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Behind the Headlines: Idea of Mideast Monitors Raised As Group Oversees Militants’ Jailing

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Among the questions under debate in the foreign policy community is whether to send American troops or monitors to serve as peacekeepers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The proposal does not have widespread support, but the idea of supplying either armed or unarmed observers has been mentioned repeatedly this month as other approaches have failed to achieve a lasting cease-fire.

The first American and British monitors are expected to arrive in Ramallah this week as part of a deal to end the siege on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s compound. U.S. and British officials will make sure that six wanted men who have been holed up with Arafat are kept in jail in Jericho.

Some are speculating that the mission may be the first step toward a larger U.S. presence on the ground.

“One would have to take this on a case-by-case basis,” a White House official said. “We all learn from past experience, and if in the future monitors is something to talk about, having a positive experience may be helpful.”

Administration officials say the force heading to Ramallah has a specific goal and will not be expanded. Plus, while Israel agreed to an international presence to end the Ramallah siege, it remains staunchly opposed to a full- fledged monitoring force.

But Palestinians, who long have argued for international intervention to “protect” them from Israel hope the monitors will become part of an overall strategy for deeper U.S. and international involvement.

Palestinian Authority officials believe any monitoring group would focus on Israeli military incursions and “targeted killings” of Palestinian terrorists – – and would be hard-pressed to link the Palestinian leadership to terror attacks against Israel.

Israel claims that international monitors can do little to curb violence in the absence of a true peace agreement, and will focus on Israeli retaliations because they are more easily monitored than the terror attacks that precipitate them.

“The rationale is that terror organizations are mainly invisible to this kind of observers,” an official with the Israel Defense Force said. “They might see their outcomes, such as suicide bombings, but they will not see the activities on the ground. In contrast, Israeli activities are very visible for such monitors.”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell broached the idea of unarmed monitors on a visit to the region almost a year ago, saying a small group of enforcers from the United States and perhaps other countries could assess any implementation of a cease-fire. That would conform with the work plan written by CIA Director George Tenet and the “confidence-building” phase of the peace plan drafted by former Sen. George Mitchell.

Observers would be needed “to see what’s happening on the ground, to serve as interlocutors, to go to points of friction and make an independent observation of what has happened,” Powell said at the time. He stressed that the makeup of such an unarmed monitoring force still was undetermined, but later said any force would need the approval of both sides.

The Bush administration has never advocated sending an armed force to the region. Such a suggestion would be controversial, considering that Pentagon officials are attempting to minimize U.S. participation in other peacekeeping missions, including the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai.

“At this point, I will say I have been given nothing that leads me to believe that any commitment of American troops to that crisis area has been made,” Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said earlier this month. “I simply don’t think any decision has been made.”

But that has not stopped speculation about a possible armed peacekeeping force, fueled mostly by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who said he has been told by U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni that the United States plans to send some type of force to the region.

“Our interests are so major there to stop this idea of suicide bombing from becoming a common practice which could threaten us, so that if it comes to having a U.S. involvement, I think they ought to be armed and I think they ought to be military, whether you call them monitors or peacekeepers,” Specter said April 3 on CBS’ “Early Show.”

Analysts say the conditions for a monitoring or peacekeeping force for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would differ significantly from the most successful mission in the Middle East to date, the multinational force along the Israeli-Egyptian border.

“Third-party troops in any situation are most useful when they are looked on as friends of both sides or neutral to both sides,” said Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Bryen wondered whether a U.S. peacekeeping force would require the U.S. to share Israeli security data with the Palestinians or keep Palestinian information secret from Israel, in the name of serving as an honest mediator.

“Neutrality is not what we want from the United States,” she said.

Bryen also said maintaining a peacekeeping force for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be difficult because there is no peace agreement to enforce and no defined line separating the two nations.

Others point to the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, which was implemented in 1996 as part of the Oslo peace process and generally is considered unsuccessful because it has failed to prevent violence in Hebron.

There also is the threat of U.S. casualties.

“Placing U.S. troops between Israelis and Palestinian terrorists raises the likelihood that American soldiers could become victims of terrorism. Unless both parties agree on the idea, it is really a non-starter,” said Rebecca Needler, a spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The IDF official said Israel could change its mind if it feels a monitoring force, either armed or unarmed, could prevent suicide bombings.

“The main element Israelis need to accept such an idea is proof that these forces could eliminate terrorism in Israel,” he said.

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