Goldstone Gaza probe continues to hear from Palestinian experts

At the U.N. in Geneva this morning, the Goldstone fact-finding mission into the Gaza war continued to hear from Palestinian experts.  They were Ms. Sahar Francis, director of the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association; Mr. Majd Bader of the Public Committee against Torture in Israel; Mr. Fadi Qwasmi, a lawyer representing members of the Palestine Legislative Council; and Mr. Salehaldin Musa of the Palestinian independent commission for human rights.

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First to speak, Ms. Francis said that from the beginning of the Israeli occupation until now, there have been approximately 750,000 Palestinian prisoners detained by Israel. At the moment there are 8,100 detainees, including 60 women. She said these statistics are based mostly on the Israel Prison Authority’s own figures, published on a monthly basis.

She said that Israel imprisons Palestinians even on political grounds, including membership in political parties even in Fatah. Israel’s purpose is to “break the soul of the resistance against the occupation,” she said.

At first she claimed that Palestinian prisoners are banned family visits or any contact with family members, including through phone calls. Later she clarified that visits are limited to immediate family members who are sometimes denied permits to enter Israel. Ms. Francis said that because of this, there are hundreds of prisoners who have gone two years without a family visit. Their only form of contact with their families is indirectly through the Red Cross and lawyers.

Ms. Francis complained that prison food is poor in quality and quantity, forcing prisoners to purchase additional food with their own money from prison canteens.  She cited poor health conditions in prisons, leading to chronic disease. Moreover, she accused Israel of attacking prisoners with rubber bullets during daily searches.

Ms. Francis also discussed the effects of imprisonment on women and children. Strip searches humiliate women, she said, adding that it is problematic that juveniles are often held with adults because of overcrowding in prisons. She noted that Palestinian detainees are considered adult at age 16, whereas Israeli prisoners are minors until age 18.

Next to speak, Mr. Bader claimed Israel tortured Palestinian detainees. In Gaza, the military held tens of Palestinians in holes in the ground, using some of them as human shields, he said. Israel also entered Palestinian houses in a violent manner, harshly beat Palestinians, and chained them with iron for long hours.

He told of how Israel used military dogs to frighten detainees and of Palestinians fainting from the harshness of Israeli beatings. Their hands were bound behind their backs and feet shackled to iron chairs during interrogations. He claimed that sometimes the interrogators left the prisoners for hours while changing the temperature from very hot to very cold in the rooms where the detainees remained. They also humiliated the prisoners, for example by ordering them to bark like a dog while walking on all fours.

Mr. Bader also spoke about Palestinian prisoner being denied family visits due to the “siege on Gaza,” which makes Gazans’ entry into Israel difficult. He said it is “terrifying to be isolated from the world and families.”

He said the Israeli government’s plan to condition the release of Hamas and Islamic Jihad detainees on the release of Israeli abductee Gilad Shalit amounted to “unacceptable collective punishment.”

Ms. Christine Chinkin of the fact-finding mission asked about lawyers’ access to evidence in the prisoners’ trials. Mr. Bader replied that much secret evidence is given only to the court.

Next to testify Mr. Qwasmi accused Israel of basing its detentions of Hamas officials over the last three years on political grounds. He said that Israel only took action against Hamas after it won the Palestinian elections, in which Israel had allowed and took no measures to prevent the movement’s participation.

Mr. Qwasmi claimed Israel’s goal was to alter the balance of power in Palestine and interfere in its internal affairs. He deplored Israel’s arrest of 65 deputies, ministers, and members of local councils after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was taken into Gaza in June, 2006. He said that after the declared failure of negotiations to release Shalit, Israel decided to detain 9 Hamas members.

Mr. Qwasmi closed with the following statement: “The truth is, that at the end of my presentation I would like to deal with this policy of double standards which is pursued by the international community as regards the Palestinian issue. I would like to deal with three points. As regards the soldier Gilad Shalit, unfortunately we notice that there’s a lot of sympathy with this issue shown by the international community. But nevertheless I would like to say that there is no comparison whatsoever between this soldier, who was imprisoned while he was using his tank and while blockading Gaza and between the 9,000 Palestinian detainees, and among them hundreds of women and children. So I believe we have to sympathize with these prisoners because their case is much more important and much more worthy of sympathy. Unfortunately, and here I sympathize with any person who is subject to harm, but I would like to say that there is no comparison whatsoever between the suffering and the pain of the people who live in the South of Israel because of the Palestinian rockets which were fired, there is no comparison between their suffering and the sufferings of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”

Last to testify this morning, Mr. Musa presented the Palestinian Human Rights Commission, which was established in 1993 by decree of then President Yasser Arafat and mandated with focusing primarily on internal Palestinian violations. The Commission continues to present annual reports to President Mahmoud Abbas and is also accountable to members of the Palestinain Legislative Council (PLC). Though he said that because of the conflict within the PLC and split between Gaza and the West Bank, the Commission has had difficulty in effectively carrying out its work.

Mr. Musa said it is problematic that Palestinians are essentially ruled by three authorities: two locally in conflict (Hamas and Fatah) and the occupying power, Israel, which has the “first and last say in every matter of the Palestinian people.” Although Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it continues to maintain economic and military control over air, sea, and land, including over the movement of goods in and out of Gaza and its fuel supply. He complained that Israel has blocked the flow of materials into Gaza that could be used to rebuild demolished government buildings and homes. He also noted that due to the Israeli military incursions, the health sector was stretched past capacity, unable to adequately fulfill its functions.

However, most of Mr. Musa’s talk was devoted to highlighting the internal Palestinian conflict between Fatah and Hamas. He cited 470 Hamas members detained in the West Bank and 180 Fatah members detained in Gaza during the war. He spoke of extrajudicial killings in Gaza for which Hamas, Gaza’s de-facto ruler, bares responsibility. He provided the example of militants’ tracking down and killing prisoners (many political) who had escaped the bombed prison during the war. This and other attacks created a situation of lawlessness in Gaza, he said. He also mentioned that Hamas placed many Fatah members under house arrest.

In addition, Mr. Musa discussed Fatah’s crackdown of Hamas in the West Bank, noting that Fatah continued to arrest Hamas members, close associations, and dismiss people from public service during the war as if there were no war in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority also stopped anti-war marches and demonstrations, he said.

Mr. Musa claimed that this internal Palestinian struggle meant that aggression against Palestinians did not end with the Israeli army’s withdrawal.

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