Monday, December 11, 2000

'The last example of belligerent foreign occupation'

The international commission probing the violence between Israel and the Palestinians begins its work today. In a document submitted to it, the PLO calls for as broad an inquiry as possible and wants a host of international experts to take part

By Amira Hass


Last Friday, the PLO submitted a document to the team appointed by the U.S. administration to serve as an international commission of inquiry into the causes of the clashes between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinians, which began at the end of September. The members of the committee, headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, are expected here today for initial talks with Israeli and Palestinian representatives. They are set to meet this afternoon in Gaza with Yasser Arafat and Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO's executive committee, who together with a team of aides wrote the document, and will maintain contact with the committee.On October 7, 2000, the United Nations Security Council recommended (in resolution No. 1322, refering to the first 10 days of clashes in the territories) the setting up of a "mechanism for inquiry." This vague terminology was an attempt to bridge the gap between the initial Palestinian demand for an international commission of inquiry and Israel's stern objection to such a body. On October 17, at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit, President Bill Clinton announced that "the United States will develop with the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as in consultation with the United Nations' Secretary General, a committee of fact-finding on the events of the past several weeks, and how to prevent their recurrence."

This wording satisfied Israel. But despite the fact that it was presented by the Palestinian Authority as an achievement, it was perceived by the Palestinian public as a softening of the original Palestinian demand. The Palestinians continued to refer to this committee - which, much to their discontent, President Clinton delayed setting up until the end of November - as an "International Inquiry Commission," and insisted on giving it more and more substance. Their request to include Nelson Mandela on the team was not granted.

The stated goal of the document submitted by the PLO Friday, and obtained by Ha'aretz, is to ensure that the scope of the committee's investigations be as wide as possible. To that end, the Palestinians are proposing not only the issues they want examined, but also the names of world-renowned experts whom they believe should conduct most of the work and submit their findings to the political figures heading the team. This document thus signals the opening of a new diplomatic-political battleground between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Palestinians are convinced that Israel's goal is to limit the commission's mandate as far as possible, so that it fits the Israeli stand that the violence was initiated by the Palestinian Authority and is a struggle between two armed forces - in other words, that there is need only for recommendations of a purely "security" nature. The document hints that the Palestinian public is very skeptical about a commission in which Israel, to a large extent, managed to impose on the United States. Its writers are convinced that only a committee based on a broader perception and anchored in international treaties and various Security Council resolutions, will be able to clear up these doubts.

The starting point of such a commission must be, the document asserts, that "Israel is a belligerent occupation force" in the entire West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip, and that the violence is a popular uprising against this occupation. Only thus will the committee be able to respond to the main recommendation in the Security Council's resolution of October 7, 2000, not only to conduct a "speedy and objective inquiry" of the tragic events, but also to "prevent their recurrence."

"The alternative," warns the document, "a purely diplomatic commission lacking professional expertise in relevant fields of investigation and operating within a political framework concentrating solely on 'security' issues - would be counterproductive, further feeding the sense of despair among Palestinians." In other words, if the world - and the United States at its head - wish to guarantee stability in the region, they must work against the Israeli attempt to minimize the commission's powers.

Resolution 1322, appended to the document, "calls upon Israel, the occupying power, to abide scrupulously by its obligations and its responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of 12 August 1949." The authors of the document quote a host of other international resolutions supporting this presentation of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. In effect, the Palestinians are saying that this is a war, but a war being conducted between a civilian population entitled to international protection, and a foreign occupying military force.

The PLO requests in its document that the international commission "examine the causes of the current events ... not as an exercise in finger pointing ... but rather as an important means of understanding the nature of the current events, as well as a prerequisite for the formulation of effective recommendations." These recommendations, the Palestinian document proposes, must cover three aspects: ending the current violence; preventing a recurrence of violence in the future; and "facilitating the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace."

The document proposes that Mitchell appoint international experts in various fields, and that two of them - the American law professors Bassiouni Cherif and Richard Falk - should be co-chairs. "Given that the Israeli occupation is the last example of belligerent foreign occupation involving active colonization," the Palestinians propose a list of experts in statistics, data collection and analysis, international humanitarian law, protection of civilians in times of conflict, criminal investigation, demographics, economics, forensics, ballistics and weapons use and psychology.

This list of international experts, who have already expressed their willingness to serve on the committee, is appended to the document. They should, the document proposes, "be located in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel, and should oversee and conduct the ongoing investigation." The experts must enjoy complete freedom of movement and other immunities. The experts are the ones who should hand the final report to the chairman of the committee. The PLO believes that this approach could, both in terms of structure and in terms of substance, "do much to prevent the politicization of the Commission's mandate, and will allow it to carry out its powers and responsibilities in an impartial, reliable and credible manner."

In a relatively short chapter, the Palestinians present their version of "the roots of the current uprising." Here they note the Palestinians' expectation that the Oslo process would yield a fair solution to the conflict, based on UN resolutions, and the Palestinian willingness for a compromise, and coexistence between a Palestinian state on "22 percent of the area of mandatory Palestine" and the state of Israel.

However, "the Oslo process has done nothing to deliver the Palestinians from the humiliation, harassment and deprivation that have characterized their lives under Israeli military occupation," the document argues.

At Camp David, "Israel rejected any terms of reference other than the facts on the ground, facts Israel has imposed by force over 33 years of military occupation. To Palestinians, Camp David represented nothing less than an attempt by Israel to extend the force it exercises on the ground to the negotiations." And then came Sharon's visit to Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount) and the killing of five worshipers at Al Aksa on the following day.

Therefore, the Palestinians say, the international investigation must include the following points: "violence against the civilian population, collective punishment measures, transfer of Israeli population to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (including attacks on the Palestinian population by Israeli settlers), and destruction of the economic sector." Details widely covering these issues will be submitted to the commission later on, the document promises.

It is interesting to note that the document is signed not by the Palestinian Authority, but rather by the PLO. The official explanation for this is that according to the Oslo agreements, the PA is not a sovereign entity, and therefore the PLO - recognized by Israel in the Declaration of Principles - represents the Palestinians in the international arena. For the same reason, the PA never set up a "foreign ministry."

But in recent years, these distinctions have purposely been blurred, in a deliberate attempt to grant the PA the semblance of sovereignty. The Palestinian Ministry for Planning and Cooperation, headed by Dr. Nabil Sha'ath, gradually took upon itself more and more of the authority of a foreign ministry. The Palestinian assertion now that Israel is acting as an occupying power, and as such is in breech of its commitments to the occupied Palestinian population, has forced the Palestinian representatives to lessen - no doubt without directly intending to do so - the status of the Palestinian Authority.

On an internal Palestinian level, the PLO's signing of the document and its call to view Israel as an occupying force throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, contradicts previous assertions by the PA, that it is in control of the areas "liberated" from the Israeli occupation. It instead coincides with claims voiced over the past two months by Palestinian critics, that the PA has been of no real consequence in the recent events; that with the exception of the ministries of health and education, its institutes have no effect, and the struggle against the Israeli occupation is being conducted by a frustrated public, which feels devoid of both a leadership and a defense


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