Quiet new witness on West Bank

On Monday, European officials raised the stakes for peace by setting up observation points in Palestinian territory.

European officials are moving in to personally observe the tenuous cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians.

On Monday, Palestinian security officials and a senior European official rented several rooms for this purpose in a hotel here in Beit Jala, a West Bank town that has been the scene of frequent Palestinian firing on Israeli forces and civilians located nearby.

The European move will likely provoke Israeli ire and Palestinian delight. It also demonstrates how officials of a unified Europe are complementing - or perhaps superseding - the arms-length diplomacy of the Bush administration in dealing with this conflict.

The European official, who spoke on condition he not be named, said yesterday the goal in Beit Jala and elsewhere in the Palestinian territories is "to be able to get an objective view of what efforts are being made to implement the cease-fire and to have the ability ... to be witnesses at the most sensitive points."

While Palestinians have long called for international observers, the Israelis have rejected the idea, saying such monitoring would be one-sided, impractical, and possibly provocative. But the European effort appears to be taking place on the Palestinian side alone, without explicit Israeli approval.

The Europeans' on-the-ground activity follows aggressive mediation by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who played a key diplomatic role in brokering the current cease-fire.

Secretary of State Colin Powell insists that the Bush administration is as active in Israeli-Palestinian affairs as the Clinton administration was, but in a different fashion. The Bush style has been to reserve personal involvement until agreements of substance are within reach, and to use the telephone extensively in the meantime. That has meant little personal involvement so far.

Assistant Secretary of State William Burns spent most of last week shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but his consultations ended without a breakthrough.

The US has sought to maintain an active role in what is known as security coordination - arranging meetings between Israeli and Palestinian security officials so they can work together to stop attacks on civilians and generally calm the situation.

Recent meetings brokered by the US apparently have proved fruitless. But where US efforts have stalled or been limited to phone conversations, the Europeans have been more visible and more successful.

Mr. Fischer happened to be in Tel Aviv over the weekend, during a planned visit to the region, and saw first-hand the aftermath of a devastating Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 20 Israelis. As one Western diplomat put it, speaking on condition of anonymity, "the EU is in the right place at the right time."

In fact, Fischer was not visiting in an EU capacity, but his strenuous and apparently productive efforts are redounding to the benefit of European diplomacy as a whole. On Saturday, he convinced Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to embrace Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's two-week-old call for a cease-fire.

Fischer then postponed his departure, choosing to stay in the region to shore up what nearly everyone says is a fragile truce. Yesterday, before returning home, he met with the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders in their capitals.

But if the Europeans are becoming more engaged, that may not be happening at the expense of the US. In the Jordanian capital, Amman, Fischer met with Mr. Burns. Fischer said the US role in the Middle East was "crucial."

Sweden currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and a Swedish foreign ministry official yesterday indicated that the Americans and the Europeans "are trying to put together a joint declaration on the peace process." President Bush will visit Sweden on June 14, the day before a summit meeting of EU leaders.

Meanwhile, however, the Europeans are deploying their officials and diplomats in an attempt to solidify the cease-fire at exactly the places where it might break down. The Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv reported yesterday that the EU had opened cease-fire observer offices in the Gaza Strip and Ramallah, the major city in the Palestinian West Bank, but the senior European official did not confirm the report.

These offices may not be what Palestinians have had in mind in calling for international observers, but they appear to have the blessing of Palestinian officials. During a recent trip to Europe, Mr. Arafat called repeatedly for international intervention.

Abu Bakr Thabet, the Palestinian Authority's military commander in the Bethlehem area, says the task of the Europeans in Beit Jala "is to observe the cease-fire and to make sure it is implemented according to the Mitchell report," a reference to a US-led committee that recently outlined a plan for the cessation of violence. Mr. Thabet says Arafat's office "informed me about the need to accommodate these new European observers."

A second Palestinian security official, who declined to be named, says that "witnesses" is a better term to capture the role the Europeans would play than "international observers" or "monitors." Both officials say the Europeans have been invited into Palestinian areas to help substantiate Palestinian assertions that the violations of the cease-fire do not come from their side.

Emmanuel Nahshon, deputy spokesman at the Israeli foreign ministry, said he was not aware of what the Europeans were doing, apart from having seen press reports. "This is not something we would agree to," he added.

Israel argues that international observers would likely be biased in favor of the Palestinians, might provoke violence from Palestinians who saw them as a source of protection, and might lead to an "internationalization" of the conflict. While it would be easy to monitor the activities of the Israeli military, because its operations are conducted "in the open," Mr. Nahshon says, "it's impossible to see what the Palestinian terrorists are doing."

The senior European official says he and his colleagues are not cease-fire monitors, in any conventional sense, which would imply the approval and cooperation of both sides. Instead, the idea is to "assist and collect information [about] Palestinian unilateral initiatives" related to the cease-fire and to encourage its implementation. He denies an intention to fill any vacuum of American diplomacy, noting that US and European efforts have always been "complementary." "From time to time the way in which they complement each other may change, but I don't think you should read too much into that."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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