How Arab countries can address pollution and improve urban air quality

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With COP28 set to take place in Dubai in November, experts believe the causes of the MENA region’s poor air quality warrant urgent attention. (AFP)
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With COP28 set to take place in Dubai in November, experts believe the causes of the MENA region’s poor air quality warrant urgent attention. (AFP)
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Updated 03 October 2023
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How Arab countries can address pollution and improve urban air quality

  • Unique challenges faced by region, including high temperatures and frequent dust storms, contribute to poor air quality
  • Experts believe poor air quality warrants urgent attention at November’s UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai

DUBAI: Already contending with the combined challenges of rapid urbanization, a warming climate, and stress on freshwater resources, countries across the Middle East and North Africa are now fighting for something even more fundamental — breathable air.

The World Health Organization has warned that nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted outdoor air that exceeds what it deems as acceptable levels, adding that the Arab region in particular has some of the world’s poorest air quality.

With the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, set to take place in Dubai in November, experts believe not only does the problem of the region’s poor air quality warrant urgent attention, it also requires sustainable and cost-effective solutions.

The 2022 World Air Quality Report, conducted by Swiss firm IQAir, studied levels of PM2.5 (particles small enough to penetrate deep into the respiratory tract and lungs, causing or exacerbating illnesses such as asthma and heart issues) in 7,323 cities across 131 countries, regions and territories.

It found that the most polluted cities in the region are Baghdad in Iraq with an 80.1 average PM2.5 concentration, Manama in Bahrain with 66.6, Kuwait City in Kuwait with 55.8, and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia with 41.5.

Overall, a total of 118 (90 percent) of the 131 countries and regions studied exceeded the WHO’s annual PM2.5 guideline value of 5 µg/m3. (A concentration of 1 µg/m3 means that one cubic meter of air contains one microgram of particulate matter.)




A massive sandstorm advancing into Kuwait City. (AFP)

There is disagreement among experts over why the Middle East appears to suffer from especially poor air quality. Some of them point to such sources of particulate emission as oil-fired power stations, vehicles and heavy industry.

“The main sources of pollution in these cities are energy production, emissions from industrial processes, waste burning, construction and vehicles,” Prof. Tadhg O’Donovan, a solar researcher and deputy vice principal at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, told Arab News.

“The most critical discussion at the COP28 should be around the use of renewable energy sources.”

Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot are some of the many pollutants that are released into the atmosphere by the combustion of conventional (fossil) fuels and contribute to poor air quality.

The combustion of fuels also releases a number of gases — such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — into the atmosphere that contribute to a greenhouse effect and thus global warming.

“These greenhouse gases have a long half-life in the atmosphere ranging from decades to centuries,” Dr. Aseel Takshe, head of department and associate professor of public health at the Canadian University of Dubai, told Arab News.

While transparent discussions regarding the future of conventional fuels have been ongoing, Takshe believes significant action is yet to be taken to mitigate their environmental impacts. “More commitment to renewable energy is urgently needed,” she said.

Other scientists regard the Middle East’s frequent sand and dust storms as the most significant contributor to poor air quality. Rising average global temperatures and creeping desertification are believed to have increased the frequency of such storms, which cause and exacerbate respiratory illnesses.

Although Middle Eastern civilizations have experienced dust storms for thousands of years, post-industrial desert dust storms are different, lifting a growing load of airborne pollutants and transporting these substances over long distances.

Dust storms therefore magnify the problem of poor air quality, skewing the figures against Middle Eastern cities regardless of their emission-reduction policies.




Corniche Skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi during a severe sand storm. (AFP)

“The unique challenges faced by the region, including high temperatures and frequent dust storms, should not be overlooked,” Yousuf Fakhruddin, CEO of Fakhruddin Properties and developer of clean-air technologies, told Arab News.

He said strategies for managing these issues, such as improved meteorological forecasting and infrastructure design, will become vital for protecting air quality and public health in the future.

