Momentum builds for observers

European officials, G8 summiteers call for monitors in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

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Pressure is growing on Israel to allow independent observers to shore up a cease-fire with the Palestinians that is being honored mainly in the breach.

The Israelis are only grudgingly considering the observers, whose introduction has been a longstanding demand of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

This latest push comes from European officials, backed by the leaders of the eight industrialized nations meeting in Italy and top US diplomats.

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Both Israelis and Palestinians are increasingly returning to violence, demonstrating that a seven-week-old effort to stabilize a cease-fire is in deep trouble. The Israeli government is on the defensive, after an Israeli group claimed responsibility for the July 19 killing of three Palestinians, including a three-month-old baby.

"There is a kind of momentum which is building," says an Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity and referring to the independent observers. "Unfortunately, the [July 19] terrorist action ... does not contribute to our position."

Mr. Arafat has long clamored for outsiders to monitor what transpires between Israelis and Palestinians when conflict occurs, saying that his people need protection from Israel's military.

Israel has objected, arguing that international observers would likely be biased in favor of the Palestinians, might provoke violence from Palestinians who saw the intervention as a source of protection, and could lead to an "internationalization" of the conflict. Where the Israeli military operates openly, the Israelis say, Palestinian militants work in ways that outside monitors would find hard to observe.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said yesterday that Israel has never objected to a "US follow-up delegation" coming in to oversee a cease-fire - once it takes hold. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer said earlier in the weekend that Israel might allow Central Intelligence Agency officials to perform such a role, but under current arrangements the CIA already acts as an intermediary between the two sides.

These conceptions fall short of what the Palestinians have in mind. "We want the deployment of observers placed at points of friction between Palestinians and Israelis, including inside [Palestinian-controlled areas], to monitor Israeli actions on the ground and to report on them," says Samir al-Rantisi, a Palestinian Information Ministry official.

The Palestinians likely would not object to having America do the monitoring, but it is by no means clear that the US would want to handle the responsibility alone.

Arafat's earlier calls for independent observers have pretty much been ignored. But late last month, at a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed the idea. He later said there had been no change in US policy, and that approval from both sides would have to precede the introduction of observers. But his statement may have started a ball rolling.

One week ago, European foreign ministers called for the introduction of the observers, and the Arab League added its support last Tuesday. On Thursday, the foreign ministers of the seven leading industrialized nations plus Russia reiterated the idea. It was no surprise when the leaders of the so-called Group of Eight did the same over the weekend.

The increasing pace of violence is causing many people to worry that the cease-fire, under a scheme devised by a committee led by former US Sen. George Mitchell, may not work. That is why European officials have intervened to try to prod the Israelis and Palestinian back toward peacemaking. "There is a strong wish among European foreign ministers to try to carry [the cease-fire] forward and to try to get the political process started again, in conjunction with the US," says a European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In early June, European officials deployed several diplomats and security experts to act as witnesses and to help implement the cease-fire. Rashid al-Jaabari, the Palestinian Authority's governor for the Bethlehem area, says they were pulled back following Israeli objections. But European officials insist the work continues. The Europeans are working in concert with the US, the diplomat says, but their initiatives would not have been possible a year ago, when the Americans laid nearly exclusive claim to what was once known as the "peace process."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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