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27 April 2000
CONF/PAL/4
27 April 2000

PLENARY III

Palestine refugees and the current Middle East peace process

MR. OSAMA EL-BAZ, Political Advisor to the President of Egypt, stated that there are several misconceptions regarding the refugee problem; Israel must begin by accepting its responsibility towards the refugees: the Palestine refugee problem should be approached not only in a pragmatic manner but legal and moral factors should also be taken into account; the issue of Palestine and Jewish refugees should not be confused. Resolution 242 clearly deals with Palestine refugees. It is important to establish responsibility for the Palestine refugees and this could be done at the two separate sets of the negotiations, bilateral and multilateral. That every Palestine refugee has the right of return should be a given. This principle can be implemented if a certain room for modalities is accepted by the parties. There is room for flexibility on the modalities of return with regard to the number of returnees, time frames and the like. Even those who wish to return should be entitled to compensation for pain and suffering.

He noted that the return of Palestine refugees will not mean the destruction of Israel. The returnees will join the already sizeable Israeli Arab population. One should also distinguish between maintaining the Jewish character of Israel, which has some merit as an argument, and maintaining ethnic purity by keeping the Arab population to the minimum. Both peoples should coexist in view of the declared desire of Israel to establish openness and normalization with Arab neighbors. This would require opening the borders to the movement of people. In sum, Israel should return the Arab lands occupied in 1967 and seek a fair and just solution to the Palestine refugees.

MR. HENRY SIEGMAN, Director, United States/Middle East Project Counsel on Foreign Relations, New York, noted that a fundamental precondition exists without which the Middle East problem could not be solved. This problem is the absence of the critical political will that will not be mastered by May or by September unless Palestinians and Israelis look at each other and recognize their national aspirations. This is the most difficult change without which none of the issues, such as the refugee problem, would be solved. Because of the big imbalance that exists between the two sides on the military and economic aspects, the burden to make peace is on the Israeli side.

Recounting his personal experience, he strongly rejected anti-Semitism which he said is often expressed in the Arab media, mosques and religious institutions. His personal experience also helps him to understand the Palestine refugee situation. Israel should redress the injustices committed against Palestine refugees. He said that Israel must recognize publicly its moral responsibility for the refugees. A solution requires the assistance of the international community and of the countries in the region.

MRS. KARIN ROXMAN, Political Adviser to the Special Envoy of the European Union to the Middle East Peace Process, Brussels, stated that the EU position is very clear: there can be any just, lasting and comprehensive settlement in the Middle east without a solution to the Palestine refugee issue which is at the core of the conflict. The refugee issue is being discussed in the context of the Framework agreement, which has May as the target date for completion. Both sides will need to make difficult concessions.

The EU has a high stake in peace in the region. It is preparing itself and is working on a paper identifying its interests in the region, drawing its vision for the future and is going to propose a set of guidelines on what the possible EU contribution to peace in the region might be. The EU has taken a political and economic responsibility for Palestinian refugees. It has expressed its willingness to contribute to the permanent status negotiations and has established an informal task force on refugees. The EU is the main donor to UNRWA. The Union supports the Gavel holder’s efforts to maintain activity in the RWG. It also supports people to people activities in the West Bank and Gaza and seminars and workshops involving professionals to increase awareness of the Palestine refugee issue, contribute new ideas and help build bridges between countries and peoples.

The EU has an important role to play in the peace process. It believes that the settlement of the issue of Palestine refugees would have to take account of the new realities of the situation of refugees since 1948 and particular the political, demographic and economic changes affecting the region.

MR. ANDREW ROBINSON, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa, said that he was acting on behalf of Canada as the “Gavel” of the Refugee Working Group. The Refugee Working Group (RWG) is anchored firmly in the context of Madrid peace process based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

At the 1992 conference in Moscow the multilateral process was launched and 5 multilateral working groups were established. They were designed as a complement to the bilateral process but not as a substitute for it. The mandate of the Working Group of refugees which operates by consensus covers issues such as the improvement of the living conditions of the refugees without prejudice to their future status, family reunification, and in support for a viable and comprehensive solution to the refugee issue. Despite the ups and downs of the peace process the RWG has been able to continue meeting. It attaches importance to dialogue with Palestine refugees and keeping the attention of the international community focused on their situation and needs. The RWG has conducted missions to camps in Jordan, West Bank and Gaza and Lebanon. Canada conducted its own mission to Syria. The RWG has continuously expressed support for UNRWA. Canada has increased its contribution to UNRWA by 50 per cent, bringing its total contribution since Oslo to $100 million. It is additionally contributing $500,000 for hospital care for refugees in Lebanon.

