The recently published EU paper prepared by the EU Special Representative to the Middle East Peace Process, Ambassador Moratinos, does not have official status and is therefore entitled a 'non-paper.' Its importance, however, derives from the fact that it is the only systematic account by a third party present at the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Taba, Egypt, covering all permanent status issues including territory, Jerusalem, refugees and security. The paper is objective in the sense that it is neither guided by narrow propagandistic interests of the parties involved nor by journalistic interpretations, which have so far dominated the public debate about what exactly happened at Taba, just prior to the suspension of all political negotiations by the newly elected Sharon government. The EU 'non-paper' has been acknowledged by both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators as being a relatively fair description of the outcome of the negotiations. It will serve as the basis of any serious Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations to be launched in the future, irrespective of current Israeli efforts to downplay its significance.
The Palestinian refugee question, the core-issue of the over fifty-year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was on the agenda of the Taba negotiations. Since then Israeli politicians and media, assisted by some Palestinian officials, have launched a campaign of misinformation about the status of Palestinian refugee rights and claims, thereby misleading the Israeli, Palestinian, and international public about the actual requirements for a durable peace in the region. Therefore, publication of the EU 'non-paper' came as a timely initiative, of value for all those seriously interested in tackling the core issues of the conflict.
The Palestinian Refugee Question in the Taba Talks: Analysis of the EU Description:
The EU description of the permanent status talks in Taba confirms the basic approaches adopted by Israel and the PLO as set forth in previously published proposals for a solution to the refugee issue. The starting point for Israel's solution to the refugee issue is the demographic character of Israel as a "Jewish state." In other words, the refugee issue must be resolved in a manner that preserves a solid Jewish demographic majority inside Israel, and Jewish title to confiscated refugee properties. By comparison, the starting point for the PLO in crafting a durable solution to the refugee issue is international law and the principle of refugee choice, the basis for crafting durable solutions in all other refugee cases. (For more on the principle of refugee choice, see BADIL Occasional Bulletin, no. 4)
While both Israel and the PLO suggested "that a just settlement of the refugee problem ... must lead to the implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194," Israel's position at Taba - as described in the EU 'non-paper' and in Israel's non-paper presented during the final status negotiations in January 2001 - is not consistent with intent and meaning of UN Resolution 194.
The EU 'non-paper' provides several additional details not included in the previously published working papers presented by Israel and the PLO in Taba. These include:
1) Israeli officials suggested a "15 year absorption program" to facilitate limited return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. According to the EU non-paper, 'absorption' numbers suggested by Israel ranged from 25,000 over three years to 40,000 over five years. The numbers represent less than one percent of the total Palestinian refugee population. Moreover, the quota system violates the right of the remaining 99 percent of the refugee population to exercise their individual right of return.
2) Israeli officials rejected the right of Palestinian refugees to be restituted of their properties, an individual right applied to other refugee cases. However, the EU 'non-paper' appears to suggest that Israeli officials accepted to discuss Palestinian property claims in West Jerusalem: "The Palestinian side understood that the Israeli side accepted to discuss Palestinian property claims in West Jerusalem." (See EU 'non paper': 2. Jerusalem/2.1 Sovereignty.)
The full text and analysis of two Israeli and Palestinian non-papers presented at Taba can be found in BADIL Occasional Bulletin, no. 10 and annex.
Complete text of the EU 'non-paper', section 3 (Refugees)
- "Non-papers were exchanged, which were regarded as a good basis for the talks. Both sides stated that the issue of the Palestinian refugees is central to the Israeli-Palestinian relations and that a comprehensive and just solution is essential to creating a lasting and morally scrupulous peace. Both sides agreed to adopt the principles and references which could facilitate the adoption of an agreement.
- Both sides suggested, as a basis, that the parties should agree that a just settlement of the refugee problem in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 242 must lead to the implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
The Israeli side put forward a suggested joint narrative for the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian side discussed the proposed narrative and there was much progress, although no agreement was reached in an attempt to develop a historical narrative in the general text.
3.2 Return, repatriation, relocation and rehabilitation:
- Both sides engaged in a discussion of the practicalities of resolving the refugee issue. The Palestinian side reiterated that the Palestinian refugees should have the right of return to their homes in accordance with the interpretation of UNGAR 194.
- The Israeli side expressed its understanding that the wish to return as per wording of UNGAR 194 shall be implemented with the framework of one of the following programs:
a) Return and Repatriation
1. to Israel
2. to Israel swapped territory
3. to the Palestinian state
b) Rehabilitation and Relocation
1. Rehabilitation in host country
2. Relocation to third country
Preference in all these programs shall be accorded to the Palestinian refugee problem in Lebanon.
- The Palestinian side stressed that the above shall be subject to the individual free choice of the refugees, and shall not prejudice their right to return to their homes in accordance with its interpretation of UNGAR 194.
- The Israeli side, informally, suggested a three-track 15 year absorption program, which was discussed but not agreed upon. The first track referred to the absorption to Israel. No numbers were agreed upon, but with an non-paper referring to 25,000 in the first three years of this program (40,000 in the first five years of this program did not appear in the non-paper but was raised verbally). The second track referred to the absorption of Palestinian refugees into the Israeli territory, that shall be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty, and the third track referring to the absorption of refugees in the context of a family reunification scheme.
- The Palestinian side did not present a number, but stated that negotiations could not start without an Israeli opening position. It maintained that Israel's acceptance of the return of refugees should not prejudice existing programs within Israel such as family reunification.
- Both sides agreed to the establishment of an International Commission and an International Fund as a mechanism for dealing with compensation in all its aspects. Both sides agreed that "small sum" compensation shall be paid to the refugees in the "fast track" procedure, claims of compensation for property losses below a certain amount shall be subject to "fast track" procedures.
- There was also progress on Israeli compensation for material losses, land and assets expropriated, including agreement on a payment from an Israeli lump sum or proper amount to be agreed upon that would feed into the International Fund. According to the Israeli side the calculation of this payment would be based on a macro-economic survey to evaluate the assets in order to reach a fair value. The Palestinian side, however, said that this sum would be calculated on the records of the UNCCP, the Custodian for Absentee Property and other relevant data with a multiplier to reach a fair value.
Both sides agreed that UNRWA should be phased out in accordance with an agreed timetable of five years, as a targeted period. The Palestinian side added a possible adjustment of that period to make sure that this will be subject to the implementation of the other aspects of the agreement dealing with refugees, and with termination of Palestinian refugee status in the various locations.
3.5 Former Jewish refugees:
The Israeli side requested that the issue of compensation to former Jewish refugees from Arab countries be recognized, while accepting that it was not a Palestinian responsibility or a bilateral issue. The Palestinian side maintained that this is not a subject for a bilateral Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.
THE PALESTINIAN SIDE RAISED THE ISSUE OF RESTITUTION OF REFUGEE PROPERTY. THE ISRAELI SIDE REJECTED THIS (emphasis added by BADIL);
3.7 End of Claims:
The issue of the end of claims was discussed, and it was suggested that the implementation of the agreement shall constitute a complete and final implementation of UNGAR 194 and therefore ends all claims."