustained than in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Our original request to move the meeting to another host country, or even to Tel Aviv, was rejected. Instead, the OECD decided to hold the meeting only in ‘West’ Jerusalem, the area of Jerusalem more commonly viewed as part of Israel. Crucially, however, Israel does not differentiate between East and West Jerusalem, but covets all of Jerusalem as its ‘eternal and undivided capital’. Palestinians could only wonder what areas of occupied Jerusalem Israel would showcase during the meeting, given that most holy sites are located in occupied East Jerusalem, in particular in and around the Old City”.

Shtayyeh noted that “The illegal settlements, the Wall regime and numerous movement restrictions, especially in and around occupied East Jerusalem, prevent millions of Palestinians from accessing the city’s holy sites. In fact, it is far easier for a foreigner from the furthest reaches of the globe to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre than for a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, just 10 kilometers away. Most ironically given this summit’s topic, Israel has calculatingly decimated the Palestinian tourism industry. It has looted, confiscated or destroyed countless Palestinian archeological artifacts and heritage sites that are integral to Palestinian patrimony. To this day, Israel controls who enters and exits Palestinian territory, as well as their movement within our territory. In this vein, Israel has restricted the issuance of travel guide permits to only 42 Palestinian tour guides who are able to work in occupied East Jerusalem. This stands in stark contrast to the over 7,000 such permits Israel issued to Israeli tour guides to ensure that the incomplete, if not patently false, Israeli narrative dominates what is conveyed to the vast majority of tourists. All of the forgoing of course begs the larger question of why Israel, the largest recipient of American foreign aid, was admitted to the OECD in the first place. For these reasons, Palestinians welcome the decisions taken by those governments that chose not to attend this Summit. However, through their attendance, many other countries remain complicit in Israel’s attempts to preempt the results of any negotiations process”.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism Misezhnikov opened the conference by telling participants that the event was an “important vote of confidence in Israel’s position as an economic leader” — leaving off the references to Israel’s position on, and in, Jerusalem which caused such a flap ten days ago.

Neither Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu nor its State President Shimon Peres have attended the Jerusalem event, but Stanley Fisher, the Governor of the Bank of Israel did.

The Palestinian Authority was apparently not invited to attend, despite earlier vows to work for joint development in the tourism sector.

The Israeli Minister of Tourism said that there had been a record-breaking number of visitors in 2009 — some 2.7 million tourists. He predicted that the number of tourists in 2010 would rise to 3.3 million.

The Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, said upon taking office a couple of years ago that he was aiming to attract 10 million tourists a year –a situation that would hugely exacerbate the terrible traffic congestion that already causes huge stresses in the Jerusalem area.

Misezhnikov also said, in his address to the tourism conference, that “We adopted and implemented a new concept positioning Israel in its exclusive tourist particularities focusing on History, Culture and Religion. At the same time we maintained the interest in the other leisure elements. Beginning from May 2009, we started to benefit from this new policy … Concerning our hotels infrastructure built on close to 48 thousand rooms we noted a high level of occupancy along the year. Israel is positioned today as a destination in the general market offering culture and discovery, leisure and fun preserving the particularities of our sites. The religious and historical heritage of Israel and our region, cradle of the monotheist civilizations and cultures, belongs to the world collective memory. The advanced infrastructure of Israel permits to tour and discover in comfort the country from the green and serene Galilee to the inspiring desert of the Negev, from the trendy and high tech Tel Aviv to the spiritual and cultural Jerusalem, leisure and fun in Eilat and magic facing the Sea of Galilee from the city of Tiberias … Out of the basic values that our region contributed to the world modern society, tourism transmits reciprocate openness, constructive dialogue, recognition of each other and tolerance in mutual respect”.

His only mention of the Palestinian Authority was when he said: “The Dead Sea – the lowest place on earth – [n.b. it is accessed through the occupied West Bank] is competing as an international site on behalf of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority against 27 other natural sites around the world in the finals of the New 7 Wonders of Nature global campaign. Another productive area of cooperation”. Half of the shore — the eastern side — of the receding Dead Sea is Jordan. The other, eastern, shoreline is theoretically divided between the Palestinian Authority in the north, and Israel in the south — but in reality Israel is in total control of the eastern shore. The only exit from the West Bank for most Palestinians — and for some international visitors — is via the Israeli border crossing, operated by the Israeli Ministry of Interior, at the Allenby Bridge crossing into and out of Jordan.  The last time I entered from there, I was asked by a young Israeli woman in an olive green uniform: “So, you’re a journalist.  Do you ever go to the West Bank?”

