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Articles by Akiva Eldar featured in Ha'aretz

Source: Ha'aretz, 2001

by Akiva Eldar
Email: eldar@haaretz.co.il

"How to solve the Palestinian refugee problem" (Ha'aretz, Tuesday, May 29, 2001)
"Sir, if you please, tear down your house" (Ha'aretz, Thursday, May 31, 2001)

How to solve the Palestinian refugee problem

Source: Ha'aretz. Tuesday, May 29, 2001

by Akiva Eldar

Senior officials of the Palestinian Authority are aware of the damage that has been done to their cause by the confrontational statements by some leading figures in the PA in favor of the right of return of the refugees. In private conversations many in the PA nod their heads in mute understanding when friends from the Israeli left tell of traditional voters for the Meretz Party who no longer want to hear about Yasser Arafat or Yossi Beilin. The Israeli right has long understood the value of this development for them. Almost every day settlers can be heard on radio talk shows flaunting with unabashed delight the red rag of the right of return: What do people want from the settlers? Is it they who are the obstacle to peace? After all, Arafat was not content with the 97 percent of the territory of Judea and Samaria that Ehud Barak offered him. The process collapsed because the Arabs demanded the return of the refugees to Jaffa and Haifa. Beilin, the justice minister in the Barak government, headed the Israeli team that conducted negotiations on the refugees at the Taba conference. He told a meeting of the peace camp not long ago that the agreement was almost worked out and that top Palestinian negotiator Abu Ala rejected his proposal to publish the principles of the agreement that had been hammered out in the talks. Abu Ala's rationale: publication of the principles would scuttle the already damaged prospects of Ehud Barak winning the elections; his concern was that a victory by Ariel Sharon would leave Arafat without a partner for an agreement of any kind, and subject him to sharp criticism by the refugees. The result was that the negotiating teams went their separate ways without reporting to the nation on the state of negotiations over refugees, leaving the public with the impression that the Taba talks failed because the Palestinians refused to forgo the right of millions of refugees to return the homes they had in 1947 and 1948. In the Zionist perception, the implication of an influx of refugees on that scale would be the liquidation of the Jewish state.

In an article he published in the Washington Post on May 15, 2001, and in Ha'aretz on May 24, Nabil Sha'ath, the PA's minister of
planning, intimated that the picture harbored by the Israeli media and general public concerning the state of negotiations on the refugees does not reflect the "remarkable progress" that was made at Taba. Sha'ath, who headed the Palestinian team to the talks on refugees, reported that a "breakthrough" was achieved at Taba on this recalcitrant subject. On the one hand, he noted, "we made clear our continued commitment to UN resolutions that call for two distinct states in historic Palestine," while on the other hand, Israeli officials for the first time "acknowledged a degree of responsibility for the Palestinian refugee crisis."

These general formulations conceal a series of impressive understandings reached during in-depth negotiations on the refugees. Concurrent with the wording of a declaration that would absolve Israel of legal responsibility for the refugee problem (an expression of regret in place of guilt), a mechanism was worked out at Taba with the aim of defusing the highly charged issue of the "right of return." Principles of a deal The following are the principles of the settlement, as recorded by Israeli and Palestinian sources who took part in the negotiations. Most of the details were confirmed by international sources who closely monitored the negotiations.

The international body that will be established to deal with the subject will present each refugee with five options: rehabilitation in his current place of residence including citizenship of the state in which he lives; absorption in the new State of Palestine; settlement in Halutza, in the southern Negev in Israel; immigration to a country outside the region (the external affairs minister of Canada, who visited Israel a short time ago, reiterated his country's commitment to take in refugees as part of a comprehensive peace agreement); return to Israeli territory.

The five options will be shaped in a manner that will channel immigration as much as possible to options other than a return to Israel. This will include a series of incentives, an accelerated rehabilitation program and generous economic aid, which will be offered to Palestinians who forgo the option of immigration to Israel.

The immigration quotas will also be geared to induce refugees to opt for the alternatives to living in Israel. It was agreed that the
immigration quotas for Israel will be lower than those set for other destinations. (According to an estimate by foreign sources, it will be possible, in negotiations, to reach agreement on a quota of 40,000 refugee immigrants to Israel over a period of five years.) In any event, it was agreed that Israel has the sovereign right to decide who will enter her territory and who will be barred from entering.

