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UN to Launch Mideast Fact-finding Mission - 2002-04-08

The United Nations has announced that Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and South African ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa have agreed to join a U.N. fact-finding mission into Israeli-Palestinian violence. The mission could begin this week, if Israel approves.

Spokeswoman Veronique Taveau says the U.N. Human Rights Commission is very optimistic that Israeli officials will grant permission to High Commissioner Mary Robinson and her team to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Last Friday, a large majority of the 53-country Human Rights Commission agreed that Mrs. Robinson should head a mission to examine the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories, by visiting schools, hospitals and observing living conditions. The team is also expected to examine the impact of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel.

Ms. Taveau says Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and South African labor leader Cyril Ramaphosa were chosen to take part because of the respect they enjoy and because they are acceptable to both Israeli and Palestinian officials. "The members of the mission have a high level of understanding - if I can put it that way - and a high level of their involvement in humanitarian and human rights issues," she said. "And they are people that have been doing those kinds of things. Both Mr. Gonzalez and [Mr.] Ramaposa have the high profile that the high commissioner was looking for."

Ms. Taveau added that it is possible Mrs. Robinson and her team could meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

On Friday, the Israeli ambassador to the U.N., Yaacov Levy, said such a mission would not help the peace process and could inflame an already delicate situation. But the Rights Commission is working with Mr. Levy to secure Israeli approval. Mr. Levy says Israel is considering Mrs. Robinson's request for a visit. "There is also a lot going on now - the campaign against terror and work on the visit of Secretary Powell," he said. "So considering all these developments, we will consult and let her know as early as possible."

If Israel approves the trip, the team could travel on Tuesday or Wednesday and spend up to five days in the region.