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Switzerland hosted a meeting of the Refugee Working Group (RWG) of the Middle East Peace Process December 12-14 in Geneva. The meeting was the first in the multilateral peace process since the signing of the Oslo II agreement and the tragic assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin.

Over 40 international delegations attended the meeting including Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, and the American and Russian co-sponsors. The meeting concluded today with positive new initiatives to assist Palestinian refugees. This will help develop conditions necessary for a lasting peace in the Middle East.

The Refugee Working Group, chaired by Canada, is part of the multilateral track of the Middle East Peace Process. This often "quiet" track addresses regional issues whose solutions require coordinated action and the international community's support. The Refugee Working Group complements and supports the efforts of the bilateral peace process to resolve the Palestinian refugee question, as well as seeking to address the immediate humanitarian needs of the refugees. The group's work also includes easing and extending access to family reunification.

The Geneva meeting was marked by a real spirit of cooperation -- the meeting saw Israelis speaking Arabic to their Palestinian partners who sometimes answered in Hebrew. There were repeated expressions of determination by the participants to reinforce the peace process.

The impressive list of projects announced at the plenary aimed at providing real, tangible benefits of peace for Palestinian refugees. At the same time the Refugee Working Group reconfirmed its commitment to refugees in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It stressed the importance of the gavel maintaining a dialogue with the governments of Syria and Lebanon as well as with the Palestinian communities in those countries.

Pledges were made under the "themes" of the RWG: Data Bases (with Norway as lead or "shepherd"), Family Reunification (France is the shepherd), Human Resources Development and Job Creation and Vocational Training (the U.S.A.), Public Health (Italy), Child Welfare (Sweden) and Social and Economic Infrastructure (the European Union). Switzerland reported on its ideas for RWG projects under its new mandate for the "human dimension" which extends across all five multilateral working groups.

Refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon will benefit from: substantial new contributions to UNRWA's Peace Implementation Program, new school and hospital construction and upgrading, small business loans, improvements to infrastructure in refugee camps and emergency housing facilities. There were some important announcements of support for UNRWA projects.

The group authorized activities in advance of the next meeting including a meeting in Norway on databases, a health conference in Italy, and a meeting to advance the question of family reunification.

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