New EU homes for 13

BRUSSELS – Six EU countries said yesterday that they were prepared to take in 13 Palestinian militants who were exiled last week in a deal under which Israel lifted its military siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. But the EU foreign ministers were not able to decide on the precise legal status of the 13. Their 15 ambassadors are to come up with a solution by the end of the week. Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Ireland offered to take in the 13 men. However, as the militants cannot be described as either refugees or immigrants or political exiles, their status has to be defined before they can be moved from the beach hotel in Larnaca, Cyprus, where they have been since Friday. Resolution of the fine details will determine whether Austria and Finland will take in any of the 13. Among the issues to be settled is the extent of their freedom of movement within the host countries and what the countries will do in case of a future call for the men’s extradition from Israel or any other country. The countries’ permanent representatives in Brussels have been charged with coming up with a status that will apply to all 13 men in all the host countries. Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou said that there were three aspects of the legal situation which all countries had agreed on yesterday. First, the framework needs to be such that it cannot be open to misinterpretation, neither with respect to Israel nor to the Palestinian Authority. Second, the 13 will in effect be excluded from any agreement between the host and other countries on the compulsory and automatic extradition of suspects and fugitives. And third, the hospitality provided by the Europeans is temporary and does not constitute a right to asylum or permanent residence. Perhaps the most difficult of these issues is to find a formula on extradition requests, because all that the 15 member states have is an assurance by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that his country will not seek extradition (though he did say that under the deal ending the Bethlehem siege, Israel could ask for extradition if their hosts let them go free). Yet to be decided is how 13 men can be divided among six countries. Cyprus has said it wants the men gone by tomorrow.