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UN: New Mideast Force Debated, Israel Prefers Talks

The UN Security Council has begun new debates over a proposed international observer mission for the Israeli-occupied territories following fresh calls by Palestinian officials for a protection force. But Israeli officials say they see no usefulness in such a force at this time. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon looks at the UN role so far in the Mideast crisis.

United Nations, 30 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Palestinian officials have repeated their call for the UN Security Council to authorize a force of 2,000 unarmed UN military observers to be deployed in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem to help quell the violence that has killed hundreds of Palestinians.

The Council took no action on the proposal yesterday (Wednesday). Israel's strongest supporter, the United States, has said repeatedly that it will not approve such a force unless it has the backing of Israel.

Israel's justice minister, Yossi Beilin, told reporters at UN headquarters that he viewed the setting up of a protection force as a distraction from his government's main goal of reaching a peace settlement with Palestinian leaders. Beilin said an international force would be welcome after any peace agreement is signed.

"Our partner is Yasser Arafat, whether we like it or not, and we have to negotiate with him and we don't need now intermediaries between us."

Beilin also said he did not think it was the right time for a separate international commission -- headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell -- to begin its investigation of the violence in the region. He said the commission would be able to work when the situation is calmer.

The Israeli minister met on yesterday with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and indicated he could play a further role in any peace process.

"I think that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is one of the most appreciated leaders both by our Arab neighbors and by Israel itself. He has contributed a lot to the peace process and may contribute, too, in the future."

Annan helped bring the two sides to the negotiating table in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, last month (Oct 15-16). But many of the pledges made there have yet to be carried out.

Nearly 300 people have been killed -- mostly Palestinians -- since the violence broke out in late September. The first meetings of the UN Security Council and General Assembly criticized Israel for what were considered excessive uses of force.

UN human rights officials have also strongly criticized the reaction of Israeli forces to Palestinian demonstrators. Earlier this week, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, released a report based on her recent visit to the Palestinian territories.

Robinson spoke out against what she said was excessive force used against Palestinian civilians. But she also described a dismal Palestinian existence that involved "petty humiliations" and was, she said, "dehumanizing."

Robinson told reporters she wanted to attract international attention to the bleak human rights situation in the occupied territories.

"You cannot separate the human rights situation from the reality of occupation. This has been intensified by the conflict, intensified by the excessive use of force, by the impact on children, on medical personnel, the use of economic levers, the very serious economic impact. "

Robinson said international monitors should be considered for the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli officials rejected Robinson's remarks as biased. They say their response to the Palestinian uprising has been to use proportionate force. One U.S. Middle East analyst, Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations, says Robinson's comments could hurt the UN's standing with the Israeli government of Ehud Barak.

But Siegman tells RFE/RL that the Barak government's respect for Secretary-General Annan balances out its negative reaction to Robinson's report. "There is no question that [Robinson's report] will make Israelis, generally, certainly less receptive to any kind of UN role. But I would not say that it will neutralize this new more positive attitude on the part of Ehud Barak."

Robinson is subordinate to Annan but has a great deal of independence in reporting on human rights issues. Her impact, however, can sometimes be blunted by political forces at the United Nations. For example, her call earlier this year for a review of alleged Russian human rights violations in Chechnya was largely ignored, in part because of Russia's weight as a permanent Security Council member.

Siegman said it is more important now for Israeli and Palestinian officials to resume meaningful talks over a political settlement than engaging the United Nations in an effort to determine which side is to blame for the escalation in violence.

"The problem [in the occupied territories] stems from one factor only, and this is the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel."

Siegman says there may be an opportunity for talks to gain momentum now that new elections in Israel appear imminent. He says the prospect of elections -- in which Barak would likely lose power -- would spur the Israeli prime minister in the next few months to try to reach agreement with the Palestinian leadership. Such an agreement could be supported by many Israeli citizens and lead to Barak's re-election.

Siegman says that the Palestinians, for their part, would likely be motivated to reach a deal with Barak's government to avoid having to deal with Israeli hard-liners in any future government.