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UN Mission To Beit Hanoun Canceled


A United Nations mission, that was to be led by South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace laureate, Desmond Tutu, to Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip has been canceled, because the group could not get Israeli travel documents in time. The mission was meant to investigate the deaths of 19 civilians who came under Israeli attacks last month. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and British Law Professor, Christine Chinkin, were appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to probe the civilian killings in Beit Hanoun and to recommend ways to protect Palestinians against further Israeli assaults.

The team was to have presented its findings to the council this Friday.

Archbishop Tutu says he and his colleague waited until the last minute to get the go-ahead from Israel. He says they had hoped to leave yesterday, on Sunday.

Although that would have given them only five days in which to carry out their investigation, he says they thought it would have been doable.

But, he says, the necessary visas did not come through in time.

"We would not be able to leave because the security personnel have to go ahead of us," he said.

"The earliest we would probably be able to leave was Wednesday, which would have left effectively only two days in which to carry out our mission. And, we believed that that was quite unacceptably short," he continued.

The Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Itzhak Levanon, says no final decision has been made on granting the team a visa. In a statement, he says Israel has no problem with the persons involved in the mission, but rather with the council itself.

He says the mission to Beit Hanoun was biased and that its sole purpose is to criticize Israel.

British Attorney, Christine Chinkin, indicates that she and Archbishop Tutu thought it was very important that their investigation be seen as fair.

For that reason, she says, they had rejected a suggestion that they enter Gaza via Egypt. This she says would have precluded a visit to Israel.

"We did make a very definite decision that that would be one-sided," she said. "It would not give us the full picture. It would also look in a way look as though we were going in through the back door; whereas what we wanted to do was to have as rounded and as full a mission as possible."

Desmond Tutu says both he and his colleague had agreed to the mission in good faith and they are frustrated that it will not go ahead.

He says they both believe their visit and report could have contributed to the possibility of peace in the Middle East.

"It is for all these reasons and more that we find the lack of co-operation by the Israeli government very distressing, as well as its failure to allow the mission timely passage to Israel," he added.

The two human rights experts do not rule out a visit some other time. But, they say it is up to the U.N. Human Rights Council to decide what to do next.