Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States has turned up no evidence thus far of an Israeli massacre of civilians at the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. He told U.S. senators Wednesday that he thinks it would be in Israel's best interest to allow a U.N. fact-finding probe of events in the West Bank town to go forward.
Mr. Powell said Israeli bulldozers caused a great deal of destruction in the Jenin camp and innocent lives may well have been lost in the heavy fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.
However, he said the administration has seen no evidence that would back up Palestinian claims that hundreds died in an Israeli massacre of civilians.
Appearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Mr. Powell said Assistant Secretary of State William Burns spent more than three hours in the battle-scarred camp last Friday and saw no evidence of a mass grave or large numbers of civilian deaths.
"He said there was quite a level of destruction that had occurred within the Jenin camp. And it seemed to be in the best interest of all concerned, especially the best interests of the Israelis, to let a fact-finding team come in an see what the facts are, as opposed to the kinds of coarse speculation that was out there as to what happened, with terms being tossed around like massacre or mass graves. None of which, so far seems to be the case," Mr. Powell said.
Mr. Powell said he believes the fact-finding panel being assembled by the United Nations to look into the Jenin events will be objective.
He noted that retired U.S. Army General William Nash had been elevated from an adviser to a full member of the inquiry team in response to Israeli concerns that it lacked military experts.
He said he had spoken late Tuesday with both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and that an Israeli delegation would meet Mr. Annan Thursday to discuss remaining Israeli concerns.
At the subcommittee hearing, Mr. Powell drew praise from members of both parties for the Middle East mission he completed last week - which yielded an Israeli pledge to withdraw troops from areas of the West Bank it had reoccupied, and a condemnation by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of suicide bombings.
However, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the panel chairman, sharply criticized the Bush administration for what he said was its belated intervention in a crisis that has spun out of control.
"My personal opinion is that the administration blundered badly by staying away when our leadership was needed most. Now whether it was because the President was pre-occupied by the war on terrorism, or did not want to be identified with a policy that his predecessor was so deeply engaged in, or that they were concerned they may be drawn into a quagmire that can end in a failure, it was a big mistake," the senator said. "We're the only country that can play the role of intermediary in the Middle East. The situation has become so polarized, so steeped in bitterness and hated, that our task in infinitely harder."
Mr. Powell contested the notion of an administration blunder and insisted it had been "deeply engaged" on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since President Bush first took office last year.
He noted that President Bush in his U.N. address last year became the first U.S. President to explicitly call for creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and he said the Tenet cease-fire plan and the Mitchell commission report were produced under administration sponsorship as a roadmap back to peace talks.
He blamed the parties for the violence that sidetracked peace efforts, saying "the failure was theirs, not ours."