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Wednesday, July 21, 1999

The refugees of peace

By Amira Hass

One short statement by Ehud Barak was enough to shatter the saccharine facade of a renewed atmosphere of peace, which participants in the Israeli-American summit worked hard to present to the world media.The solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees, Barak told American interviewers, will be found within the boundaries of the countries where they currently reside. Pure and simple. Some will undoubtedly praise the new prime minister for not maintaining a pretense of recognizing the agreements (which put off formal discussion of the refugee problem, Jerusalem, borders, distribution of water and Jewish settlements until the negotiations on what is dubbed the "permanent" settlement). Instead, he is basically recommending that Chairman Yasser Arafat not foster illusions and not feed his people any such illusions. Israel - both under the Labor-Meretz government and under the Likud - did its best to hastily create new facts on the ground in an effort to dictate the nature of the negotiations and of the agreements to be reached on the questions of Jerusalem, borders, settlements and even water. One could argue that there is therefore no reason for the frank Barak not to express his position today on the Palestinian refugee problem.

On the eve of renewed negotiations with Syria and Lebanon, Barak wishes to decide for them (and for Jordan as well) that the two-and-a-half million refugees living in their countries will "find a solution to their problem" there. For half a century Lebanon has made immense efforts to perpetuate the difference between refugees and civilians by means of severe restrictions on movement and work, and has stressed that the Palestinians were unwelcome. Palestinians in Syria have only social-economic rights, with no political-citizenship rights - yet the Syrian people still closely monitor every step made by their leadership for any sign of a wavering in its support for the Palestinians' right of return and rehabilitation in their homeland. Dictator though he is, President Hafez al-Assad cannot afford to do the exact opposite of what is expected of him. Since the signing of the Oslo Accord, Jordan has seen a rise in support for the Moslem Brotherhood among Palestinians in its territory, mainly because they feel that the agreement abandoned them to their fate and their transient status. If Jordan is forced to keep these Palestinians in its territory under the "final status agreement" because of Israel's military supremacy, it will always fear their rebellious potential. Indeed, Barak's brief comment regarding the refugees has already drawn criticism in the Arab world and increased suspicion toward him.

But even if the neighboring countries were not upset at Barak's attempt to dictate their internal agendas, his statement/plan demonstrates typical Israeli indifference to the Palestinian people, a people of refugees, and to the heart of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Jewish people in Israel. The peace process was intended, in the eyes of both the international community and the Palestinians, not only to force Arafat to lock up Hamas activists and disperse demonstrations against the settlements, but also to offer his people a fundamental change in the life of refugeeism, dispersal and separation they have been condemned to since 1948. Barak, who has already warned Arafat that the entire process will be stopped if terrorism is renewed, is proving that he is willing to accept only the first part of this equation.

On the one hand, Barak declares that there will be a Palestinian state, but on the other hand, he dictates who will live in it. By making this his opening position, Barak is weakening Arafat on all three of his fronts: vis-a-vis the Arab states, vis-a-vis the refugee communities in these states, and vis-a-vis his people in the territories. Barak has also announced his intention of leaving settlement blocs in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These will be populated not only by Jews currently living in crowded conditions in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood or in Ofakim, but also by new immigrants (Jewish or not) who arrived in the country only a few days earlier. Barak may be able to explain to his own people why new immigrants are entitled to what is denied from people who still hold keys to their homes in Katamon and Sheikh Munis (Ramat Aviv). Arafat, or any other Palestinian leader, will have difficulties explaining this to his people.

During his trip to the United States, Barak declared that he wished to be the prime minister of all Jews, throughout the world. According to Israeli law, all those Jews are entitled to enjoy his leadership not only in the diaspora, but as citizens of the state of Israel. In order to become citizens they don't have to have lived here all their lives, know Hebrew or even know the city street names. But Palestinians who were born here, who still remember that the number 11 bus travels from central Jerusalem to Dir Yassin (Givat Shaul) and that two cacti and a berry tree grow to the west of the bus stop - they are not entitled to be united with their families here, in their homeland.

Barak can live very well indeed with this blunt and arrogant inequality. But if this is the kind of peace we are offering the Palestinian people, who needs war.


(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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