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Israel blocks Desmond Tutu fact-finding mission to Gaza, officials say

GENEVA (AP) Israel has blocked a U.N. fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip that was to be led by Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, officials said Monday.

Tutu was to begin leading a six-member team over the past weekend in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun to investigate the killings of 19 civilians in an Israeli artillery barrage last month.

But Israel refused to grant the South African anti-apartheid campaigner the necessary travel clearance, said officials in two separate U.N. departments. They spoke on condition of anonymity because Tutu was planning to meet with reporters in Geneva later Monday.

Tutu's team was supposed to report its findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council by Friday. It is unclear if the Jewish state will allow the fact-finding mission to take place at a later date.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Monday that no final decision has been made.

"Israel heard that they decided not to come. We had not given them a negative response, our final decision was pending,'' Regev said.

Israeli officials have expressed concern that Tutu's mission was only entrusted with investigating alleged human rights violations committed by Israel, and not also by Palestinian militants.

The 47-nation council authorized the mission last month, asking Tutu to assess the situation of victims, address the needs of survivors and make recommendations on ways to protect Palestinian civilians against further Israeli attacks.

The shelling, which Israel said was unintended, came after its troops wound up a weeklong incursion meant to curb Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel from the town.

The Israeli army claimed Beit Hanoun was a rocket-launching stronghold.

"We had a problem not with the personalities, we had a problem with the institution,'' Regev said. "We saw a situation whereby the human rights mechanism of the U.N. was being cynically exploited to advance an anti-Israel agenda. This would do the Israelis, the Palestinians and peace in the Middle East no good at all. This would also have done nothing to serve the interest of human rights.''

Tutu chaired South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of white rule.
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