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Friday, 25 May, 2001, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
Mid-East violence: Hilary Andersson took your questions
Hilary Andersson
To listen to the forum, select the link below:


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Violence continues in the Middle East despite encouraging signs earlier in the week.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded to recommendations on ending the violence, made by the US-led Mitchell commission, by saying his soldiers would only fire in self-defence.

But the Palestinians called the truce announcement "a trick" and claimed it had been broken within hours by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza strip.

The Mitchell commission called for both sides to declare a ceasefire immediately. It also said Israelis should commit to a freeze on the expansion of settlements, while Palestinians had to prevent and punish acts of terrorism against Israeli targets.

How has the Mitchell report been received? Can it be implemented, given the current climate of confrontation? What scope is there now for compromise?

The BBC's Jerusalem correspondent, Hilary Andersson,answered your questions in a live Forum.


Transcript:


Newshost:

Hiliary, before we go to the first e-mail, you have been to Gaza earlier this week and you have just come back from Tel Aviv today, what are people from both sides of the conflict saying about the latest peace effort?


Hilary Andersson:

People seem to feel that the peace efforts aren't working. There was this Israeli call for a ceasefire and an announcement by the Israeli military of a change of their policy - saying they were no longer going to initiate fire. The Israelis were allegedly hoping that this would lead to a calm situation. But the Palestinians accused Israel of just calling for the ceasefire as a public relations exercise following the bad publicity Israel got after it sent the F-16 fighter jets into the Palestinian areas last week. Which of course was in response to that Palestinian bomb blast in the Israeli town of Netanya.

So the ceasefire basically has not worked. There has been more violence today and there was more violence yesterday. So there is a feeling on the ground on both sides that we are back at square one. People on the ground are very angry; they are much more bitter than they were at the start of this conflict because so many people have died on both sides.


Newshost:

Let me turn to the first e-mail now - it is from Reece Thomas, London, UK. He wants to know if you feel the issues raised by the Mitchell Report are the key issues to finding some form of settlement?


Hilary Andersson:

Well the Mitchell Report was carried out by the Mitchell Commission. It is an American backed initiative and the conclusions that they reached after looking into the roots of this conflict and what led to the break out of the fighting back at the end of last September. The conclusion that they reached was that the Palestinians had to take action to try to lower the level of violence from their end. But crucially that the Israelis should stop expanding their settlements in the West Bank and also that Israel should take care about how much force it uses. The Mitchell Report accused Israel of using excessive force in its attempts to try to contain the Palestinian violence. I think, speaking quite broadly, that there is a sense on both sides that this report was a fair and balanced report, that it was carried out in good faith and both sides - the Israelis and Palestinians - have both said that they believe this report can act and should act as the basis for future discussions. The big problem being that the Israelis have also said that they do not accept the fundamental criticisms of Israel contained in that report. Those being the call for a freeze on Jewish settlements and also a criticism of Israel's use of force. The fact that Israel is not accepting these criticisms does raise the question of how useful the report will be at the end of the day.


Newshost:

Chris Monks in Birmingham, UK. He says he has been speaking to a friend in Haifa, whose family lives in Netanya, near the recent terrorist attack there. He says that he sincerely believes that the feeling there is an eve of war feeling and the only thing that can change things now is a full-scale war and a new demographic structure to the Middle-East. Is this a widespread opinion in your view?


Hilary Andersson:

People keep coming up with this word - war - but it doesn't exactly apply to the situation here because wars are usually situations where you have serious forces - militaries on both sides. Here you have Israel with a very strong military - the strongest military in the Middle East - versus the Palestinians who are mainly fighting with mortar shells, with bomb blasts inside Israel, targeting civilians and of course with stones and fire bombs and that kind of thing. So it is in no sense a classic war - that is why we usually refer to it as a conflict.

It is interesting that this word keeps coming up and I think it is significant because once you start using the word war - and remember neither side has declared war on each other yet - there is a danger that you can slip into a situation where it becomes internationally more acceptable for a further escalation. So there are a lot of people trying to avoid the use of this word.

