Though the Israeli government has refused, so far, to cooperate with the UN Human Rights Commission’s Fact-finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, a group of seven Israeli human rights organizations has presented a collective report of their own detailed findings which, they said, “should be investigated”.
The Fact-finding Mission, led by Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa, is looking at events before, during, and after Operation Cast Lead (27 December – 18 January) — and the mission has said that events since a June 2008 cease-fire between Israel and Hamas would be “relevant” to its investigation.
The Israeli human rights organizations asked the Goldstone mission, additionally, “to review the policy of closing the Gaza border passages before, during, and after the military operation” — because, they said, “the events of Operation Cast Lead cannot be viewed independently of the closure on the Gaza Strip, which was imposed almost two years before the attack and has continued ever since”.
They said in a statement that they “believe that the Goldstone Committee’s mission of seeking the truth is of critical importance, in particular due to the refusal by Israel’s Attorney General of the organizations’ request to order a domestic, independent, and impartial inquiry into the Gaza events”.
They again called on the Israeli government to cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission.
And they said that “as human rights organizations based in Israel , it is their mandate to report on issues under Israel ’s control and responsibility”.
For form, the Israeli groups demanded that suspicions that Hamas violated the laws of war be investigated — as Justice Goldstone has already said the Fact-finding Mission intended to do.
The Israeli human rights organizations also said that “reliable, thorough, and impartial investigations are an essential tool for the protection of human rights and for extending maximal protection to civilian populations in wartime”.
The Israeli human rights groups said that the findings they submitted to the Goldstone mission examined “violations of the laws of war that the Israel military allegedly committed during its attack on the Gaza Strip, dubbed ‘Operation Cast Lead’, which should be investigated, referring mainly to policies of collective punishment used against the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. The report details Israeli military offensives that failed to discriminate between combatants and civilians, damage to civilian government buildings for political objectives, attacks on medical rescue teams, damage to public infrastructure, holding detainees in conditions that violate Israeli and international law, and collective punishment”.
The seven Israeli human rights groups are: Association for Civil Rights in Israel ACRI); Gisha: The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel; HaMoked: The Center for the Defence of the Individual; Yesh Din; Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.
In their statement, the Israeli human rights groups said that the main points examined in their document were the following:
(1.) “Even before the military offensive started, the prolonged closure policy that the State of Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip has led to a grave humanitarian crisis there. Since 1967, and as part of established Israeli policy, Gaza ’s basic civilian infrastructure including its medical infrastructure and power plants has become totally dependent on the State of Israel”.
(2.) “Public remarks made by Israel’s political and military leadership and the manner in which the offensive was carried out give rise to suspicions that Israel adopted a disproportionate military assault strategy that mainly aimed at harming civilians and causing deliberate destruction to civilian targets, for purposes of deterrence and collective punishment, and not at specific military targets. If this is the case, a heavy cloud of suspicion hangs over the legality of the entire operation”.
(3.) “The fact that attacks by the Israeli military hit targets located within a civilian population, coupled with data concerning the large number of civilian fatalities and casualties, gives rise to serious suspicions of gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Israel . Many casualties of the Gaza offensive had their limbs amputated and maimed (12-15% of the total number of wounded), some of whom were injured by previously unknown weapon types”.
(4.) “Bombing Civilian Buildings and Institutions: Israel systematically and methodically attacked civilian institutions, deviating from the principle that bans attacks against civilian targets in pursuit of political objectives: 68 government buildings were destroyed, more than 4,000 residential houses were totally demolished, and some 17,000 were partly destroyed, leaving tens of thousands homeless”.
(5.) “The Gaza health system nearly collapsed. During the fighting, local hospitals had to operate while coping with an erratic power supply, and with the fact that 16 medical crew members were killed and 25 wounded while attempting to evacuating casualties; in addition, 34 medical institutions and 29 ambulances were damaged. The Israeli army avoided – in advance, knowingly, and deliberately – extending direct aid to the Palestinian casualties and intentionally prevented Palestinian rescue services from doing so“.
