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Brainstorm refugee issue { July 6 2003 }

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Palestinians, Israelis Brainstorm on Refugee Issue
Sun July 6, 2003 09:11 AM ET
By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Yezid Sayigh had a provocative idea about how to unblock the Middle East peace process, an idea which could well upset many people.

But that didn't stop the Cambridge University academic from presenting it to a rare conference of Israelis and Palestinians, who met behind closed doors in Ottawa late last month to discuss the Palestinian refugee question.

One of the few things most in the region can agree on is that peace will remain elusive until a solution is found for those who fled or were forced to flee when Israel was created in 1948. With their descendants, they total 4 million.

The refugee question is complex, emotional and capable of generating enormous mistrust on both sides.

So for the last three years Canada -- which chairs an international working group on Palestinian refugees -- has been trying to educate the two sides about each other's core positions and to look at ways of bridging the gap.

Ottawa -- which stresses it is not trying to hold formal talks -- also wants to listen to ideas, however radical they may be.

Sayigh proposes that for every Israeli settler left inside a future Palestinian state, one refugee should be allowed to settle in Israel.

"I think Israel should be presented with an option in which there are costs and trade-offs for every benefit it seeks... If they don't want too many refugees, then don't keep too many settlers. Remove them. They can't have it both ways," he said.

The issue of the refugees -- especially sharply differing interpretations of a Palestinian insistence on the exiles' "right of return" to Israel -- helped derail peace talks at Camp David in 2000 and at the Egyptian resort of Taba in 2001.


Canada says if it can throw more light on the problem now, there will be less chance of misunderstandings derailing future peace talks.

"We were frankly stunned by the lack of preparation on both sides that was evident in the wake of Camp David and Taba," a foreign ministry official said during the three-day conference.

Palestinians say that while few refugees might exercise the right of return, being granted permission to go back would help atone for what they see as their suffering. Israel says its existence as a Jewish state would be imperiled if it agreed.

The need for a solution is pressing because President Bush's Middle East "road map" foresees the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. This deadline hung over the Ottawa conference, where Palestinian officials and academics met experts from Israel and other countries.

Hasan abu-Libdeh, president of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, said the meeting -- the first Canada has hosted on Palestinian refugees since 1997 -- was invaluable.

"There is no restriction as to what people can put on the table so at least issues can be placed in a very direct, serious, frank and candid manner. People here are given the chance to think the unthinkable," he said.

Ottawa wants to move beyond the emotional concept of right of return and focus attention on practical matters such as what would happen to health, legal and education systems if a large number of refugees suddenly arrived.

Delegates said the refugees needed to be given concrete choices such as whether to return or stay and what kind of compensation would be on offer.


"The more genuine options are provided to people, the more justice will be done to their prolonged exile," said Lex Takkenberg of the United Nations agency dealing with the refugees.

"I do clearly see an evolution of a debate as far as the refugee issue is concerned. People are not just recycling old positions. There is progress in understanding being reached."

Delegates from both sides agreed there was little chance of Israel being flooded with Palestinian refugees, saying most would choose to stay put or live in the new Palestinian state.

A deal on refugees would have to be part of an overall peace settlement and no one underestimates the difficulty, given the violence of the past three years.

"What little of the file that was pushed up the hill has rolled back down, so that if anything we're in a worse situation today than we were two and a half years ago," said Dr Joel Peters of Ben-Gurion University.

The Ottawa meeting, however, made it easier for people on both sides to maintain some kind of personal contacts. "We've not given up the hope of being to meet in each other's homes again," Peters said.

The Canadian official remained confident that Ottawa's efforts would bear fruit.

In the wake of Camp David and Taba, he said, U.S. mediators revealed that the only time the two sides took the same approach on the refugee question had been on compensation -- a topic covered by a Canadian workshop in 1998 which top officials from both sides had attended.

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