- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday lashed out at a U.S. fact-finding mission probing the violence in the West Bank and Gaza, saying it was wrong for the commission to be questioning Israel's role in the fighting.
Speaking in a radio interview hours before meeting the team, which is led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, Mr. Sharon dubbed the decision by Israel's previous government to agree to the mission a "historic mistake."
The Palestinians complain that after four months, the commission has nothing to show for its work.
The group has been in the region since Wednesday gathering testimony and other evidence for a report that will analyze what caused the eruption of violence between Israelis and Palestinians here last September and how to halt the fighting.
"No one in this world has the right to put Israel on trial. No one. On the contrary, Israel may have the right to put others on trial, but certainly no one has the right to put the Jewish people and the state of Israel on trial," Mr. Sharon told Israel Radio.
"I believe that under the present circumstances, I have no choice but to meet with the committee members … [but] I think it is wrong, unjustified, and will just complicate matters for Israel," he added.
Mr. Sharon's own visit Sept. 28 to a Jerusalem shrine holy to Muslims and Jews touched off the fighting. At the time, he was leader of the right-wing opposition in Israel.
Israelis and Palestinians agreed to the probe last October, during a summit led by President Clinton. The meeting's aim was to douse a violent conflagration at the time only a few weeks old and bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Since then, the political circumstances have shifted dramatically both in the United States and in the Middle East.
In a national Israeli election last month, Mr. Sharon, viewed by much of the world as a political hard-liner, ousted Prime Minister Ehud Barak, reducing chances of Israelis and Palestinians clinching a final peace agreement.
In the West Bank and Gaza, six months of fighting, nearly 350 casualties and a military closure imposed on most cities have turned much of the population against peace with Israel.
Maybe most importantly, in Washington, President Bush is less inclined than his predecessor to wade in the murky waters of Middle East peacemaking, leaving the two sides to slog alone.
Much to the consternation of Palestinians, who had high hopes for the commission, these factors have obfuscated the team's mission and delayed its work.
"Look at what this has become," said an official close to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "The violence has been going for months, but they're only now starting to investigate."
From the start, the commission's precise mandate was hazy.
Israel, long distrustful of international intervention, aimed to keep the probe short and simple. Palestinians, pining for the kind of investigation conducted into Yugoslavia's war crimes or the human rights violations in East Timor, had hoped the findings would ignite world pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza.
In two lengthy documents presented to Mr. Mitchell's team, Palestinians said the starting point for the investigation should be the illegality of Israel's occupation.
One document lists international experts in law, forensics and ballistics who already have agreed to serve as an adjunct to the commission, collecting evidence in the West Bank and Gaza. It also suggests Mr. Mitchell's team should have the power to subpoena witnesses.
"The commission should undertake to examine the events in the context of Israel's legal obligations as an occupying power and the broader political context," a passage says.
"An analysis of the recent events cannot be divorced from the fact that they have taken place in territory under belligerent occupation."
The United Nations and human rights groups have accused Israel of using too much force including tanks and helicopter gunships to quell the Palestinian insurrection.
Israel says its actions have been commensurate with the threat posed by Palestinian gunmen, though the casualty figures are conspicuously lopsided. About 66 Israeli Jews have been killed in the fighting. Among the Palestinian dead are scores of youngsters under age 18.
Mr. Mitchell, reacting to Mr. Sharon's comments, tried to defuse the tension. "We are not a tribunal. We do not believe that anyone is on trial," he told reporters in Jerusalem.
Israel has argued that Palestinians plotted their uprising long before it began Sept. 28, and that Mr. Arafat ordered the violence when he couldn't wrest all of the West Bank and Gaza from Israel at the Camp David summit last July.
Mr. Sharon says Palestinians used his Sept. 28 visit to the Jerusalem shrine, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims, as a pretext for violence.
"Arafat believed that by exerting pressure, or by launching a wave of terrorist attacks, he could either get more from Israel or perhaps bring about international intervention. All these facts are now clear, and therefore the personal element plays no part here," Mr. Sharon told Israel Radio.
Members of the investigating team led by Mr. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, include former Sen. Warren Rudman, New Hampshire Republican, and European officials. They have met with officials on both sides in recent days and heard from the families of Palestinians killed in the clashes. The team is due to issue its findings by June.

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