This morning the U.N. fact-finding mission into the Gaza conflict, headed by international prosecutor Judge Richard Goldstone, commenced its first day of hearings in Geneva, featuring Israeli victims of Hamas terror. The mission had previously traveled to Gaza to hear from Palestinian victims of the conflict.
The session began with a video message from the staff of Natal, Israel’s trauma center for victims of terror and war. Presenting the organization, Yehudit Recanti said its mission is to treat all victims in Israel, Jews and non-Jews alike, who suffer psychologically from their experiences facing terrorist attacks or wars. Ten percent of the Israeli population suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome, she said.
Natal’s Dr. Rony Berger discussed the health effects on Israelis living under the “constant existential threat” of Hamas rocket attacks. He said the population visits doctors three times as often as the non-bombarded population and makes frequent use of tranquilizers and other medications.
Dr. Berger described how families are in constant conflict, unable to lead a normal life. Children in fear sleep in their parent’s beds, causing marital stress. He told the story of a woman who suffered an anxiety attack following a rocket attack. In front of her children, she screamed and shook before freezing and fainting. She was hospitalized for months, and two and a half years later, hardly leaves the home. He told of families where children baby-sit their mothers and where there is constant crying.
Ms. Hina Jilani of the fact-finding mission raised a question about Natal’s cooperation with professionals in Gaza. Ms. Yehudit said that ever since Natal was established, there had been cooperation with Palestinian professionals, but this came to an unfortunate end on the first day of the intifada. Dr. Berger said he lectured at the Palestinian Al-Quds University for three years and that there is research cooperation, but not professional cooperation because it would be too difficult to treat both of the populations.
Next to testify was Ofer Shinar, lecturer in human rights at Sapir College in the Sderot area, just 5 kilometers from the border with Gaza. He described it as the largest public college in Israel with a diverse student body that includes Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. He said there used to be students from Gaza, but unfortunately, this is no longer the case.
Mr. Shinar described the perpetual suffering of the college’s students. One was killed when he himself was just a dozen meters away. As part of a course he taught in social work, Mr. Shinar and his students visited traumatized families in Sderot. He told the story of one such visit to the home of a single mother with two children, who had been physically injured by rocket fire and continued to suffer psychologically. During his stay with her, a siren rang, indicating 15 seconds before the crash of an incoming rocket. The woman panicked and started crying. The rocket hit 15 meters away in the street, not far from Mr. Shinar’s student outside, who was luckily physically unharmed.
Mr. Shinar also told of a very dedicated student who stopped coming to class. When he asked her why, she said she could not sleep and found it too difficult to come to study. He referred her to psychological services, but she said she got as far as the door, but felt there was something stopping her from going in.
Mr. Shinar then discussed how the declining economic situation of the city exacerbates the psychological trauma. He told of people who could not even find the strength to fill out forms to receive the government assistance to which they’re entitled.
In closing, Mr. Shinar described the fury, frustration, and feelings of victimhood in Israeli society. He said this “makes it hard to see the other side is also a victim,” which is “the greatest tragedy of the conflict.”
Judge Goldstone agreed with Mr. Shinar on this final point, also lamenting that the Israeli public largely ignored his mission’s hearings in Gaza. He asked Mr. Shinar for advice on how to disseminate the mission’s report to Israelis. Mr. Shinar responded that the Israeli public would be more receptive to the mission’s views if it could truly show its empathy for Israeli suffering. He said Israelis have reason to be skeptical of such a fact-finding team, and it would have served Judge Goldstone better to have first held these hearings in Geneva and then made his way to Gaza.
Dr. Mirela Siderer took the floor next to share her personal suffering as a victim of rocket terror. She described her life as quiet and apolitical, centered on her husband and children and work in gynecology, for which she used to have many patients from Gaza. “This whole quiet life that I had was altered in a moment when, one day in May 2008, without any alert or prior warning, a rocket landed in clinic where I was working,” she said. “I felt a ball of fire in my face; all my teeth fell out.” Since the attack, she underwent six operations. “It’s difficult for me to endure the way I look and it impairs my breathing,” she said. “The worst is my psychological state.”
The patient with her was critically wounded, arriving at the hospital with her abdomen opened and intestines exposed. Hundreds of shoppers in the mall underneathe Ms. Siderer’s clinic were also injured.
“What was my crime?” she asked. “I’m a Jewish physician working in Ashkelon. I studied medicine to help people.” The Israeli police sent her a letter saying the rocket that struck her was sent by Islamic Jihad. “I have no understanding of terrorism, of killing children, women, ordinary innocent people,” she said. “But I do have a great deal of sorrow for all of the victims on the other side. They too are innocent.”
Ms. Siderer was followed by Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin together wtih the city’s strategic planning director Alan Marcus. Mayor Vanknin presented Ashkelon as a city with an ancient history and vibrant present, now home to a population of 130,000. Hamas rocket terror has had an immense impact on the economic development of the city and the psychological and physical well-being of its inhabitants. The missiles launches from Gaza have deliberately targeted schools, kindergartens, cultural centers, commercial and industrial centers, and shopping malls, he said. One rocket demolished a school. He claimed it would have killed dozens of children if it hadn’t hit on a Saturday when no children were present. Not all Ashkelon schools are equipped with sufficient bomb shelters so students are drilled to hide under their desks.