Depending on levels of air pollution, people’s lives can be impacted in various ways. From a reduction of life expectancy by two to five years to a range of chronic health conditions, prolonged exposure to high levels of air pollution can have devastating effects on population health.

“Respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are among the most common. These conditions can significantly reduce quality of life, and in severe cases, can be fatal,” said Fakhruddin.

Furthermore, cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease and stroke, have been linked to air pollution exposure. This is because pollutants can cause inflammation and damage to the cardiovascular system over time, increasing the risks.

In fact, research suggests that long-term exposure to certain air pollutants may even increase the risk of lung cancer, and emerging evidence suggests that air pollution may be linked to mental health issues and neurodevelopmental disorders in children.

INNUMBERS

• 270,000 Estimated deaths per year caused by air pollution in the MENA region.

• $141bn Annual cost of air pollution in MENA (representing 2% of regional GDP).

• 60 Average number of days a MENA resident reports sick in their lifetime due to exposure to elevated air pollution levels.

Source: World Bank

“It’s worth noting that the average person inhales approximately 11,000 liters of air each day,” said Fakhruddin.

“When this air is polluted, it means we’re introducing harmful substances into our bodies in large quantities every single day, which only amplifies the health risks.”

Mindful of the need to simultaneously reduce harmful emissions, the Gulf region has made improving air quality a high priority by seeking to cut vehicular exhaust emissions and halt the release of pollutants into the atmosphere.

O’Donovan highlights the Middle East’s targets for the transition to renewable energy, with the UAE aiming to increase the use of renewables as part of its energy mix to 44 percent by 2050, while Saudi Arabia is targeting 50 percent by 2030.

Gulf countries will most likely boost their renewable energy capacities primarily through solar and wind power, says O’Donovan, citing the twin advantages of the region’s climatic conditions and the falling price of such infrastructure.




Murky skyline of the Egyptian city of Giza. (AFP)

Saudi Arabia is building one of the world’s biggest green hydrogen facilities, which will be powered by 4 gigawatts of solar and wind energy and will be operational by 2025. The NEOM project’s plant is expected to create 650 tons of green hydrogen per day.

The Kingdom is building wind farms in Yanbu, Waad Al-Shamal and Al-Ghat. Dumat Al-Jandal, the Middle East’s largest wind farm and the first in Saudi Arabia, began producing 400 megawatts of carbon-free energy in August 2021.

The UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Solar Park, the world’s largest single-site facility of its kind, is another key project, which aims to generate some 5,000 megawatts by 2030.

To address the issue of clean air, the UAE has launched the National Air Quality Agenda 2031 — a comprehensive plan to monitor and manage air quality across the country, providing real-time data in the country.

“This information is then shared with the authorities to help them develop policies on air-pollution control as well as enabling researchers and academicians to study the impact of environmental factors, industrial progress and population density on air quality,” said O’Donovan.

The issue goes beyond energy production. According to Fakhruddin, improving industrial emission standards is a critical issue that requires discussion at the upcoming COP28 summit.

“Many industries currently emit large quantities of pollutants with minimal regulation or oversight,” he said. “Implementing and enforcing stricter emission standards could significantly improve air quality.”

He also believes sustainable urban development should be a priority, with a focus on green building practices, efficient public transport networks, and greening initiatives.

Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, has launched a greening initiative to boost plant cover. As part of the Saudi Green Initiative, the Kingdom aims to plant 10 billion trees, with 7.5 million for Riyadh and its surroundings.




Electric vehicles could make a dent in pollution caused by car exhaust. Supplied)

The project is transforming Riyadh into an environmentally friendly metropolis with a high quality of life, reducing the capital’s energy consumption by easing ambient temperatures, and ultimately reducing healthcare expenditure.

Experts say a single hectare of land, when 11 percent of it is covered by plants, can remove 9.7 kg of air pollutants every year.

Saudi Arabia is also collaborating with other Arab governments on a Middle East Green Initiative, which includes a pledge to plant an additional 40 billion trees, the world’s largest afforestation effort.

