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Young generations in the Near East – between challenges and new perspectives

Back from the Near East, SDC Director General Patricia Danzi and Ambassador Simon Geissbühler, head of the Peace and Human Rights Division, share their experiences. Their visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory gave them an insight into what the Swiss Cooperation Programme for the Near East 2021–24 is doing in the region.

Impressions from the Near East: Patricia Danzi and Ambassador Simon Geissbühler in interview.

What do you take away from your five days in the Near East?

Patricia Danzi (DZP): I was very impressed by the young people I met on the trip, especially the women. Their energy and strength. They are building a future and standing up for their rights despite the difficult circumstances, always getting back up and never giving up hope.

Simon Geissbühler (GSO): I was also impressed by this energy – whether in Jerusalem, Gaza, Ramallah and in the hills south of Hebron. But I also felt the frustration of those we met. The walls – those you can see and those in people's minds – are not destiny. Prospects for a better future are essential.

Which encounter will stay with you?

DZP: In the Gaza Strip, I talked to young Palestinian women from the start-up scene. This allowed me to see the potential of these start-ups and to chat with the founders about their innovative projects. A young woman and her colleague have developed an automated cleaning system for solar panels, entirely 'made in Gaza'. Here there are only a few hours of electricity per day, which is why solar panels (often on roofs) are so essential. Dust and sand greatly reduce their output, however. This invention can create jobs, prevent risky climbs onto roofs, and produce electricity more efficiently. To unleash the economic potential of young people in the Gaza Strip, political solutions are of course also needed, and sometimes it is a 3G network that is needed, or something simple like that, to boost innovation. That is why there is a new focus in the Swiss Cooperation Programme for the Near East: to create prospects for young people by supporting innovation. 

Patricia Danzi points to one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals on a circle board.
Peace, justice and strong institutions: the 16th of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals is the one of most interest in Jerusalem, Gaza, Ramallah or South Hebron. © SDC

And how will the Cooperation Programme do this?

DZP: The Cooperation Programme for the Near East pools our efforts in various sectors, which means we can address both the causes and the consequences of the conflict. Switzerland responds to humanitarian needs and supports development in the occupied Palestinian territory. It also advocates with all parties to encourage dialogue and respect for international humanitarian law.

GSO: Working closely together through a joint cooperation programme is enabling Switzerland to exploit the 'triple nexus' for the first time – combining the impact of our peace, humanitarian aid and development cooperation instruments. 

How can Switzerland make a difference?

DZP: Given Switzerland's neutral stance, humanitarian tradition and high credibility, we have an important role to play. We work through and towards dialogue, advocate for the humanitarian principles and create prospects together with our partner organisations.

GSO: The frequent escalation of violence indicates that lasting peace is only possible if the parties to the conflict deal with its root causes. Switzerland's efforts are in line with the Security Council's vision of a two-state solution based on international law – even if or precisely because local communities have so far been reluctant to get behind it.

Switzerland is still pursuing its traditional approach of promoting international law and dialogue between the parties, but with a focus on young people and innovation. Having seen the energy of local people and heard what they want, this approach seems promising. But the initiative must come from them.

Is peaceful coexistence possible through dialogue?

GSO: An hour's walk around the city of Jerusalem and you can see why a solution enabling peaceful coexistence is an absolute necessity. The historic evidence of communities living closely side by side remind us that this has been possible in the past. In this city at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is essential that the aspirations of both parties are respected. Promoting dialogue is therefore a priority of the peacebuilding and human rights pillar of the Swiss Cooperation Programme for the Near East.

Simon Geissbühler, from behind, walks through the hills of Masafer Yatta behind two other local people.
Simon Geissbühler walks through the hills of the Hebron Governorate towards Masafer Yatta. © FDFA

How does Switzerland carry out its activities in practice?

GSO: One of Switzerland's strengths is its collaboration with various actors, for example multilateral organisations, academia and state authorities. This trip again illustrated the essential role played by civil society in promoting human rights and providing services to communities. Unfortunately, for years we have been seeing increasing restrictions on civil society. The reduced international presence following the closure of the Temporary International Mission in Hebron (TIPH) and non-renewal of visas for expatriate staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) are also worrying developments, and we are monitoring the situation closely.

DZP: The FDFA regularly reviews its partnerships. The aims of the Cooperation Programme, especially with regard to new partnerships for innovation reflect this.

Patricia Danzi gives some advice to two young women working on a computer.
Digitisation and 3G network development can help foster the economic potential of young people in the Gaza Strip. © SDC

Aside from these partnerships, what else is Switzerland doing?

GSO: Switzerland regularly broaches various aspects of the conflict both bilaterally with the parties and in multilateral forums. We also recently appointed a special envoy for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Against this backdrop, what prospects do you see for the future?

GSO: Everyone we talked to insisted on the importance of dignity for all. We regularly call on the parties to resume a credible peace process, and Switzerland is ready to provide good offices.

DZP: We have been inspired by our partners, our dedicated staff, who are proud to work for Switzerland, and by all these motivated, educated young people who are so full of hope for their families. We must help to ensure that these young generations have prospects for a better future.