France cited Palestinians as ‘precedent’ for EU exile 12Dec10 December 13, 2010

Ma’an News Agency -  12 December 2010

In talks in 2009 on closing America’s detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, French officials cited Israel’s siege of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem as a “useful precedent” for resettling deportees.

Three diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Paris, quoting French officials, suggest that the 2002 siege and deportation of Palestinian operatives to EU countries and elsewhere could serve as a model for resettling in Europe some of the detainees at Guantanemo, despite concerns raised by other member states.

In response to the Obama administration’s executive order to close detention facilities at Guantanamo, the cables say, France gave its support to review the idea of accepting detainees deemed not to be a security risk. But many EU nations were hesitant after their poor experience hosting former Palestinian militants who were exiled abroad in a deal negotiated by the US in 2002, the cables show.

The Palestinians, most of them members of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Brigades, surrendered in exchange for amnesty after a weeks-long standoff in Bethlehem’s Nativity Church. The move has been viewed by many Palestinians over the years as disastrous; the exiles are not permitted to travel or work, and they regularly appeal to the Palestinian Authority to negotiate their return or lobby for better treatment abroad.

Despite similar objections from EU states that the experience has been a mistake, France was by 2009 more sympathetic to the US in general and particularly the incoming Obama administration. Since it held the rotating EU presidency at the time, its foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, promised to smooth over concerns from Ireland and Portugal, among others, about resettling Guantanemo prisoners, one cable says.

Philippe Errera, an advisor to the foreign minister, said Kouchner was “more forward-leaning” on this issue, and was quoted as saying that “Paris believes that a common EU position would provide a broad framework for individual country action, just as it did in an earlier case involving the relocation of Palestinian fighters who had taken over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.”

The context of the discussions quoted in the WikiLeaks cache of cables originating in Paris suggests that the US was trying to convince individual countries to accept detainees rather than the EU as a whole. But since some of the prisoners are deemed security risks, the prospect was alarming for certain countries because the EU does not require visas to travel in and out signatories to the Schengen agreement.

With this in mind, Laurent Pic of the French prime minister’s office stressed that an EU position would be of “clear interest” to the US government, warning that countries might attempt to “cherry pick” detainees if a framework were not in place, a second cable quotes him as saying.

Pic said France could probably convince the holdouts, and he noted that “previous EU acceptance of Palestinians from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem … could serve as a useful precedent for granting residency permits within the Schengen system.”

In a meeting between US Amb. Williamson and French officials in Feb. 2009, the concerns were raised and pushed aside with yet another reference to the church saga. Williamson noted that Ireland and Portugal were wary of an inflexible EU position, “as what happened when both of these countries were directed by the EU to take Palestinian militants involved in the 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.”

In response, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier “said that Church of the Nativity scenario was unlikely to happen again,” according to another cable categorized as secret.

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