In spite of all this, Mayor Vaknin expressed his desire for greater cooperation with his Palestinian neighbors. He highlighted the many past collaborative projects he carried out with the mayor of Gaza City, including a computer learning center, a waste-water treatment plant, and garbage collection project.
Mr. Marcus asserted that the past relationship between the cities “shows that when people are willing to work for the benefit of their own people, even on a small-scale, it’s possible to cooperate even with neighbors in conflict.” Mr. Marcus called on the Mayor of Gaza to put politics aside and cooperate with Ashkelon to create 1,000s of jobs for his constituents. Considering the vulnerability of these projects to sabotage, Mr. Marcus asked the media not to write about them. He said that both sides have to work to ensure that “the crazies” –on either side– do not takeover.
Mr. Marcus also added to the Mayor’s comments on the impact of rocket terror on Ashkelon. He said that 5,000 inhabitants received psychological treatment between December and January alone. He oversaw the development of an immediate response system to attacks, and helped ensure the most vulnerable sections of the population had access to shelter, reducing casualties. Unfortunately, some schools with inadequate shelter were shut entirely.
To look at a more positive aspect, he said there have been many miracles in Ashkelon, with people narrowly escaping fatalities. He shared the story of a woman and her children who just managed to run out of their car before a rocket hit, setting the vehicle on fire.
Professor Christine Chinkin of the fact-finding team asked how the economic blockade on Gaza affected cooperation between the cities. Mr. Marcus replied by citing the example of a piping and cement project that had to be cut short because piping is prohibited in Gaza. He said Ashkelon would not transfer the material to Gaza City because Hamas could shoot it back in the form of a Kassam rocket.
Noam Bedein of the Sderot Media Center spoke next. He said that thousands of rockets, mortars, and missiles were fired at southern Israel over the last eight years, including more than 3,000 in 2008 alone. It’s the only region in the world where rockets targeting civilians somehow became acceptable, he said. Over one million Israelis are under threat or rocket fire. He showed a video of children at play, suddenly running for their lives with the ring of a red-alert siren.
Bedein said he moved to Sderot three years ago to attend Sapir College. Shocked by the devastating effects of the rocket attacks on all aspects of the lives of Sderot residents, he founded the Sderot Media Center in an attempt to draw more attention to their plight, which he felt was lacking in the international media.
Every road, street, community, and family in Sderot has experienced the trauma of a rocket hitting nearby, Bedein said. He described the psychological effects of having faced a rocket attack first-hand: “Once you’ve experienced that, the next time you hear a siren it doesn’t matter where it falls. You’re sure its heading for you.” As a photojournalist, he said he could capture the utter unacceptability of the situation with a shot of a bomb shelter next to a playground.
Regarding the particular effect of rocket attacks on children, Bedein shared a story of how young Sderot students responded when they were asked why snails have shells. They all said it is to protect them from kassams.
Bedein said he knows that more people were killed in Gaza than in Israel in recent years. But “how do you account for the 4,000 children in Sderot being raised on tranquilizers,” he asked. “The hardest question is why do we have to wait for a kindergarten to receive a direct hit before we have the international support to do what is right for our people.”
Last to take the floor, Noam Shalit, made a powerful appeal to the fact-finding team and people of Gaza to consider the plight of his son, Israeli captive Gilad Shalit.
He began by noting the mission’s statement of appreciation to Hamas for its cooperation. “If this cooperation is indeed genuine then the same Hamas hierarchy should honor your eventual findings – whatever they may be,” he said. Mr. Shalit then played a recording of his son’s voice a year into his captivity, while being forced to read a letter written by Hamas demanding the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his own release. He deplored Hamas’ cynical use of his son.
Mr. Shalit called Hamas’ refusal to allow his son access to the Red Cross, a right Israel affords Palestinian prisoners, a “gross act of inhumanity” if not a war crime. He said the mission should push for Gilad’s release, which will promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
He then turned his appeal to the people of Gaza, saying he is not a representative of the Israeli government, but a father of three. He described his son as a gentle and caring boy. He told of a fable Gilad wrote at age 11 about a shark and a fish that become friends against all odds. He was captured at age 19 inside Israeli territory where he was “protecting the integrity of what was supposed to be a border of peace after a complete Israeli withdrawal.”
Mr. Shalit deplored the “inflexible demands” of Gaza’s leaders and their “unwillingness to compromise.” Regarding Hamas’ call for a prisoner exchange involving 1,000s of Palestinians, Shalit said “the fate of an entire prison population cannot depend on the ransom of one young man… If a prisoner exchange need be the course we are forced to adopt, let reason and moderation overcome excessive demands.”
He asked the hostage-takers to release his son, not only for his sake, but also for the welfare of the Palestinian people. He mentioned earlier that Gilad’s release could end the blockade on Gaza.
The members of the mission expressed their sympathy to Mr. Shalit and thanked him for his respectable testimony. Ms. Jilani said human suffering should never be used as a political tool.
Click here for Mr. Shalit’s full testimony.