Israel must answer

SO, Israel has decided not to co-operate with a United Nations fact-finding mission into the military assault on the Jenin refugee camp. But this must not prevent the UN from dispatching a fact-finding team immediately.

With every passing day, it becomes more difficult to determine what took place in Jenin. Israel’s main conditions for allowing in the UN team were that Israel would decide which Israeli witnesses would testify and that those witnesses would be immune from any war crimes prosecution arising from their accounts.

However, nothing should be allowed to interfere with establishing how at least 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers died at Jenin. These facts are the first step to justice and justice is essential to the human rights cause. Determining the facts provides a measure of respect for the victims of serious abuse and punishes those who commit atrocities.

Justice helps societies come to grips with the past and move forward. And it promises to save lives by deterring at least some of tomorrow’s abusers. It is therefore imperative the UN team begins its work with full independence without further delay. The members of the team and their assistants are known for their expertise and independence and for this reason the UN should not allow any deals which undermine the search for truth.

It’s no surprise that Israel is resisting the move.

In 1996, UN military adviser Major-General Franklin van Kappen conducted an official on-site investigation of the tragic events that took place at Qana, in which more than 100 Lebanese civilians were killed in the headquarters of UN peace-keepers. Van Kappen’s report to former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali concluded that “while the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, it is unlikely that the shelling of the compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural error,” as Israel had claimed.

Van Kappen indicated that Israeli army officials of some seniority were involved in orders to fire upon the base, which they knew was sheltering hundreds of unarmed civilians.

International human rights organisations also conducted investigations into the Qana incident, and concluded that the shelling of the compound was most likely deliberate.

The US and Israel argued vigorously that the attack had been an unfortunate mistake, and the story gradually disappeared from all but the memories of those who witnessed the carnage.

It seems history continues to repeat itself and Israel’s refusal to co-operate with the visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, suggests they’re not interested in the facts of what happened in Jenin. Indeed, it seems more and more likely that Israel has something to hide.

In former Yugoslavia, investigations into war crimes and co-operation with the Hague tribunal have been enforced by economic sanctions. Also, a mission of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq was backed up by economic sanctions. Now it’s time for the UN to live up to its responsibility in the Middle East.

The UN has provided programs of justice to former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and East Timor, including fact-finding, investigations, indictments, tribunals and trials. Israel should be treated no differently. If the UN fails to act on Jenin it will be turning its back on victims of human rights abuses.

Arjan El Fassed lives in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and is affiliated to the human rights organisation LAW.