Powell says he has no evidence that Israel massacred Palestinians in refugee camp


Wednesday, April 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) _ While trying to clear the way for U.N. fact-finders, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress Wednesday he has no evidence of an Israeli massacre of Palestinians at the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank.

``Clearly, innocent lives may well have been lost,'' Powell testified. But, he said, ``I have no evidence of mass graves. I see no evidence that would support a massacre took place.''

Powell said he based his assessment on a 3 1/2-hour inspection of the refugee camp Friday by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns.

Burns subsequently reported a mass destruction by Israeli troops, who invaded the camp in the search for terrorists and explosives.

Powell said he spoke to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by phone Tuesday night and also to U.S. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, trying to clear the way for a fact-finding commission. An Israeli delegation was headed to New York for consultations, as a result, on Israeli objections to the composition of the U.N. group.

Pressed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Powell said he saw no reason why accusations of Palestinian atrocities against Israel should not be explored by the United Nations, as well.

At the same time, Powell said he told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat while on a Mideast mission that he must do more to counter terrorism.

``I made clear that if we don't see deeds, if we don't see action, there is not much we can do for him,'' Powell said.

Powell, testifying before the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, defended the Bush administration against an accusation by a senior Democratic senator that it blundered by moving slowly into the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Separating Powell himself from the accusation, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the subcommittee chairman, said the administration had failed to move promptly in using U.S. diplomacy.

But Powell took exception to Leahy's assertion at a hearing on the administration's $16.1 billion request for foreign operations.

``I don't think that's an accurate portrayal,'' he told Leahy.

``As soon as taking office, we became engaged,'' Powell said. He cited approval of recommendations by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell for easing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and starting them on a road to peacemaking.

Violence sidetracked action, but ``the failure was theirs, not ours,'' Powell testified.

Powell, making a point of how engaged the administration is, said he was a few minutes late for the hearing because he was meeting with President Bush at the White House to discuss the latest developments in the Middle East.

The secretary of state returned last week from a 10-day mission that failed to achieve a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, although he won an Israeli promise to withdraw troops from the West Bank. Arafat also issued a statement condemning suicide bombings, though Powell said he wanted more action from the Palestinian leader.

Leahy, who complimented Powell as ``a voice for engagement, for tolerance for both sides,'' said he supports Bush's call for establishment of a Palestinian state. Leahy said two states, Israeli and Palestinian, was the only solution to the conflict.

McConnell urged the administration to consider assistance to Israel to counter terrorism and denounced Arafat as ``the weakest link'' in Mideast peacemaking efforts.

While the administration has urged Israel to withdrawal its troops completely from the West Bank, McConnell predicted Israeli soldiers would remain bivouacked outside Arafat's compound in Ramallah for some time.