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Another interesting twist in the Middle East conflict

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U.N., Syria Reject U.S. Charges on Palestine Terrorism

Mon Jun 24, 7:00 AM ET

Rachel Rivera,Inter Press Service

UNITED NATIONS ( news - web sites), Jun 22 (IPS) - The United Nations denies accusations by two members of the U.S. Congress that it has permitted terrorist activities in Palestinian refugee camps under U.N. control.

Secretary General Kofi Annan ( news - web sites), in letters released late this week by his office, emphasized the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians in the Near East (UNRWA), which provides humanitarian and social services in refugee camps, does not have the mandate to police or administer the camps.

The head of UNRWA, Peter Hansen, explained that the agency also has no mandate to report on political activities in the camps and that responsibility for maintaining law and order rests with the Palestinian and Israeli authorities.

In letters written to Annan in May, Republican U.S. Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic U.S. Representative Tom Lantos accused the U.N. agency of allowing and promoting terrorist activity in the camps. Specter said UNRWA schools promoted anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiments and Lantos said the agency allowed terrorists to organize in the camps.

In his letter to Specter dated Jun. 6, Hansen noted that Israeli authorities have over the years arrested hundreds of UNRWA staff, most of whom are Palestinian refugees, but stressed that "the extremist militant activities in Jenin refugee camp were in no way under the 'auspices' of UNRWA."

Responding to the senator's charges of anti-Israeli messages in the Palestinian textbooks used in UNRWA schools, Hansen's letter explained that while the agency is required to use the textbooks of education authorities in the countries or territories where it works, textbooks issued by the Palestinian Authority ( news - web sites) in the last two years have removed the anti-Semitism present in older volumes and do not seek to de-legitimize Israel.

"UNRWA has developed supplementary educational materials promoting tolerance, non-violent conflict resolution and human rights, in order to make up for perceived deficiencies in the old textbooks," Hansen said.

Responding to Lantos's charges that UNRWA was allowing terrorists to organize in refugee camps, Annan explained in a letter dated Jun. 7: "The United Nations has no responsibility for security matters in refugee camps, or anywhere else in the occupied territory. Depending on whether a camp lies in Israeli or Palestinian-controlled areas, either the Government of Israel or the Palestinian Authority is responsible for preventing unlawful activities."

The U.S. government also has leveled charges against Syria for allegedly supporting Palestinian terrorist operations. In a Security Council meeting Thursday, Washington envoy John Negroponte accused Damascus of supporting Palestinian terrorist groups, diplomats said.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Syrian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Farouk Al-Shara, who presided over the Security Council meeting (Syria holds the Council's rotating presidency), responded to Negroponte's accusations.

"We have 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. Those people have a right to express their political opinions. This is a basic right enjoyed by all Palestinian organizations in Syria. They have only press offices in Syria. They don't operate from Syria. All operations by Palestinians are engineered, planned, and executed inside the occupied territories, and Syria has nothing to do with these steps," said Al-Shara.

"If Negroponte and the U.S. government are concerned, I call on them to help the 400,000 Palestinians in Damascus to go back home, to go back to Palestine,'' he added. ''They have a right to return, in accordance with U.N. Resolution 194, and Israel is blocking this right of return. The U.S. government should criticize Israel for rejecting to let these people go back home, not to criticize the countries that have hosted those Palestinians and provided them with the basic necessities to continue life."

Annan said social and economic conditions in the Palestinian territories as a major obstacle to peace. "Living standards among Palestinians have plummeted over the past 18 months. More than two-thirds of the population of the Gaza Strip ( news - web sites) now live below the poverty line, as do about one-half of West Bank residents," Annan told Council members.

Responding to the continuing Palestinian suicide bombings and the return of Israeli troops to Palestinian territories this week, the Secretary General repeated his call for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory and for the Palestinian Authority to do more to stop terrorist attacks in Israel.

"Any lasting solution of this conflict can only be based on an end to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory and the withdrawal of Israel's settlements from it. There will be neither peace nor security as long as the occupation continues," Annan told the Security Council.

Al-Shara told reporters Friday: "I'm not very optimistic. There is no peace in the horizon. We're trying our best to bring a solid framework for a solution. But if it's not based on U.N. resolutions and if it doesn't end Israeli occupation from all occupied territories since 1967, there cannot be a durable peace."

He assailed Israel's continued aggression in the occupied territories and said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ( news - web sites)'s policies were doomed to fail. "He is taking the wrong path for peace. He wants to achieve security first and then peace. This has never happened in history. The path he is taking is blocked. He will never succeed."

The Arab Peace Plan, which proposes that Israel return to 1967 borders in exchange for peace and normal relations with Arab nations, contained all the necessary ingredients for peace, Al-Shara added.

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