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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.