A growing panel of United Nations experts is poised to visit the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin to determine whether Israel's actions there violated international law. Israeli officials have delayed the arrival of the team in order to seek assurances about its composition and the scope of its investigation. A decision by Israel on whether to approve the team formally is expected today. Experts say the fact-finding mission can play an important, impartial role and have a calming effect on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 30 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations officials are stressing that a fact-finding mission formed to investigate the Israeli military action at the Jenin refugee camp will be impartial and will consider all aspects of the fighting that occurred at the camp earlier this month.
UN spokesmen told reporters on 29 April that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had cleared up a number of issues about the team with Israeli officials over the preceding few days.
Annan also sent Israeli officials a letter saying he expected the fact-finding mission to examine the military, security, and humanitarian aspects of the events in Jenin. In doing so, he said, the team would -- in his words -- "bear in mind the applicability of international humanitarian law."
The Israeli security cabinet is debating the issue. A decision on whether to approve the mission formally is expected today.
The principal members of the team, now grouped in Geneva, are former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, and the former head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Cornelio Sommaruga. The mission's military adviser is retired U.S. General William Nash, and its top police adviser is Peter Fitzgerald of Ireland.
A UN spokesman in Geneva, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters yesterday that Annan has taken care to assemble a balanced, impartial team.
"[The team members] cover a huge spectrum: humanitarian, legal, police, and military. We're looking at the facts. We want to gather facts about the events in Jenin. Nobody is going to go to the region with any preconceived notions of what happened," Dujarric said.
Dujarric gave the names of two new additions to the mission who will work with Nash: British Colonel Miles Wade, a veteran of UN peacekeeping missions in the Balkans; and Major Francois Xavier Thomas, a planning specialist with the French army.
The spokesman also reported new aides to the police adviser -- two Irish police officials with backgrounds in UN and counterterrorism operations. The forensic expert for the team, Helena Rant of Finland, will be joined by three other forensic experts from the University of Helsinki.
Israel had first expressed support for a fact-finding mission on April 19, saying it had "nothing to hide" about the events in Jenin, which took place from 3-11 April.
Palestinian leaders accuse Israeli troops of carrying out a massacre in the camp. Israel says a battle took place, primarily between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces, and that most victims were Palestinian fighters. The bodies of about 50 Palestinians have been found in the camp, but Palestinian officials say more bodies are buried beneath the extensive rubble of buildings flattened by Israeli tanks and bulldozers.
The UN Security Council has expressed concern over the destruction and the unknown number of dead in Jenin and has welcomed Annan's appointment of a fact-finding mission. Israel's main ally on the Council, the United States, yesterday urged Israel to permit the fact-finding mission to start its work without delay.
The addition of military and security experts to the fact-finding mission should now clear the way for Israeli approval, said David Philips, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
"I think that the Israeli government has a self-interest in seeing the commission do its work and that the work is credible. And the very process of looking into the events in Jenin can have a calming effect on both sides," Philips said.
Philips told RFE/RL the mission is unlikely to lead to any kind of legal action that would hold Israeli defense forces accountable for war crimes, something Israeli officials have voiced concern about.
He said the mission could provide some moral validation to the Palestinian claims of violations of international law. But in the end, Philips said, the final report is likely to provoke criticism from both sides.
"These commissions tend to cut things down the middle and to equivocate their findings, and I suspect there will be results in the final report [in which] both sides see vindication, as well as things that make them unhappy," Philips said.
Israel launched a major offensive in the West Bank in late March after a series of suicide bombings killed scores of Israeli civilians. Israeli forces entered cities and refugee camps such as Jenin to uproot what they called the terrorist infrastructure they say was responsible for the suicide bombings. Some Israeli officials have likened their response to the U.S. military attacks on Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan after the 11 September terrorist attacks.
UN officials and human-rights organizations have expressed concern that Israel blocked relief organizations from helping Palestinian civilians in the aftermath of the Jenin battles.
Naomi Weinberger is director of the United Nations Studies program at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She told RFE/RL that it is important for Israel to acknowledge its accountability in abiding by the rules of war.
And for the sake of rebuilding trust and re-establishing a peace process with Palestinian leaders, Weinberger said, Israel must permit the UN fact-finding mission to go forward.
"There's enough weight of world opinion to make countries accountable for those acts [of war] and that is the case, whether in Palestine or Afghanistan. In the Israeli-Palestinian calculus, it's even more compelling because you're dealing with two people who have been involved in a diplomatic process. Neither one is going to go away. They can't crush each other," Weinberger said.
Two Dutch forensic experts who examined corpses in Jenin yesterday rejected claims of a massacre but said there is evidence of human-rights abuses by the Israeli army during the offensive there. News agencies quoted doctors Barend Cohen and Max Meis, who were sent to the camp by the Dutch humanitarian organization Cordaid, as saying Israel had refused to allow wounded to be moved and prevented the supply of food, drinking water, and medicine to the area.
Also yesterday, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, said there is evidence of grave breaches of international humanitarian law and violations of human rights by Israeli forces in Jenin.