The U.N. fact-finding mission on Gaza, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, continued hearings in Geneva this afternoon. While the morning session focused on Israeli victims of Hamas terror, the afternoon was devoted to pro-Palestinian witnesses and experts from Israel and the West Bank. They were Shawan Jabarin, head of Al-Haq‘s Legal Research and Advocacy Department, Mohammad Srour, former mayor of a West Bank town who testified together with Israeli activist Jonathan Pollak, and Mr. Shir Hever of the Alternative Information Center. The mission had previously heard from Gazan victims of the conflict during its travel to the region.
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First to speak, Mr. Hever said that not all citizens of Israel supported the attack on Gaza, especially not the “Palestinian” inhabitants of Israel who comprise 22% of the population. But their protests were suppressed by Israeli authorities who detained 800 demonstrators, almost all Israeli Palestinians. He said that though 7 months have passed since the attack, some are still in jail awaiting trial or release.
In response to a question by the fact-finding mission’s Christine Chinkin regarding the grounds for arrest of these protesters, Mr. Hever said the charges vary from disturbing the peace to inciting to hurt Israeli military officials to inciting Israelis to avoid military service. He said that Palestinians conducting vigils were arrested for blocking sidewalks. This last comment elicited a smile from Ms. Chinkin.
Judge Goldstone said that he had always been impressed by freedom of speech in Israel and its openness to criticism in the media, but asked if Mr. Hever saw any shift in this regard. Mr. Hever said that although international journalists were eventually let into Gaza, Israeli media itself only reported from their embedded positions with the Israeli army. Their reports were subject to censorship by Israeli commanders and, anyways, they only presented the official, military point of view. This contributed to what he felt was a climate lacking in accountability.
Mr. Hever did acknowledge some courageous journalists who reported on the accounts of Israeli soldiers who testified about purported Israeli crimes in Gaza. For example, soldiers told how they were ordered by their commanders to shoot at any movement. He also noted reports in Israeli papers of soldiers boasting of their crimes, citing one about an army unit that printed t-shirts depicting a pregnant Palestinian woman with a target on her belly and the words, “one shot, two kills.”
Desmond Travers of the fact-finding mission asked Mr. Hever to clarify a statement about illegal weapons use by Israel in Gaza. Mr. Hever responded that evidence of burn victims indicates that white phosphorous was used against civilians. He also accused Israel of firing anti-tank missiles at apartments where people were visible in the windows.
Next to speak, Mr. Srour thanked the fact-finding mission for holding the hearings, but expressed concern as to whether its recommendations will actually be implemented, considering that the ruling of the International Court of Justice on the illegality of Israel’s security wall failed to change the situation on the ground. Mr. Srour said that he will “pay the price” for his testimony at crossing points when he returns home.
Mr. Srour testified on the Israel army’s violent suppression of protests against the wall in his town, which he claimed resulted in 5 “martyrs,” including 2 children in less than a year. He said the villagers protested the “apartheid wall” because it cut into their property, enabling Israel to confiscate the town’s land, “depriving 100 families of livelihoods.”
Judge Goldstone asked for more details on how the children were killed. Mr. Srour said it happened on the 29th of December at the start of Israel’s Gaza offensive. While the Israeli army had habitually confronted protesters and used tear gas, during the war its actions against demonstrators in the West Bank became more violent. While cracking down on protesters that day, Israel killed the children and one other person and wounded Mr. Srour himself among scores of others.
Mr. Srour said that Israel began by firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters as they approached the wall. He showed a video of the happenings. In it hooded Palestinian youth could be seen throwing rocks at the soldiers and using slings. Mr. Srour said that although the protests involved stone-throwing, the Israeli soldiers were too far away to face any real danger, and the calmness of their strides shows they did not even perceive any threat.
