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Trite of return or the refugee problem
By Akiva Eldar

It's well-known that the right of return is the
number one obstacle to solving the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Three days of
deliberations at an Ottawa conference that
examined research studies on the refugees, showed
that the issue of the right of return is also the
number one obstacle to the solution to the refugee


problem.

Every time one of the
participants got up to present
a study or idea for
rehabilitating the refugees,
there was someone who diverted
the discussion to the right of
return. (Under the conditions
laid down at Ottawa by the
organizers, Canada's

International Development Research Center, the
names of the participants cannot be publicly
revealed).

There was always someone from Syria, Lebanon,
Israel or one of the Western countries, who was
ready to fight for the right of return down to
the tears of the last of the children of the
camps.

Over and over, demands were made of the
Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to stand
firm on rules of international law and
universal morality, which, according to the
latest spokesman, mean the right of every
Palestinian to go back to their abandoned
home.

But it was the representatives from the
territories who tended to relinquish the old
slogans in favor of realistic positions. One
presented a comprehensive public opinion poll
pointing to a large gap between the insistence
on the right of return to the old Palestine,
meaning Israel, and readiness to fulfill the
right in the new Palestine, meaning the West
Bank, Gaza, and any other territory that Israel
gives the Palestinians in a land exchange.

According to the poll, due for publication in
detail in the near future, the refugees prefer
to be part of the Muslim majority in Ramallah
rather than part of the Muslim minority in
Haifa.

A plan presented by a senior official from the
Palestinian Ministry of Planning and
International Cooperation also pointed to a
readiness to separate the hifalutin rhetoric
about the right of return from the reality on
the ground. For planning purposes, the ministry
plan assumes that by the year 2010, some
450,000 refugees will settle in the West Bank
and 260,000 will settle in Gaza.

According to data presented by the Fafo
Institute, a Norwegian research center that
tracks the condition of Palestinian refugees,
the absorption of 710,000 refugees in Palestine
will enable the eradication of the refugee
camps in Lebanon and Syria without a single
refugee needing to fulfill a right of return
inside Israel.

According to a document presented to the
conference, the Palestinian planning ministry
is examining the influence of the those
potential immigrants on the physical, social
and economic development of the new state of
Palestine.

Another representative from the ministry
reported on how the planning for absorbing
Palestinian immigrants is meant to develop
national strategies and plans and to make the
absorption process as positive as possible.

As a first stage, a series of studies were
conducted to identify possible ways of settling
the immigrants. Other studies looked at a
combination of evacuated Jewish settlements,
land transferred to Palestine in territorial
exchanges, and the Palestinian urban
structure.

The planning ministry reported there are also
studies underway into the urban rehabilitation
of existing refugee camps in the territories,
upgrading them and integrating them in the
local urban and village structures of the West
Bank and Gaza. Among other plans, the
Palestinian Authority is conducting an in-depth
analysis of conditions in the existing camps,
classifying them according to the type of land,
quality of construction, variety of social an
economic levels and so on.

Melted iceberg

Ehud Barak used last week's conference at Tel
Aviv University on the failure of Camp David
not only to shed any responsibility for the
failure at Camp David, but also at
Shepherdstown, where Israel was the closest
ever to a peace deal with Syria.

The former prime minister argued that it was the
leak of a draft peace agreement drafted by the
Americans that drove the summit onto the
iceberg. He said an American official leaked
the document to sabotage the negotiations and
to force Israel onto the Palestinian track.

Apparently Barak is suffering from delayed
ignition. For more than three years, since that
decisive meeting in the U.S., Barak has been
arguing that the talks with Syria failed over
the Syrian demand that Israel withdraw to the
water line in the northeast corner of Lake
Kinneret, with Barak arguing that would have
cost Israel control over its most vital water
resource.

But a Syrian official, attending the Ottawa
conference as a guest, last week confirmed to
me the version that is generally accepted by
the American peace team and most of the Israeli
delegation to Shepherdstown.

According to that version, confirmed by the
Syrian - who said it was discussed with the
late Hafez Assad - the Syrian president gave up
access to the water line and the use of the
water flowing into the lake. The Syrian
official was convinced that Assad wanted to
leave his son a peace agreement with Israel,
which would have helped Bashar Assad's
relations with the U.S. and thereby helped the
Syrian economy. So, apparently neither the leak
nor the presumed Syrian demand to dip their
feet in the waters of the lake are responsible
for the failure, but rather Barak's own cold
feet.

Change what order?

On Tuesday this column reported that as a
lesson from the findings of the killing of
Shaden Abu Hijleh, Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon
decided "to prohibit opening fire just to
enforce a curfew."

He explained that since the soldier who fired at
the Palestinian woman was acting according to
the rules of engagement at the time, in October
2002, and "our duty as officers is to give the
soldier our full backing."

But during that same period, three days after
the death of the 62-year-old peace activist,
the IDF Spokesman's Office sent a detailed
letter to the B'Tselem offices in response to a
report the organization published at the time
about the rules for enforcing curfews.

The fifth article in the letter states "your
assertion that it is apparently permissible for
soldiers to shoot a person only because they
are outside their home during a curfew, is
entirely baseless." The letter goes on to say
that the rules of engagement do not include an
instruction that allows opening fire only
because of curfew violations, "except in
life-threatening cases or at people suspected
of a dangerous crime during the routine
procedure for arresting a suspect."

So, if the rules of engagement never allowed
shooting someone whose only crime was to leave
their home during a curfew, why did the chief
of staff need to change the rules? And why is
Ya'alon backing a soldier or the soldiers'
commanders, who violated the original standing
order.

Or maybe it's time to take much more seriously
the findings that appear in the B'Tselem report
about how curfews are enforced with gunfire.
According to the report, since the start of the
intifada until October 2002, at least 15
Palestinians - including a 14-month-old baby,
eight children and three teenagers - were
killed because they were outside their homes
during a curfew.

Attorney Yael Stein of B'Tselem expressed sorrow
that it took the deaths of innocent
Palestinians and massive public pressure -
including international pressure - to effect a
change in the orders, which a priori were never
were supposed to be given and are illegal.

She said the decision not to take steps against
any of the people involved in the death of Abu
Hijleh is an part and parcel of army policy
since the outbreak of the intifada.

"Even if the soldiers acted according to the
existing orders," she said, "it is clear that
does not acquit the person who gave the orders,
and they should pay the price." ...

Conspiracy?

Three weeks ago, Major General Amos Gilad was
quoted here as telling Channel One that a
document taken as booty in Operation Defensive
Shield, and available now at the Intelligence
Heritage Web site, proves the Oslo process was
a Palestinian plot to flood Israel with
refugees and thus eliminate the State of
Israel.

But an examination of the Web site revealed that
Military Intelligence decided the PLO
leadership was more moderate than the positions
authored by Dr. Assad Abdul Rahman, then holder
of the refugee portfolio in the PLO. Military
Intelligence experts said the PLO leadership
understood his positions were unrealistic and
that Arafat took the line that "if Israel
accepts in principle the right of return, it's
implementation will be partial and limited."

Gilad claimed he was referring to another
document in the TV interview - minutes from a
meeting of the PLO central council, which took
place three weeks after the start of the
intifada. But that document showed practical
attempts to deal with Israel's positions at
Camp David, and readiness to give up 3 percent
of the West Bank in a territorial exchange, as
well as readiness to recognize Israeli
sovereignty in the Jewish Quarter. As for the
right of return, it says the refugees have that
right, but "there's nothing against providing
compensation," instead.

Ya'alon: What order?
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