Middle East

Views from the Arab and Israeli Press

Israel and the Palestinian Authority: Rashomon

A U.N. vehicle destroyed in Jenin. The letters U.N. were covered in black paint, which has been partially scraped away by the photographer (Photo: United Nations Relief and Works Agency).

Palestinians and Israelis agree on one thing: The United Nations is an institution without clout, and the controversy over what happened during Israel’s April incursion into the Jenin refugee camp made that all the more apparent. After the fighting in the West Bank camp subsided, it picked up steam inside the United Nations, when the U.N. General Assembly issued a resolution on May 7 calling for an investigative mission to determine whether the Israeli army had committed a “massacre” in Jenin.

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon initially agreed to let a U.N. fact-finding team into the camp. But Sharon vehemently opposed the composition and scope of the U.N. team formed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In particular, official Israeli opposition focused on the potential politicization of the mission as well as the background of the various members, who were described as having a history of anti-Israel bias and lacking the military expertise necessary to understand the tactics employed by Israel. Encouraged by the George W. Bush administration, the Israeli government finally gave in and reluctantly assented to the investigation.

Then, on May 2, Annan announced that the mission was canceled, citing Israel’s continued refusal to cooperate and the United Nations’ unwillingness to make the substantial changes to the team that Israel was demanding. In defense of rejecting the U.N. mission, an editorial in The Jerusalem Post (April 29)  reminded readers of Israel’s historic mistrust of the international body and concluded, “The great diplomatic accomplishment of the Arab world has been to transform global forums into nests of Israel-bashing. The U.N. General Assembly resolution declaring ‘Zionism equals racism’ is the classic example....The Jenin committee has nothing to do with fact-finding; it is the thin end of a wedge designed to internationalize the conflict....Arafat is angling for an internationally sponsored one-way mirror that lets through Palestinian attacks while hamstringing Israel’s ability to respond in its own defense.”

While speaking at a May 6 meeting with leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, a U.S.-based Jewish civil-rights organization, in Washington, D.C., Sharon emphatically rejected the right of the United Nations to pass judgment on the Israel Defense Forces, saying, “The State of Israel should not be tried by the world. I don’t think any nation in the world has the right to bring citizens of Israel, or the State of Israel, to trial. No one.” Sharon’s statement echoed the rationale given by the Bush administration on the same day for its refusal to vote for ratification of the treaty to establish an International Criminal Court, citing fear that U.S. soldiers could be unfairly prosecuted.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post (May 2), Matthew Gutman cautioned readers that the international status and extralegal symbolism of the mission could have immense political ramifications. Gutman wrote, “If the committee’s findings uphold the allegations against Israel—even on poor reasoning...—this will fundamentally alter the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, and may make it impossible for Israel to resist calls for an international force, the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state, and the prosecution of individuals said to have committed the alleged acts.”

According to Rakan al-Majali in Al-Dustour (April 29), “The most important thing that we learn from this episode is that in the end, Israel considers the many resolutions of the United Nations as just ink on paper.” Abd al-Hadi Butalib echoed this sentiment in his May 8 editorial in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, adding that the most galling aspect of the U.N. mission fiasco is that Israel managed to counter the formation of the team at every turn. “Israel was able to exceed the bounds of any state’s normal ability to alter the duties and conditions on an investigative team,” he fumed, “except for actually editing the Security Council resolution to correspond to its wishes.” Bassam Alyan concurred that there was a double standard at work and stressed in his editorial in Al-Dustour (May 6) that just as Iraq and Libya were penalized because of supposed misdeeds and previous noncompliance with U.N. resolutions, so should Israel as well.

The Arab world’s perception of U.S. bias was further fueled by the resolution in support of Israel passed by both houses of the U.S. Congress on May 2. As Azzam Tawfiq Abu al-Saud suggested in his editorial in Al-Quds (May 8), this explains why the refugees in Jenin refused to accept supplies delivered to the camp by the U.S. Agency for International Development. He cited these events as signs of a deepening rift between the Arab world and the United States.

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