With apathy and skepticism, Palestinians received the US-led Middle East commission, whose mission is said to investigate the current violence with Israel and the Occupied Territories, and to make recommendations to the President of the United States next March. Israel on the other hand, set aside its worries regarding the nature of the investigators mission, and suddenly appeared understanding, ready and willing to cooperate to ensure the mission’s success.
The two stands, at a glance, seem paradoxical, considering the Palestinian’s insistence on exposing Israel’s excessive use of force in the Occupied Territories since the outbreak of the violence.
Israel’s stand may also be found unusual, considering its refusal to any outside interference regarding its handling of the Palestinians’ uprising. The key factor responsible for the two sides stand from the commission’s task lies in the nature of the commission’s formation, it’s legitimacy, its legal worth and foremost the impartiality of it’s forefather, the United States.
Palestinians have hoped for an international investigation of the violence, one with legal basis that takes into consideration Israel’s legal standing as an occupier, and the Palestinians as the occupied. However, disappointment loomed large among Palestinians as the commission arrived to the Middle East, initiating its three-day visit to Israel, the Occupied Territories, Egypt and Jordan.
The understanding reached at Sharm El-Sheikh on October 17, following fierce US shuttle diplomacy, managed to achieve a near agreement on ways to end the violence in the Occupied Territories. Then, Palestinians insisted on a UN led investigation of the violence, yet were pressured to accept a US fact-finding mission.
Israeli government officials who were aggressively seeking other alternatives to fact-finding missions, welcomed the US-led inquiry after deliberating the possible inquiry reports informally for 10 days with panel members. Israel’s acting Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that he’ll do all that he can to help the inquiry succeed.
Yet from the start, the role of the inquiry was clear, a clarity that was once more brought to light on December 11, as the five-member panel arrived in the Middle East, meeting with both Barak, PA President Yasser Arafat and other leaders.
“This commission is not a tribunal,” said committee member Javier Solana, the EU Foreign Policy Chief, briefing reporters after a meeting with Israel’s Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami. Such remarks were an honest reading of the commission’s role. Later in Egypt, he reiterated that the panel’s goal is not to assign blames nor to “inflame” the situation. As a result, Palestinians had very little to hope for.
One the other hand, Solana’s remarks were very comforting to Israel who has thus far been harshly criticized for employing unconventional military means to suppress a popular uprising.
Former US Senator George Michell, who heads the commission, also left no doubt that his job is not to determine the perpetrators of the violence but to find ways to halt the violence, regardless of aggressed and aggressor. “Our hope is that the work will be helpful to the parties in reducing the level of violence.. and to help ensure an early return to the negotiating table,” said Michell after the conclusion of his meeting with Barak.
The nature of the investigators’ mission surely pleased Israel and disappointed Palestinians who find the backing of international law (resembled in the recent UN resolution 1322), the UN Human Rights Commission’s criticism of Israel and a dozen international rights group’s support impotent compared to Israel’s influence.
Moreover, Israel’s alleged cooperation with the inquiry stems from the fact that the mission, aside from its insufficient mandate, will have a limited scope while exploring the causes of the violence. They’ll neither visit spots where violence was at its height, nor carry out a self-reliant inquisition. Instead, as summed up by Israel Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel who spoke to reporters one day prior to the commission’s arrival, “the largest part of the panel’s work will be based on written documents.” In fact, both Israel and Palestinians presented their written narration of the events to the panel; Israel accused Arafat of masterminding the violence and the PA described Israel as the world’s last colonial power.
Independent Palestinian groups and influential figures in the West Bank and Gaza however were forthright regarding their views of the commission and its unpromising investigation.
“We’re tired of getting symbolic gestures,” lamented Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and a former spokeswoman for the Palestinian negotiation team. She told reporters, “the international community must show it has some will of its own and will not be influenced by Israel.”
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), like other human rights groups in the Occupied Territories was as direct regarding its stand on the US-led commission. The group’s statement called on “Palestinian civil rights organizations and political spectrum to boycott the fact-finding mission.” And like other groups, PCHR saw that the committee’s mandate “lacks the minimum standards that must be found in an international, independent, neutral and objective commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations and crimes committed by the Israeli occupation forces against Palestinians civilians ..”
The commission’s slow assembly is likely to lead to a slow investigation, and later a mild and politically motivated report. Palestinians, being fully aware of the many deficiencies engulfing the mission, are cooperating nonetheless, fearing that Israel might employ any Palestinian hesitance to score politically. Israel, little concerned with the investigation’s outcome, has at least succeeded, in polishing its internationally unpopular image, even if a little.