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'I will pay the price for this testimony when I return'

Dec. 28, 2009 9:14 A.M. (Updated: Jan. 10, 2010 8:27 P.M.)
Part two of a series recounting the findings of South African jurist Richard Goldstone's UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.

Bethlehem – Ma'an – An estimated 300 Palestinians were killed in the first 48 hours of Israel's winter assault on the Gaza Strip, which entered its second day one year ago today.

With an increased focus on Rafah, Israeli warplanes bombarded around 100 more targets on 28 December 2008, leaving about 70 more Palestinians dead, and raising the child death toll to 22 and the civilian toll to 60, including nine women.

Israeli jets struck Islamic University in Gaza City, the offices of de facto Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and the Saraya prison, ironically killing four members of Hamas' domestic rival Fatah, as well as three mosques and 11 homes and apartments.

Fires engulfed Rafah after Israeli missiles hit underground fuel pipelines in some 40 sorties on the Strip's tunnel network. Fleeing the flames, terrified residents of Gaza's south attempted by the hundreds to escape to Egypt, but were prevented from leaving by Egyptian security forces. A Palestinian and an Egyptian policeman were killed in the ensuring chaos; at least 10 others were hurt.

West Bank protest

Palestinians in the West Bank, horrified by the numbers of dead and more than 1,000 injured, protested against the operation on its second day. Palestinian Authority security forces broke up a demonstration in Ramallah when activists urged support for Hamas, while Israeli forces shot dead three demonstrators nearby.

"There was a significant increase in the use of force by Israeli security forces during demonstrations in the West Bank after the start of the Israeli operations in Gaza," according to the final report of Richard Goldstone's UN fact-finding mission. "The degree of force used against protests during the previous year had already been high ... New tactics and weapons used by the Israeli security forces aimed at suppressing the popular movement have resulted in deaths and injuries."

In July 2009, two witnesses, Mohamed Srour and Jonathan Pollak, described to the UN investigators in Geneva the fatal shooting of the two young men from the West Bank village of Ni’lin during a demonstration against the Gaza operation. Srour, elected mayor in 2005, was himself shot in the leg during the same protest.

"This demonstration was like any other demonstration. These demonstrations always took place and were peaceful demonstrations," Srour explained. "And there was the presence of Israeli and foreign supporters and very high-level MPs. So it was very clear that this demonstration was a peaceful one."

As the protest was winding down, Israeli forces used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowd. The two young men who died were part of a small group of demonstrators, some of whom had thrown stones at the soldiers. In video footage, four or five soldiers appeared to be casually walking around and not seemingly threatened. Dozens of rounds of live ammunition were fired in the direction of the group of young men, hitting three of them within minutes of each other.

"Unfortunately, I have experienced, and it's very easy to distinguish between, the shooting of rubber bullets and tear gas and between live ammunition," recounted Pollak, an Israeli activist. "When I told them that it's live ammunition, they didn’t believe me. They said, 'No, it's just blanks that they're shooting. And they're not going to shoot us.'"

Mohamed Khawaja was shot in the forehead; Arafat Khawaja, who had turned to run away, was shot in the back, and Srour was shot in the leg. Subsequently, an ambulance was prevented from reaching the victims, who had to be carried some distance and were eventually put onto a pick-up truck, at which the army fired tear gas.

"There were shouts that another person was shot. People said, 'Call the medics. There's another person wounded.' And we put Mohamed on the ground. Some people stayed with him and I ran back immediately.

"And then I saw Arafat Khawaja being carried. And there weren't enough people carrying him. His head was slinging back, and I grabbed his head and my hand was covered with his blood. He was shot in the back. ... I got to him and I looked back. And I saw Mohamed being shot – I saw Mohamed fall down. And people were shouting that another person was shot.

[...]

"We dropped Arafat on the floor by mistake. And we weren’t far at all from Mohamed. And people grabbing him ran before, like ran and passed up. And I could see that his face was all bloody. And the wound was in the vicinity of his eye. I mean, I would say, at the moment, I thought that the bullet went through is eye. I’m not sure if that's true. ...

"There was no ambulance there because it was prevented from entering the village at the entrance, at the roadblock in the entrance. His blood kept gushing from this back and his legs were a bit higher so it, it dripped, through the back of his head. He was shot in the back, which, I mean, I would tend to say murder because he was with his back to the soldiers and absolutely not endangering anyone. But, I assume, legally it can not be called murder because we can't prove intent. But in the least, it's willful killing."

Added Srour, "There was no care, whatsoever, for human life."

No reply

According to South African jurist Richard Goldstone's final report, "The Mission has asked the Government of Israel to explain the increased use of live ammunitions during demonstrations in the West Bank, but has received no reply."

Both Srour and Pollak said that by the second day of the war, the atmosphere encountered with soldiers and border police had already become markedly different from the situation before the operations in Gaza.

"The atmosphere of the incident, and during and after the start of the war generally, was that all checks and balances had been removed. The soldiers were saying things related to the Gaza war, taunting things like, 'It’s a shame we're not in Gaza killing Arabs,'" Pollak said. "They were taunting us. They were cursing at us. They were laughing about what was happening in Gaza at the same time. This was the second day of the war, of the assault. And people were unbelievably angry."

Israeli forces arrested Srour at the Allenby crossing upon his return to the West Bank on 20 July. He was subsequently released on bail. Israel's Permanent Representative to Geneva said the arrest was unrelated to his appearance at the public hearing days earlier.

During his testimony, however, Srour had expressed fear Israel would retaliate for his remarks at the UN. "I know full well that I will pay the price for this testimony when I return at Israeli crossing points in my journey of return after this hearing," he said.

At least 800 Israeli protesters, most of them of Palestinian descent, were arrested during the Gaza war.

Among the UN report's final recommendations is "that the Government of Israel should cease actions aimed at limiting the expression of criticism by civil society and members of the public concerning Israel's policies and conduct during the military operations in the Gaza Strip. The Mission also recommends that Israel should set up an independent inquiry to assess whether the treatment by Israeli judicial authorities of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis expressing dissent in connection with the offensive was discriminatory, in terms of both charges and detention pending trial. The results of the inquiry should be made public and, subject to the findings, appropriate remedial action should be taken;

"The Mission recommends that the Government of Israel should refrain from any action of reprisal against Palestinian and Israeli individuals and organizations that have cooperated with the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, in particular individuals who have appeared at the public hearings held by the Mission in Gaza and Geneva and expressed criticism of actions by Israel."
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