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Report offers a way out of unrest

The report, by former US Sen. George Mitchell, calls for Israel to stop building settlements.

By Cameron W. Barr Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2001



JERUSALEM

A set of recommendations by an American-led visiting committee is emerging as the latest best hope for Israelis and Palestinians to put down their arms and stones and return to the negotiating table.

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The report of the committee, headed by former US Sen. George Mitchell, sets out various measures the two sides can take to stop the violence and restore their confidence in each other.

But while the Palestinians have embraced the plan, the Israelis say their reaction is "positive" but they have some reservations.

Taken alongside positive assessments from US Secretary of State Colin Powell, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and European leaders, the response to the Mitchell committee's work suggests it may offer a face-saving way out after nearly eight months of violence.

Nabil Shaath, a top Palestinian official, doesn't sound too worried about the lack of a wholehearted Israeli endorsement. "If there is a consensus around the Mitchell report as the only way out," he says, "I'm sure the Americans and the Europeans and the other parties will exert their influence."

Even so, the tenor of conflict, which has killed 526 people so far, continues to worsen. Last week, a 4-month-old Palestinian baby in Gaza was killed by shrapnel from an Israeli tank shell, and days later, two Jewish teenagers were beaten to death near an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

On Monday night, Israeli forces launched missile attacks against targets associated with the Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip, apparently in retaliation for a landmine explosion on the Gaza-Israel border that killed two Romanian workers repairing an Israeli border fence.

The bodies of five Palestinian policemen were found dumped in a hole in the West Bank Monday in what one Palestinian official called a "massacre." Israeli officials initially said their forces opened fire on "suspicious figures," but now have recanted and are investigating.

The reactions of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the Mitchell report seem to reflect a shift of momentum that has occurred since the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began late last September.

In December, as the two sides began a last-ditch effort to resolve the main issues that fuel their conflict, it seemed as if the intifada was bearing fruit for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

His Israeli counterpart, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, was softening his negotiating stance, moving further to meet Palestinian demands than he had at US-mediated talks held at Camp David last summer.

Several attempts to reach a peace treaty during the final weeks of Mr. Barak's tenure failed, and since then much has changed. Barak's successor, Sharon, is a hard-liner who will brook no negotiation until violence ceases, and who says a final peace agreement with the Palestinians is unworkable for the time being.

So where the Palestinians once found their position enhanced by the unrest, they now seem a little more desperate to sue for peace. Sharon's stern tactics - including blunt-edged military incursions into areas nominally under control of the Palestinian Authority - may be paying off.