IMRA interviewed Omar Bessisso, Head of Relations and External Media Department in the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Information, in English, on May 14, 1998:IMRA: What do you see as the central message of the events taking place today (the "march of the million")?
Bessisso: The central message is that we are here. This is our homeland. Our Palestinian refugees must return back to their homeland. That is the central message.IMRA: When you say that the refugees must return to their homeland...
Bessisso: According to UN Resolution 194 which means that the refugees have the right to come back or have compensation.IMRA: Is it their decision? Do they have to be offered the choice between the two?
Bessisso: Yes, yes. According to United Nations Resolution 194 which dates from 1949 in the United Nations.IMRA: Do you have any sense as to what the proportion of refugees would return if offered the choice between compensation and return?
Bessisso: It is up to everybody but I think that most of them now are realistic and they are ready to have a realistic solution. Which means a solution which can live. But it is up to every refugee to decide what he wants. Either to return back to his home or to have compensation. I can not decide on behalf of them.IMRA: The Israelis who I speak with tell me that the underlying assumption that they made in the Oslo Process was that they would not have the refugees coming back into Israel because they want separation and if the Palestinian refugees come back then Israel turns into a having a very substantial Arab population rather than an Arab minority.
Bessisso: For us, according to the Oslo Agreement, the refugee question is postponed to the permanent solution.IMRA: They talk of Beilin-Mazen and they think that this means what while there may not be a formal understanding that there is some kind of understanding that in the end the refugees of '48 won't come back into Israel.
Bessisso: You see, once a Jewish person who has nothing to do with Palestinian land has the right to return - to come to Israel - as an Israeli citizen, then the Palestinians, who is the real owner of the land, must have the same right . This is in principle. But, once we have negotiations of a settlement we have to be realistic and negotiate over every option. The Beilin-Mazen plan is one of the options.IMRA: You said before that you cannot impose on a refugee that he can't come back and instead takes compensation.
Bessisso Yes, yes. But actually you know we have about three hundred thousand refugees in Lebanon and the same number in Syria and about more than a half million in Jordan. These Palestinians must have the right to return back to the Palestinian state which we declared in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, or to their homeland which is known as Israel now. But, the Israelis up to now are now saying that the refugees don't have the right to return to the West Bank and this is one of the main problems.IMRA: I guess that what I am puzzled by is that on the one hand the Palestinian Authority will negotiate with Israel on some kind of arrangement but on the other hand you are telling me that whatever is negotiated the Palestinian refugees would have the options of picking between some kind of negotiated compensation and returning. So what's the deal? Whatever you would negotiate you would still leave open the option to the refugees to return to within '67 borders.
Bessisso: Yes. You see, once we agreed to establish our state on the 1967 border we must have full sovereignty. That means a state which can decide its fate. It can decide who are its citizens and all Palestinians - the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as those living outside of the country - even the Palestinians in Europe or the United States must have citizenship in this state.IMRA: But if they say that they are originally from Jaffa and want to return there rather than to Nablus then they would still have the right to say 'I don't want to go to Jaffa, Nablus doesn't interest me.'
Bessisso: No. I think that once we sign a final settlement this kind of talk must be stopped.IMRA: You mean you would stop them from deciding to go to Jaffa instead of Nablus?
Bessisso: I think that once we reach a historic solution between us and the Israelis I think that every claim must be stopped. The Israelis must stop calling the West Bank "Yehudah and Shomron" and once the Palestinians solve the problem according to UN Resolution 194 they must stop talking about return to Jaffo.IMRA: But I thought that you just told me a minute ago that Resolution 194 does give them the right to return to Jaffo.
Bessisso: Yes. They have the right. But remember They must be realistic. They cannot go.IMRA: So you would deny them the choice afterwards.
Bessisso: I think the situation now, denying them the right to return. But as a symbolic gesture maybe they can get three thousand or five thousand of the Palestinians to return and that's all. Under the framework of uniting families.IMRA: You mean a limited number.
Bessisso: Yes, yes.IMRA: So only some would be allowed to truly make the choice.
Bessisso: Yes yes.IMRA: Do you see from a practical standpoint the possibility that you may be creating a problem by focusing so much on the return of the 1948 refugees that they may get a hope that they will be able to return to Jaffa when here you are telling me that in the end they won't be returning back. For example, yesterday when you had the march with the keys [to homes with Israel] . Doesn't this have the problem of raising expectations that they will be able to come back?
Bessisso: We don't raise new expectations by this demonstration and activity. Actually, as I told you in the beginning, we have one message: We are here. It is our homeland. We have the right to establish our independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip according to the announcement in Algeria and the refugee problem must be solved in accordance with the UN resolution and that's all.IMRA: Resolution 194 which would allow them to return to within the Green Line.
Bessisso: Yes. Yes.IMRA: You say in Algeria which resolution are you talking about?
Bessisso: The announcement of the Palestinian State.IMRA: How does that fit in with the earlier plan of stages. That the PLO will take whatever land it can get as a stage.
Bessisso: No. You mean the 1974 Nine Point Program. This is very old. We have overcomed it by the announcement of the Palestinian state. Once we recognized Resolution 242 and 338 we accept to establish a Palestinian state within the West Bank and Gaza Strip.IMRA: Ehud Barak said two days ago that his red line is that the large settlement blocs would remain under Israeli control. Is that a total impossibility?
Bessisso: I think that it is possible if the settlers are ready to obey Palestinian law.IMRA: You mean Palestinian sovereignty.
Bessisso: Yes.IMRA: Not Israeli sovereignty.
Bessisso: Right. They can have Israeli citizenship but they must observe our law.IMRA: You would ignore the issue as to whether the settlements are on Palestinian owned land?
Bessisso: No. I think that since the Palestinian question is a very special case we have to have a very special solution.IMRA: Does the same apply to Jerusalem - to those Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line like Ramat Eshkol and French Hill?
Even if we accept them for a period of time maybe they will accept to live in peace with the Palestinians and this is OK and maybe they will decide to leave the Palestinian land and return back to Israel.
Bessisso: The Jerusalem question is very special and specific. It is a religious and nation case and has to be handled from a very special point of view. I think that for Arab Moslems and Christians, Jerusalem must be under Palestinian sovereignty. We hope for an open city in Jerusalem for all followers of religion - Palestinians and Israelis.IMRA: But the status of those Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line would be under Palestinian sovereignty.
Bessisso: Yes, yes. We have to think about a special solution for Jerusalem, but under the principle that Israeli forces and administration must return to the pre 1967 borders.