Conflict Brewing over Makeup of U.N. Panel to Look into Jenin

Israel is continuing to press the United Nations to change the makeup and mandate of a fact-finding panel into the military operation in the Jenin refugee camp amid growing concern that the committee was shaped to ensure an anti-Israel conclusion.

With tensions brewing between Israel and the international body, an Israeli team that included the deputy director general of the Defense Ministry headed to New York on Wednesday to try to persuade U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to make the changes.

Annan was expected to be amenable, and the U.N. team was expected to arrive in the region by Saturday, two days behind schedule.

This followed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s reversal late Tuesday of his earlier agreement to cooperate with the fact-finding committee.

Israel said it was suspending its cooperation with the panel, on the grounds that committee members had been chosen without prior coordination with Israel, as per prior arrangements — and that the panel was stacked with humanitarian officials rather than military experts who might be better able to evaluate Israel’s military actions in the camp.

Israel also expressed concern that, once in the field, the committee would expand its investigation beyond the events in the Jenin refugee camp.

Amid a growing sentiment that the U.N. group was stacked against Israel, officials insisted that the panel also investigate the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure in the camp, which prompted the Israeli invasion. About a third of the many suicide bombers who have attacked Israel since the intifada began in September 2000 came from Jenin, Israeli officials have said.

“We wanted the committee to come, because we have nothing to hide,” Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Wednesday. But he added that the U.N. delegates should also look into “what happened in the massacre at the Dolphinarium,” the Tel Aviv disco where more than 20 young Israelis were killed in a suicide bombing last year.

“In the last month alone, 137″ Israelis “were slaughtered, and nearly 700 were wounded,” Ben-Eliezer said. “Is there anyone that’s investigating that?”

The emerging crisis gave fresh expression to many Israelis’ sense that the world, and the U.N. panel, would be biased against Israel from the outset.

“It’s high time the international community stopped speaking with double standards,” President Moshe Katsav said. “With all due respect and esteem for people of conscience and the bleeding-heart liberals of the world, I don’t understand why they’ve clamped their mouths shut for a year and a half while the cruelest of unprecedented terrorist acts were committed against Israeli citizens everywhere.”

Among the issues that set off warning lights in Israel were Annan’s choice of words in announcing the composition of the panel. Officials noted that Annan spoke of “findings and conclusions,” which Israeli officials feared hinted that the panel would pass a judgment on Israel, not just compile facts.

Annan also said the team “will focus on Jenin to begin with,” while the U.N. Security Council resolution that set the panel’s mandate spoke only of the Jenin camp.

There was concern among Israeli officials that the conclusions of the panel might actually constitute an indictment that could be used to bring Israeli officials to an international war crimes court or lead to the imposition of an international peacekeeping force.

Therefore, observers said, it would be better for Israel to deal with the international outcry now rather than fight later against the repercussions of a biased panel.

“From our point of view the whole thing is a setup for Israel,” said Gideon Meir, a senior Foreign Ministry official.

Even before suspending its cooperation with the mission, Israel had expressed misgivings over the commission members. Officials said the members lacked the military background to understand the considerations of an army operation that had encountered armed resistance in an urban area densely populated with civilians.

The panel’s head is former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. The other two members are Cornelio Sommaruga, former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Sadako Ogata, the former U.N. high commissioner for refugees.

After Israel complained, Annan indicated he would expand the committee to include retired U.S. Gen. Bill Nash, who would be better able to evaluate the Israeli army operation as it faced heavy armed resistance in the camp.

But there was concern among some Israelis that the backgrounds of Ogata and Sommaruga in humanitarian work would make them biased against Israel.

Questions also were raised over a possible anti-Semitic bias by Sommaruga. Reports quoted him as asking that if the Star of David of Israel’s Magen David Adom was accepted as a legitimate the International Red Cross, then would the swastika be next.

However, the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser, Alan Baker, who was present at the time of the remarks, disputed the claim of anti-Jewish bias, saying the statements were taken out of context.

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