The initiative could reduce land degradation and desertification in the process, thereby cutting the scale and frequency of dust storms.

Another important topic of discussion at COP28 will likely be how public-private partnerships can enable initiatives that improve air quality, according to O’Donovan of Heriot-Watt University.

“Some examples of potential initiatives are subsidies for the manufacture and use of electric vehicles, investing in renewable energy projects, collaboration for infrastructure projects that support pedestrian traffic and encouraging innovation aimed at addressing local air quality issues,” he said.

Fuse EV Conversions, a company that converts car engines from petrol to electric, is an example of how private enterprise can help to accelerate the Arab region’s energy transition.

“The current costs of electric vehicles are prohibitive,” Salman Hussein, founder and CEO of Fuse EV Conversions, told Arab News.




A sandstorm engulfs the Iraqi city of Basra. (AFP)

To capitalize on the opportunity, “we are developing conversion kits and working with regulators to roll out our services in more cities,” he said.

While many of the firm’s customers are classic car owners, it is also working on solutions for other applications such as the commercial sector, defense and NGOs.

Viewing the upcoming COP28 event as an opportunity for the region to address its sustainability challenges, Hussein believes governments should pay attention to practical steps by which environmental and climate goals could be reached.

“While billions of dollars have been prioritized toward sustainability, we should also explore ways to adapt existing solutions,” he said, adding that if costs borne by consumers are reduced tangibly, clean mobility goals could be achieved much faster.

“Here in the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have committed to net-zero carbon goals, and they are already transitioning to clean-energy solutions. This inspires confidence and, together with the clean tech ecosystem, we can create unparalleled impact.”


Netanyahu says he will pave way to end exemption for ultra-Orthodox from military service

Updated 01 March 2024
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Netanyahu says he will pave way to end exemption for ultra-Orthodox from military service

  • Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up 13 percent of Israel’s population, claim the right to study in seminaries instead of serving in uniform for the standard three years
  • Israel’s Supreme Court in 2018 voided a law waiving the draft for ultra-Orthodox men, citing a need for the burden of military service to be shared across Israeli society

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday his government would find a way to end exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews from Israeli military service in the face of political pressures that threaten his narrow coalition’s future.
“We will determine goals for conscripting ultra-Orthodox people to the IDF and national civil service,” Netanyahu said at a press conference, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “We will also determine the ways to implement those goals.”
Israel’s Supreme Court in 2018 voided a law waiving the draft for ultra-Orthodox men, citing a need for the burden of military service to be shared across Israeli society.
Parliament failed to come up with a new arrangement, and a government-issued stay on mandatory conscription of ultra-Orthodox expires in March.
Ultra-Orthodox parties have helped Netanyahu hold a narrow parliamentary majority alongside far-right nationalist parties but in past governments have made draft exemption a condition for remaining in the coalition.
Netanyahu appeared to be responding to a pledge made by his defense minister to veto a law that would allow the continuation of exemptions unless the government reached an agreement paving a path for ultra-Orthodox enlistment.
“We recognize and support those who dedicate their life to studying Jewish holy scripture but, with that, without physical existence there is no spiritual existence,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Wednesday.
The exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews have been a longstanding source of friction with more secular citizens now stoked by the country’s costly mobilization for the Gaza war.
The ultra-Orthodox claim the right to study in seminaries instead of serving in uniform for the standard three years. Some say their pious lifestyles would clash with military mores, while others voice ideological opposition to the liberal state.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 13 percent of Israel’s population, a figure expected to reach 19 percent by 2035 due to their high birth rates. Economists argue that the draft exemption keeps some of them unnecessarily in seminaries and out of the workforce.


‘Mercy tables’ in Egypt suffer from economic crisis as Ramadan nears

Updated 29 February 2024
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‘Mercy tables’ in Egypt suffer from economic crisis as Ramadan nears

CAIRO: Rising food prices and shortages may lead to fewer donations and less food for “tables of mercy” in Egypt during Ramadan.

