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Mitchell Commission shows tilted 'balance'

By Michael Jansen, 05/2001

The Palestine National Authority has accepted the report of the Mitchell Commission on the causes of the Palestinian Intifada, calling the document "balanced".

However, the document is only "balanced" because on most contentious issues it states the positions of both sides in "balanced" fashion without taking sides. The PNA should not be satisfied with such a "balanced" approach because "balance" cannot resolve the existential conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. The Palestinians are battling for their physical existence against the region's major military power which is determined to prevent them from exercising national self-determination on their own soil.

The Mitchell Commission, chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell who helped to broker the Northern Ireland peace accord, calculated too carefully the negative impact of a critical report on Israel and its influential and highly vocal international constituency. Therefore, the commission's report is a blatant political document designed as much to avoid as to address controversial issues, with a couple of exceptions.

First, the commission does its best to take an even-handed stand on the sensitive question of how the Intifada began. It makes the point that the visit of the then opposition leader Ariel Sharon, "accompanied by over 1,000 Israeli police officers" (and soldiers), to the Haram Al Sharif last September did not cause the Intifada. But it makes the point that Israel's brutal suppression of subsequent protests was a major contributor to the insurrection.

Second, the commission does not accept the Israeli contention that the Intifada was planned by the PNA in order to secure, by "violence", the West Bank-Gaza state it could not achieve through negotiations. By rejecting the Israeli "PNA plot" accusation, the commission implies that the Intifada is, indeed, as the Palestinians contend, a spontaneous uprising. However, the commission says the Palestinians did not do enough to curb "violence" once it started while Israel employed excessive "lethal force" to put down Palestinian protests.

And, third, the commission flatly rejects the Israeli definition of the ongoing struggle as an "armed conflict short of war".

The main recommendation of the commission is that the parties should put "an end to all violence". While, on the surface, this seems an appropriate recommendation, it is not. Palestinian "violence" is not "violence" per se but resistance against Israeli occupation, which is a form of geo-politico-military violence against the entire Palestinian people. Therefore, a call for an end to Palestinian "violence" - that is, resistance to occupation - should be coupled with a demand for an end to the Israeli occupation. No one in the Allied camp would have dared suggest the French or Poles halt their resistance against the Nazi occupation of their countries during World War II.

The commission recommends that the PNA make an "all-out effort to enforce a complete cessation of violence" and that Israel make a "100 per cent effort to ensure that potential friction points, where Palestinians come into contact with armed Israelis" do not spark confrontations. The commission also calls for a prompt resumption of security cooperation between the parties.

The second recommendation is that the two sides should make an effort to "rebuild confidence". The initial item the commission says should be addressed is "terrorism", defined as "the deliberate killing and injuring of randomly selected non-combatants for political ends. It seeks to promote a political outcome by spreading terror and demoralisation throughout a population".

Here the commission adopts the Israeli view that the PNA must adopt a strong line against "terrorism" and take "measures to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators. This effort should include immediate steps to apprehend and incarcerate terrorists operating within the PNA's jurisdiction." The commission does not, however, castigate Israel for its routine and widespread use of "terrorism" against the Palestinian populace: the bombardment of Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps, indiscriminate fire into inhabited areas, constant overflight of Palestinian enclaves by Israeli warplanes and helicopters and assassinations of Palestinian community leaders and militants. These actions fit as snugly into the commission's definition of "terrorism" as Palestinian mortar salvoes on Israeli settlements, bomb explosions in Israeli towns and murders of Israeli settlers. The difference between the two "terrorisms" is that Palestinian "terrorism" is not PNA policy while Israeli "terrorism" is state initiated and implemented.

The refusal to tackle Israel's use of "terrorism" is the major shortcoming in the commission's treatment of "violence", amounting to a serious lack of "balance" in its approach to the conflict.

The commission attempts to make up for this by taking a tough line against Israeli settlements, calling for a total freeze on all settlement activity, including "natural growth" of existing settlements, the rubric under which Israel has doubled the settlement population since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. Israel has flatly rejected this recommendation. The commission also recommends that Israel "lift closures, transfer to the PNA all revenues owed, and permit Palestinians who have been employed in Israel to return to their jobs."

On the deployment of an international force demanded by the PNA to protect the Palestinians, the commission takes a non-committal line, saying that such a force "would need the support of both parties".

The third recommendation is that the parties "resume negotiations", but it refuses to define the starting point. Israel calls for "unconditional talks", but says it will not resume negotiations at the point where they were broken off in January, the demand of the Palestinian side. Thus, the commission does nothing to break the impasse on the resumption of negotiations. Instead, the commission, weakly, calls for implementation of outstanding provisions of existing agreements. This, too, is a contentious issue because each side has a long list of complaints against the other.

It is tragically all-too-clear that the Mitchell Commission failed to seriously deal with the basic issues which divide Palestinians and Israelis and to honestly apportion blame for the eruption of "violence" in the West Bank and Gaza. Like so many commissions and investigative committees which have tried to tackle the Palestine-Israel problem over the decades, the Mitchell Commission fell victim to pro-Israel political pressures. Consequently, the commission is unlikely to make any contribution towards resurrecting the moribund peace process.

It is no coincidence that Israel leaked the draft text of the commission's report - which was meant to remain confidential until the two sides submitted their reactions - at the very time it was preparing to release its revisions to the Jordanian-Egyptian peace proposal. These revisions were published yesterday in the Israeli daily, Haaretz.

Israel deems the first section of the plan - a list of steps "to end the current crisis" - "unbalanced" and proposes the elimination of the second point which demands an end to "the military, (financial), and economic siege, and the blockade on the free movement of materials and food supplies, as well as refraining from the use of internationally prohibited weapons". Thus, while Israel proposes an end to "closure", it, inconsistently, refuses to drop its strategy of besieging Palestinian population centres.

Amongst the confidence-building measures included in the Jordanian-Egyptian plan, Israel rejects a "total and immediate freeze of all settlement activities" and proposes instead a pledge not to establish any "new settlements", its standard response. Israel drops two other key items: mutual implementation of all security commitments and mutual implementation of all other outstanding commitments agreed by the parties.

Finally, Israel formally rejects the proposition that negotiations should, in the words of the Jordanian-Egyptian plan, "pre-serve and develop the progress that has been achieved during the period from November 1999 until January 2001", including the Taba round of talks on Jan. 21-28 .

Israel's counter-proposal guts the Jordanian-Egyptian plan which has attracted the support of the US and Europe and even the weak-kneed Mitchell Commission. But it is unlikely that the external backers of the plan will exert themselves to counter Israel's strategy to undermine the commission's recommendations and wreck the Jordanian-Egyptian initiative.

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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