Most of the 33 British passengers on May’s ill-fated aid flotilla to Gaza have asked to give oral testimony to the Turkel Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident, a lawyer acting on their behalf said yesterday. The group say they are resisting what they see as efforts by the commission, appointed by the Israeli government, to belittle their evidence by having them submit only very basic information about their experiences. Daniel Machover, who is representing 29 of the passengers, said the Israeli Foreign Ministry approached the British Foreign Office Oct. 21 and gave them a four-day deadline to gather basic information to be passed on to the commission. Machover said the passengers see the rushed request as a “calculated snub…not a genuine effort to welcome their evidence.” (Ha’aretz, Oct. 22)
Controversy also surrounded last week’s testimony by the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and Gisha, on the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. In her testimony, B’Tselem executive director Jessica Montell used the word “siege” to describe the Israeli government’s three-year closure policy in Gaza: “Israel has declared many times over the last year that there is no hunger in the Gaza Strip. But ‘hunger’ is not the correct index to assess the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s legal obligations are not limited to preventing hunger in the Gaza Strip. The civilian population there has basic human rights and Israel, which controls and impacts many aspects of life in the Gaza Strip, is responsible for safeguarding those rights. There is no other way to describe the siege policy but as illegal collective punishment of the civilian population and it must be lifted. As long as Israel controls the external trade of the Gaza Strip it must allow the import and export of anything needed for its economy, subject to security inspections.”
Commission member Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Horev questioned Montell on her choice of words. “Why do you use the term ‘siege’ rather than ‘closure’?” he asked. “Words are important. Semantics are important.”
Commission chair Judge Yaakov Turkel accused B’Tselem of disconnecting events in Gaza from their security context. “I hope you would agree with me,” he said, “that if the [Hamas’] bombardments had stopped, it is likely that Israel’s counteractions would also have stopped.” Turkel also questioned the legitimacy of B’Tselem’s research, telling Montell: “I read your reports from time to time and I must say that I wonder about the sources of your information. I don’t feel sure enough of the reliability of your information.”
Tamar Feldman, legal director at Gisha, said in her testimony: “The closure of Gaza does not derive from purely military considerations but rather is intended to harm the civilian population, in violation of international humanitarian law.” Feldman added that, contrary to the government’s testimony to the commission claiming that the electricity supply to Gaza was not harmed, Israel substantially reduced the transfer of industrial fuel to Gaza, causing the electricity system to collapse. She also charged that the government had refused to reveal documents governing its closure policy. “Gaza’s economy is governed without transparency,” Feldman said.
Prof. Zvi Bentwich, chair of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, told the Commission: “If it weren’t for substantial international aid, there would be a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza today.”
Ran Yaron, director of the organization’s Occupied Territories department, testified to the commission that there is an illegal distinction made between “life-saving” care and “quality of life” care, and told of a 62-year-old patient from Gaza who needs spinal cord surgery that cannot be performed in Gaza. After her request to leave Gaza for the treatment was rejected, PHR-I petitioned on her behalf to the court. Yaron quoted the state response to the commission: “The respondents will argue that the petition should be rejected in essence because the petitioner failed to prove that the treatment she needs is urgent or life-saving”. (Alternative Information Center, Oct. 14; Gisha, Oct. 13)