Gruesome testimony on Gaza war
Gaza City - A UN human rights mission on Sunday listened as witnesses described in gruesome detail the Israeli shelling of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip during a three-week offensive at the turn of the year.
The delegation planned to hold two days of public hearings as part of its investigation into alleged war crimes during the 22-day offensive launched in late December that killed about 1 400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
The group is headed by Richard Goldstone, a South African judge who previously served as chief prosecutor for international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
They listened as a young wheelchair-bound man named Ziad al-Deeb described how he had been sitting at home with his family, savouring a brief pause in the fighting, when Israeli forces began shelling his neighbourhood.
"We were shocked when we heard the loud noise coming from the Israeli shelling, then one of the missiles landed on top of us. There were 11 people killed," he said.
"My legs were cut off, and then I looked and saw my father and my family. Most of them had been killed. The children were screaming."
One of the investigators asked if there had been any warning before the strike.
"There was no warning," Deeb said. "If there had been, we would have left."
Later, they heard from the Samuni family, who draped a banner over a table bearing the pictures of 29 relatives, including several children, killed in one of the deadliest single incidents of the war.
In early January, an Israeli missile struck a house where dozens of family members had been ordered to take shelter by Israeli soldiers, killing nearly 30 people and leaving several others wounded and trapped in the rubble.
Rescue services were unable to reach the area for three days.
"All I want to know is why," Salah al-Samuni said as he choked back tears and held up pictures of some of the children, posing and smiling before the war and then as maimed corpses laid out on stretchers.
"Were they wanted by Israel, were they in the resistance? I really want to know," he said.
The mission was expected to look into several allegations of human rights violations that emerged in the aftermath of the assault, which Israel said was aimed at stemming Palestinian rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled enclave.
Israeli authorities have so far refused to allow the investigators into the country and have accused the mission, which was sent by the UN Human Rights Council, of bias against the Jewish state.
"The mandate is so one-sided, no fair, thinking person could see it as objective," government spokesperson Mark Regev said.
"The UN Human Rights Council has over the last months and years totally discredited itself as a serious vehicle for advancing human rights."
The 47-member council voted by a large majority in January to probe accusations of "grave" human rights violations by Israel, but the team was later given a broader mandate to deal with "all violations" during the war.
Israel has insisted it made every effort to spare civilians, including dropping thousands of fliers warning residents to flee ahead of strikes.
It has also said that Palestinian fighters and rocket launchers operated in crowded residential areas, using civilians as human shields, a charge also made against Hamas by rights groups.
On their first visit at the start of June, the investigators visited 14 sites in and around Gaza City and conducted interviews with several individuals and organisations.
On both visits they had to enter the territory from the Rafah crossing point on the border with Egypt after Israel denied them access through its territory.
The group plans to hold similar hearings in Geneva in which they will interview witnesses and experts on alleged violations in Israel and the occupied West Bank, and to issue a final report by September 12.