Mitchell Probe Ends Visit

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Mitchell Probe Ends Visit
The US-led Mitchell Committee got a close-up look at the renewed intifada during its tour of Israel and Palestinian areas and headed home on Sunday to finish its report on the causes of the last six months of violence.

The five-man, international fact-finding committee has just wrapped up meetings with a wide range of Israelis and Palestinians, gathering information on the outbreak of Palestinian violence last September. The commission is led by former US Senator George Mitchell and was appointed by former US President Bill Clinton as part of the unsigned truce reached last October in Sharm e-Sheikh. Its other members include former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland, ex-US senator Warren Rudman and EU representative Javier Solana.

Ahead of his meeting with the committee on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that while he would cooperate with the inquiry, he called it "a historic mistake because no one has the right, no one, to put Israel on a world trial." He added, "The full responsibility for the outbreak of violence and its persistence rests on [PLO chief Yasser] Arafat."

The terse words prompted Mitchell to reassure his commission was "not a tribunal and we do not believe that anyone is on trial... We'll do the best we can to complete our task fairly and impartially," Mitchell said, after holding discussions earlier Sunday with Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

But Sharon was still skeptical after meeting later yesterday with Mitchell and his colleagues Solana and Demirel, saying that writing a "balanced report" that would equally apportion blame for the recent unrest would reward "aggressors" and those who "initiate violence." Sharon cited Israeli and American intelligence in telling the commission, "We know for sure that the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, including the presidential guard, Force 17, are directly involved in the recent terror activities." Sharon insisted the Palestinians made a strategic decision after the failed Camp David summit last July to use violence to achieve their political objectives.

Sharon stated, "Israel does not fear an examination of the facts, as the full responsibility for the eruption of the continued wave of violence lies with Arafat." He further explained his opposition to attempts to internationalize the conflict, saying this would only "bring about friction, an escalation and an exacerbation of the conflict."

Sharon has had strong reservations about the uncertain mandate of the committee, which has never been agreed to in writing. In addition, he has stressed his concern that of all the things agreed upon verbally at Sharm e-Sheikh in October, the only "understanding" being implemented is the Mitchell committee. Among the other understandings reached at Sharm, but not implemented, were for both sides to issue public statements calling for an end of violence and to revive joint security cooperation between the two sides.

Mitchell responded that their mandate from Clinton is to recommend ways to prevent similar outbursts in the future.

When the committee paid a call on Arafat last week, he argued that while Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in late September sparked the violence, it was not the root cause. The underlying reason for the bloodshed, he maintained, was the failure to reach an agreement based on a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and Palestinian frustration with Israel's settlement policy.

One PA source said their main aim was convince committee members that the Palestinians need international protection from Israel. The Palestinians hope to use the results of the probe in their push for greater international involvement, including an armed UN observer force. Arafat also tried to convince the commission that Israeli claims that he is behind terror attacks are false and are designed to discredit him.

While in Israel, committee members also met relatives of Israeli victims of Palestinian terror, toured Yad Vashem, and held discussions with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Ministry officials. They then visited Palestinian areas, including refugee camps, and spoke with Palestinian and intifada leaders. The itinerary also included visits to scenes of recent clashes, such as Beit Jalla, near Bethlehem, and the Netzarim junction in Gaza.

The committee's technical staff stayed behind to gather more information for another week. The full report is expected sometime in May and will be delivered to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and US President George W. Bush. Though the report's conclusions and recommendations will not be binding on anyone, Israel remains concerned the committee, in an attempt to be even-handed, may hand the PLO a new propaganda tool against the Jewish State.

Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

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