Palestinians seeking $40 billion in aid

Money would build state, assist refugees

July 07, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinians are seeking $40 billion from the international community to compensate refugees and help them build a state, a top official said last night.

Disclosure of the sum, huge even in comparison with recent Israeli aid requests, puts the issue of money squarely on the bargaining table at next week's three-way Camp David summit along with the wrenching political issues of Jerusalem, territory and a right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Mohammad Rashid, economic adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the largest portion of the aid would go to compensate refugees uprooted from their homes in 1948 and after, hundreds of thousands of whom live in crowded refugee camps throughout the region.

"We are talking about 4 million refugees," Rashid said at a briefing here. Figures in the range of tens of billions of dollars have been mentioned before at conferences dealing with the refugee problem.

If an agreement is reached, Rashid said, a team will be created to work with international donors to decide how to distribute the aid to refugees.

Palestinians are approaching the summit with the demand that refugees who fled or were driven from their homes in Israel's first war with Arab states in 1948 be granted the right to return to their homes in Israel.

Their demand is based on a United Nations resolution granting Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes or gain compensation. Israel rejects any right of return, and, as a practical matter, it is unlikely that more than a small fraction of the refugees would get the chance. The Palestinian Authority would face the overwhelming task of absorbing most of the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Rashid said the aid request would include money to build up Palestinian infrastructure and to enable the government to function as a state.

In the years since the Oslo accords, reached in 1993, Palestinians have gained control of territory piecemeal, forcing them to rebuild infrastructure town by town. He said $8 billion to $12 billion is needed "for a state infrastructure."

Israel has yet to announce a formal aid request in connection with a final agreement that would formally end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the goal of the summit next week. But past peace agreements, starting with the 1978 Camp David summit that produced peace between Israel and Egypt, have usually entailed large amounts of aid.

When Israel was hoping to reach a peace agreement with Syria early this year, Israeli officials requested $17 billion.

Rashid indicated that most of the money would not go to the Palestinian Authority, but would be disbursed for specific purposes by international donors. Israel should contribute, he said.

Israel "should feel responsible," he said. "It should take a great responsibility. That's the only way the Israeli people and society could clean the morale of the Palestinians" after 50 years of occupation.

A day after President Clinton issued invitations to the summit, both sides were playing down the prospects for success.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, facing defections from two parties in his coalition that fear he will give away too much, said there is only a 50-50 chance that the summit would produce even a framework agreement, let alone a final peace deal.

Rashid said it is too late for a framework deal and that the summit must work toward a final agreement. "I think [a framework] is behind us," he said.

But Rashid said he doubts that a single summit would produce a final peace accord. If progress is made next week, he said, Arafat and Barak would resume talks after Clinton's return from the economic summit of the world's eight leading industrial powers.

A senior Israeli military officer sounded a note of pessimism, saying Arafat appears to want to achieve a Palestinian state as a result of struggle, not by bargaining around a peace table. He warned that if the peace efforts collapse, Israel would use tanks, planes and helicopters against Palestinian rioters, and said Jewish settlers are being trained to protect their communities and being equipped with riot-control gear.

Rashid, a member of the negotiating team, said the Palestinians are working on the assumption that, according to U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, the West Bank and Gaza Strip belong to them and should be returned, but would be flexible if Israel wants to preserve some settlements very close to the border.

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