WASHINGTON – A senior UNRWA official broached two largely taboo topics at a conference here on Friday, saying governments across Europe and the world have had contacts with Hamas and that Palestinian refugees should acknowledge that they will almost certainly not be returning to Israel.

Andrew Whitley, due to soon leave his post as director of the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency’s New York office, told the National Council for US-Arab Relations’ annual conference that contacts with Hamas were commonplace.

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“I think it’s fair to say that all governments, whether they admit it or not, have had discrete contact with Hamas,” Whitley said. He singled out Norway, Switzerland and Germany as “quietly... having contacts.”

Germany has been involved in discussions with Hamas over a prisoner exchange for IDF solider Gilad Schalit, whom Hamas has held since 2006.

Neither Norway, whose officials have openly met with Hamas representatives in the past, nor Switzerland are members of the EU.

The EU, along with other members of the Middle East Quartet – the US, Russia and the UN – adopted a policy shortly after Hamas victory in the PA elections in 2006 mandating that it would not deal with Hamas until it committed itself to nonviolence, recognized Israel, and accepted previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. While Russia does hold contacts with Hamas, the EU’s policy – along with that of the US – is that it will do so unless the organization fulfills those three conditions.

One government source said on Saturday night that despite consistent reports for much of the past four years that the EU was breaking away from that policy, there is no real concern in Jerusalem that this is happening.

“Hamas has not been successful in breaking the international decision not to engage with them,” the source said.

Whitley, however, suggested that contacts with Hamas were important as part of efforts to unify the divided Palestinian government as well as alleviate suffering in Gaza.

Whitley also said that Palestinians must start acknowledging that the refugees will almost certainly not be returning to Israel, so that they can improve their situation.

Palestinians have long maintained a “right of return” to Israel and the homes they – or their ancestors – fled during Israel’s 1948/49 War of Independence. The issue has been one of the most difficult to resolve in peace negotiations.

“If one doesn’t start a discussion soon with the refugees for them to consider what their own future might be – for them to start debating their own role in the societies where they are rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless but preserve rather the cruel illusions that perhaps they will return one day to their homes – then we are storing up trouble for ourselves,” he declared.

Whitley acknowledged that few Palestinians or even officials in his own organization have been willing to publicly discuss the issue.

“We recognize, as I think most do, although it’s not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent,” he said.

“It’s not a politically palatable issue, it’s not one that UNRWA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it’s a known contour to the issue.”

There are now 4.8 million Palestinian refugees, the descendents of fewer than one million who left present-day Israel in 1948/49. These people will most likely to remain either in Gaza and the West Bank or their current host countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, Whitley said, though he added a very small number might be absorbed elsewhere in the world.

Though UNRWA currently ministers to the Palestinian refugees needs rather than resettles them, Whitley suggested this is a role the organization might take on.

Musa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, confirmed that his movement has been talking to Western governments. He said that representatives of these governments tried to persuade Hamas to accept the Arab peace initiative of 2002 and join the Middle East peace process.

Abu Marzouk said that the request that Hamas be incorporated into the peace process meant that the West recognized the results of the 2006 parliamentary elections that brought the Islamist movement to power. He said the request was also an admission of Hamas's size and importance in the region.

According to the Hamas official, many Westerners mistakenly think that the Palestinian cause is an humanitarian issue. “But when they discover that the Palestinian cause is an issue of national liberation, they realize how complicated the matter is.”

With regards to the issue of the refugees, Abu Marzouk reiterated Hamas's refusal to make any concessions. “There can be no compromise on the basic rights of the Palestinians,” he said.

Herb Keinon and Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.

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