Mideast focus of international reaction

By SAUD ABU RAMADAN  |  April 22, 2002 at 9:25 PM
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GAZA, April 22 (UPI) -- Monday brought a swirl of developments -- in the Mideast and elsewhere -- in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has exploded to record levels of violence in the last few months.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, the trial of four Palestinians accused of the October 2001 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi opened and then adjourned. The proceedings were conducted in the besieged headquarters compound of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

In New York, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan named the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, to lead a three-member fact-finding team to the Jenin refugee camp. Israel faced fresh allegations from Amnesty International on Monday that its troops committed crimes against humanity and violations of the Geneva conventions there.

In Washington, the White House told United Press International that U.S. investigators were in Jenin attempting to determine what occurred in the refugee camp during the Israeli occupation.

And in Bethlehem, there were exchanges of gunfire at the Church of the Nativity, where more than 200 Palestinians -- clergy, gunmen, and others -- have taken refuge, surrounded by Israeli troops and now running out of food and water. Israeli soldiers confiscated press passes from journalists trying to cover the continuing standoff.

The four Palestinians on trial for the Zeevi slaying have been the focus of an Israeli-Palestinian tug-of-war. Israel has insisted that the suspects be handed over to the Israeli authorities for trial in Israel, but the Palestinians -- citing jurisdiction outlined in the Oslo peace accords -- have refused to do so.

Officials in Arafat's compound said the judges appointed are three Palestinian officers who have been in the shattered headquarters since it was surrounded by Israeli tanks March 29.

The officials said that after the defendants told the court that they did not have legal representation, the judges appointed members of the Palestinian police to act as their attorneys.

After the charges were read for about an hour, the court was adjourned. No date has been announced for its continuation.

The four are said to be members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which admitted killing Zeevi in October 2001 in revenge for the Israeli slaying of their leader Abu Ali Mustafa in Ramallah in August that year.

Even as the long-awaited trial in Ramallah opened, the U.N. secretary-general's designee to head the Jenin inquiry was announced in New York.

In addition to Ahtisaari -- who served on the Mitchell Commission in Northern Ireland -- Sadako Ogata, former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and Cornelio Sommaruga, former head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was named to the team.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. William Nash, a former U.N. regional administrator in Northern Kosovo, will serve as the team's military adviser and Peter Fitzgerald, an assistant commissioner of the Irish police, will help with his policing experience.

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials said they were disappointed with the makeup of the committee, according to the Web site of the Ha'aretz newspaper.

And in Washington, the United States said it had its own investigators on the ground.

"We want to hear what the evidence is," said Michael Anton, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council. He said President George W. Bush is awaiting these direct reports as he continues to grapple with the Middle East crisis.

Anton said the administration has no set deadline for determining what occurred there and that they were not yet 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."

Israel faced more criticism on Monday for its operation in Jenin, when representatives of the rights group Amnesty International -- who visited the camp over the weekend --issued their 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 extrajudicial 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 said they entered the Jenin camp April 3 because a number of suicide bombers came from the teeming refugee center, which was home to some 13,000 Palestinians. Israeli officials said their occupation aimed to uproot an "infrastructure of terror" there and prevent more suicide attacks.

The camp saw the fiercest fighting of the recent Israeli offensive, with Palestinian police and militants resisting the much more heavily armed Israelis in house-to-house fighting.

After 13 Israeli soldiers were killed April 9 in a single ambush, the military changed its tactics, employing armored bulldozers to demolish houses were 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.

Israeli officials have reacted angrily to the criticism, saying that 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.

But Palestinian allegations of a "massacre" in the town were given apparent weight by the refusal of the Israeli military to allow journalists into the camp for several days. The military says this was necessary because of the ongoing fighting.

The camp was opened last week, and Monday it was in Bethlehem that reporters felt the long arm of the Israeli military.

Government press cards were taken from a number of foreign and local journalists in the town, one of two hot spots in the West Bank where the Israeli military continue to directly confront Palestinians.

A reporter for the Wafa news agency in the town said an Israeli officer took the press cards of 24 reporters who work for Reuters, The Associated Press and the British Broadcasting Corp., among other media outlets.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman said press cards were confiscated from 17 journalists who had entered a closed military zone. They were sent back to the Government Press Office that had issued them.

"I do not believe they will be returned that quickly (to the journalists)," the spokesman said.

The Foreign Press Association, which represents foreign correspondents covering Israel and the Palestinian territories, strongly protested the move.

The association said it was an "arbitrary and unfounded" enforcement of restrictions that amount to "a transparent attempt to control and restrict coverage of the standoff at the church that far exceeds any conceivable security justification.

"It also violates the spirit of the assurance given to the FPA by the military last week that the closed military zone policy would be lifted," the statement added.

It called upon the military to immediately return the press cards and "stop all efforts to impede coverage of the crisis."

The FPA said the officer confiscated the cards about 400 meters (yards) from the Church of Nativity area where journalists had not been stopped in the past.

An Israeli TV crew was allowed much closer to Manger Square only Sunday, the statement added.

The Palestinian reporters said a group of journalists approached Manger Square on Monday, as they have daily since the siege began, and an Israeli army major told them that they were in a restricted area.

Jivara al Bodeiri, a Palestinian reporter in Bethlehem who works for al Jazeera television, said the officer ordered them to hand over their Israeli government-issued press cards, which are essential for crossing military checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and attending official press briefings in Israel.


(With reporting by Anwar Iqbal and Kathy A. Gambrell in Washington and William M. Reilly at the United Nations.)

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