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Israel Assails UN Chief for Public Letter
19 March 2002
Note: a copy of Kofi Annan's letter is below this article.
The Israeli mission to the United Nations assailed Secretary General Kofi Annan today for a critical letter that he sent to the prime minister of Israel last week and released publicly on Monday. The prime minister has not responded to the letter, and the Israeli mission called the release "most inappropriate and contrary to basic diplomatic conduct."
The Israeli mission said "The tactic of using the media for selective criticism, so as to exert pressure on those combating terror rather than on the terrorists and those states supporting them is at the least counterproductive."
Mr. Annan made his letter available after six days of silence by Mr. Sharon on the matter. In it, Mr. Annan wrote that Israel's response to the Palestinian uprising had come to resemble "all-out conventional warfare."
The secretary general complained to Mr. Sharon that Israeli tanks had been deployed in towns, villages and densely populated refugee camps and that heavy explosives had been dropped only yards from schools even damaging a school for the blind. And he wrote of "disturbing patterns" to the Israeli military's treatment of civilians and medical workers who tried to assist the wounded.
The Israeli statement did not address the secretary general's specific concerns, which he expressed before Israeli ground forces began withdrawing early Tuesday from Palestinian-controlled territory in Bethlehem and two other West Bank towns. The troop withdrawals coincided with the arrival of Vice President Dick Cheney in Jerusalem and a return to the region by the Bush administration's peace envoy, Gen. Anthony C. Zinni.
"Israeli forces continue to do their utmost to ensure that their legitimate actions against terror inflict the barest minimum of harm on the civilian population," the Israeli mission said. "Yet it is also a well-established fact that terrorist groups in the territories under Palestinian control routinely situate themselves in close proximity to civilian populations."
Israeli officials initially responded to the letter on Monday by saying that a response would have to come from the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. Today, they went on the offensive.
"It is regrettable that the secretary general's letter fails to reflect the basic fact that it is Palestinian terrorists that are deliberately targeting civilians," the Israeli statement said. "The appropriate object of international condemnation must therefore be the terrorist organizations, and the regimes that harbor and support them, particularly in light of the global campaign against terrorism."
Mr. Annan was traveling in Central America. A United Nations spokeswoman, Marie Okabe, said there would be no further comment on the matter.
A week ago, in a speech to the Security Council, Mr. Annan described Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians as "morally reprehensible" and said Palestinians had played a part in the escalating cycle of violence and revenge.
Christopher S Wren, at the United Nations Published in the New York Times (c) 2002 New York Times
Kofi Annan's Blunt Words Criticizing Israeli Tactics Following is the text of Secretary General Kofi Annan's letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, obtained from a United Nations official:
I have followed the escalation of violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory over the past week with increasing distress. I believe that the latest round of violence - and the scores of tragic and meaningless deaths that have resulted from it - have confirmed that the only path to security, for Israelis and Palestinians alike, is the resumption of negotiations toward a durable peace settlement. Any other response to the events of recent days is sure to elicit only further pain and further bitterness.
In this connection, I feel obliged to call your attention to disturbing patterns in the treatment of civilians and humanitarian relief workers by the Israeli Defense Forces . . . Judging from the means and methods employed by the IDF - F-16 fighter bombers, helicopter and naval gunships, missiles and bombs of heavy tonnage - the fighting has come to resemble all-out conventional warfare.
In the process, hundreds of innocent noncombatant civilians - men, women and children - have been injured or killed, and many buildings and homes have been damaged or destroyed. Tanks have been deployed in densely populated refugee camps and in towns and villages; and heavy explosives have been dropped mere meters from schools where thousands of children were in attendance, and have even caused severe damage to a school for the blind.
I am especially dismayed by the IDF's failure to protect and respect ambulances and medical personnel. In recent days, several medical relief workers were killed when Israeli soldiers fired on clearly marked ambulances, including Mr. Kamal Hamdan, an UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) staff member. In addition, Israeli forces repeatedly declined to grant medical personnel access to conflict areas to treat and evacuate the wounded, despite formal protests from UNRWA and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
I am also troubled by the repeated and, to the best of my knowledge, unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations by Israeli government spokespersons that ambulances have been used to smuggle Palestinian militants and weapons. These allegations can only result in further damage to medical workers and further impede their vital mission.
Israel is fully entitled to defend itself against terror. But this right does not discharge it of its obligation to respect the fundamental principles and rules of international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict with respect to the treatment and protection of civilians in occupied territories, the protection to be accorded facilities such as hospitals, schools, and the Red Crescent emblem, and proportionality in the means and methods of warfare. As I am sure you will agree, these rules are to the benefit of all concerned and warrant scrupulous compliance.
It is incumbent on all parties to take urgent steps to de-escalate the level of violence. Israel should contribute to this effort by ensuring that the IDF uses only weapons and methods that minimize the danger to the lives and property of Palestinian civilians, in conformity with its humanitarian obligations and as recommended by the Sharm el Sheik Fact-Finding Committee almost a year ago.
I also request that you initiate a full investigation into the incidents last week involving IDF fire at ambulances and medical personnel, and that you take immediate steps to ensure that they are not repeated in the future.