JERUSALEM — EIGHT days after security forces killed at least 20 Palestinians in Jerusalem, Israel is experiencing its worst public relations crisis in months. The United Nations has already condemned the behavior of the Israeli security forces and is sending a team to investigate what happened at the Temple Mount, or Haram es-Sherif. The government says it will not cooperate.
British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd arrived here yesterday, amid warnings that he should tone down his criticism of Israel.
Although the Israeli government's own commission of inquiry into the Oct. 8 bloodshed has only just begun, two local human rights organizations have already published reports accusing the security forces of grave breaches of standing orders and international law.
The sense of alarm over the current situation is palpable.
``They realize they're going to have to start at the bottom and work up again,'' said one commentator.
``The immediate impression is going to be negative and damaging,'' says Yossi Olmert, director of the Government Press Office, adding that he expected the damage to be short lived.
Following a Cabinet session on Sunday, the government issued a terse statement describing as ``totally unacceptable'' UN Security Council Resolution 672, which condemned violence by Israeli security forces and called for a commission of inquiry to look into conditions in the occupied territories.
The statement said that no part of Jerusalem was occupied territory. ``Therefore there is no room for any involvement on the part of the United Nations in any matter relating to Jerusalem.'' Israel's effective annexation of the Arab sector in 1967 has never been internationally recognized.
``Given the above,'' the statement concluded, ``Israel will not receive the delegation of the secretary-general.'' A motion to prevent the UN team from even entering the country, submitted to the Cabinet by Ariel Sharon, the hard-line housing minister, was rejected.
Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy criticized the United States for its decision not to veto the Security Council resolution.
``As much as our relations with the United States are very important,'' Levy told Israel Radio, ``there is no ignoring the regrettable fact that the US administration made a mistake: The US is held captive by the very coalition it formed against Saddam Hussein.''
The Israeli government can expect some tough questions from the British foreign secretary during meetings with officials today. In an article by Mr. Hurd published in a British newspaper on Sunday, he said that Palestinians in the occupied territories were deprived of human rights.
``Israel has yet to talk realistically about peace,'' he wrote, ``and has used even harsher measures to impose its rule where its rule is not welcome.''
Dr. Olmert called Hurd's remarks ``completely unacceptable.... I hope that the tone of his talks with us differ from the tone of his statements to the press.''
A report released Sunday by B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group, charged the security forces with the indiscriminate use of live fire, including bursts of automatic fire, shot from the hip. ``This is an extremely dangerous and prohibited form of shooting,'' it said. ``According to a ruling of the Supreme Court it constitutes an act of criminal negligence.''
The report, entitled ``Loss of Control,'' also accused the police and border police of continuing to use live fire ``even when the crowd was dispersing in every direction and many were fleeing.'' B'tselem said medical teams came under fire, including a nurse, shot three times in the hand while tending to one of the wounded inside an ambulance. B'tselem's was the second critical report published in three days. On Friday, Al Haq, a West Bank-based Palestinian human rights group, published similar findings.