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Deiss and Arafat hold talks in the West Bank

Deiss plans to discuss the issue of humanitarian law with both Israel and the Palestinians during his visit


The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, has met the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, at the start of a five-day visit to the Middle East. They discussed the issues of terrorism and human rights.

During their hour-long meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Deiss reportedly condemned all forms of terrorism and stressed the importance of respecting international human rights.

According to a Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman, Deiss assured Arafat that Switzerland would continue to offer its support to the Palestinian people.

In addition, Deiss informed Arafat on the status of discussions regarding a possible meeting to discuss adherence to the fourth Geneva convention, which guarantees protection for civilians caught up in armed conflicts.

Switzerland, as the repository of the Geneva conventions, has received a request, from a number of Arab and non-aligned countries, to call a new meeting regarding the convention.

Deiss reportedly told Arafat on Friday that fruitful discussions were underway but that organising such a meeting could take time. "To have this conference I think we need to have two months of consultations in order to see if there is any consensus," Deiss added.

Switzerland hosted a conference on the issue last October, but it was adjourned after only five minutes because the United States, Israel and other countries wanted to avoid embarrassing the former Israeli government at a time when the latest Palestinian uprising had got underway.

Deiss's visit to the region comes at time when the peace process is blocked. However, analysts say the time may now be ripe for calling such a conference, despite the breakdown in the peace process.

Besides meeting with Arafat, Deiss is also expected to meet the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres. Ministry officials said Deiss plans to discuss the issue of respect for humanitarian law with the Israeli leaders as well.

Switzerland has in the past offered its good offices to advance the peace process, and has hosted summits, but it is not known if the issue will again be raised during Deiss's trip.

The Swiss foreign ministry has stressed that his visit is part of regular bilateral exchanges. The former Israeli foreign minister, David Levy, was in Switzerland last year.

Switzerland's development aid to the Palestinians, as well its support for Israeli and Palestinian non-governmental organisations active in the human rights field, are also high on the agenda during the Deiss visit. The Palestinians have already received SFr105 million for development, humanitarian and educational projects.

Analysts say the issue of the Swiss coordination office with the Palestinian Authority in east Jerusalem may also be raised. The head of the office provoked Israeli anger in the wake of February's elections by publicly stating that Ariel Sharon would endanger the peace process if he became prime minister.

It is the second time in two years that Deiss is touring the region. He went to Egypt, Syria and Lebanon last year. Deiss also met Arafat at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.

swissinfo with agencies


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