Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations Security Council to take steps to set up an independent and impartial investigation into human rights violations in the conduct of Israeli and Palestinian security forces in the clashes that have claimed nearly eighty lives in just over a week. The high proportion of civilians among those killed and badly wounded, including children and medical personnel, has led to charges of excessive and indiscriminate use of force.

What is needed is an investigation that is independent–and seen to be so," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "In circumstances like these, involving forces under separate national commands, a credible investigation must have an international dimension."

Megally noted that Prime Minister Ehud Barak, under pressure from Israeli Arab leaders, has agreed to set up an independent national commission to look into the incidents in the Galilee in which ten Israeli Arabs were killed. Megally said that the events in the West Bank and Gaza and clashes involving Israeli and, in some cases, Palestinian security forces required a different approach. He also noted that Israeli commissions of inquiry in the past -- such as the Kahan Commission set up to investigate the role of Ariel Sharon and others in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 and the 1987 Landau Commission that investigated the use of torture during interrogations -- issued reports but did not make public secret annexes.

"The extent of mutual distrust and tension makes it unlikely that separate or even joint investigations conducted by Israeli and Palestinian authorities would lead to anything other than further recriminations," he added. Megally said that the proposed involvement of United States as a neutral third party in such an enterprise was inadequate, given the extent of U.S. political and material support for Israel.

"To be effective, such an inquiry must be thoroughly depoliticized," Megally said. He urged that such an independent panel comprise qualified individuals who would serve on the basis of their expertise and experience, rather than represent governments. Ideally this panel would include individuals who work or have worked with the U.N. human rights mechanisms, such as the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, and persons familiar with international standards of law enforcement.