Such tables are usually seen on Egypt’s streets to provide lower-income people with free iftar.

“There are many philanthropists in Egypt, but the high prices of food items constrain them,” said Kamal Khairy, a cook who worked at the tables in previous years.

A kilogram of meat is now priced at 450 Egyptian pounds ($14.56) in some areas, while a kilogram of rice costs 40 pounds. The price of vegetables has risen to unreasonable levels, Khairy told Arab News.

The meal cost has increased significantly, causing some philanthropists to withdraw from setting up tables this year.

“Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I used to cook at different tables upon request by philanthropists,” he said.

“In one year, I cooked for three tables — one in the morning, another in the afternoon, and the third before sunset. However, no one has asked me this year.”

A 50-year-old Egyptian, who declined to be named, told Arab News: “In previous years, I used to set up a free iftar table near my factory in Al-Azhar. However, I cannot afford the extra expense due to financial constraints this year.”

He said the factory was struggling financially, so he had been cutting expenses.

A car park attendant on Hoda Shaarawi Street in Cairo who gave his name as Uncle Ahmed told Arab News: “Due to the nature of my job, I cannot go home during Ramadan. Therefore, I rely on the ‘mercy table’ set up on the street, where I am a regular guest.”

The man, nearing 60, added: “I used to sit at a table alongside people from diverse social backgrounds, such as delivery workers, nurses, conscripts, and passersby.

“The table used to accommodate more than 500 people but now fits only 50.”

He said that in the past, a meal would typically consist of a meat dish (such as chicken or kofta), a vegetable dish, a salad and rice or pasta.

“There is only one dish that contains rice and vegetables this year, and the size of the chicken and meat has been reduced. Additionally, the salad portion has been reduced."

Ahmed added: “The crisis affects everyone, and we don’t expect more from the philanthropists. I excuse them.

“I pray that our crises in Egypt will be resolved.”

Farid Jamal, a worker at a charity hosting a table, said: “In previous years, people would arrive an hour before the Maghrib prayer, but now they come three hours earlier.

“The social composition has also changed. I see young men and men from good social levels wearing relatively elegant clothes and women who appear to be in a good situation, all reserving their places at the table to get an iftar meal.”


Volunteers brave Israeli air raids to feed Lebanon’s stranded pets

Updated 29 February 2024
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Volunteers brave Israeli air raids to feed Lebanon’s stranded pets

  • Tyre resident recounts heartbreaking scenes in abandoned towns

BEIRUT: Volunteers in southern Lebanon are defying Israeli bombing to feed and care for dogs, cats, birds and other animals that have become victims of the conflict.

Linda Luku — a native of Bint Jbeil now residing in Tyre — is among a growing number of volunteers who have mobilized via social media to support animals amid the military escalation between Hezbollah and Israel.

Their efforts provide a lifeline to the forgotten victims of war as clashes continue to claim the lives of Hezbollah operatives and Lebanese civilians, including innocent children and women.

Amid the clashes between Hezbollah and the Israeli army, thousands of residents of the border region in southern Lebanon have abandoned their homes and villages in recent months.

In heartbreaking decisions, many families opted to leave their cherished pets behind, hoping that their displacement would be short-lived.

With military operations escalating and airstrikes pounding the region, villages have been transformed into desolate ghost towns, leaving animals abandoned and vulnerable to starvation and bombing.

Luku recounted the heartbreaking scenes she encountered during a visit to her hometown of Bint Jbeil.

Stray cats and dogs — emaciated and desperate — roamed the streets, their suffering palpable as their ribs protruded from hunger.

The sight was particularly harrowing for Luku, who, moved by compassion, set out with her brother on a mission to provide relief.

They managed to secure leftover chicken from a local slaughterhouse in Maaroub owned by a friend, and then journeyed to their hometown to distribute food to the starving animals.

“These animals are not strays. They belong to beautiful breeds commonly kept as household pets. They are now left to fend for themselves, searching for sustenance in towns abandoned by humans,” Luku said.

