Wellington City Council has voted to start steps towards becoming a friendly city with Ramallah in Palestine.

A friendly city is the step before a sister city, where two cities in different countries sign an agreement for social or economic co-operation.

Councillor Nīkau Wi Neera, who proposed the move, said it was a “pretty emotional” moment.

“The key point is solidarity. For me as tangata whenua I see a lot of parallels between the struggle of Māori for tino rangatiratanga with the struggle of Palestinian people for the same.”

Samira Zaiton, co-leader of the group Justice for Palestine, said she was “over the moon” with the decision.

“In such an often-dehumanised conversation, this is a humanising exercise.”

Wi Neera said the move is symbolic.

“[The] Council is not trying to be the unilateral mediator of a complex global conflict, for me it's about a show of intra-indigenous solidarity. 

“It comes from a genuine place where I hope to see peace for everyone involved, and I want to show my tautoko to the Palestinian community of Aotearoa and this is it.”

What is a friendly city?

There are a number of types of city-to-city relationships, with a sister city being the highest tier. 

“A friendly city is how we start. We make a statement of friendship, scope out what the friendship will look like, then graduate to a sister city,” Wi Neera said.

Wellington currently has 13 other international city partnerships, including with Beijing, Sydney and Seoul.

Ramallah has eight other sister cities, including Bordeaux in France, Johannesburg in South Africa and Oxford in England.

Nine councillors including the mayor voted for the motion (Nīkau Wi Neera, Tamatha Paul, Nureddin Abdurahman, Laurie Foon, Rebecca Matthews, Ben McNulty, Teri O’Neill, Iona Pannett, and Mayor Tory Whanau), and seven voted against ( John Apanowicz, Tim Brown, Diane Calvert, Ray Chung, Sarah Free, Tony Randle, and Nicola Young). 

Speakers for and against

The Council heard from eight members of the public speaking for or against the decision. 

David Zwartz, a member of Wellington’s Jewish community, said he opposed the decision because Ramallah did not “share values” with Wellington.

“This completely overlooks that it is the biggest city in a territory that hasn't had a national election since 2006.”

“As a Wellington Jew I would not be able to stand and speak in Ramallah as I can today.”

Others said it was not the council’s job to get involved in the Middle East.

“It shouldn't be a decision for council, it doesn't seem appropriate,” submitter Ian Dunwoodie said.

Joanna Moss of the Christian Community and Abundant Life Centre said “this is not the business of governing Wellington city and I think you should stop it now”. 

Those in support said Ramallah has many similarities with Wellington including a vibrant arts, dance and student culture. 

“You're not being asked to solve the problems of the Middle East, you're being asked something very normal for a city: to twin with another city,” Neil Ballantyne from the group Justice for Palestine said.

Motion watered down from earlier version

Councillor Wi Neera had earlier proposed more extensive plans, including to recognise the State of Palestine and to light up the Michael Fowler Centre with the colours of the Palestinian flag on Nakba Day, May 15 - the day Palestinians commemorate the expulsion of 700,000 people during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

But Council officers had advised not taking a position on recognising the State of Palestine because recognising states was a role for central government not councils. 

They recommended the Council instead advocate to the Government to work with the United Nations to progress a two-state solution, which is the current position of the New Zealand government.

But Wi Neera said his decision to remove those parts of the motion was not based on that advice, and was done to make it more likely the vote would get across the line.

“The reason it changed was for the sake of consensus building, to get to that place we had to work really collaboratively with our community, lots of compromises had to be made to get where we are.”

Top image: Councillor Nīkau Wi Neera and Samira Zaiton, co-leader of the group Justice for Palestine. Photo: Anna Harcourt

To get in touch with the author of this article, email anna@renews.co.nz