Mr. Pollak of Tel-Aviv said he attended the demonstration that day so that he would not be silently complicit in Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. He claimed to have no doubt that live ammunition was used against the protesters. “Despite the fact this was clearly a law enforcement situation and not one of armed hostilities, they used live ammo very freely. Dozens of rounds were shot there,” he said. “There was no threat to the lives of soldiers. You can see how freely they walk around there.”
Mr. Pollak told of how Mr. Srour was shot in the leg. Then the boy Mohammed was shot in the back and Arafat was shot in the eye, causing their deaths. He said no ambulances were available because they were prevented from entering the village. The two bodies were laid into a van that set off for the hospital, but it was stopped a short distance from Israel’s road-block even though the soldiers could surely see the bloodied bodies inside.
“The two soldiers who shot them went back to roadblock, meaning their lives were not under threat. It wasn’t a single shot in fear; they shot dozens of rounds there,” Mr. Pollak said. “All checks and balances on army behavior have been removed.” He said this is evidence of a “free-for-all” for soldiers that face no repercussions for their actions. “This cannot just be referred to as the behavior of specific soldiers at this specific demonstration.”
Mr. Pollak agreed with Mr. Srour that Israel’s agressive behavior towards demonstrators escalated dramatically during the war. Before the army used to shoot rubber-coated bullets and, only on occasion, live ammunition. He said Israel has begun using new weapons against demonstrators, such as highly-volatile tear gas projectiles, which were shot from 100 meters at American activist Tristan Anderson who suffered condense fractures to the skull and extensive brain damage as a result. He also cited Israel’s new use of snipers as crowd-control tools.
Mr. Pollak further noted that 715 people were arrested at the demonstrations, 238 of them minors. As of February this year, 255 indictments were filed for demonstrations during the war, about half for minors.
In closing, Mr. Srour said, “I want to stress that I listened this morning to testimony by some Israelis, in particular the father of the soldier held by Hamas. I would like to mention how many airplanes we would need to bring in the 1000s of detainees in Israeli prisons. I also listened to a person who received injury to her jaws. How many people have lost all their bodies but their teeth? I’m not trying to justify killing, but the balance of power should be taken into account so you can arrange your priorities accordingly.”
Mr. Jabarin addressed the fact-finding mission next by video from the West Bank. He argued that Israel’s restrictions on the movement of Palestinians are decided on political, not security, grounds. He said that even when travel permits are granted, Israel often declares closure of borders to all, especially to Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of Palestinians are prevented from traveling abroad through Jordan on the pretext of security.
Judge Goldstone asked why it was not possible for Mr. Jabarin to travel to Geneva to testify in person. Mr. Jabarin said that he has been restricted from traveling abroad since 2006 when he became director of Al-Haq. “They [Israelis] say I’m dangerous to security,” he said. “My personal view is that this is a form of punishment… They want a person to hesitate before saying anything or coming before your mission.” He claimed that Israel has a secret black-list of names of Palestinians deemed security threats. He also noted the presence of Ms. Hina Jilani of the fact-finding mission at the hearing in which he was denied an exit visa from Israel.
(Mr. Jabarin neglected to mention that he had been denied the right to travel abraod even before 2006 due to his involvement with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-PFLP–, a leftist paramilitary group that rejects peace negotiations and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and Canada. Jabarin was found guilty for arranging PFLP training outside Israel. In 2003, Israel allowed him to travel to Jordan, but the Jordanian government denied him entry due to concerns about PFLP plots against the Hashemite Kingdom. Click here for more information.)
Mr. Jabarin then spoke about how Israel’s purported security concerns complicate Palestinain life. He said that travel between cities that used to take 40 minutes now takes two and a half hours with road-blocks. He said that due to the security wall, children are sometimes unable to reach their classrooms. Palestinians often have to walk long distances to visit relatives due to the wall, road blocks, and other barriers. In other cases, they have to drive for 45 minutes rather than walking for ten because they are prevented from crossing Israeli settlements.
Ms. Jilani asked about the effect of the Gaza War on West Bank Palestinians. Mr. Jabarin responded that their detentions intensified during that period.