She added: “It is a poignant scene. As I navigate through these towns, I am confronted with the sight of starving animals, and the distressing images linger with me through the night.

“Amid the conflict, there is a heartbreaking lack of awareness. Residents remaining in villages under bombardment often withhold food from these animals.”

“Many times, I traverse villages devoid of human presence, with only Israeli warplanes hovering above, surveilling the area.”

Qassem Haidar, 28, from Shaqra in southern Lebanon, still lives in the area with his family despite facing constant bombardment.

“I have my own business, yet I sympathize with animals,” he said, adding: “I started feeding animals in my village after I was shocked to see a dog eating a cat in Beit Leif. It was so horrible. I could not stand it.

“I resorted to social media, asking anyone who had food leftovers to keep them, taking it upon myself to collect and distribute them to abandoned animals.

“I took photos of the hungry animals and posted them online. Many showed sympathy, and I started receiving donations, from dry food bags to gasoline costs, to move around between the villages.

“I also reached out to animal welfare organizations. I dedicate three hours of my time every day to going around the villages and posting stories on Instagram.

“I visited every village in the border area, from Ayta Al-Shaab to Kfarkela, spending a few minutes in some due to the bombardment and more than an hour in others.

Haidar said: “I used to leave food on the sides of the roads. Sometimes, if I come across a civilian still in his house, I leave bags of food at his place so that he can feed the animals.

“I also cooperate with the medics in the region to distribute food to animals. I have a town visit schedule, and I know when I should return and visit them to leave food for the animals.

“I don’t want to be late, so they do not starve to death or eat each other. I have seen cats and dogs that died of cardiac arrest due to the sound of exploding shells. Their heartbeats were so fast. They experienced absolute terror.

“They know when a shell is about to drop, and they disperse before it does. I followed their instincts and survived bombings more than once. Israelis bombed the sites I was at in many towns five minutes after I left them.

“I often used to be the only person on the road in towns in the line of fire. My mother is always worried about me. However, I am convinced these lives cannot be abandoned,” he added.

Haidar’s mission goes beyond feeding dogs, cats, and birds. He also takes sick or wounded animals to local vets.

Firas Faraj, a founder of the Strays Welfare Association in Tyre, said that many of the pets left behind are waiting for their owners to return.

He added: “We do not have an accurate number of abandoned animals, yet we are dealing with the problem case by case.

“The issue has gained some sympathy, but the need is still greater than what is provided. UNIFIL forces previously sympathized with us since the unit commanders love animals and provided us access to a field hospital.

“However, with the opening of the southern battlefront, all aid was suspended, and we rely on individual initiatives.”


El-Sisi, Al-Burhan discuss developments in Sudan

Updated 29 February 2024
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El-Sisi, Al-Burhan discuss developments in Sudan

  • Al-Burhan said that Egypt’s role in hosting Sudanese citizens and mitigating the crisis provided evidence of its continued friendship
  • El-Sisi and Al-Burhan agreed on the necessity of an immediate ceasefire in Gaza

CAIRO: Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on Thursday received Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, president of the Transitional Sovereignty Council of Sudan, at Cairo International Airport.

An official reception ceremony took place at Al-Ittihadiya Palace, at which the national anthems were played and guards of honor inspected.

The meeting focused on recent developments in Sudan and efforts to resolve its crisis.

The main goal is to restore stability while ensuring sovereignty, unity, and cohesion of the Sudanese state and its institutions.

The meeting was an attempt to meet the Sudanese people’s desire for safety and stability.

Ahmed Fahmy, the presidential spokesman, said that El-Sisi focused on the solid historic relations between the two countries, emphasizing Egypt’s support in enhancing cooperation.

The president stressed Egypt’s commitment to Sudan’s security and offered full support to achieve political, security, and economic stability.

He affirmed Egypt’s commitment to supporting Sudan’s unity and resolving ongoing conflicts.

