Tutu plunges into heart of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu on Wednesday plunged into the harsh reality of the conflict in Gaza, where a tearful Palestinian family recounted losing loved ones in an Israeli attack and the ruling Hamas movement expounded its hard-line stance.

The South African cleric, heading a team of United Nations human rights observers, listened to members of the Assamna family tell of a 2006 Israeli shelling of their village that killed 19 civilians, including eight children, while they were sleeping.

On the top floor of the Assamna’s bombed home, the glass in the windows is gone and there is a hole in the ceiling and the blue sky can been seen through the rusted iron frame of the house.

“I was here with my son. I was holding his hand when he died. Can you imagine a mother holding the intestines of her own son,” said Tahini al-Assamna through her tears, describing the scene after the attack.

Tutu commented that the purpose of the visit was to gather information to write a report for the UN Human Rights Council, “but we wanted to say that we are quite devastated”.

The Palestinian woman told Tutu and his UN team that she also lost three brothers-in-law in the attack.
And her husband was killed two days before the bombing during an Israeli army operation against rocket firings from Gaza.

Imad Okal, a UN representative in northern Gaza, looked around the Assamna house and commented that it was “very evident that this building was a residential home”.

Leaning against a scorched wall of the house, Saad Abdallah Assamna (52) said he only hoped that “there will be an inquiry and those responsible will be judged before an international tribunal”.

Tutu also met with the mayor of Beit Hanun, a member of the Islamic Hamas movement that has ruled Gaza since last June after ousting forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“The Israelis do not need any pretext to kill civilians. The only goal is to kill,” the mayor, Mohammed Naziq al-Kafarna, told Tutu and British professor Christine Chinkin, who is also accompanying the mission.

“What we have seen confirms that what has happened is totally unacceptable,” said Tutu, also conveying his sympathies to the townspeople.

The other side of the border

But the long-time anti-apartheid and peace activist pointed out that there is also suffering on the other side of the border in Israel.

“We also say that the people of Sderot suffer from the Qassam rockets. We care about them too,” said Tutu, referring to the southern Israeli town that is the frequent target of rockets fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza.

“The two people, Israeli and Palestinian, can live peacefully together but it cannot happen through acts of violence,” he said.

The Palestinian mayor frowned and responded: “You must realise that the Palestinians are fighting for their rights. The rockets are one reaction” to Israeli military operations.

“Rockets are nothing in the face of Israeli Apache helicopters and F-16s, which kill our children day and night,” he added.

But Tutu interrupted the mayor to say “any attack against civilians, whatever their motivations, is a violation” against human rights.

Israel has refused to allow the UN rights observers to visit Sderot to speak with the victims of rocket firings from Gaza. It also refused to issue visas to the UN Human Rights Council team sent to Gaza to investigate the 2006 slaughter.

Tutu and his team on Tuesday circumvented Israeli restrictions by entering the Palestinian territory through the crossing with Egypt, which was opened especially for them.

As for the killings in Beit Hanun, the Israeli army announced in February that no charges would be brought against Israeli soldiers over the attack.

After an internal investigation, Israel concluded that shelling the civilians’ homes was “a rare and grave technical error of the artillery radar system”.

The army said it had been aiming its artillery at an area from which Palestinian militants were firing rockets at Israel but, due to the technical problem, the shells instead hit two homes.—AFP