Bearing witness to the UN in Geneva

We knew we would have only 30 minutes to convey how aerial terror has devastated Sderot.

Kassam Sderot 88,224 (photo credit: )
Kassam Sderot 88,224
(photo credit: )
On July 6, I traveled to Geneva to testify before the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. Participating in the delegation were Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin, Dr Alan Marcus, director of the strategic planning branch in Ashkelon, Ophir Shinhar of Sapir College and Dr. Mirelda Sidrer, who was wounded during a rocket attack on a medical facility at the Ashkelon mall. The delegation also included Noam Schalit, who spoke impassionately on behalf of his son, Gilad, who was abducted three years ago by terrorists and has since been held by Hamas. The government officially refused to cooperate with the UN mission, since the investigation had already formulated conclusions asserting that Israel had committed war crimes during the December-January war. At the same time, however, the head of the UN fact-finding mission, South African Judge Richard Goldstone, told the Israeli media that he would like to hear both sides. "The aim of the public hearings was to let the face of human suffering be seen and to let the voices of the victims be heard." In preparation for the Geneva hearing, the UN mission invited the Sderot Media Center to prepare material, footage and information regarding the impact of bombardment from Gaza of the civilian population in the Negev during the war. Before the hearing, the delegation received a briefing from Hillel Neuer, head of the NGO UN Watch. He provided background on the fact-finding mission and the agenda of each judge on the investigating board. DURING THE DAYS leading up to the testimony, it was not easy to sleep - as the only resident of Sderot and the Western Negev in this delegation - knowing that there would be only 30 minutes to convey how aerial terror has devastatingly impacted the civilian population. At the same time, the UN afforded an opportunity for the Sderot Media Center, which specializes in communicating the human story of Sderot and life under continuous rocket terror, to finally reach the UN. While the delegation got ready to testify, it was less than sobering to know that the UN judges included Prof. Christine Chinkin from London. In a Sunday Times article published on January 11, she supported the allegation that "Israel's bombardment of Gaza is not self-defense, it's a war crime." Israeli reporters in Geneva asked hard questions: Why testify before a such a "neutral" judge who claims that Israel does not have the right to defend her citizens and whose actions "amount to aggression violating international law and human rights law?" Why testify when the government itself has boycotted the investigation which already formulated it allegations against Israel before the investigation commenced? However, the presence of a UN invited delegation from Israel created a precedent. Neuer noted that never in the 16 years of operating in Geneva had there been a time when the UN invited and even sponsored a delegation from Israel to give testimony - until now. This time, the UN provided an opportunity for ordinary people from Israel to make their voices heard across the world. It was an honor as a resident of Sderot to participate in such an event. YET THE long road to peace and justice for Sderot and Negev residents does not end before a panel of UN judges or a commissioned report. Residents are obligated to speak up and convey the experience of what it is like to live under sustained rocket attacks, a terror act and crime against humanity. After screening two short videos in front of the panel, which depicted the 15 seconds that Sderot residents and their children have to run for their lives when the rocket alarm is activated, I concluded my presentation with the following thoughts and questions. "I do not have enough fingers to count on my hands the amount of times rockets exploded just a few meters from a kindergarten. Would any other Western democracy tolerate even one rocket being fired toward its territory? Why is it that we must wait until a kindergarten or classroom packed with children is struck directly by a rocket in order for Israel to gain international support, to protect and do what is right for our own people?" US President Barack Obama put it best when he visited a devastated home in Sderot during the 2008 campaign: "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that, and would expect Israel to do the same thing." There were no questions or reactions from the UN judges. We will all have to wait, along with all the residents of the South, to peruse the Geneva verdict on the war when the UN mission report is released in September. The writer is director of the Sderot Media Center.