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Anti-Israel Language Debated as U.N. Race Meeting Opens

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the delegates to look beyond their individual disputes in favor of a world view. But much attention still focused on how to refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the conference’s final declaration.

U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, in Durban for the conference, said that the Palestinian delegation had agreed to drop criticism of Israel and Zionism — the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state — from the declaration.

According to Jackson, the decision came after a three-hour meeting with Arafat, during which he says the Palestinian leader agreed to a written document proposing the move and recognizing the Holocaust as the worst crime of the 20th century.

Palestinian Minister for International Cooperation Nabil Shaath acknowledged to the Associated Press that he wrote the document, but would not commit to not seeking condemnation of Israel’s “racist practices.”

Arab countries had pushed for a statement in the declaration comparing the situation in Israel with that of apartheid-era South Africa. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said that the conference has already dropped language equating Zionism with racism.

The U.S., Canada and Israel all scaled down their delegations because of that criticism. Delegates from 166 countries are attending the conference.

At a roundtable meeting held after Jackson’s announcement, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called Israel a “racist” state and accused it of ethnic cleansing.

“Condemnation of the Israeli occupation and its racist practices and laws, which are based on racism and superiority, is considered today an urgent demand by our people,” Arafat said.

“This brutality and arrogance,” he said, “are moved by a mentality of superiority that practices racism and racial discrimination, that adopts ethnic cleansing.”

Speaking to the Israeli-Palestinian issue in his opening remarks today, U.N. Secretary-general Kofi Annan said representatives should “admit that all countries have issues of racism and discrimination to address.”

“It is understandable therefore that many Jews deeply resent any accusation of racism directed against the state of Israel. And all the more so, when it coincides with indiscriminate and totally unacceptable attacks on innocent civilians,” Annan said. “Yet, we cannot expect Palestinians to accept this as a reason why the wrongs done to them — displacement, occupation, blockade and now extrajudicial killings — should be ignored, whatever label one uses to describe them.”

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