A group of Israelis, including the mother of a 4-year-old Israeli boy killed by Gazan mortar fire, testified Wednesday before a Geneva-based United Nations fact-finding mission investigating whether war crimes were committed during last year’s Gaza war.
The Israelis’ account was meant to tell the Israeli side of the story of the 50-day conflict with Hamas, to counterbalance what is expected to be an account highly critical of Israel. Israel is not formally cooperating with what it says is a biased forum.
On Tuesday, the inquiry said it was soliciting testimony from Israelis who were affected by rocket fire and other attacks from Palestinian terrorists.
Gila Tragerman, mother of 4-year-old Daniel who was killed in his home on Kibbutz Nahal Oz in the later days of the conflict, testified earlier before the UN commission via Skype.
“I told them that Hamas fired from inside [Gazan] population centers with the clear knowledge that the IDF would not bomb them. And they were not wrong. The IDF really did not bomb them. Why? Because we don’t hurt innocent civilians,” she said in an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily Thursday. “I told them that we were also refugees during the war.”
The Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry gave the green light for the unofficial delegation, which was created by the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, but made clear to them that they were speaking as Israeli citizens and not as representatives of the state.
Officially, the Israeli government refused to cooperate with the inquiry, saying 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 Israeli delegation to Geneva comprised representatives from towns in southern Israeli including the kibbutzim of Nirim, Kerem Shalom and Kfar Aza.
Attorney Irit Kahan, president of the IAJLJ, explained the choice to testify before the commission to the Haaretz daily, “We decided to send a delegation in order to speak, principally, about the traumatic and financial elements of the operation. We’re not naïve. I’m not sure it will have an effect, but I am sure that the commission won’t be able to say, ‘We didn’t hear. We didn’t see.’”
Haim Yellin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council, said he wanted to tell the inquiry about the past 15 years of daily life in southern Israel.
“They will not silence me. [I will tell them about] the first mortar in Nahal Oz [leading up to] the Kassam rockets in Sderot,” he said.
“I’m going to speak for those who can’t do so any more,” he added.
There was also some measure of trepidation before the testimonies.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to get the message across,” said Roni Kissin, secretary of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom. “That fear of not going to certain areas of the kibbutz because there’s a high risk of mortars [landing] there. And [in areas where you know there] was a tunnel, you look from side to side, looking for — and imagining — people there,” she said.
There was also a collective sigh of relief and a small amount of optimism once the task was completed, as most members of the Israeli delegation felt they were heard.
“They didn’t ask anything, they let me talk the whole time,” said Gadi Yarkoni, who lost both feet in a mortar attack on Kibbutz Nirim on the last day of the war . “I told them about the children who are scared of the tunnels and the rockets. I told them I believed they would be objective,” he said.
The UN 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.
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.
“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.”
According to members of the delegation Schabas said, “It was a shame he didn’t meet with us in Israel, and he added that he has criticism against the country for not working with them.”
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.