Israel Offers Goodwill Gestures As Talks on Refugees Open in Tunis

Israel has agreed to increase the number of Palestinians it allows to return to the administered territories from abroad each year from 1,000 to 5,000.

And it will allow 10 Palestinians deported during the 1970s for political activities to return to the territories with their families.

These goodwill gestures were announced by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin on Tuesday in Tunis, where a new round of negotiations on the Palestinian refugee problem got under way.

The talks on the refugee issue, which were scheduled to last three days, are one of five sets of multilateral negotiations on Middle East regional issues taking place as part of the U.S.-brokered peace process launched in Madrid two years ago.

This is the first time any of the negotiations have taken place in an Arab country, and it marks the first visit by an official Israeli delegation to Tunisia, which has no official diplomatic contacts with the Jewish state.

The fact that Tunisia, an Arab country that is officially in a state of war with Israel, agreed to host the talks with Israeli participation is seen here as highly significant.

Before the talks began, Beilin told reporters that the refugee question is among the most delicate issues facing Israel and the Palestinians.

“The most difficult thing between us and the Arabs, especially the Palestinians, will be the question of refugees,” he said. But he added that he believes “the problem is not insurmountable.”

Under the accord Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in Washington last month, the two sides agreed to discuss within two years the plight of Palestinian refugees who fled Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.

The accord also called for immediate discussions regarding those Palestinians who left Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967.

PLO COUNCIL APPROVES PACT

Israel reportedly has assured the Palestinians that it will allow the return of those refugees, which has been banned until now, although Israeli officials will not confirm that any such promise has been made.

But the talks taking place in Tunis this week were not expected to deal directly with that sensitive issue. Describing the scope of the talks, Beilin said, “I think we can dedicate most of our discussions in the multilateral talks to some very concrete ideas in projects for the refugees themselves to better their standard of living.”

The Israeli gesture on the return of Palestinians to the territories is seen as one such move in that direction.

The decision applies to Palestinians who had left for abroad on the condition that they would return within a certain limit of time. Under previous Israeli policy, those Palestinians who failed to meet the deadline were prevented from returning.

But now Israel reportedly intends to lift that restriction. According to reports from Tunis, this could eventually allow the return of as many as 50,000 Palestinian refugees.

The refugee talks opened a day after the PLO’s Central Council voted in Tunis to approve the accord on Palestinian autonomy signed with Israel last month in Washington.

The 107-member council, which serves as the steering committee for the larger Palestine National Council, approved the Israeli-PLO accord by a vote of 63-8, with 11 members abstaining.

The council also voted 78-0, with four abstentions, to elect PLO leader Yasser Arafat to head the Palestinian National Authority, a body to be established in the territories under the terms of the Israeli-PLO accord.

Arafat was scheduled to meet late Tuesday with Beilin, who is heading the Israeli delegation to the refugee talks.

The deputy foreign minister met earlier Tuesday with Yasser Abed Rabbo, head of the PLO’s information department. The two reportedly discussed recent terrorist attacks against Israelis and the Arab economic boycott against Israel.

Beilin told Israel Radio that he had relayed to Rabbo the severity with which Israel views terrorist attacks against its citizens. But Beilin acknowledged that the issue was problematic since the PLO has not yet established a police force in the territories to deal with terrorist actions.

But Beilin added that the real question is how Israel and the PLO will work together in the future to prevent such attacks.

On Saturday, two Israeli hikers were brutally murdered in Wadi Kelt, a popular hiking area near Jericho. The Islamic Jihad fundamentalist movement took responsibility for the savage attack.

NEXT STORY