Mr. Robinson said that the parties to the bilateral process will sooner or later turn to the international community for assistance in areas such as financial support, regional engagement and institutional evolution. Neither Canada nor the RWG has a specific plan for a negotiated solution. Canada recognizes the primacy of the bilateral process. Any solution should respect the right and dignity of Palestine refugees and should be consistent with international law. There is considerable room for involvement of NGOs, academics in the refugee issue. Mr. Robinson stated that he looks forward to the participation of Syria and Lebanon in the RWG.

MR. ALEXANDRE ZASSYPKIN, Head of the Middle East Peace Process Desk, Middle East and North Africa Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Moscow, stated that the problem of Palestine refugees has its political and humanitarian dimensions which are inseparable.

The Palestine refugee issue is the corner stone of the Middle East peace process. Without an acceptable solution for this problem it will be impossible to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The process itself has had its ups and downs, which is true of all negotiating tracks, including the multilateral one. However, in the region they understand that there is no reasonable alternative to the conclusion of the peace agreements. As a cosponsor of the Middle East peace process, Russia, in collaboration with the American cosponsor, together with direct negotiating parties, European Union, and other parties concerned help to facilitate the creation of a favorable atmosphere around the peace process, the rapprochement of the parties’ positions and the search for solutions to the disputed issues. Russia is guided by international law, first of all Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. The parties are dealing with completion of the transitional period on the Palestinian territories and holding negotiations on their final status. The realization of the national rights of the Palestinian people, including their right for self-determination and at the creation of their own state, could help to create a breakthrough towards the Palestinian-Israeli settlement, and would facilitate the solution of all final status issues. A number of features should be taken into account in the course of finding the solution of the refugees` problem: specifics of their present situation, state of the diaspora, expansion of opportunities for absorption through the creation of additional jobs, improvements of the social and economic infrastructure, implementation of development projects, in other words, providing multioptional solutions, most of all acceptable to the Palestinians and other parties involved.

Mr. Zassypkin stated that the multilateral Steering Group meeting held in Moscow in February this year became an important milestone on the way to revival of the multilateral track. The solution of the Palestinian problem, including issues of statehood and refugees, is part of the foundation of the post-crisis Middle East. He drew attention to the idea, introduced by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Mr. Ivanov to establish an Organization on security and cooperation in the Middle East that would become an heir of the peace process.

MR. AS'AD ABDUL RAHMAN, Member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Head of the Refugees Department, Ramallah, stated that Palestine refugees comprise 70 per cent of Palestinians. Poverty, harsh conditions and alienation lead to political dynamite. 80 per cent of the refugees still live in the proximity of their homeland, which shows their continuing attachment to their land. A lack of a political settlement with regard to Palestine refugees will destabilize the whole region. Israelis aware of these facts, but the ruling elite takes it lightly and exaggerates the refugee issue with the threat that it will destroy the State of Israel.

There is a separate negotiating mechanism to address the 1967 IDP issue, which is the Quadripartite Working Group. A number of meetings were held showed some progress on the issue. At the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on refugees during the first year of the Barak Government nothing was achieved. Israeli negotiators seemed uninterested in serious negotiations and did not even have the authority to do so. The situation began to change after the summit between Mr. Barak and Mr. Clinton. Thanks to US efforts, negotiations began in earnest. There has been an exchange of position papers. Although a wide gap between the sides still remains, this renewed activity at the talks gives some glimmer of home.

CONCLUDING REMARKS OF THE ORGANIZERS

1. The International Conference on Palestine Refugees, held on 26 and 27 April, at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, was convened by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States to discuss the current situation of Palestine refugees, examine the role of the United Nations in finding a just solution to the refugee issue, analyse the question of Palestine refugees in the context of the current Middle East peace process, and promote concerted political and other action in support of a lasting solution of the Palestine refugee problem in accordance with international legitimacy, as a prerequisite for a comprehensive, just and lasting peace and stability in the Middle East.

2. The Organizers recalled that the question of Palestine refugees - today’s longest-running humanitarian problem - remained unresolved. They noted that, on the threshold of the new millennium, more than 3.6 million Palestine refugees, scattered around the Middle East and beyond, continued to live in camps, many away from their homeland, denied their right of return and self-determination, with bleak economic prospects, their freedom of movement restricted, families separated, their hopes and aspirations for the future dependent on the outside world. The Organizers stressed that the social and economic conditions of the refugees remained difficult and required urgent intervention on the part of the international community.

