Open Letter to Dr. Helmuth Hartmeyer, Department Head Funding/Civil Society (Austrian Development Agency)

Dear Dr. Hartmeyer,

Thank you for your letter from September 6. Unfortunately we had to learn about the withdrawal of your funding commitment from May 17 for our project Remapping Palestine - Historical and Geographical Developments, Recent Implications and Perspectives on the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict.

Despite the fact that your sudden decision to withdraw funding for a project officially approved of four months earlier poses a great financial challenge for us, we would like to pick you up on your offer to participate in the opening day.

As you certainly know, a symposium attended by internationally renowned experts needs a lot of advance planning, thus making it absolutely necessary to rely upon commitments made by public institutions. The withdrawal of the commitment by the Austrian Development Agency is highly questionable as development NGOs have to rely upon these commitments for the implementation of their projects. We are thus looking forward to your announced statement on the opening day of our symposium.

We would like to give some input to this undoubtedly constructive discussion already in advance and address your main arguments, which allegedly justify the ADA's withdrawal.

For better traceability we take the liberty to insert your letter from September 6 in our statement:

Dear Mr. Leidenmühler,

Based on the detailled programme of the event Remapping Palestine - Historical and Geographical Developments And Their Latest Implications In The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict taking place between October 19 and 21, the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) cannot provide financial support. As you yourself emphasised in your letter to the ADA from August 25, the focus mainly lies on a reconstruction of Palestinian history before 1948. Topics related to the EZA (Development Cooperation) only play a marginal role in the planned symposium, thus making it impossible for the ADA as an agency of the Austrian Development Cooperation to stick to our funding commitment from May 17.

As your event and the reaction of the Austrian-Israeli Society (ÖIG) have resulted in several letters to the ADA, I am willing to attend the opening day of your symposium and make a statement in case this should be considered beneficial.
Kind regards,
Dr. Helmuth Hartmeyer
Department Head Funding, Civil Society

As in your letter you argue on two different layers, we will follow this structure and elaborate on both of them.

First, we need to clarify the question what exactly Austrian development cooperation can and has to include in the context of the Middle Eastern conflict; a question you tend to ignore by merely stating these topics would 'only play a marginal role in the planned symposium'.

The second layer concerns the 'reaction of the Austrian-Israeli Society (ÖIG)' you mention, as well as some unspecified letters to the ADA, which we interpret as an attempt to exert pressure on the Austrian Development Agency for approving the project.

Due to your - in our opinion - insufficient explanation we have to assume that in fact it was a confusion of political and content-related layers which have led to the retroactive withdrawal of your commitment.

Your statement that topics concerning development policy would 'only play a marginal role in the planned symposium' for us thus is not tenable.

The official website of the Austrian Development Agency claims that the Israeli-occupied Palestinian autonomous territories are one of the main focuses of Austrian development cooperation. Furthermore the ADA discloses that Austria's overall public means to support Palestinian territories in the period of 1995-2009 amounted to € 56,92 million, while in the same time period the Austrian Development Cooperation (ÖEZA) supported programmes and projects amounting to € 41,66 million. Apart from the vital support of the Palestinian population in the occupied areas, the ÖEZA also supports 450.000 registered Palestinian refugees in Syria as well as 400.000 in Lebanon - most of which still live in refugee camps up to date - with numerous programmes and projects.

In addition to the annual contributions to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) the ÖEZA also funds projects building health centres or, as in 2008, to re-build the destroyed Palestinian refugee camp Naher el Bared in Lebanon. At the 2008 Donors' Conference the former Austrian Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ursula Plassnik, rightly emphasised the 'necessity to solve the refugee issue within the broader context of sustainable peace in the Middle East' and pointed out that 'the efforts for a universal solution in the Middle East conflict have to be continuous' as 'a satisfying and sustainable solution of the refugee issue is an integral part of a future peace treaty'. (freely cited from her website)
Dear Dr. Hartmeyer, as you could most certainly derive from our funding application (classified by you under the number 2397-24/2011) and the symposium's programme, the focus of our event is not put on the reconstruction of a Palestinian history before 1948, but much rather on the reconstruction of the historical and geographical development of the Palestinian refugee issue - and of course other vital topics of development cooperation.

As you undoubtedly know, the history of Palestinian refugees starts in 1948. Only one year later - even before the establishment of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) - the temporary United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was founded to coordinate the first great refugee catastrophe in Palestine and neighbouring countries without delay. This 'temporary' Relief and Work Agency has had to be renewed every three years since as the refugee issue has not been solved up to date - indeed it has gotten worse.

On its website, the ADA rightly proclaims 'the advancement of the Middle East Peace Process' as 'main concern of Austrian Development Cooperation in the occupied Palestinian territories' and quotes the head of the Austrian representative office in Ramallah, Dr. Oskar Wüstinger, who finds 'issues regarding peace and development policy inextricably linked'.

Without a sustainable peace perspective any kind of development cooperation appears ineffective - the building of a meanwhile destroyed airport in the Gaza strip in the district of Dahaniye by means of subsidies from Europe here serves as sad example; so does the construction of a not operating sea water desalination plant in Gaza with an investment of more than € 3 million.
Sustainable peace in Israel/Palestine - and thus sustainable development cooperation - has to be linked to a perspective for Palestinian refugees. According to the Palestinian politologist Leila Farsakh of the University of Massachusetts Boston and many more experts, current development cooperation threatens to lead the Palestinian people into structural dependence. In this context the recapitulation of the 2009 ADA-funded congress 'Perspectives Beyond War and Crisis II - Food Assistance, Poverty Management and Development Policy in the Israel/Palestinian Conflict' is highly recommended.

