Europeans are fighting over who gets to host the 13 Palestinians expelled by Israel after the 39-day siege of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. At least six European Union countries—Greece, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Belgium—have offered sanctuary to the Palestinians, but EU foreign ministers meeting Wednesday in Brussels were unable to agree on where the men should go and how much freedom they should be allowed. The men—who, according to Britain's Guardian, are described by Israeli authorities as including a commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and several organizers of suicide bombings—are currently guests at the three-star Flamingo Hotel in Larnaca, Cyprus.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Italy's La Stampa that his country didn't care where the Palestinians ended up, and Austria's Die Presse said Israel must be having "a good laugh watching Europe pass on the terrorists like hot potatoes." (Translations from Italian and German courtesy of BBC Monitoring.) Libération of Paris explained some of the EU's problems: The men aren't entitled to refugee status because they "are not being persecuted by the authorities of their own country but by a foreign power." They could be granted "territorial asylum" or temporary residence permits, but it's hard to know in advance how "temporary" their stays will be. The Palestinians wish to stay together, and while none of the European states have offered to take more than one or two, the European Union's Schengen agreement means they would be allowed to travel freely and meet up. They could also hop a plane to Lebanon or Syria or simply disappear. EU members may also fear that Israelis would assassinate the 13 in Europe. Libération concluded, "Europeans are worried about accepting Palestinians with charged résumés."
Antonis Iosifides, the Flamingo's manager, told the Guardian, "Our new guests are very polite gentlemen, some of them even speak English." Quite how the gents will be covering their tab was not so clear. "I hope that the Cyprus republic is picking up the bill because nobody has informed us yet," Iosifides fretted. (Cypriot authorities are keen to win favor with the European Union. As the Jerusalem Post explained, "Cyprus is one of 10 countries hoping to join the EU by the end of 2003, but the process has been complicated by the island's division. Turkey had threatened to annex the island's Turkish-occupied north if Cyprus joins the EU before a political settlement.")
The Jerusalem Post was appalled at "the three-star treatment … the international community is giving these murderers." It declared:
[W]hether or not these killers are ever brought to trial, or hunted down before they are able to kill again, it will be difficult to remove the moral stain created by solemnly transporting … such criminals to freedom in a mid-level hotel. Though exile is being billed as a serious punishment, it also reflects the determination of the international community to protect terrorists from incarceration by Israel. For all the talk of terrorism being an inexcusable, unthinkable, and condemnable crime, that is hardly how these men are being treated.