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UN probe into Gaza conflict

Israelis and Palestinians question the credibility and effectiveness of 'unprecedented' public hearings about last January's attacks.

By Erin CunninghamCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2009

UN investigator Richard Goldstone visits the destroyed house where members of the Samouni family were killed in an artillery strike during Israel's offensive in January in Gaza City, in this June 3 file photo.

Ashraf Amra/ AP/ File

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Gaza City, Gaza

In a tearful and gruesome testimony, Salah Al-Samouni spoke of the two days of Israeli helicopter attacks in the Zaytoun area of Gaza that claimed 29 members of his family on Jan. 5 and 6.

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"They hit us, they hit us with Apaches," Mr. Samouni told United Nations war crimes investigators in Gaza City on Sunday. "I found my 2-year-old daughter, she was dead.... Why?"

Six months after Israel's winter military offensive that left over 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead (10 soldiers and three civilians), the UN is holding unprecedented public hearings in Gaza City and Geneva this week into allegations that war crimes were carried out during the conflict.

Led by South African judge Richard Goldstone, himself of Jewish descent, the fact-finding mission has a mandate to investigate all suspected violations of international law, including those carried out by Hamas and other Palestinian militants throughout the conflict.

A 15-member UN team came to Gaza earlier this month to speak with victims and survey the destruction.

Despite the mission's scope, however, serious doubts exist about its ability to yield prosecutions or produce a sense of justice for either side.

Israel's refusal to cooperate with the mission, and the fact that it is not a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC), make it unlikely Israeli officials will end up on trial, human rights groups say.

Inherently biased review?

For their part, Israeli officials insist the investigation is inherently biased against the Jewish state. They note that the UN Human Rights Council resolution that established the mission's mandate failed to call for an investigation into Palestinian rocket fire that has terrorized residents of southern Israel for years. Israel says it wasn't targeting civilians but Hamas fighters were deliberately hiding among civilians.

UN facilities in Gaza were hit by Israeli tank shells during the offensive, but UN officials stress the current inquiry is independent of the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), the arm of the organization working in Gaza during the war.

"Both the terms of reference of the investigation and the context in which they were adopted make it nothing less than a kangaroo court," says Gerald Steinberg, a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel. "Israelis have largely given up on this process. They don't expect to see justice."

The UN council resolution officially calls for an independent investigation into Israeli war crimes committed in the Gaza Strip, but Mr. Goldstone has expanded the mandate to include all violations committed "within the context of the military operations," the UN Human Rights Commissioner's press officer, Doune Porter, said.

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