JERUSALEM (Apr. 21)
Israeli officials are preparing for what may its biggest battle for world opinion since the intifada began in September 2000.
At issue is what took place in the Jenin refugee camp, site of the fiercest fighting after Israel began its military operation in the West Bank late last month in an attempt to round up terrorists and collect illegal arms in Palestinian- controlled cities.
Calls have mounted around the world for a probe of Jenin, where Palestinians say Israel carried out a “massacre” during its anti-terror operation.
According to Palestinian sources, Israel killed 500 innocent Palestinian civilians during the fighting in Jenin.
Israel, in turn, says it killed several dozen Palestinian gunmen — and lost 23 of its own soldiers — in the fighting.
While regretting that the Israel Defense Force caused some civilian casualties, Israeli officials also say that Palestinian gunmen used the refugee camp as a base for terrorist operations against Israel and were therefore responsible for bringing the fight with the IDF into a civilian area.
On Sunday, CNN reported that 43 Palestinians had so far been found dead amid the rubble of Jenin.
Also Sunday, international rescue teams sifted through rubble in the camp in an effort to find and defuse booby traps planted by Palestinian gunmen.
Rescue workers said it was possible but unlikely that someone would be found alive under the debris.
Last Friday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to send a fact-finding team to Jenin to determine what happened there.
The 15-0 vote came hours after Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Israel would welcome such a team.
“Israel has nothing to hide regarding the operation in Jenin,” Peres told Annan, according to officials at Israel’s Mission to the United Nations. “Our hands are clean.”
Jenin had been the site of a fierce battle with armed terrorists, who had deliberately hidden themselves among the civilian population, Peres added.
Earlier last Friday, the United States proposed that the United Nations gather “information” about the devastation in Jenin.
The U.S. proposal came after the Americans had threatened to veto Arab demands for an official U.N. probe.
Supported by Israel, the American text omits the word “investigation,” as Arab nations and others proposed in a draft resolution.
Instead, it says Annan, in cooperation with Israel, could “develop accurate information regarding recent events in the Jenin refugee camp.”
While Israeli officials agreed to cooperate with the fact-finding panel, they are demanding that the mission not be politically biased. They want the panel to exclude the U.N. Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, and the U.N. commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson.
Israeli officials say the two have a pro-Palestinian bias.
After visiting the Jenin refugee camp last week, Roed-Larsen condemned the Israeli military operation there.
Israel’s attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, said at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting that Roed-Larsen’s anti- Israel remarks were lies and the diplomat should be declared persona non grata in Israel.
At the Cabinet session, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that given the worldwide attention to the issue, Israel had no alternative to but to agree to the U.N. fact-finding mission.
But several Cabinet ministers criticized the decision.
Minister Dan Naveh said it would mark the first time that Israeli soldiers would be accountable to outside parties.
Minister Yitzhak Levy said the U.N. fact-finding mission should also look into the “Passover Massacre” in which 28 people were killed on March 27 following a suicide bombing at a seder in Netanya. That attack prompted Israel to launch its military operation in the West Bank two days later.
As Israel girds for a major public relations campaign related to Jenin, its anti-terror campaign appeared to be winding down.
After completing withdrawals from Kalkilya, Tulkarm and Jenin days earlier, Israeli troops on Sunday pulled out of Nablus and parts of Ramallah.
Sharon said Sunday the withdrawals marked the end of the “current phase” of Israel’s battle against terror.
Security forces remained deployed around Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound and around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Israel claims that Arafat is hiding four Palestinians wanted for the murder last October of Cabinet Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, and a fifth Palestinian involved in the Karine-A weapons smuggling ship that Israel intercepted in January.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted Palestinian officials as saying the Israeli demand for the handover of the five is a pretense for the army to storm the compound and hurt Arafat.
Last Friday, Arafat offered to put the suspected killers of Ze’evi on trial in a Palestinian court. Arafat made the proposal after President Bush supported Israel’s demand that the killers be brought to justice.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called on Israel to loosen its siege of Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters.
Easing restrictions on Arafat would give the Palestinian Authority president a chance “to show whether or not he can control forces or bring this security situation under control,” Powell said on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press.”
After returning last week from a 10-day peacemaking tour, Powell also said he expects to return to the Middle East soon.
Asked during a CNN interview whether he considers Arafat a man of peace, Powell said Sunday, “We have to give Arafat a chance to demonstrate that he is a man of peace.”
Meanwhile, Israeli security officials assessing the impact of the IDF operation in the West Bank gave positive, if carefully qualified, assessments of the campaign’s impact on the Palestinian terror infrastructure.
According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, intelligence officials speculated that the operation had dealt a blow to 90 percent of the Palestinian terror network in Jenin; to 80 percent of the networks in Nablus and Ramallah; and to 60 percent in Tulkarm and Kalkilya.
The outcome of the Bethlehem operation was still contingent upon resolution of the standoff at the Church of the Nativity, where some 200 armed Palestinians have been holed up for more than two weeks, Ha’aretz reported.
Less of an impact was felt in Hebron, according to the report, and no impact at all was made in the Gaza Strip, which was not targeted in the IDF operation.
In weekend violence, an Israeli border police officer was killed Saturday in the Gaza Strip.
A Palestinian gunman shot dead Staff Sgt. Uriel Bar-Mimoun, 21, of Ashkelon, near the Erez industrial zone. The military wing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction claimed responsibility.
Five other members of Israel’s security forces were wounded in separate incidents in the West Bank and Gaza.
In another development, Israeli security forces said they prevented three suicide bombers from carrying out attacks inside Israel over the weekend.