JERUSALEM — The Israeli government abruptly withdrew permission Tuesday for a United Nations fact-finding mission to probe its military operations at the Jenin refugee camp, the site of widespread fighting and destruction during its just-ended West Bank offensive.
Israel's move, which delayed but did not kill the probe outright, represented an attempt to maintain a narrow scope to the investigation, Israeli officials said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon consulted late Tuesday with aides on whether to cooperate with the probe, sponsored by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who picked three senior humanitarian experts to serve on the panel scheduled to arrive Friday.
"The composition of the delegation is bad for Israel," a government official said late Tuesday after Sharon concluded his deliberations.
The official said the government decided the members were overly political and might be biased in favor of the Palestinians. Israel wants delegates with military expertise, the official said, and had expected to be consulted on the choices.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, however, the Security Council held an emergency meeting Tuesday night and issued a statement afterward saying it expected "fast implementation" of a resolution welcoming the mission and Israel's "full cooperation" with the secretary-general and the team.
Israeli Foreign Ministry legal advisor Alan Baker told reporters that Israel had asked for a delay in the team's arrival so that "new terms of reference" could be negotiated with the United Nations.
Complaining that the delegation had been "imposed on us," Baker said Israel became alarmed that Annan seemed intent on expanding the mandate of the group and the breadth of its eventual conclusions beyond the Jenin case and into the wider question of the humanitarian conditions of the Palestinian people.
Earlier, Sharon's Cabinet secretary, Gideon Saar, had hinted that Israel would not cooperate with the probe and would block the team's access to the refugee camp if it believed that the mission was overstepping narrowly defined bounds.
Palestinians claim that Israeli troops perpetrated a massacre at Jenin, with several hundred people killed, many when their homes were flattened by armored Israeli bulldozers. Israeli officials vehemently deny the allegation.
Journalists have not uncovered evidence to support the Palestinian claims, but Israel muddied the waters by refusing for days to allow access to the site for Red Cross, human rights and rescue workers.
Israel maintains that no more than 100 Palestinians died during the 10-day incursion and that most were fighters. About 40 bodies have been recovered, almost all of them of men. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed as camp militants booby-trapped buildings with explosives and offered tough resistance.
Because so many unanswered questions swirl around the Jenin operation, the U.N. mission has been widely looked to as a forum for separating unsupported allegation from fact. From the start, however, Israel was nervous that the team would be stacked against it.
Israel's relations with the U.N., which it often views as pro-Palestinian, have always been spotty.
The U.N. delegation includes Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland; Cornelio Sommaruga, former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross; and Sadako Ogata, the former U.N. high commissioner for refugees.
Answering one of Israel's complaints, Ahtisaari added to the team a U.S. military advisor, retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash, who led American troops in the Persian Gulf War and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The controversy over what happened at Jenin is only one of the murky legacies of Israel's West Bank invasion. Another is what many Israelis and Palestinians see as a serious security vacuum.
Indeed, with Palestinian security services left a shambles by the offensive, Palestinian vigilantes imposed a grisly brand of street justice for the second time in as many days Tuesday when alleged collaborators with Israel were slain in public.
The killings reflected both the vengeful fury in the wake of Israel's massive incursion and a growing lawlessness that feeds on the absence of police forces either destroyed by Israeli attacks or dedicated to attacking Israelis.
Masked Palestinian gunmen hauled three alleged collaborators from a prison in the West Bank city of Hebron and shot them, then strung up one of the bodies, bloodied and battered, from a utility pole while a mob looked on, witnesses said. Two of the bodies were shown in television footage with their hands bound behind their backs. Members of the crowd stomped or spat on the bodies as they were dragged through the streets.
One of the masked men, fleeing the scene in a car loaded with his comrades, paused to proclaim to journalists that there was "a lot of filth around that we have to clean up."
They were acting at least in part to avenge the deaths of two militants killed by Israel in a helicopter missile strike the night before.
The Hebron killings followed a similar shooting Monday of three Palestinian men, also accused of aiding Israel, who were pulled from a taxi and attacked by a mob in the West Bank city of Ramallah. One died of his wounds.
There is a long history in the Palestinian territories of killing suspected collaborators with Israel. During the first Palestinian uprising, from 1987 to 1993, hundreds of alleged informants were reported killed. The practice picked up again after the start of the current conflict in September 2000.
Palestinians fear that, with so much of the Palestinian security apparatus destroyed by the Israeli offensive, more cases will follow of vigilante justice and the settling of old scores, adding to a general lawlessness.