3. The Conference was held against the background of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on permanent status issues. The Organizers welcomed progress made in the recent months by the two sides and called upon the parties to move the peace process forward towards the conclusion of the framework and final settlement agreements. They noted that the plight of Palestine refugees was among the permanent status issues being negotiated by the parties. It was emphasized, in this context, that a just solution to the question of Palestine and a lasting peace in the Middle East could not be achieved without a just and fair solution to the question of Palestine refugees.

4. The Organizers recalled the significance of the multilateral process, launched in 1991 by the Madrid Peace Conference. The multilateral track of negotiations remained an essential part of the peace process. The Refugee Working Group, chaired by Canada since 1992, continues to play a useful supporting role.

5. The deliberations of the Conference demonstrated the strong support of the international community for efforts aimed at finding a solution to the question of Palestine refugees and displaced persons based on key United Nations resolutions, notably General Assembly resolutions 212 (III) of 19 November 1948; 194 (III) of 11 December 1948; 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949; and Security Council resolutions 237 (1967) and 242 (1967). In this connection, the Organizers emphasized the permanent responsibility of the United Nations towards all aspects of the question of Palestine, including the problem of Palestine refugees until it is resolved in conformity with relevant United Nations resolutions and in accordance with international legitimacy.

6. The Organizers reaffirmed that the right of return of Palestine refugees to their homes, as stipulated by General Assembly in its resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948, remained a conditio sine qua non for the exercise by the Palestinian people of its inalienable rights to self-determination, national independence and sovereignty. They also stated that the provisions of General Assembly resolution 194 (III) and subsequent relevant United Nations resolutions remained valid and must be taken into full consideration in any final settlement of the question of Palestine. The Organizers were of the view that the United Nations should continue to protect the natural and inalienable right of Palestinians to return to their homes and act as its guarantor, pending a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the question of Palestine.

7. The Organizers reaffirmed the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to return to their land and property, abandoned as a result of the 1948 and 1967 hostilities. They considered the issue of refugee compensation to be an integral element of, but not a substitute for, their right of return. The Organizers also took note of the views expressed by the participants with respect to the importance of addressing the problem of compensation for the losses sustained by the refugees since 1948 in an adequate and just manner. In this regard, reference was made to the various compensation schemes that have been put forward over the years. The possibility of engaging international organizations, including the United Nations, on the issue of compensation has also been raised.

8. The Organizers expressed their gratitude for the invaluable assistance provided over decades by the United Nations system to Palestine refugees. They noted, in particular, the critical role played for over 50 years by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in assisting the refugees through the provision of humanitarian relief and social services. They called upon all Governments, including non-contributing Governments, to contribute to UNRWA’s budget regularly in order to meet the anticipated needs of the Agency and intensify support for its activities. The Organizers were of the view that, pending a final settlement, any reduction in the level of financing of UNRWA would inevitably lead to further exacerbation of the living conditions of the refugees. The international community should continue to support the vital activities of UNRWA until the question of Palestine refugees is resolved in accordance with relevant United Nations resolutions and international legitimacy.

9. The Organizers were also grateful to countries, which, for decades, have hosted Palestine refugees and displaced persons - the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Arab Republic of Egypt and other countries. For decades, they have been providing the much-needed humanitarian assistance and services to millions of refugees and have closely cooperated with UNRWA. It was noted that the provision of assistance by host countries to Palestine refugees for such a protracted period has put additional pressure on their economies. A view was expressed that the idea of absorption of Palestine refugees and displaced persons by host countries was not acceptable from the political, legal or socio-economic standpoints. It was also stressed that efforts at finding a solution to the problem of Palestine refugees should not ignore its political dimension.

10. The Organizers noted with appreciation the role played by the co-sponsors of the peace process, the European Union and the international donor community in creating conditions on the ground conducive to the success of the peace process. The political support and vast economic assistance provided by Members of the European Union and the international donor community to the Palestinian people are key to rehabilitating the Palestinian economy. This is a welcome and tangible contribution to facilitating the transition of Palestinian society to economic independence and statehood.

11. The Organizers welcomed the participation in the Conference of H.E. Mr. Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and President of the Palestinian Authority. They expressed deep appreciation for his untiring efforts and wise leadership in the quest for a peaceful solution of the question of Palestine, and a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East in accordance with international legitimacy.

12. The Organizers expressed gratitude to Mr. Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations for his support for the rights of the Palestinian people and for his continuing personal efforts in the search for peace and stability in the Middle East. They stressed the need for further strengthening of cooperation among the United Nations, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States towards the goal of achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the question of Palestine.

13. The Organizers expressed appreciation and gratitude to His Excellency Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO, for extending assistance in the preparations for the Conference, as well as for making available the conference facilities for this occasion.

UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, 27 April 2000
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