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“Hope is fading for a two-state solution”: Elders in the Middle East"

In October 2012 Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson travelled to Israel and the West Bank to draw attention to the developments threatening the two-state solution. After meeting civil society, Israeli and Palestinian political leaders, and humanitarian and human rights experts, the Elders concluded their visit by warning that the situation is heading towards a one-state outcome – which would be catastrophic for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Before her fellow Elders arrived, Gro Harlem Brundtland met a group of Jerusalem residents to discuss the challenges they face as Palestinians living and working in this contested city.

The group described the increasing restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities on Palestinians’ movement, worship, building, and access to education and municipal services. They emphasised the ‘double standards’ that inhibit Palestinian social and cultural life while affording protection to the Jewish settlers who have forcibly taken over homes in East Jerusalem.

Dr Brundtland was keen to hear the group’s suggestions on how The Elders could help. “I am still an optimist – I don’t believe in giving up and sitting back and saying ‘this is hopeless, we give up’,” she said. “This is not an option at all.”

On a tour of East Jerusalem organised by UN-OCHA (the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), the Elders heard from Hagit Ofran, Director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project.

From a viewpoint looking out over the city, Hagit described how many of East Jerusalem’s green spaces and sites of archaeological value are being designated ‘national parks’ by the Israeli authorities. This re-zoning prevents Palestinian neighbourhoods from expanding, and threatens to further isolate East Jerusalem from the West Bank by effectively creating a ‘buffer zone’ between the two areas.

UN-OCHA’s Ray Dolphin briefed the Elders on recent developments in East Jerusalem that are undermining the possibility of a two-state solution, from the separation wall that cuts off Palestinian villages from the rest of East Jerusalem, to the increasing numbers of Jewish settlers forcibly occupying Palestinian homes.

Looking out across Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, Ray pointed out Ma’ale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank with around 30,000 residents. According to Hagit Ofran, the Israeli authorities are now seeking to extend the settlement even further. Like the recent designation of parts of the city as national parks, this would isolate Arab East Jerusalem from the West Bank.

While in East Jerusalem, the Elders were shown round the Augusta Victoria Hospital by its CEO, Dr Tawfiq Nasser.

Run by the Lutheran World Federation with donor assistance from the international community, the hospital provides vital specialist medical services not only to East Jerusalem residents, but also to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza – though they must apply for permits every time they travel to Jerusalem for an appointment or operation.

The Elders were very impressed with the medical facilities and equipment. Dr Nasser held up the hospital as an example of peaceful Palestinian resistance: contributing to the viability of a future Palestinian state through the building of key institutions.

The Elders met Israeli President Shimon Peres at his Jerusalem office, where they expressed their concerns about the lack of recent progress towards a two-state solution. The Elders had previously met President Peres during their first visit to the Middle East in August 2009.

The Elders also travelled to Ramallah to meet President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

During their discussion President Abbas confirmed to the three Elders that he would seek recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state at the UN General Assembly in November. The Elders strongly encouraged this action, expressing their hope that it would help to change the current dynamic and ultimately revive the peace process.

Concluding their visit with a press conference in Jerusalem, the Elders warned that Israelis and Palestinians were heading towards a “one-state outcome”, which would be catastrophic for both peoples.

Mary Robinson said: “The growth of settlements takes your breath away. And when you see that houses have been demolished, or settlers have taken over the houses of Palestinians, it’s clear that hope is fading of a genuine two-state solution.

“We’re not on course for a two-state solution; on the contrary, we’re going backwards. We have to change the dynamic.”

Photos: Mati Milstein | The Elders