Dealing with the personal status of each refugee will be conditional upon his relinquishing refugee status and accepting the same rights as those in whatever place he chooses to reside. This means that the refugee agrees the place he chooses will be his final place of residence. In addition, this will mean forgoing claims to property in Israel. The Israeli side attached great importance to this point, viewing it as confirmation of the end of Israel's commitment with respect to the refugee problem.

The new international body will replace the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which will be dismantled within five years. The new body will assume responsibility for dealing with the refugees at both the personal and the community level. This will include establishing infrastructure and making provision for education, housing, health and welfare, and professional training. Israel would like the UNRWA to shut down its operations, on the grounds that the organization's existence perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem. It was agreed that refugee certificates that UNRWA issues would be canceled. Refugee camps containing those who choose to be rehabilitated where they are will be annexed to adjacent cities. Thus the refugee camps will lose their extraterritorial status.

The international body will raise funds and give compensation for private real estate that was expropriated from the refugees. There is still an unresolved dispute concerning property of common ownership, collective compensation, and movable property, such as vehicles and the other items that the refugees left behind.

Israel demanded that a ceiling be set for the amount of compensation to be paid; this would then become part of the permanent agreement. The Palestinians demanded that compensation be set on a case-by-case basis, with no ceiling - that is, with a separate assessment of the worth of each refugee's case. Israel argued that the adoption of that system would perpetuate the problem, because the Palestinians would quickly find themselves in a confrontation with the administration, which would attempt to reduce the assessed value of their property. One idea that was discussed was for the amount to be calculated within a designated time, using a method that would take account of macro-economic considerations and individual case-by-case calculations.

The Palestinians tried to monopolize the solving of the refugee problem. They wanted the compensation and rehabilitation funds to be transferred to them, following which they would distribute the money to the refugees. In other words, the Palestinian state (not the Palestine Liberation Organization) would represent the entire Palestinian people, including those who reside in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Israel's concern was that such an arrangement would adversely affect the stability of the region, and proposed instead that the solution be effected within a comprehensive regional context and not be confined to the geographic boundaries of the territories. Israel wanted the international mechanism to deal with all the refugee communities and take into consideration the demographic and financial interests of the Kingdom of Jordan.

People who took part in the negotiations share the opinion that Arafat wanted to retain the idea of the right of return as his Doomsday weapon. They believe he would have set aside that weapon in return for a generous territorial deal in the territories and Jerusalem. Beilin and Sha'ath continue to meet and to conduct negotiations on the practical and symbolic resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, beginning from the point they reached in Taba. They know that as long as that explosive issue is not defused, the Israeli peace camp will stay hunkered down in its bunker.

Sir, if you please, tear down your house

Source: Ha'aretz. Thursday May 31, 2001

By Akiva Eldar

Politicians and radio announcers did not withstand the temptation to link the disaster that occurred a week ago, last Thursday night, at the Versailles wedding hall - entirely the work of Jewish hands - to the latest Palestinian effort to sow death among the residents of Jerusalem. One commentator even complained that the terrorists were inconsiderate of the capital's police officers, who have not slept a wink since that terrible night in Talpiot. The Arabs did not show mercy to the tired police reporters, either.

No one dared point out another connection between the Talpiot disaster and the political conflict: two days before the collapse of the building in the west of the city, the Jerusalem Municipality demolished two buildings in the eastern part of the city.

"The owners of the hall thumbed their noses," said Jerusalem municipal engineer Uri Sheetrit after the disaster. In other words, the municipality knew that all of the reception halls in the building were operating without a business license and permitted the owners to flout the law and endanger public welfare. The two structures that the municipality destroyed on Tuesday were also built illegally. There is no claim, however, that they endangered anyone's life.

However, when it comes to Arab citizens of the united city, Mayor Ehud Olmert's inspectors do not let the owners "thumb their noses." They do not trust them, as they do in the west of the city, to demolish by themselves the illegal structure that they built. Arabs receive a shipment of bulldozers right to their homes. In their case, an administrative order is sufficient.

