Israel Delays Arrival of UN Fact-Finders

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli government ministers decided on Tuesday to further delay the arrival of a United Nations fact-finding team, until it receives certain clarifications from the world body.

The three-member UN team, headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, has been waiting in Geneva since the end of last week to head to the region and begin a fact-finding mission on the Israeli military operation in the Jenin refugee camp.

"Israel presented several matters to the UN that are essential to holding a fair probe, but as long as these conditions are not met, it will be impossible for the team to proceed," the security cabinet said in a statement."

The decision was unanimous, with the exception of Minister Yitzhak Levy, who believes that Israel could have the mission canceled altogether.

Israel originally agreed to the mission, but it later backtracked, saying that it had become clear that the mandate of the team had been changed from its original mission.

Of particular concern to Israel is the fact that the three-member team is composed of experts in humanitarian law but not in military or counter-terrorism operations.

Foreign Ministry Legal Advisor Alan Baker, who was part of an Israeli team sent to the UN headquarters in New York to ask for certain clarifications, said there are two main sticking points as far as Israel is concerned.

"That the principles are sufficiently clarified so as to ensure [that it is an] impartial and genuine fact-finding committee," Baker said by telephone.

Israel is also concerned about the extent to which the team will deal with terrorism, Baker said.

The members insist on meeting anyone they want to meet and having access to all documentation. This is not in line with the law concerning fact-finding committees, he said.

The UN Security Council postponed taking any further action on Monday evening pending the Israeli decision on Tuesday.

"At this stage, it was very urgent that we go in, find out what happened, and put all the rumors and the accusations behind us," Secretary General Kofi Annan said on Monday.

It is unclear what action the UN will now take.

According to Baker, the team could decide to stay in Geneva and call people to come to testify before them without Israel's involvement, but they won't be able to summon public officials.

Baker noted that Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently that even America would not agree to appear before such a committee in similar circumstances.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres warned after the Israeli decision that the UN could now appoint a commission of inquiry and could not depend on the U.S. to use its veto power in the Security Council against it since Washington was behind the original proposal.

"We will be completely alone," Peres said in a radio interview.

Peres also said that according to findings thus far by independent fact-finders, seven civilians had been killed in the fierce fighting in the camp as well as more than 40 armed militants.

The Palestinians have accused Israel of perpetrating a massacre in the camp and denying access to humanitarian agencies, who tried to deliver food and supplies and help the wounded.

"It is now blatantly evident to everybody that [there was] no massacre," Baker said.

"More innocent people were massacred in Netanya," he said, in reference to the terrorist attack on the eve of Passover, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Netanya restaurant, killing 28 people and wounding scores more.

The attack was the last straw for Israel, which launched a military operation in most PA-controlled cities, to rout what it called the terrorist infrastructure.

Israel initially delayed the entrance of ambulances and aid workers into the camp, it said, due to the high number of booby-traps in the area.

A former British explosives expert, now working with the Red Cross in Jenin, was quoted in the British paper The Sunday Telegraph as saying that he had found 200 explosive devices.

On the ground

Elsewhere, Israeli troops and tanks remained in the PA-controlled section of the divided city of Hebron for a second day on Tuesday, following a weekend terror attack at a nearby settlement that left four Israelis dead.

According to the Israeli army spokesman's statement, 115 Palestinians were detained, including 18 wanted by Israeli security forces. Explosives, bombs, six M-16 rifles, Law missiles, two machine guns and combat vests were also confiscated there, the spokesman said.

Elite Israeli troops entered the village of Shawara near Bethlehem overnight, in search of militants wanted by Israel. Nearby the standoff continued at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces shot dead two armed Palestinians who were approaching an Israeli settlement. There have been a number of infiltration attempts in the area in the last few weeks.