Israel may seek the extradition of 13 Palestinian militants exiled to Europe in an EU-brokered deal once their initial year-long period of asylum expires, according to high-level Israeli diplomatic sources.
The Palestinian militants were granted asylum as part of the agreement to end the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Spain and Italy are taking three men each, Greece and Ireland two each and Portugal and Belgium one apiece. One remains in Larnaca.
However, their stay in the EU could be relatively short-lived, as a senior diplomat in Brussels confirmed last night (22 May): “After the year is up, Israel may decide to seek their extradition,” he said.
His statement contradicted earlier assurances given by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana that Israel would make no such request. The diplomat pointed out that, although Israel would honour the deal for the time being, any future government may not feel bound by a deal Israel regards as a temporary measure. “In 12 months from now the situation will be different in Israel. There will probably be a new government with a new approach,” he said.
His comment was an apparent reference to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's struggle to keep his crumbling coalition together and stave off an ultra-right-wing offensive within his own party led by arch-hawk Binyamin Netanyahu.
The Palestinians see the Church of the Nativity deal as permanently excluding any possibility of a transfer of the 13 men to Israel. ”Israel may someday ask for their extradition, but the important thing is the European reaction. I expect the EU will reject such a request,” said Chawki Armali, the Palestinian Authority's representative in Brussels.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Piqué yesterday denied that the two weeks of negotiations among EU states to decide who would take in the Palestinian militants had revealed divisions within Europe over Middle East policy.
However, when he was asked during an interview for Spain's Antena 3 station whether big member states, such as France and Germany, had ducked their responsibilities by refusing to accept any of the men, Piqué admitted: “I must express my disappointment that certain countries often say we must do more to resolve the conflict, but when the time comes to take difficult decisions they do not take them.”
This article appeared in the 23 May 2002 issue of European Voice.