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UN begins Mideast inquiry

Published: 10:56AM Sunday February 11, 2001

A United Nations team has met Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in Gaza at the start of a week-long inquiry into human rights violations in the occupied territories that Israel has said it will shun.

The meeting came as the Israeli army told Jewish settlers in Gaza's Netzarim settlement to take to shelters after a mortar was fired at one of their houses during a day of Palestinian protests against Israeli occupation.

No casualties were reported from the mortar attack.

UN commission member John Dugard said after meeting Arafat in Gaza that the delegation planned to "investigate and to examine the situation as best we can".

"Unfortunately the Israeli government has indicated it will not cooperate with us, but there are facts that can to be found by other means and we will do our best to get...a full picture of what is happening, and on that basis we will make our reports and make our recommendations," he said.

The UN mission plans to visit Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank to prepare a report for the annual UN Commission on Human Rights meeting that starts on March 19.

Israel has described as "vile, violent and one-sided" a UN resolution passed in October that charged it with war crimes.

Fresh confrontations were reported on Saturday between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian stone-throwers at various West Bank and Gaza sites.

Arab leaders warned that hardline policies of Israel's new leader Ariel Sharon could cause a Middle East catastrophe.

"Heading for a disaster"

"If he follows the same attitude we know and have been reading about, we are heading for a disaster in the area," Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel-Meguid said in Amman.

"His country, Israel, will not be spared and will suffer as the area will suffer," Abdel-Meguid, in the Jordanian capital for a meeting of Arab foreign ministers, said.

Jordan's King Abdullah told Sharon in a letter that the Middle East could "return to a state of anarchy and instability" if peace talks with Palestinians did not begin where they left off under his predecessor Ehud Barak, the official Petra news agency said.

The prime minister-elect planned to meet Barak on Sunday for a second round of talks since Tuesday's election which swept Sharon to power. Barak's office said the meeting would be a "continuation of the security diplomatic update".

Sharon, trying to forge a coalition government and pass the state budget by late March or face new elections, was due to meet other Labour party members on Sunday to discuss forming a coalition strong enough to face a Palestinian uprising.

Arafat, speaking in English after his meeting with the U.N. members, said he had briefed them on "what we are suffering, and the escalation everywhere, the siege of our towns and villages and cities, the closures everywhere...."

Israel closed Palestinian West Bank areas at the start of their four-month-long uprising against Israeli occupation, citing security reasons. Palestinians say the closure is collective punishment that cripples their economy.

Sharon has said he is "ready to take steps to make life easier" for Palestinians, but violence must stop first.

Vows of vengeance

"We will avenge your death," hundreds of Palestinians chanted at the Gaza funeral of 16-year-old Ayman Abu-Hawly, a goat-herd shot by Israeli troops on Friday near Kfar Darom.

At least 384 people, most of them Palestinians, have been killed in unrest that erupted in September amid deadlock in efforts to end the 52-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops fired tear gas at young stone-throwers in the divided city of Hebron. The Israeli army said Palestinian gunmen opened fire in Bethlehem.

Witnesses reported the Israeli army fired three tank shells at houses in the West Bank village of al-Khader near Bethlehem, damaging an apartment. The army said they had fired the shells in response to Palestinian shooting at an army outpost.

A spokesman for Sharon confirmed Israel's forceful prime minister-elect had offered the defence portfolio to outgoing premier Barak in talks on Friday but said he did not know how Barak had responded to the proposal.

"He (Sharon) repeated the offer he made him before the election to be defence minister," Raanan Gissin said.

Labour party statesman Shimon Peres, a possible candidate for foreign minister in a coalition, has said he favours a coalition as long as it is wedded to peace talks. Sharon says he will only hold peace talks if Palestinians halt their uprising.