Foreign ministers urge Israel to allow Mid-East observers

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The Independent Online

Foreign ministers from the world's leading powers called on Thursday for neutral international monitors to be allowed to observe the shattered Middle East truce, delivering a diplomatic setback to Israel.

The idea, long high on the Palestinian agenda, has consistently been opposed by Israel whose prime minister, Ariel Sharon, swiftly rejected it again.

In a communiqué issued before today's opening of the G8 conference in Genoa, Italy, the foreign ministers said they believed third-party monitoring would help the implementation of the Mitchell peace plan. The plan is still on ice, not least because Israel is demanding a total end to Palestinian violence before moving ahead. But, significantly, the communiqué also said the move would have to be acceptable to both sides – a proviso welcomed by Israel.

Israel is highly unlikely to change its position on international monitoring, which it regards as an unacceptable "reward" for Palestinian violence and an infringement of its sovereignty – despite the fact that the conflict zone is territory which Israel illegally occupies.

The G8's move comes amid deepening international concern over the conflict, which intensified when the Israeli armed forces sent extra troops and tanks into parts of the occupied territories on Tuesday night, tightening Israel's prolonged siege of Palestinian areas.

The reinforcements, in Bethlehem and Jenin, were sent in after the Palestinians fired two mortars into a Jewish settlement on the edge of Jerusalem in response to the assassination of four Palestinians in Bethlehem.

There is considerable frustration among the international community over the rigid conditions which Mr Sharon has set for proceeding with the Mitchell recommendations. The United States – Israel's strongest ally which supported yesterday's communique – has argued that demanding a complete end to violence is unrealistic.

In the blockaded Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, urged the G8 leaders to intervene. "The situation in the Middle East is in danger of triggering a wide regional explosion and not only between the Palestinians and the Israelis," he warned.