The OECD tourism conference in Jerusalem opened a day after Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported, here, that “A bill sponsored by MK Gideon Ezray (Kadima ) and seven other Knesset members proposes to ban residents of East Jerusalem from serving as tour guides in the city … Ezra’s bill has so far won the endorsement of MKs Uri Ariel (National Union), Carmel Shama and Danny Danon (Likud ), Avraham Michaeli (Shas), Nachman Shai and Otniel Schneller (Kadima), as well as Ilan Ghilon (Meretz). Ghilon later withdrew his signature, with his aides citing a misunderstanding. … ‘Israel has valuable tourism sites’, the text of the proposed bill reads. “Oftentimes there are disagreements on the manner of the presentation of these sites historically, religiously, culturally and more. The city of Jerusalem, with its many historic sites, is an example of a site about which there are such disagreements. Some of the residents of Israel, like those in East Jerusalem, often have ‘dual loyalty,’ since they vote in elections of the Palestinian Authority. ‘These residents often present anti-Israeli positions to groups of tourists that they guide. To ensure foreign tourists are exposed to the national Israeli viewpoint, we suggest ruling that travel agencies, and any organization providing tours for foreign tourists, ensure that the groups are accompanied by a tour guide who is an Israeli citizen and has institutional loyalty to the State of Israel’, the bill suggests … [However] Ezra decided to suspend work on the bill for the meantime, out of concern for the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. ‘The problem is a problem’, Ezra said, ‘It’s clear to me there are tour guides hostile to the State of Israel and to Jerusalem. They are also the cheapest. But I don’t want to hurt the talks and I will not be promoting the bill in the near future’.”

The Haaretz article noted that “Ezra, who said he was temporarily freezing work on the bill so as not to damage the negotiations with Palestinians, said in the introduction to the bill he believed Palestinian residents of Jerusalem should not be certified guides because they did not represent Israel’s national interest well enough ‘and in an appropriate manner’.”

This Haaretz report noted that some 300 Palestinians [in East Jerusalem + the West Bank] have certification as guides from Israeli Tourism Ministry.

At the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, access for West Bank Palestinians was cut off. In 2006, the Palestinian Authority’s then-Minister of Tourism managed to get some 45 permits restored for West Bank guides.

The IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen Gaby Ashkenazi, recently visited Bethlehem for a meeting with PA security officials — setting off a certain amount of Palestinian protest. Some Palestinians reportedly fear that Israel is interested in “taking” Bethlehem and its important Christian tourism attraction, the Church of the Nativity [believed by many if not most Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ], now sealed in the West Bank behind The Wall –perhaps via negotiations. Rachel’s Tomb, believed to be the burial site of the Jewish matriarch, is in an enclave surrounded by The Wall in Bethlehem.

Despite all complaints, some Bethlehem businessmen in the tourism sector now said to be earning as much as 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. dollars per day from the mass tourism industry — a huge increase in income.

While this anxiety might appear overdrawn, there was an Israeli proposal, in the wake of the 1967 war, to annex both Jerusalem and Hebron [south of Bethlehem].

Hebron is where the immensely-important Ibrahimi [Abraham] Mosque, where the Patriarch Abraham, his legitimate wife Sarah, and some of their descendants are believed to be buried. In the negotiations that led up to the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, Jordan wanted to be given a special role in Hebron, but this was ruled out by the Israeli side. There are now 450 Israeli settlers living in a military-protected garrison in central Hebron, amidst tens of thousand of Palestinians — yet Palestinian access is severely restricted.

UPDATE: The BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] campaign is, nonetheless, declaring victory. An email just received from the group’s European campaign headquarters informs us that “An OECD ‘High Level Roundtable’ on tourism hosted by Israel has begun in Jerusalem without the presence of at least eight countries, several of whom have stated their absence is politically motivated. Following attempts by Israel to use the conference to further its territorial claims on Jerusalem and in response to the strong concerns raised by Palestinian and international civil society as well as Palestinian officials, that the conference would serve to whitewash Israel’s violations of international law, several of the eight countries to pull out of the conference have explained their withdrawals were political in nature. Norway and Turkey condemned comments made by Israeli politicians in the run up to the conference. The Swedish delegation to the OECD referred campaigners to EU policy on the status of Jerusalem and hinted their stance was an attempt to assert the policy. In a further blow to the credibility of the ‘high level’ conference at which ‘senior government officials’ were due to discuss tourism policy, a majority of invited countries did not send Tourism ministers but sent low-ranking officials instead. The Greek delegation to the OECD told campaigners during telephone calls that no officials from Athens will make the trip and that Greece will merely be represented by a staff member from the Greek tourist information centre in Tel-Aviv. Campaigners have learnt that the Czech Republic is the only EU country to send political representation. The withdrawals came in response to statements made by Israel’s Minister of Tourism Stas Misezhnikov that the convening of the meeting in Jerusalem – the first OECD meeting hosted by Israel since it became a member in May and only the second time an OECD tourism conference has been held outside of Paris – amounted in effect to recognition by OECD members of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital. In a strongly worded letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, OECD General Secretary Angel Gurria called the comments ‘factually incorrect and quite unacceptable’.

