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Commission Due in Mideast This Week, but Its Mandate is Still Cause for Debate

A U.S.-led international commission to investigate the Israeli-Palestinian violence is expected to reach the region this week.

With three Israelis and seven Palestinians killed in fresh violence over the weekend, the commission will get to work just as tensions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are heating up once more.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to the fact-finding commission at a mid-October summit in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, but the commission’s goals continue to be debated.

Israel wants the commission to look into the actions of the Palestinian Authority, the question of Palestinian leaders’ incitement and the role the Palestinian media have played in the violence, an Israeli official said.

The Palestinians see the commission as a propaganda vehicle, the official said.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that Israel is preparing evidence to persuade the panel that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for encouraging the violence.

Palestinian officials want the commission to have a broader scope, and they say that Israel’s refusal to abide by U.N. resolutions and its occupation of land that the Palestinians claim ought to be subject to the commission’s scrutiny.

Israel indicated only last Sunday that it would cooperate with the commission, which is led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who mediated peace efforts in Northern Ireland.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak may meet with the commission members, and Israeli lawyers and Cabinet ministers plan to work with the group.

The other members of the committee include European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, a former NATO secretary general; former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman, the Jewish leader best known for co-authoring deficit reduction law and cross- examining Oliver North during the Iran-Contra hearings; former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel; and Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland.

Jagland met with Barak and Arafat in August and said then that there was a real possibility to advance the peace negotiations if both sides showed “a creative approach.”

President Clinton made the appointments in consultation with Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Mitchell has described the commission’s goal as helping to break the cycle of violence so that the two sides can resume their efforts toward peace. He said a few weeks ago that he expects the commission to issue a report on its findings by March.

Israel had sought to delay the investigation, saying Palestinian violence must first stop.

The Palestinians had wanted a U.N.-led inquiry, and they still are pressing for a U.N. force of unarmed military observers to protect civilians.

Last week, Gilead Sher, an aide to Barak, told Israel Radio that Israel would cooperate with the commission fully and transparently. Palestinian Minister for Planning and International Cooperation Nabil Shaath said the Palestinian Authority would give it total freedom to investigate.

Israeli foreign ministry sources said Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami had told U.S. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger that Israel understood the commission would not have the authority of an official inquiry and would not interview witnesses without letting the parties know.

The commission’s findings and recommendations will go to the next U.S. president and to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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