US-Led Panel to Probe Middle East Violence Amid Divisions Over Mission
A US-led commission of inquiry into more than 10 weeks of Middle East bloodletting is due to start its work Monday amid deep divisions between Israel and the Palestinians over its mission.
The five-member panel, headed by former US senator and Northern Ireland mediator George Mitchell, is to hold talks with Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem and later meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza City.
Israel had initially opposed the commission starting its work while the violence continued to blaze through the Palestinian territories, but last week dropped its objections.
Almost 320 people have been killed, most of them Palestinian, since the violence exploded in late September over a provocative visit to a holy Jerusalem site by Israel's hardline opposition leader Ariel Sharon.
"The way we understand it, the committee aims to establish the reasons for the Israeli-Palestinian unrest and find ways to reduce the violence," Israeli foreign ministry director general Alon Liel told reporters Sunday.
He said both Israel and the Palestinians will be expected to produce a written account of their position on the origins of the conflict and events since the failed Camp David peace summit in July.
"The largest part of the panel's work will be based on written documents", said Liel, adding that the committee would not carry out an independent investigation.
And the Palestinians last week accused Israel of trying to dilute the powers of the committee.
"It has become clear that Israel is trying to dilute the mandate of the commission so that it will only have a ceremonial function," Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo charged Thursday.
"Such attempts can only be interpreted as recognition that an objective inquiry would hold Israel accountable for much of the violence in the current unrest," he said in a statement.
Israel has been accused by the UN Human Rights Commission and international rights groups of using excessive force against Palestinians, who have borne the brunt of casualties during the conflict.
The fact-finding mission was set up under the unsigned Sharm el-Sheikh agreements of October 17 -- JERUSALEM (AFP)
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