United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appealed directly to the UN Security Council to authorize an armed multinational force to patrol the front lines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Annan's call comes at a time of mounting concern over the humanitarian toll of Israel's antiterrorism campaign in the West Bank. Israel rejected the proposal, calling it a potential shield for terrorists, and it is unclear whether it will gain the crucial backing of the United States. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations Security Council members are considering a request by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to authorize an armed international force for the Middle East. Annan, who first raised the idea last week, told the council in person on 18 April that such a force must be large, impartial, and capable of taking military action if necessary. He said it should be empowered to work with both sides to end the cycle of violence and to create the conditions for resuming political talks and rebuilding Palestinian settlements.
Council members were consulting with their capitals after giving what Annan said was an "encouraging" response.
Talking to reporters later, Annan declined to say how large the force should be, but stressed it needed to be a "coalition of the willing," not a conventional operation of UN blue helmets. Such a coalition of the willing is currently deployed in the Afghan capital, Kabul, but troop contributors have resisted recent calls for its expansion.
Annan said the force is urgently needed to restore calm to the region. "The parties left to themselves cannot resolve their differences, and it is important that the international community engages actively and effectively to assist them. And we have to do it both on the political front and to take steps on the ground to stop the bloodletting."
Israel repeated its long-standing objections to an international force. Its deputy UN envoy, Aaron Jacob, told the council in an open meeting later in the day that UN peacekeepers have proven ineffective in stopping recent attacks on Israeli positions from Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon. That UN mission -- known as UNIFIL -- deploys about 3,500 peacekeepers on a boundary separating Israel from Lebanon.
Jacob questioned whether the force proposed by Annan would be able to intercept suicide bombers and search for hidden explosives. "Would they do anything other than deter the actions of Israel while enabling Palestinian terrorism to continue unhindered in violation of signed agreements and [Security Council antiterror] Resolution 1373 with the protection of an internationally sanctioned shield?"
An Israeli government spokesman, Avi Pazner, told the Agence France Presse news agency yesterday that Palestinian terrorists would not hesitate to strike at an international force.
Annan, in his private address to the council, said a robust, mobile, multinational force would create conditions on the ground that would place an international spotlight on extremist Palestinians engaging in terrorism. He told reporters that such an operation could not be totally risk-free, but he is confident it could restrict the movement of terrorist groups.
"I think the presence of the force will make it difficult for terrorists to criss-cross the country, to commit terrorist acts. It will also diminish their freedom of action and ability to move at will," Annan said.
U.S. support for any such mission is crucial, but the administration of President George W. Bush has so far backed only the idea of a small monitoring mission. That is a mechanism outlined in the recommendations of a committee led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently said he would approve a small U.S. observer group.
Annan said he is hopeful the United States will play a positive role in a multinational force. There was no detailed response to Annan's proposal from Washington yesterday. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker reiterated U.S. backing for a third-party mechanism but said "nothing has yet been determined."
The Security Council has approved three resolutions since mid-March outlining a way out of the violence and toward a political settlement, including the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has demanded an immediate cease-fire and a withdrawal of Israeli forces without delay.
Now that there appears to be council unity on the goals for Middle East peace, more attention is being paid to ways of achieving them, says Catherine Mackenzie, a spokeswoman for Britain's UN mission. She told reporters yesterday that many council members are taking Annan's request for a new force seriously.
"There isn't a need for more objectives. We've got the objectives. We've got the goals. But the tools, the way of getting from here to there, is what we need to focus on, and we've just been given an awful lot to think about," Mackenzie said.
Meanwhile, the council later in the day opened a discussion of a new resolution -- backed by Arab states -- that would demand an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities. It would also call for an end to the siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a UN investigation into the destruction in the Jenin refugee camp.
Annan's Mideast envoy Terje Roed-Larsen toured the camp on 18 April. He strongly condemned Israel for using excessive force and said it is "morally repugnant" that Israel had not allowed emergency workers in to provide humanitarian aid. He called conditions in the camp "horrific beyond belief."
Roed-Larsen said about 300 buildings in the camp had been destroyed and 2,000 people left homeless in the Israeli operation to capture or kill armed militants.