WASHINGTON, April 22 (UPI) -- The White House said Tuesday that President George W. Bush is waiting to hear the facts from Jenin, where reports have emerged that Israeli soldiers killed unarmed Palestinians and were guilty of war crimes.
A U.N. delegation is heading to the Middle East to conduct an investigation into the alleged atrocities at the Jenin refugee camp.
"The president is saying he wants facts. He wants information. The president understands that in war-like situations and Israel says this is a war -- the Palestinians said something similar -- that truth is often of the first casualties. And it's important for the facts to be determined," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer during his afternoon briefing with reporters.
The White House said it was not yet prepared to give credence to reports of Israel's alleged atrocities, but added Bush's stance may change if the U.N. fact-finding mission and other inquiries in the region unearths evidence of such action.
National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton said the Bush administration has no deadline for determining what occurred in the West Bank and that the administration was not ready to give "credence" to allegations of crimes against humanity. He said the White House would not make statements about what occurred in Jenin until it had "full evidence."
Assistant Secretary of State Bill Burns who visited Jenin on Friday called Secretary of State Colin Powell over the weekend and described the scene in Jenin as "disturbing."
The United States expects to deliver some 800 family-sized tents for people who have been left homeless in the wake of the two-week battle that raged within the encampment.
The U.N. Security Council Monday ordered a fact-finding team into Jenin, which was home to some 13,000 Palestinian refugees.
Israeli forces entered the camp April 3, saying it was a base for terrorists, and that the incursion was designed to root out an "infrastructure of terror and prevent further attacks."
The camp saw the fiercest fighting of the recent Israeli offensive. After 13 Israeli soldiers were killed April 9 in an ambush, the military changed its tactics, employing armored bulldozers to demolish buildings where militants were thought to have concealed themselves.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been left homeless, and there is no clear count of the dead -- estimates range from dozens to hundreds -- nor of what proportion of them may have been unarmed.
At issue are allegations of a massacre by Israeli soldiers in the camp. Palestinian officials say hundreds of refugees were killed, either bulldozed in their homes or shot and buried in mass graves.
On Monday, representatives of the human-rights group Amnesty International -- who visited the camp over the weekend -- issued a preliminary report.
"The evidence compiled indicates that serious breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed, including war crimes," said Amnesty's Javier Zuniga.
Zuniga said there was evidence of extra-judicial executions; failure to allow humanitarian aid into the camp for 13 days, to help residents who were trapped in the rubble of demolished houses or running out of food and water; the use of civilians as "human shields"; the denial of medical assistance to the wounded and the deliberate targeting of ambulances. But he added that only an independent international commission could establish the full facts.
Israeli officials have reacted angrily to previous criticism, saying they demolished only houses from which they were fired upon, took great care to minimize civilian casualties -- for example, eschewing the use of air power -- and that this restraint cost the lives of Israeli soldiers.
"It is difficult to find an army in the entire world that would fight a war in such a moral way," one Israeli Cabinet official told reporters Sunday, pointing out that 23 soldiers had been killed in Jenin.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States had serious concerns about the situation in Jenin and "about the humanitarian situation, more generally, of the Palestinian people.
"We've called upon Israel to respect humanitarian principles," he told reporters.
When asked if Israel had allowed "free and unfettered access" to humanitarian workers to the Jenin refugee camp, Boucher said he would not try to "give a daily update on who got in and who didn't."
"We've stressed that before, and we'll continue to stress how important that is, that Israel needs to facilitate the access because there are people in need, and they need to get the assistance that's being offered," Boucher added.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Sunday defended his government's actions saying, "there are things that Israel does because we don't have a choice..."
He said the West Bank incursion came after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat failed to arrest Palestinians who engaged in terrorism.
"He is supposed to do it by commitment, by agreement. He didn't do it, and we were left without a choice," Peres told NBC television.
The U.N. Security Council on Monday dispatched Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, to Jenin on a fact-finding mission to investigate the complaints. The U.N. team will also include former High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata and Cornelio Sommaruga, former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Bill Nash will serve as military adviser while Thomas Peter Fitzgerald of Ireland will be the team's police adviser.
"I expect the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to cooperate fully with the team and provide full and complete access to all sites, sources of information and individual that the team will consider necessary to meet in the exercise of their functions," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters in New York.
The allegations of war crimes in Jenin, if proven true, could be problematic for the Bush White House, which has maintained Israel's right to defend itself in the wake of a spate of suicide bombings last month that killed some 130 Israelis.
On the one hand, conservatives such as evangelist Pat Robertson and commentator Bill Kristol have sharply criticized what they consider Bush's light-handed approach to dealing with Arafat, whom they consider a terrorist. Robertson expressed his dismay at Bush's call last year for a Palestinian state.
On Friday, Powell assured the visiting Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib ben Yahia that Washington still supports the creation of such a state. Other U.S. officials indicated that Bush is likely to give a similar message next week to King Mohammed VI of Morocco and Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia when they visit Washington.
Conversely, liberal organizations and pro-Arab groups believe Bush has made himself complicit in Israeli killings and human-rights violations by giving them the green light to use American-made weaponry with little regard for the welfare of Palestinian civilians.
That disagreement, foreign policy analysts say, may mirror divisions within the administration itself, where Powell believes Arafat is still a viable interlocutor for peace negotiations, while the more conservative Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have been willing to invoke the Bush doctrine and write Arafat off as a terrorist.
Charles V. Pena, senior defense analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, said the Jenin issue has placed the United States in a difficult position.
"If it turns out that something really did happen there, we're going to have a hard time continuing to steadfastly defend the Sharon government and Israel's actions," Pena said.
"And yet, that's probably exactly what we will do. The United States and Israel are so closely tied, I can't see this administration or any administration being that critical of any Israeli actions," Pena said.
Indeed, despite calls -- most recently from former President Jimmy Carter -- to use the $3 billion a year in U.S. aid as a lever against Israel, Powell said Sunday that such action was not on the administration's agenda. At the same time, Powell also said he was not satisfied with the pace of the Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories.
"I'm not completely satisfied," Powell told CBS' "Face the Nation."
"I would like to see the withdrawal continue until there is no question about it. And I would ultimately like to see those units back in their garrisons and not poised in the way they are," Powell said.
Sharon said Sunday that the current phase of the incursion was over. However, he added that Israeli troops would continue to besiege Arafat's headquarters compound in Ramallah, and would remain in Bethlehem until the standoff at the Church of the Nativity was resolved.
Sharon also said Israel would be willing to participate in a peace conference with Arab leaders.
But the White House said Monday the idea of a peace conference was just that.
"It would be premature to get into any details of something that's not been agreed to and is right now in the idea stage," Fleischer said.