The email, however, claims that “Palestinian opposition to the tourism conference being held in Jerusalem has been consistent. In a letter to [OECD Secretary-General Angel] Gurria last month, the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC), a broad Palestinian civil society coalition, called upon the OECD to move the conference”.

According to a BDS website here, this letter — which “calls upon the OECD Tourism Committee to respect international law and relocate the conference out of Israel” — was dated 18 September…

The letter said that “The conference comes at a time when Israel is gradually ethnically cleansing the Naqab (Negev) desert, the Jordan Valley, and occupied East Jerusalem, as in the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan,and continuing its construction of its illegal colonial settlements and wall onoccupied Palestinian land.  Holding the conference in Jerusalem, in spite of this reality of Israel’s grave violation of international law, will be regarded by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians, and people of conscience around the world as a decisive and far-reaching act of complicity in rewarding and perpetuating Israel’s occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people.  It will further entrench the culture of impunity that has enabled Israel to escalate its commission of war crimes and what is described by some leading international law experts as a prelude to genocide against Palestinians in the illegally besieged and occupied Gaza Strip.  The BNC, therefore, calls upon the OECD Tourism Committee to respect international law and relocate the conference out of Israel”.

On Jerusalem itself, the letter said that “Israel is blatantly working to ‘Judaize’ Jerusalem through policies of ethnic cleaning, including home demolitions, residency permit revocation, settler takeovers of Palestinian housing, restrictions on freedom of movement and forced fragmentation through the Apartheid Wall, permit systems, illegal settlement construction and land confiscation. Rather than condemning such illegal practices under international law, the OECD conference will cement Israel’s hold on occupied Jerusalem, and will be perceived as a stamp of approval of Israel’s violations of international law in Jerusalem and elsewhere … Last June, Israeli authorities handed demolition orders to 22 residences in the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem as part of a wider scheme to demolish houses and turn the area into an ‘archeological park’ and ‘tourism center’.  Extremist settler organization El Ad, supported by Israeli Antiquities Authorities, has exploited — unscientific — archeology to lay claim to the area and now promotes tourism for religious Jewish settler fanatics at the expense of the local Palestinian population who live in fear of constant violent harassment … In February, Israel defied world opinion and international law, declaring two Palestinian sites in the West Bank as ‘national heritage’ as part of its unilateral strategy to annex them to Israel.  These Israeli cultural crimes must be understood in the context of decades of Israeli crimes including the erasure of over 500 Palestinian villages in 1948, the destruction of the Moroccan Quarter in the old city of Jerusalem in 1967, and the more recent desecration of the historic cemetery of Ma’man Allah (‘Mamilla’) in West Jerusalem for the purposes of building a so-called ‘Museum of Tolerance’.”

Israel was invited to apply for accession in May 2007, and its application was approved in May 2010.  Israel formally became a member of the OECD on 7 September 2010 [though Russia has still not qualified].

The BDS email, sent today, noted that “despite a global campaign against the move as likely to have the impact of emboldening Israeli impunity. Campaigners argue that Israel does not meet the required economic and human rights standards of OECD membership and that OECD members who allowed Israeli to join the OECD did so in violation of their own legal obligations under the Geneva IV Convention.  Israeli economic data submitted to the OECD includes data from its illegal colonies in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and excludes the occupied Palestinian population. Israel’s admission to the OECD under these terms is equivalent to OECD endorsement of Israel’s policy of forced population transfer, which is a war crime under international law”.

On its website, here, the OECD describes itself as “one of the world’s largest and most reliable sources of comparable statistics and economic and social data. As well as collecting data, OECD monitors trends, analyses and forecasts of economic developments and researches social changes or evolving patterns in trade, environment, agriculture, technology, taxation and more … The OECD is one of the world’s largest publishers in the fields of economics and public policy”.

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