Need for eyewitnesses

Washington – The Palestinians are probably overjoyed, some believe prematurely, by the endorsement by leaders of the Group of Eight industrialised nations for international monitors to observe the ineffective Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire.

The weekend decision at the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy, has come as a slap in the face of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and – to some extent – his American supporters who were wishy-washy about the concept from the start. Secretary of State Colin Powell had endorsed the idea after his meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during his recent three-day Mideast tour, but backtracked when he was confronted by Sharon.

The European endorsement may yet to prove helpful; at the same time, it failed to come up with any clear-cut mandate or mechanism for the “third party” monitors. This has allowed the Americans and the Israelis, each for his own interest, to try and blunt the primarily European and Japanese action. For example, the new Israeli line is that the Sharon government may accept to increase the contingent of American intelligence officials serving on the American-Israeli-Palestinian truce supervisory committee, established last month by Central Intelligence Agency head George Tenet. Another hitch is that the Bush administration is ideologically against sending Americans to faraway conflict areas, be they in Europe or the Middle East. Accordingly, US officials are playing down the possibility of dispatching CIA monitors which, heretofore, had taken a high-profile role in security matters between Palestinians and Israelis. “That seemed to be a little overplayed … it’s probably more Israeli trial balloons or dodging the monitoring question,” is how one US official described Israeli reporting on additional CIA agents for the task.

Throwing more light on the behind-the-scenes diplomacy on July 23 was former Senator George Mitchell, head of the international commission of inquiry into the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. He explained to the Centre for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation that his group had turned down any discussion of international observers because the Palestinians had requested an “international protection force,” underlining the word “protection.” Once Israel voiced vehement opposition to the Palestinian request, the commission discarded the issue altogether because “it would not be effective without the support of the two parties.”

Senator Mitchell also revealed that his commission – as the US government did at a later time – had in fact adopted the Israeli terminology on the need for a “100 per cent effort” by the Palestinians in ending the “violence” before the confidence-building measures were to begin, as stipulated in the Mitchell report. But now Israel has upped the scale and is demanding that there be a “100 per cent cessation” of the violence before the cooling off period begins.

This hardened Israeli stance, buttressed by early American support against Palestinian efforts to garner international support for their uprising, now in its tenth month, did not sway the Europeans who seemed alarmed at the Israeli escalation of the conflict, now made worse by the rise of Israeli settler vigilantism.

“The cooling-off period must begin as soon as possible,” the G-8 leaders demanded.

Regardless of the international consensus that has yet to emerge on defining or selecting the “third party” observers, be they solely American or not, the reign of terror that the settlers or the Israeli army are harbouring against an unprotected Palestinian population on the verge of famine merits quick international attention.

David Levy, a highly respected writer in Haaretz, throws shocking light in a July 22 column that exposes the “minimal sentences” these vigilantes had received in the past. He writes: “Out of 48 cases in which Palestinians were killed (during the first Intifada), 27 cases were closed before any charges were filed. These statistics have only got worse over time. A report published about four months ago by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the occupied territories, documents 199 cases of manslaughter and murder of Palestinians by Israeli citizens; only six yield murder convictions. In six cases of death, the police did not initiate an investigation, and in another 39 the cases were closed.”

To make matters worse, the punishment of Israelis was also minimal but the fortune of Palestinians similarly charged was clearly harsher.

Levy added: “The message is clear: It isn’t terrible to kill Arabs, hurting them or their property is almost normal. Revenge is understood and sometimes also permitted, as long as it’s Jewish.”

No wonder there is need for eyewitnesses.