In order to demolish the Versailles hall, a judicial order would be needed. If the court were to issue such an order, it would order the owners to raze the structure. The legal department of the municipality would have closed the case. After all, the court acceded to its demands. The department that oversees construction would also have filed the judge's decision. After all, it was not ordered to do anything. According to city statistics, there is a chance that the disaster would have been prevented had the court ordered the building demolished. In contrast, there is a great probability that if the reception hall had been located in united Sheikh Jarrah [in East Jerusalem], Olmert would not have permitted its owners to endanger the lives of celebrating Arabs. City council member Gilad Barnea estimates the number of demolition orders that have not been carried out at no less than 3,000. None of the city council members knows the exact number.

On July 25, 2000, city council member Arnon Yekutieli wrote to the municipality's legal adviser, Asa Eliav, asking for a legal opinion regarding the considerations (or criteria) according to which the local planning and building committee [in other words, the municipality - A.E.] could be asked to carry out a judicial demolition order. Yekutieli sought data on the cases in which such requests were granted in the last three years. He ended with the words, "when the accused does not carry out the order imposed on him, it is important that the committee take action to enforce the law and remove the offense."

Yekutieli died last month, without receiving a response. On March 6, fellow council member Ran Wolf, asked the municipality's legal department, the municipal engineer and the licensing and inspection department for the number of cases where a judicial demolition order instructing the defendant to carry out the order was issued and not performed. Wolf asked how orders prohibiting use of a building issued as a criminal verdict were enforced, and whether there were cases in which those who violated such orders and were tried for failure to obey them were sent to prison.

Three weeks later, on March 28, when he had still not received an answer, Wolf sent a reminder and asked the officials for a rapid response. On April 3, he wrote them to say he had not received a response addressing his questions.

This time Wolf sent copies of his letter to the director-general of the municipality, Ra'anan Dinur, and city comptroller, Shlomit Rubin. On May 2, Wolf wrote to the clerks: "What's going on? Why the disregard? Not only does it show a lack of seriousness, it is not polite either."

On May 9 a letter finally arrived from Israel Ben Ari, acting deputy director of the licensing and inspection department, together with an apology for the delay. Ben Ari reported that the cases were found and that "we are in the midst of examining the criteria that is used to decide when to order that the demolition be carried out by the local [planning and building] committee." He added that "the examination process, which takes a great deal of time, is not yet complete."

It must be hoped that the examination process will be completed when the government commission of inquiry asks [as Yehoram Gaon sang in the musical "Kasablan"], "who gets more respect?" The citizen whom Olmert's municipality allows to thumb his nose at the law, or the citizen that the municipality helps to obey the law. By the way, Yehoram Gaon is a member or the local planning and building committee.

Update of understandings

On Tuesday, this column contained initial details on agreement reached in talks between Israel and the Palestinians to solve the refugee problem. Since then, Ha'aretz has received from Palestinian sources additional details that help to round out the negotiations picture on this important issue.

The question of a quota on the number of Palestinian refugees that Israel would absorb in the framework of a comprehensive agreement to solve the refugee problem is considered one of the most difficult and sensitive issues. Conventional wisdom holds that Yasser Arafat is plotting to flood Israel with hundreds of thousands of residents of refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. According to this horror scenario, which has penetrated into the Israeli left as well, natural increase among the Palestinians would rub out the Zionist entity within a number of years.

A Palestinian source involved in the refugee negotiations relates that what concerns them is that not enough candidates will be found to fill the agreed-upon immigration quota. For that reason, says the Palestinian official, no importance should be placed on the numbers bandied about on the last day of the talks. [Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin spoke of 40,000 in five years, while his Palestinian counterpart responded with 500,000 - A.E.]

The criteria have not yet been agreed for Israel's acceptance or rejection of a refugee's request to settle within its borders. However, the Palestinians accepted the principle that Israel, as a sovereign state, has "the last word" regarding immigrants.

The Palestinians suggested that a refugee who does not submit a request within five years for one of the five proffered options loses his or her refugee status; the timetable for dissolving the UN Relief and Works Agency shall be determined by progress on the resettlement of refugees in states; Israel will play a central role in raising funds; a committee of experts will appraise the value of property belonging to refugees using a method that calculates in macroeconomic factors and individual considerations. The committee shall complete its work within six months, at the end of which the parties will agree on the overall upper limit of compensation. Every refugee will be able to select a fast track for receiving compensation or submit a detailed application involving long deliberations (similar to the model used for compensation in Bosnia).

According to the Palestinian version, they also support having an international mechanism managing the compensation issue ("so we won't be accused of corruption and nepotism."

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