Mitchell Report on Israeli-Palestinian Violence Flawed

The report on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the commission led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell is a failed effort–not for what it includes but for what it does not include.

The report’s recognition that the Palestinian Authority needs to do more to curb violence from the Palestinian side and the call for Israel to end its widespread use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators is self-evident. Yet its failure to call for an international protection force underscores the commission’s unwillingness to support the decisive steps necessary to actually curb further bloodshed.

The report correctly recognizes that the violence was not solely a result of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Islamic holy site of Haram al-Sharif in occupied East Jerusalem last fall and that it part of a preconceived plan by the Palestinians to launch a violent struggle. It recognizes that the root of the uprising was in Palestinian frustrations in the peace process to get their land back, fueled by unnecessarily violent responses by both sides in the early hours and days of the fighting. However, the report refuses to call for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees, which Israel is required to do under UN Security Council resolution 242 and 338, long considered by the United States and the international community as the basis for peace.

Another problem is that the report calls simply for a freeze on Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied territories. In reality, Israel is required to withdraw from those settlements altogether. According to Article 40 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is illegal for an occupying power to transfer its civilian population onto territory seized by military force. UN Security Council resolutions 446 and 465, adopted unanimously with U.S. support, call on Israel to withdraw from these settlements. As long as the settlements remain as part of Israeli territory, any hope of establishing a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank or including Arab East Jerusalem as part of that state becomes impossible.

How the violence will end without some promise of the Palestinians being able to reclaim their land seized by Israel in 1967 is hard to fathom. Though the report’s criticisms of the Palestinian side were well-founded, and in some respects could have been even stronger, the effort to be balanced fails to recognized the unbalanced nature of a conflict between an occupied people and their occupiers. While a balanced perspective which recognizes that both Israelis and Palestinians have the fundamental right to live in peace and security is critical, it is wrong to blame the Palestinians equally to the Israelis when it is their land that is being occupied, confiscated and colonized and it is their people who are being denied their fundamental right of national self-determination.

Indeed, this would be like having a “balanced” report blaming both Iraq and Kuwait during Kuwait’s six months under Iraqi control or such a report blaming both Indonesia and East Timor during that island nation’s 24-year occupation. For whatever the many faults of the Arafat’s corrupt and autocratic Palestinian Authority, their positions on the outstanding issues of the conflict—settlements, withdrawal from occupied lands, sharing Jerusalem and the return of refugees are far more consistent with international law, UN Security Council resolutions and the consensus of the international community than are the U.S. or Israeli positions.

In many respects, the mission was flawed from the beginning. Its members were appointed by the United States, which has been the major financial, military and diplomatic supporter of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. A truly international committee chosen by the UN Secretary General or other international leader would have undoubtedly had more credibility, but the U.S. opposed it.

Another problem was the naming of two former U.S. Senators, George Mitchell (who headed the panel) and Warren Rudman, both of whom were strong supporters of Israel’s occupation policies while in the Senate, where they supported billions of dollars worth of economic and military aid to Israeli occupation forces. They also opposed Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. Neither senator demonstrated a strong record in support of human rights and international law in the Middle East or elsewhere, which would seem to be a fundamental requisite for membership in such a commission.

Such concerns may be moot, however. Despite the bias in the report in its favor, Israel has already rejected some of the key findings as well as rejecting Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s call for a summit based on the committee’s findings. The Bush administration appears unwilling to push Israel to comply with the committee’s recommendations, making even these modest efforts a wasted exercise.