Israeli Delegation of Gaza Border Residents Testifies Before UNHRC Committee

'I’m not sure it will have an effect,' says Gaza border residents' representative, 'but the committee won’t be able to say it didn't know.'

Shirly Seidler
Gili Cohen
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A man looks at cars destroyed by mortar fire in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, on the Gaza border with Israel, during the 2014 conflict.
A man looks at cars destroyed by mortar fire in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, on the Gaza border with Israel, during the 2014 conflict.Credit: AP
Shirly Seidler
Gili Cohen

A delegation of Gaza border communities’ residents Wednesday testified in Geneva before the United Nations Human Rights Council committee set up to investigate possible war crimes during Israel’s 50-day war in Gaza last summer. The residents testified about the traumas and difficulties they suffered during the fighting.

Israel has officially refused to cooperate with the committee, headed by Canadian Professor William Schabas.

The delegation that left for Switzerland on Tuesday consisted of seven members, including Eshkol Regional Council head Haim Yellin and Channel 10 journalist Or Heller.

After Israel decided not to cooperate with the Schabas committee, the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists and other human rights groups started to gather testimonies to present to the UN. Dozens of residents from Gaza border communities volunteered to recount their experiences during the fighting.

Association President Irit Kohn said the border communities’ distress and Israel’s refusal to cooperate with the committee made them realize that an external, apolitical body must present the Israeli testimonies to ensure they appear in the committee’s report.

“We hesitated whether to appear before the committee, following the insufferable things it published – three pages saying Israel had committed criminal offenses – so why appoint a committee?” Kohn said. “But we reached the conclusion that the people suffered such great distress that the committee must hear them before publishing its report.”

Kohn said that although Israel wasn’t cooperating with the committee, it was not interfering with the delegation’s work.

She said the UN committee’s members expressed empathy after reading the written statements. “We decided to bring a delegation here to talk mainly about the traumatic and economic aspects of the operation ... I’m not sure it will have an effect, but the committee will not be able to say it didn’t know. The committee members have the impression that the [Israeli] residents want to help the other side and listen to it, and maybe that has an effect.”

Asked whether Israel’s position was harmful to the residents’ cause, Kohn said “we make many mistakes, but there’s a lot of injustice in the way we’re portrayed and I’m not sure a sovereign state should cooperate with it. That’s why an international organization like us saw fit to cooperate.”

The Schabas committee started investigating the events of Operation Protective Edge already in August. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response that the UN Human Rights committee has long become the “Terrorists’ rights committee” and the results of its “investigations” are known in advance.

“If any other evidence of this was needed, appointing the committee’s chairman, whose biased opinions and positions against Israel are well known, proves beyond all doubt that Israel cannot expect justice and that the committee’s report has already been written,” the Foreign Ministry said at the time.

Heller, who joined the delegation as an expert witness, at its request, also testified in Geneva Wednesday. He said earlier this week that he would show the committee photographs of Hamas firing from populated areas, footage of the operation from the Israeli side of the border and TV reports he had prepared during the fighting from the border and from the Gaza Strip.

Heller wrote on his Facebook page that the witnesses plan to testify “in a bid to balance the conclusions of the committee, which is seen as biased and anti-Israel.”

The committee has allocated about 45 minutes for each witness to tell his story.

Israel denied the inquiry panel’s members entry in November, when they asked to travel through Israel to the Gaza Strip. But despite the decision not to cooperate officially with the committee, Israel will maintain indirect contact with it, Haaretz has learned.

Israel is expected to pass on to the committee documents outlining its position regarding the war in Gaza and testimonies indicating that Hamas had committed war crimes, such as using civilians as human shields and terror organizations’ firing near UN facilities.

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