There is also the wider question - is this situation going to slip into a regional war? Now I would say there is a strong feeling amongst many political observers and analysts that this will not lead to a regional war. Clearly situations like today where the Lebanese civilian aircraft was shot down by the Israelis does test this theory that there is not going to be a regional war because there are enormous tensions.

But at the roots of this you have the fact that none of the major countries in the region, including Israel, want a regional war. It isn't really in anyone's interest. So there are people who are painting a picture of the future - a bleak picture - saying that yes the situation may continue to escalate but it is not going to flair up around the region, although it may well intensify to an almost unbearable point within this area itself between the Israelis and the Palestinians.


Newshost:

As you said earlier, one of the main issues addressed in the Mitchell Report is the expansion of settlements. Maggie in Dubai sent an e-mail on this theme. She says, in the event of a final peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, all the settlements in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, would have to be removed. She doesn't think any Israeli government will be willing to do this so how can there ever be peace in the Middle East?


Hilary Andersson:

Well I think she is possibly taking a slightly too bleak view of what Israeli governments are prepared to do. Don't forget we have just been through a period of government led by Ehud Barak, the Labour Prime Minister. Things have obviously changed now in terms of the public mood. But not so long ago Israelis were prepared to elect a leader in who was quite prepared to talk about removing some of those settlements or moving some of the more isolated settlements into what they call settlement blocks. In other words, taking away the isolated settlements from the West Bank that were not really defensible from an Israeli point of view and moving them into central blocks which were easily defensible where those people could live in safety and creating these blocks near other bits of internationally recognised Israel.

So it is not fair to say that no Israeli government will ever be prepared to give up some settlements. I think that there always is room for negotiation on this issue - the question being how many of the settlements will have to be dismantled.


Newshost:

The next e-mail is from Italy. Janet Anderson is in Milan and she says: I have noticed that even before the current Intifada, that the Israeli military often puts up road blocks in order to stop civilian Palestinians from moving to and from their own towns and villages within their own territory of the West Bank. Do the Israelis have a right to do this?


Hilary Andersson:

Well this is an occupation however you look at it. So talking in terms of rights is rather difficult terrain you are on. There are international resolutions - UN resolutions - calling for Israel to hand back the territory that they took in 1967 to the Palestinians. That consisting of 20% of mandatory Palestine - in other words, that the territory that the Palestinians consider to be their country when the British ruled this place.

So you do have these international resolutions calling for the land to be handed back. But the implementation of these resolutions are the subject of the peace process - where they were before the peace process collapsed. So this is a tricky and delicate area and I think the most important point is that you do have the Israeli military effectively doing what they want within the Oslo Accords usually. The Oslo Accords, of course, were signed between both sides and those were the Accords that set out the path to a negotiated peace.


Newshost:

We have got an e-mail from the Lebanon - Wassim is in Beirut. He says the UN should establish a mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories in order to disengage both the Israeli Army and the Palestinian people. He asks could this be done and will Israel ever accept such a mission?


Hilary Andersson:

This is exactly what the Palestinians want - what Yassar Arafat wants. He would like very much to see an international protection force of some kind come in - as it did in Kosovo - to protect the Palestinian people from the might of Israel's military. Now the Israelis are very much against this and crucially the Americans have said that they will not back any initiative like this unless Israel also gives its backing to such an initiative.

Now without the Americans weighing in on the side of those in favour of an international peace-keeping force of some kind, it is very unlikely that this will happen. But it does remain the central diplomatic objective of the Palestinians at the moment to try to persuade the world that they are the victims. Both sides here want to be seen as the victims in this conflict but the Palestinians are very much trying to be seen as the victims of Israel's military might so that they can get this international force in.


Newshost:

Now this conflict has received a huge amount of international media attention. This is a point that Mia in Tel Aviv addresses in her e-mail. She says: I have the benefit of being able to watch news coverage from the BBC, CNN, Sky, Egypt and Jordan as well as the Israeli coverage. Can you explain why the BBC has so much of a stronger anti-Israel bias than the other western news networks?


