Israel Blocks U.N. Inspection of Jenin Battle Ground

The Israeli security cabinet said in a statement, ”As long as these conditions have not been met, there is no possibility of beginning the inquiry.”

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking from the U.N. headquarters in New York, said the U.N. has already made every attempt to address Israel’s concerns.

“We’ve really done everything to meet them?to deal with their concerns,” Annan said. “I think we have been very forthcoming.”

Other U.N. officials told the Associated Press the U.N. secretary-general was leaning towards disbanding a fact-finding mission.

An adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dore Gold, later told reporters that Israel had not received any specific statement from the U.N. that it would respect Israel’s conditions.

“I think that in public statements, the secretary-general is trying to provide reassurance, but what we in Israel require is very specific assurance in writing that this will be a fair and professional operation that will actually ascertain what went on in Jenin,” Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, told The Associated Press.

The Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin was the scene of the fiercest battles during Israel’s military campaign against Palestinian terrorist groups. So far, about 50 Palestinian bodies, most of them young males, have been recovered from the rubble. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were also killed in combat with Palestinian gunmen, Israeli army officials said.

Palestinians have accused Israeli troops of murdering Palestinian civilians, while Israel maintains its troops only targeted armed Palestinian militants in the Jenin camp.

Among Israel’s six conditions for the mission were granting Israeli troops immunity from war crimes and giving Israel veto-power over the selection of the U.N. team. Israel also wanted the U.N. to include its counter-terrorism experts to inspect the activities of Palestinian militant groups in the Jenin camp, which Israeli officials described as a “breeding ground for terrorists.”

Earlier today, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he doubted the U.N. would agree to Israel’s conditions and expressed concern that it would try to impose the inquiry on Israel.

“I think the immediate danger is that the [U.N.] Security Council will decide to establish this committee without taking into account Israel’s opinion,” Peres told Israel Army Radio.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo yesterday expressed frustration over Israel’s decision to block a U.N. inspection of Jenin, calling it “a clear indicator that the Israeli government committed war crimes in the Jenin refugee camp.” Abed Rabbo demanded that the U.N. Security Council impose sanctions on Israel.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, negotiations to end the standoff at the Church of the Nativity made progress Tuesday with the departure of 26 Palestinians from the church grounds, the largest number to exit since the standoff began a month ago.

The 26 Palestinians, mostly civilians and several policemen, filed out of the church one-by-one, opening their jackets to show Israeli troops they were unarmed.

“We hope this release today will be seen as an example that will lead to the continuation of the negotiations,” said Israeli military spokesman Olivier Rafowicz.

Palestinian negotiator Imad Natche said Tuesday that the Israeli army would identify and release the 26 Palestinians, who were taken away from church grounds in an armored bus.

Israeli officials said that all of the 200 people remaining in the church are now free to leave, except the 20 to 30 Palestinian gunmen wanted by Israeli authorities. Palestinian and Israeli negotiators continue to argue over the fate of the gunmen, whom Israel wants to extradite, or send into permanent exile.

In the northern West Bank city of Hebron, Israeli tanks and troops rolled out of Palestinian-controlled areas following a 48-hour military offensive against alleged Palestinian terrorist groups. Nine Palestinians were killed and nearly 250 arrested, including 40 suspects wanted by Israeli authorities, the Israeli military said.