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Will there be a deal in Durban?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 08 - 2001

Is there any chance of the Palestinians receiving a fair hearing in Durban? Dina Ezzat looks for an answer
A political condemnation of Israeli racist practices against Palestinians under occupation does not seem to be something that Arab countries will be able to extract out of the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), which opens in Durban, South Africa on 31 August.
However, the Durban Declaration and its Programme of Action are likely to offer some form of recognition for the racist practices to which Palestinians, and other Arabs living under Israeli occupation, are being subjected -- even if the name of Israel is kept out of the books to please the United States and other allies and friends of Tel Aviv.
A ten-day preparatory meetings which ended last Friday in Geneva failed to produce an agreement between those countries which want to see Israeli practices highlighted and condemned, and those which do not.
While it is true that each side has shown flexibility regarding its original stance, agreement on the Durban approach to the Middle East remains elusive. For their part, Arab and Muslim countries have given up their initial attempt to include in the Durban Declaration wording which entails a direct or indirect equation between Zionism and racism. Meanwhile, Israel, and its supporters -- the US, Canada, Australia and even many European countries -- have moved from their stance of "no language at all on the Middle East" to a milder position which allows "some language" providing it does not entail a specific country condemnation.
A position paper prepared by Arab and Muslim countries offering a compromise on the bracketed Middle East paragraphs in the Durban Declaration and the Programme of Action was, however, deemed unacceptable by the Israel-US camp. A special meeting over this paper was supposed to take place in Geneva in the presence of representatives of some Arab and Muslim countries and their counterparts from Israel, the US and Belgium, the current chair of the European Union. However, a last-minute change of mind by Israeli and US diplomats stymied this reconciliatory effort.
The Geneva-based office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, which is acting as a secretariat for WCAR, is conducting contacts with diplomats of the concerned capitals to try and reach a compromise acceptable to all before the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance opens at the end of this month. Both Israel and the US have vowed to boycott the international event if an overwhelming majority of the participants insist on including in the Durban Declaration and programme of action any condemnation of Israel.
Today, the draft declaration and programme of action includes bracketed language which annexes each reference to the "Jewish holocaust in Europe" with a reference to the "massacres perpetrated against Arabs in historic Palestine since 1948." The drafts also includes a reference to Jerusalem as "occupied territory," of which the demographic and institutional characteristics should not be changed by Israel. A critical reference to settlement-construction in the occupied territories is also included in the documents.
Anti-semitism is not presented as an exclusively anti-Israeli racist practice, since both the draft declaration and programme of action refer to "anti-semitism in its Jewish and Arab forms."
Racist practices exercised against Palestinians in the wording are currently bracketed without being attributed to Israel. This bracketed language, however, refers to the fact that these practices are taking place not only in Palestinian territory but also in the Golan Heights "under foreign occupation."
Geneva-based diplomatic sources told Al- Ahram Weekly that compromises were still being worked out. "While the US keeps threatening a boycott, it may not be that easy for Washington to stop its delegation from going to Durban at the end of this month, since the American administration is coming under big pressure from American rights groups to participate," commented one source, who asked for his name to be withheld. According to this source, if the Americans are to go then they will have to show more flexibility. "Especially that the current Israeli government is not making it very difficult for anyone to see its racist practices," the source said.
The compromise currently being negotiated in Geneva involves persuading Arab countries to further tone down the language by the time the Durban conference closes on 7 September. In return, they will be granted their long-standing wish for a conference for the high-contracting parties of the Fourth Geneva Convention concerning the protection of civilians in time of war.
The request for such a gathering was forwarded to the Swiss government, the depository state of the Geneva Conventions, last October, a month after the outbreak of the second Intifada. The object was to persuade the contracting parties to this agreement -- including Israel -- to reassert a previous stance taken in 1999 on the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Palestinian occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. This political stance could prompt the deployment of some sort of international monitoring forces in the occupied territories, since the convention stipulates that all member states respect and ensure the respect of its articles.
Since then, consultations have been conducted but no date fixed owing to opposition by Israel and the US and a lack of political support from Europe. Switzerland and Belgium are currently trying to persuade Israel and the US to agree to convening of this meeting in mid-October, in return for a more flexible Arab position on the wording of the Durban Declaration and its programme of action. It is not clear if this bargain is in the offing, but informed diplomats told the Weekly such a compromise was probable.
Arab diplomatic sources speaking to the Weekly said that, even if they accepted the deal, they would still insist on a clear message from WCAR regarding the racist practices to which Palestinians are subjected.
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