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EU: Countries Accepting Exiles Must Follow Up On Initial Mediation Success

The European Union has delayed a decision on which member countries will accept 13 Palestinian militants who have gone into exile after the five-week siege at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. The European Commission says it needs more time to work out the exiles' exact legal status. The case is a diplomatic minefield, but finding a successful solution that satisfies both Israel and the Palestinians is important if the EU is to take a higher profile in Mideast peace efforts.

Prague, 14 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is facing a difficult diplomatic task in deciding how to deal with the 13 Palestinian militants it has accepted as exiles following the end of the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

It's a task that must be successfully accomplished if the EU is to be taken seriously as a mediator for peace in the Mideast conflict.

EU foreign ministers discussed the terms of the asylum for the militants at a meeting in Brussels yesterday, but did not arrive at a decision. Six EU member states have reportedly expressed willingness to take the Palestinians: Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal. But key issues remain undecided, such as whether the exiles will have freedom of movement around the EU and the level of surveillance they will be subject to.

Israel has characterized at least some of the men as terrorists, and officials have previously said they will press the host countries to extradite them back to Israel. The 13 militants, who are now waiting in Cyprus, are among scores of people who emerged from the Church of the Nativity last week at the end of a five-week standoff with Israeli forces. The EU, along with the United States, brokered the deal to end the siege. Its success in doing so has won praise from Israeli officials, who are usually critical of Brussels for what they see as a bias toward the Palestinians in the conflict.

The spokesman for the Israeli diplomatic mission to the EU, Haim Assaras, told RFE/RL: "I think that we have just seen a very important gesture from the EU as a whole to the peace process in that they were very helpful in facilitating this solution and making sure it would happen. Because if no European countries would have accepted [the militants], nobody else would have."

Assaras lauded what he called this "balanced approach" and said Israel hopes the EU will continue with such an attitude, which he said could lead to "a much greater role in the peace process in the future."

At the same time, the Israeli spokesman said it had not been easy for his country to agree to the deal, which allowed the militants to avoid Israeli legal procedures.

"This deal was a huge compromise from the point of view of Israel, so we are not happy with it. [Happy] would not be the right term for it. But under the circumstances, we believe that if they cannot be put behind bars -- which we think is the normal situation they should be in -- then at least the host countries should ensure that they are not going back to their old activities as terrorists," Assaras said.

He said the minimum Israel wants is for the host countries to employ mechanisms to ensure that the militants are not active against Israel while they are in Europe. Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said yesterday that the men would be at liberty but would have to respect the laws of their host countries.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he had given instructions to all 13 exiles to abide fully by the local laws.

In London, Afif Safia, a counselor with the Palestinian General Delegation, said that freedom was a condition of the agreement. "That was part of it, that they would be hosted in different European countries and would not be prisoners, but free. And maybe their families will be joining them for a short duration until the situation settles into an acceptable agreement on final status."

Safia said his side also wanted to thank the EU for its role in breaking the impasse in Bethlehem.