Harrowing testimony by bereaved victims of Israel's military onslaught on Gaza was heard yesterday in the first public session in Gaza City of a UN factfinding mission led by a prominent South African judge.
Israel has refused to co-operate with the enquiry, and Judge Richard Goldstone's team was obliged to enter Gaza through the Egyptian border post in Rafah. It had also hoped to travel to southern Israel to hear testimony from Israeli victims of rocket attacks from Gaza but says it will now do so in Geneva next month. Israeli witnesses may be flown to Geneva to give evidence at UN expense as the team is barred from Israel.
Judge Goldstone, a Jew and an eminent lawyer on the board of Human Rights Watch, is also a former governor of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He said: "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."
He told witnesses at the start of the hearing that the judges knew "it is not easy, and how painful it is" to tell their stories.
Moteeh Silawi, an imam from Jablaya, graphically described leading his blind father, aged 91, across scattered body parts after 17 worshippers were killed by flying shrapnel from an explosion just outside its door during evening prayers on 3 January. Mr Silawi, who lost three brothers and two nephews, including a four year old, said: "I saw bloodshed in the mosque. Can you imagine such a shock? I never thought it would be possible [for] a house of God, a house of worship, to be targeted by missiles."
The team heard evidence from the Deeb family which lost 11 of its members, including five children, in the same series of mortar rounds that killed up to 40 people on 6 January near al-Fakhoura UN School in Jabalya, which was being used as a shelter. They also heard from Wael Samouni who survived an attack that killed 29 of his extended family on 5 January after they had taken shelter in his warehouse in Zeitoun.