He added that the two countries shared a close relationship, which made it necessary to ensure national security.

The president spoke of Egypt’s ongoing role in helping to alleviate the humanitarian impact of the current crisis within Sudan.

Al-Burhan expressed his country’s appreciation for Egypt’s support. He highlighted the long-standing ties between the two countries, while saying that Egypt’s role in hosting Sudanese citizens and mitigating the crisis provided evidence of its continued friendship.

The parties also discussed the situation in Gaza and regional issues of mutual concern.

El-Sisi and Al-Burhan agreed on the necessity of an immediate ceasefire and the urgent need to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

They also agreed to continue consultations and coordination to help benefit the populations of Egypt and Sudan.

The Sudanese leader made an official visit to Egypt in August last year, his first following the start of his country’s conflict in April. Al-Burhan and El-Sisi met in the city of Alamein in northern Egypt.


Palestinian president issues ‘categorical rejection’ of Israeli PM’s post-war plan

Updated 29 February 2024
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Palestinian president issues ‘categorical rejection’ of Israeli PM’s post-war plan

  • Netanyahu wants Israel to retain security control over Palestinian areas and make reconstruction dependent on demilitarization
  • Abbas charged that the plan confirmed the Israeli government’s intentions to recolonize the Gaza Strip

CAIRO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has stressed “categorical Palestinian rejection” of the principles announced in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s so-called post-war plan for Gaza.

Netanyahu wants Israel to retain security control over Palestinian areas and make reconstruction dependent on demilitarization.

His plan, which brings together a range of well-established Israeli positions, underlines Netanyahu’s resistance to the creation of a Palestinian state which he sees as a security threat.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit has received a written message from Abbas which calls for a global conference to adopt a comprehensive peace plan with international guarantees and a timeline for implementation of the ending of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Abbas has called on the league to support Palestine in obtaining full membership of the UN.

The message urged countries that have not yet recognized Palestine to do so.

Aboul Gheit received Ambassador Muhannad Al-Aklouk, representative of Palestine to the bloc, at the headquarters of the general secretariat, and Al-Aklouk had brought a message from Abbas.

Jamal Rushdi, a spokesperson for the Arab League chief, said that the president’s message included a categorical Palestinian rejection of the principles announced by the Israeli prime minister for the so-called “day after of the war.”

The message included a warning of the danger of those principles — especially the denial of the existence of the Palestinian people, and insisting on imposing Israeli sovereignty on the land extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

Abbas charged that the plan confirmed the Israeli government’s intentions to recolonize the Gaza Strip and perpetuate the occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem through plans to build thousands of settlement units.

Rushdi said that the message warned that the goal of the Israeli government was not only to undermine the chances of peace based on the two-state solution, but also to intensify ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

The president’s message included the affirmation that the Gaza Strip is an integral part of the State of Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority is ready to assume the responsibilities of governance in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, and is prepared to work toward establishing security and peace, as well as stability, in the region within the framework of a comprehensive peace plan.

The message called on the Arab League’s chief to continue working for a ceasefire; the provision of humanitarian aid; the return of displaced people to their homes in the north; the prevention of their displacement; and a halt to Israel’s expansionist plans and practices in the Gaza Strip.

Aboul Gheit confirmed to Al-Aklouk that he would continue to work to achieve all the goals highlighted in the president’s message — most notably an immediate ceasefire, working to bring aid in urgently and sustainably, and standing with full force against the displacement plan.

Aboul Gheit stressed that stopping the war remained a fundamental priority for the Arab League and its member states.

He reiterated that the Palestinians, Arabs, and the world always rejected the displacement plan.

Aboul Gheit pointed out that addressing the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israeli aggression could not be achieved in isolation from a settlement aiming at the emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

He emphasized that the Palestinians were capable of governing themselves.

Aboul Gheit added that the continuation of the occupation was no longer possible and that the two-state solution remained the only formula capable of achieving security, peace, and stability between Palestinians and Israelis in the region and the world.