UN Gaza war crimes inquiry seeking Israelis’ testimony

UN Gaza war crimes inquiry seeking Israelis’ testimony

Activists hope telling Israel’s story could counterbalance commission’s bias, but Foreign Ministry dismisses effort as ‘futile’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

William Schabas, right, and members of a Serbian delegation at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands in March. Schabas heads a UN Human Rights Commission inquiry into war crimes during the 2014 Gaza conflict (photo credit: AP/Jiri Buller)
William Schabas, right, and members of a Serbian delegation at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands in March. Schabas heads a UN Human Rights Commission inquiry into war crimes during the 2014 Gaza conflict (photo credit: AP/Jiri Buller)

A United Nations fact-finding mission investigating whether war crimes were committed during last year’s Gaza war is currently soliciting testimony from Israelis who were affected by rocket fire and other attacks from Palestinian terrorists.

Some pro-Israel activists are urging Israelis to tell the mission about how they suffered during the 50-day conflict, hoping to counterbalance what is expected to be an account highly critical of Israel.

But the government in Jerusalem, which has so far refused to cooperate with the inquiry, said this week that any attempt to influence the commissioners’ opinion was “futile.”

The mission’s request for testimonies from Israelis is merely an attempt to hide its anti-Israel bias, a senior official said. Officials earlier characterized the probe as a “kangaroo court” whose conclusions are a “foregone conclusion.”

The inquiry, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council and headed by Canadian international law professor William Schabas, is accepting written testimonies until January 31.

While the investigation is expected to focus on Israeli violations during the summer war between Israel and Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip, a press release issued in late December indicated the scope would include “investigations of the activities of Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, including attacks on Israel, as well as the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip and Israeli actions in the West Bank including East Jerusalem.”

The three commissioners “personally wish to reassure all those who have suffered so intensely as a result of this conflict that they will do their utmost to fulfill their mandate to the best of their abilities,” according to the release.

That statement led some to believe that as many Israelis as possible should submit accounts of their hardships this summer to the commission.

Elihu D. Stone, an Israel-based lawyer, wrote in a Times of Israel blog post last week that boycotting the commission would only add to the “lop-sidedness” of the commission in favor of the Palestinians.

“Unless the Commission is presented with gripping and voluminous first-hand testimony of how Israelis have affected by Palestinian violations of international law, there is nary a chance that the Commission can be true to its ostensible mission — much less held accountable to it,” he wrote.

A website called Hear Our Voices was also set up to lobby for Israelis to take advantage of the inquiry’s request for written testimony.

“Bias against Israel on the part of current Commission — whether real or perceived — should not stop injured parties from submitting testimony; but rather should encourage it,” the site states. “If the Commission refuses to relate seriously and transparently to the injuries of Israeli victims then this will constitute grounds for condemnation of a biased report.”

On the other hand, the authors of the website wrote, if the commissioners relate seriously to the testimony of Israelis affected by the Gaza war, they might produce a more nuanced and fairer report. “In any event, submitting testimony will preclude protestations of sheer ignorance to justify warped findings of fact or conclusions of law.”

It’s not clear who is behind the site. Attempts to reach the creator of the site, which was registered earlier this month, were unsuccessful.

After the 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead, Judge Richard Goldstone authored an UN-commissioned report highly critical of Israel, parts of which he later retracted because he had learned about facts he was unaware of at the time.

‘The attempt to balance the commission’s work by addressing itself to Israelis is futile’

Officials in Jerusalem, however, remain steadfast in their refusal to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, arguing that even testimonies from Israelis who suffered during the summer would not prevent the commission from delivering a wholesale condemnation of Israel. Rather, submitting statements would create the impression that Schabas and his co-commissioners are objective legalists who will look at the issue from all sides, which is clearly not the case, they argue.

“The Human Rights Council, which appointed the commission, is highly hostile to Israel,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel on Monday. “The mandate of the commission is biased and meant not to deal with the root causes of terror against Israel. The commission itself is headed by a person who does not hide his antipathy toward Israel,” he said, referring to Schabas, who has been an outspoken critic of Israeli policies and made statements supportive of Hamas.

A UN Human Rights Council Meeting in Geneva in May 2013. (photo credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)
A UN Human Rights Council meeting in 2013. (photo credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)

“There is no reason whatsoever to cooperate with this mockery of justice. The commission is nothing is more than a modern-day inquisition trial,” Nahshon added. “The attempt to balance the commission’s work by addressing itself to Israelis is futile. It is a desperate attempt to disguise the fact that the commission has targeted Israel in a hypocritical and hostile way.”

Meanwhile, the three commissioners — Schabas, Gabon diplomat Baudelaire Ndong Ella and former New York Supreme Court judge Mary McGowan — have traveled to the region but have not been able to enter Israel or Gaza, yet say they gathered “very moving” testimony from both Israelis and Palestinians.

“In the absence of a response from Israel, the Commission of Inquiry is still actively seeking the cooperation of the Government of Egypt, which has indicated it is ready to facilitate the Commissioners’ travel to Gaza as soon as the security situation permits travel there,” a December 23 press release stated. Cairo has not yet changed its position, a spokesperson for the commission told The Times of Israel on Monday.

“In the meantime, the Commission of Inquiry is in the process of interviewing a wide spectrum of witnesses and victims in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory using technology to overcome the physical distance,” according to the press release. “The testimony heard so far has been very moving and the Commissioners are deeply conscious of the enormous responsibility the victims have placed on them by trusting them with accounts of very intimate and traumatic experiences.”

The commission — officially known as the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict — refused to state how many people it has interviewed so far, and how many of them are Israelis, citing witness protection concerns.

“Our work is still ongoing so we won’t be revealing details of how many witnesses we have taken testimony from or submissions we have received — or whether they are from Israelis or Palestinians,” a spokesperson told The Times of Israel. “Suffice it to say we have heard from both witnesses in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.”

read more: