A UN human rights mission began two days of public hearings yesterday as part of its investigation into alleged violations committed during the devastating war in the Gaza Strip at the turn of the year.
The delegation 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.
Investigators plan to publicly interview dozens of victims, witnesses and experts about the 22-day conflict launched by Israel in late December in which more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
“The purpose of the public hearings in Gaza and Geneva is to show the faces and broadcast the voices of victims — all of the victims,” Goldstone said last week.
Israeli authorities have so far refused to allow the investigators access to southern Israel and have accused the mission of being pro-Palestinian.
The mission plans to hold similar hearings in Geneva in which its investigators will interview witnesses and experts on alleged violations in Israel and the occupied West Bank, the mission said in a statement.
On their first visit at the start of June the investigators visited 14 sites in Gaza City and northern Gaza and conducted interviews with many individuals and organizations as part of their fact-finding mission.
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 council has enlarged the scope of the mission to investigate all alleged violations committed during the offensive, which Israel said was aimed at stemming rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave.
The group plans to produce a final report for the UN Human Rights Council by Sept. 12.
Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will propose a limited three-month freeze on settlement growth in response to increased pressure from Washington, Israeli army radio reported yesterday.
Barak, who is to meet US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in New York today, will propose the limited freeze as a compromise to Washington’s demand for a complete halt to settlement activity on occupied land, it said.
US President Barack Obama’s administration has repeatedly demanded that Israel’s new right-wing government freeze all settlement growth in the occupied West Bank in order to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to take steps to halt so-called “natural growth” within existing settlements that Israel expects to keep in any final peace deal.
And the possible freeze would not apply to settlements in mostly Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied and annexed in 1967 and which the Palestinians have demanded as the capital of their future state.
It would also not cover some 2,000 buildings in West Bank settlement blocs that are currently at an advanced stage of construction, mainly public buildings, Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported.
The paper recently reported that about 3,200 new housing units were under construction in the West Bank at the end of last year.
An Israeli defense ministry spokesman declined to comment on the reports.
The presence of more than 280,000 Israeli settlers in over 100 settlements scattered across the West Bank has long been one of the thorniest issues in the decades-old conflict.