Is it really desirable for development cooperation to lead the Palestinian people and refugees into long-term dependence by annually providing them with necessary means and provisional help centres and thus limiting their scope of action?

The study of the historical cause of the refugee issue and the perspectives of an equitable solution in this context thus do not play a 'marginal role' but are indeed the core topics of any sustainable development cooperation. Avoiding these topics would mean to deprive the entire Palestinian people of their history and future and reduce them (in)to a dreary present.
Which may be the consequences of an ultimately paternal policy without serious perspectives on lasting peace?

Again, we want to emphasise that also other relevant topics, such as investment policy in the West Bank or the reception of the Middle East conflict in the peace-promoting public, will be discussed in our symposium. Moreover we want to point out that the actual implementation and concept design of our event matches with the application evaluated and officially approved by the ADA.

The second layer you mention in your letter concerns the reactions of the Austrian-Israeli Society (ÖIG), whose statement pertaining to our symposium may be read in the Wiener Zeitung from August 25. We have already commented on this reaction in great detail and forwarded this statement to you (cf. www.dar-al-janub.net/statement25082011.pdf)
We assume that, apart from the ÖIG, also other agencies associated with the Israeli government voiced their concerns and intervened with you and the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It is indeed sad enough that - despite international appeals - the current Israeli government sticks with its occupation policy of the last decades, the erection of the wall, the settlement activity, the forced relocation of Arab citizens from Jerusalem and presently concentrates its strenghts on preventing Palestine's admission into the UNO by all political and diplomatic means.

Since 1948 the Palestinians have tried to claim the people's right to self-determination for themselves, however, since 1948 they are deprived of these rights securitised by international law. Up to now, the official Israeli position refuses their state recognition and the Israeli Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, has just threatened the Palestinians with 'harsh and grave consequences' should they really apply for admission into the UN.
Also the ÖIG, which disapproves of our symposium and - as we understand your letter - has intervened with you, takes the same line and 'prompts the Austrian Government to decidedly counter any attempts of recognising Palestinian statehood in the UN' (OTS, 18.08.2011)

Whereto is a policy, whose only answer to decades of violence in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the promotion of occupation and which still denies Palestinians recognition, supposed to lead? Which perspectives could a peace movement possibly have, if already a discourse between Palestinian and critical Israeli voices in Vienna is labelled 'unnecessary' and to be prevented? Which role does the ÖEZA resume when it succumbs to this - as we have to assume - political pressure? Where does it lead, when the ÖIG in their statement de facto deprive uncomfortable Israeli citizens of their citizenship and expatriates them symbolically just because they have different opinions? Even if the positions of our speakers differ from those represented by the ÖIG, they certainly do have the right to articulate them publicly in our democratic culture.

Without consideration and recognition of the respective sides, the pursuit of equitable peace is doomed to fail from the very beginning. In this context, the planned symposium 'Remapping Palestine' wishes to reprocess the less visible and less represented narratives of the Middle Eastern conflict and offers space for reflection.

The very idea of censoring disagreeable Jewish/Arab/Israeli voices would reproduce a fatal converse argument of exclusion and dominance and consequently determine the right of the stronger by degrading the rights of the weaker to a matter of political opportunism.

Most certainly one may discuss, criticise and treat the findings of Prof. Ilan Pappé differently, however, to defame them as allegedly 'unscientific' is merely unsound given the author's reputation. Moreover, it paves the way for monopolising one's own world view as the only one possible.

We neither have the media power, nor the political, economical or institutional resources of big organisations and associations to intervene by means of political pressure and push through partial interests, however (il)legitimate they may be. In our opinion it is the responsibility of public agencies - such as the ADA - to ensure the democratic rules of the game for all parties involved.
The ADA's course of action - a questionable and hardly justified withdrawal of an already granted funding four months after the commitment and merely six weeks before the beginning of the event - is highly questionable and casts poor light on the capacities of the ÖEZA given the by far greater challenges concerning an equitable peace settlement in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, the symposium ‚Remapping Palestine' will take place just as planned. It will take place in Vienna, the city which awarded the Cultural Poster-Prize to the campaign 'Time for a Quote' and thus had the famous quote Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters by Rosa Luxemburg posted all over its public spaces.

As mentioned earlier, we are convinced that the symposium is highly relevant with regard to peace and development policy. The ongoing debate concerning the recognition of a Palestinian state underlines the necessity to listen to the opinions of high-ranking Palestinian experts as well as highly regarded Israeli scientists critical of the government and peace activists even in Austria. A lot of positive feedback shows that the event is met by great interest in the peace-promoting public and can be carried out.

Once again we cordially invite you to attend the opening day of our symposium and are indeed looking forward to a stimulating discussion. Moreover we would ask you to possibly revisit your decision to withdraw funding for our event.

Yours sincerely,
Mag. Peter Leidenmühler

Chairman of Dar al Janub - Association for Anti-Racist and Peace-Promoting Initiative

The symposium 'Remapping Palestine' will take place from October 19-21 in Vienna, Albert-Schweitzer-Haus, Schwarzspanierstraße 13; 1090 Vienna. Speakers include the Palestinian historian Salam Abu Sitta, the American-Palestinian scientist Joseph Massad, the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, Umar Al Ghurabi as a representative of the Israeli NGO Zochrot and the German Bundestag member Anette Groth.

Details on the symposium  »


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