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Monday, November 22, 1999

MK Katz: Israel partially responsible for Palestinian refugee problem

By Ben Lynfield and David Zev Harris, The Jerusalem Post

JERUSALEM (November 22) - In a departure from the position traditionally held by every Israeli government, including that of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Labor MK Yossi Katz yesterday said that Israel bears a share of the responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem.

Katz, who handles relations with the Palestinians on behalf of Labor, told reporters during a visit to the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem that "the State of Israel must return Palestinians [to places] within the Green Line as part of the state's recognition and shared responsibility - together with the Arab states - for the refugee problem."

Party secretary-general Ra'anan Cohen took Katz to task this weekend for his comments, originally made last week, backing a limited Palestinian right to return.

Katz has called for the return of about 100,000 refugees to locales inside Israel within a framework of family reunification.

The Labor-led government draws the line at such declarations, Cohen wrote to Katz. "This view is against the party's platform," he stated. The idea of a return of Palestinians is out of the question and that has been made clear to the Palestinians during the final-status talks, he added.

"There has been no change [in this view] nor will there be," concluded Cohen.

"This is my view, and I do believe that I am giving my support to Barak," said Katz. "We must prepare the people for what will be if we want a true peace."

Last week, Katz paid a controversial visit to Orient House in east Jerusalem.

"If he continues with these comments, he will lose this post," warned a senior party official. Cohen is seeking an urgent meeting with Katz and Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who heads Labor's diplomatic team.

Katz's comments prompted MK Yisrael Katz (Likud) to call for his expulsion from Labor, "otherwise [the party] will be seen as a partner to his words."

Barak, addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York yesterday, said in response to a question that clearly Israel will not be accepting Palestinian refugees within the Green Line.

This was in keeping with Barak's October 4 address to the opening session of the Knesset, when he said: "We regret the heavy suffering that the conflict caused not only us, but all of the Arab nations that fought against us, including the Palestinian people.

"In a time of peace, Israel will be ready to take part in the effort to heal the wounds of war out of goodwill, friendship, and good neighborliness - and under no circumstances out of feelings of guilt or responsibility for causing the conflict and its results. This was a conflict we did not desire and did much to prevent."

Katz participated in a Harvard University working group comprising Palestinian and Israeli academics who conferred over the refugee issue from 1994-98 in the hopes of contributing ideas for the negotiations. In those talks, the Israeli position was to refrain from taking responsibility for causing the refugee problem.

Palestinian Authority Environment Minister Youssef Abu Safieh termed Katz's remarks "a step forward."

"In the past, Israelis have always said that it is our fault for leaving our homes," said Abu Safieh, who grew up in the Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp and traces his roots to the former village of Hamama, north of Ashkelon.

He added that the Palestinian position remains unchanged: UN General Assembly Resolution 194 must be implemented. "The basic question is acceptance of the right of return, than we can talk about the modalities," he said.

Resolution 194, passed in December, 1948, states "that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return."

Abu Safieh said the resolution should apply to five million Palestinians.

Jerusalem Media and Communications Center director Ghassan Khatib, who participated in the Harvard working group, said: "There is still a significant gap between what Yossi Katz says and what Palestinians can accept and international legitimacy requires. But at least he is moving, and he is making efforts."

Katz, joined by Oslo Accord pioneers Yair Hirshfeld and Ron Pundak, met with Palestinian academics in Jerusalem last week. Hirshfeld said he spoke of the need for a clear Israeli and Palestinian statement, to go along with final-status arrangements, "that the hundred-year conflict is over"

Danna Harman contributed to this report.

(C) The Jerusalem Post

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