UN probe into Gaza conflict

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

Ashraf Amra/ AP/ File
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.

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.

"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.

On Sunday and Monday in Gaza City, civilian victims, eyewitnesses, and aid workers testified one by one in front of a four-member expert panel, where they were questioned by UN investigators on everything from the ability of ambulances to move during the war to the details of airstrikes on mosques, schools, and houses.

"We had no warning and suddenly bodies and smoke were everywhere," said Ibrahim Moussa of the day his neighborhood mosque in the Jabaliya refugee camp was struck by an Israeli missile, killing 17 people.

Israel balks at UN hearings in Israel

The UN requested permission to hold hearings in southern Israel for victims of Palestinian rocket fire, but the Israeli government refused to host the team – or even allow it to travel through Israel into Gaza or the West Bank.

Mr. Steinberg says Israel's government decided the investigation is so political in its leanings that allowing the fact-finders into southern Israeli towns like Sderot and Ashkelon – both regular targets of Palestinian rocket fire – would do nothing to either repair the image of bias or influence the ultimate findings of the mission.

"The general consensus was that there is so much bias and built-in animosity towards Israel with this investigation that allowing them into Sderot simply wouldn't change anything," Steinberg says.

Others say Israel's blanket refusal to work with the UN team or even acknowledge Israeli crimes may have taken place is fodder for those who accuse its officials of enjoying years of impunity.

"The track record of Israeli impunity, it's been a longstanding problem," says Amnesty International's chief researcher for Israel and the Palestinian territories, Donatella Rovera.

"The chances of the victim to get justice by going through Israeli avenues is next to nil; it's quite scandalous. Israel could do the right thing, if it wanted, and prosecute people – or at least engage in the process."

To persuade the Israeli government to participate in any UN-led investigation, Steinberg says an entirely new and independent panel unaffiliated with the Human Rights Council, which he says is influenced by an "Islamic bloc" of nations, would need to be established.

"Unless there are people on this panel who know something about military options, about weighing military necessity against the protection of civilian combatants, this is not an appropriate body to deal with these issues," says Steinberg.

Ms. Rovera dismisses the assertion that the UN mission is lacking in capability or impartiality due to either diminished knowledge of the conflict or the fact that UN facilities were attacked.

But she is also skeptical the findings will produce much accountability or justice for the victims.

"I have no doubt that the team will do a good work, and they certainly seem to be making their best effort to do so. Richard Goldstone is someone of quite amazing stature, and these experts on the team now, they don't work for the UN," Rovera says.

"But I think in the short term it is far-fetched to be optimistic in terms of justice," she continues. Goldstone plans to deliver a report of his findings in the fall.

"The key really is whether or not the international community will deliver at the next level. The next step for all sides, simply, is accountability."

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