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MIDEAST: Security Council Urged to Take Up Gaza War

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Oct 13 2009 (IPS) - Pressure has been building on the U.N. Security Council to address the impact of the Gaza war on civilians in advance of its meeting Wednesday to discuss the Middle East.

“The Security Council has a historic opportunity to uphold the principle of civilian protection and promote regional peace,” said Steve Crawshaw, U.N. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “As it has in other conflicts, the council should demand that the parties to the conflict punish those responsible for serious abuses.”

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has indicated it will oppose any effort by the Security Council to refer the report’s findings to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for possible prosecutions.

At the heart of the controversy around Israeli and Hamas actions during the Gaza war, which ran from Dec. 27, 2008 to Jan. 18, 2009, is the Goldstone Report, led by South African Justice Richard Goldstone, which detailed the laws-of-war violations by both sides. It called for an independent committee of experts to examine how Israel and Hamas conduct domestic investigations into war crimes accusations.

The Israeli government has been highly critical of the report, which it claims is heavily biased in favour of Hamas and unfairly focuses on accusations of Israeli war crimes and targeting of Palestinian civilians.

The report accused both Israel and Hamas of suspected war crimes – there are documented cases of both Hamas fighters and Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers targeting civilian areas.

However, Israel has taken particular issue with the report for encouraging countries that are signatories to the Geneva Conventions to ”start criminal investigations in national courts using universal jurisdiction where there is sufficient evidence of the commission of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.”

”Where so warranted following investigation, alleged perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted in accordance with internationally recognized standards,” recommended the report.

On Oct. 1, Goldstone responded to comments from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that following his report’s recommendations could derail any future peace process with the Palestinians.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand the reason for that [Netanyahu’s assertion],” Goldstone, a former South African supreme court judge who also served as chief prosecutor for war crimes tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, told reporters at the National Press Club here.

“Without some form of truth-telling, there cannot be an enduring peace,” he said, citing his experiences in South Africa, as well as in the trials on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

“Truth-telling and acknowledgement to victims can be a very important assistance to peace,” he added.

The humanitarian cost of Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip was discussed Tuesday at an event at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington.

John Ging, director of operations in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), discussed the refugee situation during the recent Israeli military action to destroy Hamas rocket positions in December and January and the closure of Israeli border checkpoints with Gaza.

His presentation emphasised the impact of the siege on civilian populations, with a particular focus on children, who comprise 750,000 of Gaza’s 1.5 million population.

”What’s going to be their mindset growing up?” asked Ging. ”It’s very important that we counter that and lift the siege on Gaza and find solutions to the real security challenges within the framework of international law.”

Ging discussed the refusal of the Israeli government to allow materials for reconstruction to pass through border checkpoints into Gaza and its impact on Palestinian children.

”We don’t have enough school buildings, which means you have truncated education and no extracurricular activities,” he said.

Ging characterised the siege as an ”imprisonment” of a civilian population.

”The imprisonment of the population extends to students who struggle to get out of Gaza to pursue education abroad,” Ging commented. ”[This applies] even for innocent students to come to the U.S. or Europe to pursue higher education.”

Both HRW and UNRWA have called upon Israeli authorities to reopen supply lines for school supplies and rebuilding materials.

“Israel’s blockade affects every aspect of life in Gaza, and is even preventing students from having basic school supplies,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “What possible justification can there be for blocking school supplies, which effectively deprives children of their right to an education?”

Israeli restrictions on educational materials have left students to share or take turns studying from used books – in the best cases – or go without books for this year’s classes.

Only two truckloads of stationery were permitted to enter Gaza in 2009 while nearly 120 truckloads of stationery were waiting on Israeli clearance to enter as of Aug. 25, according to the U.N.’s IRIN news agency.

The debate over Israeli and Hamas actions during Israeli Operation Cast Lead will no doubt be a point for debate as the Goldstone report is taken up in the Security Council, but more urgent questions continue to be raised about the legality of the ongoing siege on Gaza by Israel.

Gazan civilians are asking for the rule of law, not vengeance, said Ging.

”They are concerned about the future,” he concluded.

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