Investigation into Mideast violence begins

WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 (JTA) – A U.S.-led international commission investigating Israeli-Palestinian violence is hoping its work will help reduce the violence in the region and lead the parties back to the negotiating table.

The commission went to work Monday amid new incidents of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Three Israelis and at least 10 Palestinians have been killed since last Friday in some of the worst violence in the 10-week old crisis.

The chairman of the commission, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, said after a three-hour meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak that both sides have promised to cooperate with the panel.

The commission met later Monday with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Gaza City and then flew to Egypt.

Mitchell said Tuesday the panel plans to visit the region several more times before issuing its report.

“It’s not our intention to inflame the situation,” he said after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. “We are not going to be pointing fingers.”

Mitchell has said he expects the commission to issue a report on its findings by March.

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 Palestinian media have played in the violence, an Israeli official here 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.

For their part, 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 agreed to cooperate with the commission only a week ago, and Israeli lawyers and Cabinet ministers were set to work with the group.

Last week, Gilad Sher, an aide to Barak, told Israel Radio that Israel would cooperate with the commission fully and transparently. A chief negotiator for the Palestinians, Nabil Sha’ath, said the Palestinian Authority would give the commission 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 was told the commisison would not interview witnesses without letting the parties know.

Mitchell, who mediated peace efforts in Northern Ireland, is joined by four other committee members: European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, a former NATO secretary general; former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman, the Jewish senator 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.

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

The Palestinians had wanted a U.N.-led inquiry, which the Israelis rejected.

The Israelis also reject a Palestinian demand that the United Nations send a force of unarmed military observers to the region to protect civilians.

The U.N. Security Council was considering a resolution on the matter this week, but U.N. and U.S. officials have said it would be difficult to send such observers without Israel’s consent.

The international 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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