Hebron inquiry brings light to darkness: Israelis are acknowledging injustice in the occupied territories for the first time, writes Sarah Helm in Jerusalem

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The Independent Online
THE Commission of Inquiry into the Hebron massacre is raising fundamental questions in Israel about the darkest side of the 26-year occupation, raising hopes, among Palestinians and Israeli liberals, that it will become a catalyst for peace.

For the first time since the occupation began in 1967, the Israeli public is being invited, not by outside critics, but by its own judges, to examine real life in the occupied territories. Every moment of the inquiry into the murder in February of 29 Palestinians by a Jewish settler in a Hebron mosque is being broadcast live into Israeli living rooms.

Claims that occupation can be 'benevolent' have been undermined by evidence of the clear discrimination between treatment of Jewish settlers and of Palestinians. The effects of Israeli settlement policy are implicitly under the microscope. And the degradation of the army - not bravely fighting a war, but struggling to police a civil insurrection - has been laid before the public.

'After the inquiry report the extent of the damage done to Israel by the occupation will be clear to everyone,' said Moshe Negby, Israel's most eminent legal journalist. A Foreign Ministry official said: 'For many Israelis the occupation has always been a fog. People suspected things were going on which were not right, but it was too complicated to think about. Now that will change.'

What is not clear, however, is just how far the inquiry commission will go in its final recommendations. Sceptics say that whatever the inquiry achieves in terms of public education, it will do little to propose changes, and may only reinforce the status quo.

The Israeli courts have traditionally steered clear of the political arena, and have always given way on 'security' issues.

For the first time in Israeli history, an Israeli Arab has been given a prominent role in such an inquiry, and has been allowed to question an Israeli Chief of Staff. Without Abed al-Rahman Zu'bi on the bench, the inquiry would have lacked any credibility with the Palestinian side, and Mr Zu'bi is pushing hard to exert influence by his tough questioning. However, also on the five- member panel is General Moshe Levy, and the chairman, Meir Shamgar, President of the Supreme Court, who have both, in the past, played important roles in setting up the machinery of the occupation.

Moshe Levy was Chief of Staff from 1983-1987. And Meir Shamgar was Israel's attorney-general at the start of the occupation. It was Mr Shamgar who devised the legal parameters of the so-called 'benevolent occupation'. In the 1971 Year Book of Human Rights Mr Shamgar wrote that Israel's occupation was based on a 'rule of law with no real flaws'. He also stated that the rights of the Palestinian population were ensured 'by a long series of legislative acts relating to the protection of property, safeguarding of rights to property, social benefit rights, and freedom of worship'. It was also Mr Shamgar who upheld Israel's legal right to build settlements on so-called 'state land', thereby paving the way for the massive surge in building which now stands as an obstacle to peace.

'Shamgar cannot sit in judgement on himself,' says Meron Benvenisti, the first Israeli administrator of East Jerusalem, and a leading authority on the development of the occupation. Mr Benvenisti predicts that in its final recommendations the inquiry panel will take a very narrow view of events. 'They will look at the mosquitoes and not at the swamp. The commission will understand the massacre as a single isolated incident, they will not see it as part of a pattern created by the occupation,' he says. 'They will not venture to ask why Israel is in the West Bank.'

Religious and right-leaning Israelis express scepticism about the benefits of the inquiry, too. It is damaging Israel's image abroad, they say. It is also damaging Israel's confidence in its own armed forces.

However, the peace-camp believes that the inquiry will, in the longer term, swing public opinion towards early withdrawal, making it easier for the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to take hard decisions on settlements in the future.

'It seems the government wants the commission of inquiry to be a vehicle to influence public opinion so certain decisions can be taken,' says Raja Shehahdeh, a Palestinian human rights campaigner.

Most important, the doves hope that the inquiry is persuading the Israeli public that the policies of the right, which call for holding on to the occupied territories, are bankrupt.

(Photograph omitted)