Tutu in Gaza to start probe into deaths

Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop, met the former Palestinian prime minister and Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, in Gaza at the start of a much-delayed United Nations investigation into the shelling by the Israeli military of a Palestinian house which killed 18 members of a single family in Beit Hanoun.

Tutu was sent by the UN human rights council to lead the inquiry only days after the incident in November 2006. However, the Israeli government did not give him a visa and complained that the council was politicised in its criticism of Israel.

On Tuesday, after several months of delay, Tutu crossed into Gaza from Egypt at the Rafah crossing point, which is usually closed and almost never used for UN or diplomatic visits, but where he did not require any Israeli travel permit.

Tutu met Karen Abu Zayd, the head of the UN relief and works agency, which supports Palestinian refugees, and then met Haniyeh, one of the leading Hamas figures in Gaza who was sacked as prime minister last year.

Tutu was to tell Haniyeh that he strongly condemned militants firing rockets from Gaza into southern Israel and the killing of Israeli civilians, but he was also to speak of his criticism of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, according to a source travelling with him.

On Wednesday Tutu will travel to Beit Hanoun to talk to survivors of the Israeli artillery strike. All the dead were from the Athamna extended family, among them 14 women and children. They were asleep in the house when the shells struck early in the morning.

As they poured out of the house they were hit by more shells — a wave of six or seven in total. It came only a day after the Israeli military had ended a six-day incursion into Beit Hanoun, which had left 50 Palestinians dead.

After the shelling incident, the Israeli military said it had fired ”preventative artillery at launch sites” from which militants had fired rockets a day earlier towards Israel, but there had been a ”technical failure” with the artillery gun.

Although Tutu was not given a visa to travel to Gaza, Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights, did travel to Beit Hanoun at the time, and to the Israeli towns around Gaza, and said there had been a ”massive” violation of human rights in Gaza.

The UN human rights council then sent Tutu on a fact-finding mission to ”assess the situation of victims, address the needs of survivors and make recommendations on ways and means to protect Palestinian civilians against further Israeli assaults”. – guardian.co.uk Â

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