Justice denied in Gaza

Journalist Riham Abdul Karim says there is no media freedom in Gaza. (Mel Frykberg/IPS)

RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IPS) - Gazans hoping for a modicum of justice following Israel’s indiscriminate military assault on the coastal territory during December 2008 and January 2009 — which left 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, dead — could be waiting in vain.

The Israeli government has taken the offensive in the propaganda battle and attacked United Nations-appointed Justice Richard Goldstone’s report into war crimes committed during the war. The report alleges that Israel was responsible for the lion’s share of human rights abuses.

Following international censure and UN calls for independent inquiries to be carried out by both the Israeli government and Gaza’s de facto Hamas government, Israel submitted a counter-report to the UN last weekend.

Specific incidents during which Goldstone says civilians and civilian infrastructure were deliberately targeted were either justified or denied outright by the Israeli military.

However, two senior Israeli officers were brought before a disciplinary committee after they authorized the use of phosphorous on a UN facility sheltering 700 civilians. The Israeli military, however, refused to divulge what action was taken against the officers.

Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has sent an urgent letter to Judge Advocate General Major General Avichai Mandelblit demanding an immediate investigation into the circumstances surrounding the firing of phosphorous shells at Gaza’s UN Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) compound in Gaza.

Gaza’s UNRWA director John Ging stated that he had put many calls through to Israeli military officials during the shelling but it continued nevertheless.

“Senior officers were well aware of the danger in continuing the shelling. Despite this knowledge, the army continued to shell the facility, starting fires and causing great damage. The danger to civilians was enormous, and the fact that no lives were lost in the incident is nothing short of a miracle,” said Ging.

According to the UN another of the incidents involved the bombing of a flour mill in Gaza with apparently no military justification.

The Israeli military denied the bombing stating that after an investigation, which included reconnaissance photos, the building showed no damage from an aerial attack and failed to even mention the attack in its report to the UN

But the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Tuesday that a UN bomb disposal team had searched the flour mill shortly after the war and found the front part of an MK-82 500-pound bomb which is used by the Israeli Air Force. It was subsequently neutralized.

Furthermore, the British daily, The Independent, was told by a high-ranking Israeli military officer that the Israeli military deliberately chose to risk the lives of Palestinian civilians to protect the lives of Israeli soldiers.

“The [Israeli army] officer claimed the traditional ‘means and intentions’ engagement principle — stating that a suspect must have both a weapon and a visible intent to use it before being fired at — was discarded during Israel’s Gaza incursion,” reported Haaretz.

Another soldier explained that in place of identifying military targets, the opposite was done. First you shot and then later you looked into the shooting.

During “Operation Cast Lead” foreign correspondents were briefed by the Israeli military that excessive military firepower was used against homes where soldiers merely assumed a gunman could be taking refuge.

A house where they suspected the presence of a fighter would be hit with an aerial missile, two tank shells and then a bulldozer before even considering the presence of civilian families.

Critics argue that if Israel can justify this indiscriminate shelling of predominantly Palestinian civilian targets, on the pretext of the alleged presence of a military person, then Palestinian military organizations could likewise justify the bombing of Israeli buses or restaurants which are regularly patronized by Israeli military personnel.

Punitive measures against Israel, however, are highly unlikely due to United States veto power in the UN Security Council and the lack of political will by mostly Western members.

Meanwhile, Gazans continue to suffer human rights abuses at the hands of the Hamas authorities who control Gaza.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) in Gaza has released several statements condemning the continued mistreatment by Hamas of political opponents, mostly belonging to the rival Fatah movement, but including other factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

At the beginning of January Fatah activists trying to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the organization’s establishment were arrested, beaten up and degraded by Hamas security officials.

A mother of one of the activists died from a suspected heart attack after she too was beaten and arrested. Some activists were incarcerated merely for lighting candles in commemoration.

Recently, several members from the smaller PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), were hospitalized after being attacked by club-wielding Hamas police after returning from a ceremony marking the death of the founder of the group.

“There is a repressive political atmosphere in Gaza,” says Issam Younis the director of the Gaza-based Palestinian human rights group al-Mezan.

“Political association of the smaller groups is tolerated to some extent by the authorities. It is mostly Fatah activists who are targeted. Due process is lacking,” Younis told IPS.

Journalist Riham Abdul Karim from the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), who has had several confrontations with Hamas authorities, told IPS that there is no reporting freedom.

“There is no freedom. The definition was lost several years ago. The media is divided between those that support Hamas and those that support Fatah. For those of us in between we are constantly harassed,” Abdul Karim said. “There are certain stories we just can’t touch. Nevertheless, we try to get the message out in a subtle way and hope viewers can read between the lines.”

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