JERUSALEM -- The United Nations appeared ready yesterday to abandon its effort to send a fact-finding mission to war-ravaged Jenin in the Palestinian West Bank after Israel's security Cabinet voted to block the inquiry unless it met six conditions.
Facing Palestinian charges that its army massacred civilians at the Jenin refugee camp, Israel wants a say in which of its soldiers can be interviewed and wants to protect them from any legal action. It also wants more military experts on the panel and insists that the United Nations also investigate Palestinian militant activities.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appeared ready to give up.
The collapse of the investigation could inflame Arab distrust of Israel and put off any prospect of opening a broader peace dialogue.
"Since it appears from today's Cabinet statement by Israel that the difficulties in the way of deployment of the fact-finding team will not be resolved anytime soon, the secretary general is minded to disband the team, and I have so informed the [Security] Council," said Kieran Prendergast, undersecretary general for political affairs at the United Nations.
"We've really done everything to meet them, to deal with their [Israeli] concerns, and I think we've been very forthcoming," Annan said. "Obviously, the decision is theirs."
The setback to the U.N. mission occurred on a day marked by two more-hopeful developments.
The monthlong standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity started to break as 26 men -- most of them members of Palestinian Authority security forces -- walked out of the church where more than 200 people have been holed up since April 2.
The Israeli military responded to U.S. pressure to withdraw by claiming that its siege of Hebron was over.
Israel began pulling back forces from the West Bank's largest city, one day after killing nine Palestinians and arresting 120 in retaliation for an attack Saturday at a nearby Jewish settlement.
International negotiations to quell the Middle East conflict by arranging a cease-fire and political talks continued on several fronts, but odds against success remained steep.
The militant Islamic groups Hamas and Hezbollah have made it clear that they will not abandon attacks on Israel no matter what Palestinian leaders do, and Israel has said that it will retaliate militarily.
In that context, hopes for Middle East peace remain overshadowed by the threat of renewed violence.
The stalled U.N. inquiry into what happened at Jenin reflects the stalemate.
The Jenin refugee camp was the site of a fierce house-to-house battle between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants that ruined about 400 homes and severely damaged water, sewage and electrical systems.
More than 50 bodies of Palestinians have been recovered. Palestinians say that scores more were killed.
Israel contends that the vast majority of Palestinian casualties were fighters, but Palestinians say that more than one-third were civilians.
Since Israeli troops began pushing through the camp's narrow streets and alleyways four weeks ago, both sides have fought for world opinion.
Yesterday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the U.N. inquiry "should have begun with the month of March" when 126 Israelis were killed in six suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. In justifying its attack on the camp's 13,000 residents, Israel has called Jenin "the capital" of suicide bomb-making.
Israel says Jenin produced at least 23 suicide bombers.
"If these are Palestinian lies, why not allow the team to come?" Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said by phone. "I really think the Israeli public needs to know the truth, the Palestinian public needs to know the truth and the world needs to know the truth."
Annan recalled that Peres initially had responded to the inquiry by telling him, "We have nothing to hide."
In a CNN interview, Peres said Israel "wanted to make sure the procedure of the fact-finding group would fit the intent of the resolution" that the Security Council passed last month.
The Security Council resolution called on fact-finders to develop "accurate information regarding recent events in the Jenin refugee camp."