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U.N. fact-finding commission faces skepticism in Gaza

The panel opens a hearing on alleged war crimes committed during Israel's winter assault on the Gaza Strip. Israel refuses to participate, and many Palestinians have doubts.

June 29, 2009|Edmund Sanders

THE GAZA STRIP — A novel approach toward injecting international justice into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict got underway Sunday in this embattled enclave, but it left neither side particularly satisfied.

Borrowing from the South African reconciliation experience, a United Nations fact-finding commission opened what it said was the first-of-its-kind public hearing to gather witness testimony about alleged war crimes during Israel's 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip in winter.

But as it has with past inquiries, the Israeli government has refused to cooperate with the United Nations Human Rights Council fact-finding team, calling it hopelessly biased. A follow-up hearing, to gather testimony from Israeli victims of rocket attacks by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, will be held in Europe because of Israeli officials' refusal to allow the commission into their country.

Around Gaza, skepticism and distrust appear nearly equally high. Local television showed the hearing live for only a few minutes; an auditorium set aside for public viewing of the proceedings was mostly empty except for a few journalists. Having endured the conflict firsthand, many Palestinians said they had little desire to relive it. Many also expressed doubts that the commission's final report would make a difference in their lives or result in any punishment.

"Every time there is a war, they send a commission," said Ahmed Yazji, 29, a Gaza City money changer sipping coffee Sunday at an outdoor cafe several blocks from the hearing hall. "We've seen so many inquiries come and go. No one cares anymore because nothing happens."

Gazans who did testify provided emotional accounts of Israel's assault.

Three surviving members of one family recalled losing seven relatives as they sought shelter in a mosque that was struck Jan. 3 by an Israeli missile.

"I saw [shrapnel] fragments falling like rain," said Sheik Moteeh Silawi. "Everyone was screaming. People went to the mosque for safety and we saw bloodshed."

His father broke down and wailed in the heavily guarded hearing room as he recounted how he learned of the deaths of so many children and grandchildren. "Where is justice?" Musa Silawi, 91, shouted. "Where is the law? Where is the world?"

Israeli officials have insisted that they did not deliberately target civilians and blamed Hamas militants for hiding among Gaza's civilian population while fighting Israeli troops.

The cynicism expressed by both sides makes clear the challenges that the commission's chairman, South African jurist Richard Goldstone, will face in gaining acceptance for his report, which is due in fall. The commission faced controversy from its inception because the original mandate focused exclusively on Israel's alleged abuses. Upon accepting the job, Goldstone insisted on expanding the scope to include allegations against Hamas.

Israeli officials, however, have dismissed the public hearings, which they described as unprecedented in the region and politically motivated.

"The intent is to smear Israel," said one senior official speaking on condition on anonymity. "But Goldstone is just a passing cloud."

A commission spokeswoman defended the U.N. mission's impartiality and said Goldstone pushed for the public hearings in Gaza, despite security concerns, to give victims an opportunity to voice their complaints and to show Palestinians the judicial process in action.

"Victims can sometimes become lost in the statistics and numbers, and that can have a dehumanizing effect," U.N. spokeswoman Doune Porter said. Goldstone "wanted to give victims a voice and have them tell their stories."

Gaza human rights activist Khalil abu Shammala agreed that the hearings would put a face on the war's devastation. He added that the process of gathering information was probably more important than the final report, which he predicted would be ignored by the U.N. Security Council and the international community.

"The final decision is not as important to us because in our experience the U.N. Security Council always politicizes it and sacrifices the rights of victims for the benefit of Israel," he said.

Legal experts agreed that the hearings, however dramatic and cathartic, were unlikely to result in formal prosecution, even if violations of international law are found. Goldstone himself acknowledged recently that locating a legal forum would be a challenge.

The U.N. secretary-general has not expressed an interest in delving more deeply into the allegations. The International Criminal Court is grappling with jurisdiction issues because Israel is not a signatory to the court. Gaza lacks an adequate court system to hear complaints. That might leave only some foreign courts, such as those in Spain, that sometimes open their doors to such cases.

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