(6.) “Palestinians who were captured in the Gaza Strip and placed in Israeli detention were held in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions, and Israeli soldiers and interrogators used violence against them in some cases. The detainees were held in 2-3 meter-deep ditches, exposed to the cold weather, handcuffed, and often blindfolded. Some of those ditches were dug in what were clearly combat zones, each holding an average of 70 individuals. The army failed to carry out its duty to notify the detainees’ families of their detention and location, and even failed to report their whereabouts to external bodies”.
(7.) “Despite the fact that the Israeli army had precise information about the location of every water, power, and sewage facility in the Gaza Strip, it bombed them and left Gaza without vital infrastructure systems. The Gaza power plant was non-operational for 12 of the 21 days of fighting. Gaza received merely 25% of its required power supply for several days during the assault. In addition, some 800,000 civilians were cut off the supply of running water, and the shortage of power and cooking gas seriously impaired the supply of bread”.
(8.) “Israel ’s absolute control over the Gaza ’s border crossings before and during the operation remains in effect, and the closure prevents Gaza’s Palestinian population from exercising freedom of movement, as well as the import of many goods and raw materials. As long as Israel bans the import of concrete, cement, and other materials essential for the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip, it will remain impossible to make use of the billions of dollars committed the international community for Gaza’s reconstruction”.
Meanwhile, the Fact-Finding Mission wrapped up its two days of public hearings in Gaza on Monday. At the end of the sessions, Justice Goldstone said that all information received by the Mission would be taken into account, whether it be during the public hearings or as part of the continuing investigations.
According to a UN press release, Justice Goldstone “underlined that the hearings form a part of the United Nations activities in promoting and defending human rights and that the Mission members ‘Fully expect and require that all of those who have participated in the hearings are afforded the full protection due to them as recognised in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders’.
He noted that “Appearing at the public hearings had not been without cost to the victims … ‘Every re-telling of their ordeals and tragedies carries a heavy emotional toll as well as personal security risk. We are fully aware of this. We express our deep gratitude for their willingness to share their painful testimonies with us as we endeavour to identify the truth of allegations of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law’.”
And, he said, “As fellow human beings we would like to put on record how deeply moved we were by many of the accounts of profound suffering and grief we have heard in the last two days.”
The UN press release added that “members of the Mission had wished to hold hearings in southern Israel, where the population has been on the receiving end of rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip, and to hold hearings on the West Bank. That is not possible as the Government of Israel is so far not cooperating with the Mission. The Mission members will therefore hold public hearings in Geneva, on July 6 and 7, where they will hear from victims of the alleged violations in Israel and on the West Bank, where there are also allegations of violations in the context of Operation Cast Lead”.
The UN will presumably be paying for the travel expenses and per diemallowances for those who will have to travel to Geneva to testify because Israel made it impossible for the hearings to be held locally, due to its decision to refuse to cooperate.
It is not clear exactly what this West Bank involvement will turn out to be.
In yet another note of alarm about the situation in Gaza (and the West Bank as well), the normally discrete International Committee of the Red Cross, which often refuses to speak out publicly — and when it does, it means that its efforts to persuade the State Party concerned through private communication have failed — said in a press release accompanying their latest “Household Economy Assessment” that their research “reveals a significant deterioration of the household economies in both the West Bank and Gaza over the last four years. About 60 percent of the households in both areas fall into categories described by their own communities as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’. The situation in Gaza, where extremely high levels of poverty were detected, is especially bad … Households in the areas surveyed by the ICRC’s Assessment fall well below the World Bank’s poverty line if their cash income alone is considered. ‘Poor’ households normally supplement their cash income with ‘coping mechanisms’ such as humanitarian assistance, support from relatives, credit or loans, sale of property and possessions, small-scale commercial activities, additional income generated by women and children, and even delaying higher education. However, these ‘coping mechanisms”have grown fragile: most of them have been in use for four years … According to the Assessment, the economic situation of ‘middle’ and ‘better-off’ households is also worsening, and these groups are a major source of informal economic and social support.
Dominik Stillhart, head of the ICRC delegation for Israel and the occupied territories, concludes that ‘Humanitarian assistance alone, in whatever form, will not solve the problem in a sustainable way. It is the responsibility of the State of Israel, as the occupying power, to ensure that Palestinians can meet their basic needs’.”