Hilary Andersson:

Well all the news networks operating out of this region and reporting on this conflict have come under criticism. The BBC has come under criticism from both sides. The Palestinians say that we are pro-Israeli and the Israelis say we are pro-Palestinian. I can tell you as one of the reporters who has spent a lot of time covering this conflict, particularly in the last eight months, that we do not have an agenda of any kind. We do not have a political agenda. We do reports at times which reflect the suffering on one side but you can be absolutely sure that every time that we do one of those reports there is another one coming if not that day on the suffering of the other side.

Now often audiences in conflict situations like this are simply not prepared to listen to the other point of view - they find that very difficult and are unable to accept that when we do report both sides - which is what we are trying to do to be fair and balanced - not everyone is ready to hear the other side. But that is our job and that is what we do in absolute good faith.


Newshost:

Now another e-mail on the media in the region is from Dan Reynolds in London: He says that given that many acts are committed in the name of publicising this conflict to the outside world, do you think the media under-estimate the role they have in escalating tension?


Hilary Andersson:

From the BBC's point of view, we are very careful not to play a role which would escalate tensions at all. For example, we are very careful never to predict violence. We are very careful never to be in a situation where people might perform for our cameras. If that were ever to happen we would turn our cameras off immediately.

The problem I think is that you do have a situation where the Palestinian media and the Israeli media both pander to their own audiences and to their own points of view and this is not unusual. Again in a conflict situation this is the standard procedure. But in the Palestinian areas - and I saw this in Gaza this week - you have adverts on Palestinian state television glorifying the idea of going out and throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and this of course does hype people up. They start to see the struggle as a glorious struggle and that certainly does inflame the situation.

On the Israeli side, I have noticed that only recently the Israeli morning news in English only recently have they started reported the numbers of Palestinians who have been injured in the overnight fighting. Until recently they did not report that - their reports would say no one was injured - and what they meant was no Israelis were injured. So on both sides you are getting very one-sided views. This is why it is so important for the international media to come in and play a balancing role.


Newshost:

We have got an e-mail from Durban in South Africa. Adrian Jessop says: Please can you give us an idea as to scale - how big are the areas that are contested? Can you for instance see from undisputed areas into disputed areas and out again? Are the Palestinians in camps and villages far away from other camps and villages?


Hilary Andersson:

It is a tiny area, the whole disputed area in question. I can give you a description of what it is like. You drive down the road - one minute you are in Israel proper, Israel that is internationally recognised and a few minutes later you can be in an Israeli controlled part of the West Bank and then a few minutes of that you can quite easily find yourself in a Palestinian part of the West Bank. The whole area is like a patchwork quilt. Around every corner you have got a bit of land which is controlled by somebody else and often the proximity of the different sides is what makes this conflict so nasty and so intense. The conflict is extremely compressed and densely packed into a tiny bit of land.


Newshost:

Finally, this e-mail from Andrew in San Francisco: He asks, apart from the conflict, when you are out and about in Jerusalem in the pubs, is there a night life? Are people having fun - what is going on besides the conflict?


Hilary Andersson:

People get on with their daily lives I think anywhere in the world no matter what is happening. But in Jerusalem in particular the atmosphere can be quite oppressive. This is a very religious city. The conflict in Jerusalem is right there on your doorstep. Part of the city is East Jerusalem which is dominated by the Arab culture and the Palestinians and the other part - West Jerusalem - is almost completely Jewish and Israeli and Israelis no longer feel safe to go into East Jerusalem as they once did. Palestinians have their identities checked and so on when they come into West Jerusalem because the Israelis fear that they might be trying to plant a bomb or something. So people do get on with their lives - yes the restaurants are open, the night clubs are open but there is a subdued atmosphere.

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23 May 01 | Middle East
Israel denies breaking ceasefire
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